In a time when communities of women seem to be strengthening more than ever, or at least the conversation around women's contribution to society and the myriad ways women come to power and empower the world around us, the idea of matriarchies becomes salient. Merriam-Webster defines a matriarchy as a social unit governed by a woman or group of women. It also notes how "it isn't certain that a true matriarchal society has ever existed, so matriarchy is usually treated as an imaginative concept." Still, there are ancient communities widely considered examples of matriarchal societies—whether the details are myth or just misunderstood—as well as contemporary examples that are as close to matriarchal in nature as we've come.
While the existence of a true matriarchal society is questioned, we maintain a collective curiosity around the idea. Cynthia Eller articulately described our fascination with ancient matriarchs in her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, writing, "It allowed me to imagine myself and other women as people whose biological sex did not immediately make the idea of their leadership, creativity, or autonomy either ridiculous or suspect. It provided a vocabulary for dreaming of utopia, and a license to claim that it was not mere fantasy, but a dream rooted in an ancient reality." Though Eller subscribed to a more cynical perspective while investigating ancient matriarchal societies, others suspect that it is perhaps the filters through which we understand our findings when we investigate ancient artifacts that influence our interpretations.
Below, we take a look at matriarchal societies through the ages, from ancient times to today, and examine the ways in which women ruled and continue to rule.
Nubia (Kush), Sudan
"The Nubians [have] an unusually high number of ruling queens, especially during the golden age of the Meroitic Kingdom [or modern day Sudan]," writes Tara L. Kneller in Neither Goddesses nor Doormats: The Role of Women in Nubia. "Although ruling queens, in themselves, may not be unusual, the portrayal of Nubian queen is exceptional." Kneller describes a panel on display at the 1993 exhibit Nubia: Egypt's Rival in Africa depicting a queen smiting her enemies and notes that women in Nubia exercised significant control over society.
Nubian warrior queens fought for the interest of the Nubian/Kushite empire, and many Nubians worshipped the queen of all goddesses, Isis.
Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea
Annette Weiner's 1976 re-examination of the Trobrianders of Papua New Guinea studied the people described in Bronislaw Malinowski's ethnographic work of the early 20th century through a more balanced lens that gave more weight to women's work and wealth. She argues that because Malinowski was preoccupied with exclusively male-dominated politics and classic structures of power, he failed to pay attention to critical ways the Trobrian women played important roles in their society. Weiner describes that while Trobriand men traveled from island to island to seek political positions of power, Trobriand women were given value and autonomy through matrilineal institutions.
"The discovery that Trobriand women have power and that women enact roles which are symbolically, structurally, and functionally significant to the ordering of Trobriand society and to the roles that men play, should give us, as anthropologists, cause for concern," warns Weiner. "We have allowed 'politics by men' to structure our thinking about other societies; we have let ourselves believe that, if women are not dominant in the political sphere of interaction, their power remains at best peripheral."
In 2015, photographer Pierre de Vallombreuse documented images of Southeast Asian tribes of today where gender equality surpasses the West, and women share the power. One of the societies he captured on film was the Palawan society, "a non-hierarchical community in the Philippines where men and women have been historically equal."
Another matriarchal society captured by de Vallombreuse is the Khasi society, "a matrilineal and matrilocal culture in the northeastern part of India, in which children primarily bear the name of their mother, and inheritance is bestowed upon the daughters in a family." This practice of matrilocality—the practice of children living with the mother's family—ensures that there will be no economic free fall or difficult change should the parents divorce. "No matter how many times the woman marries, her children will always remain with her," Patricia Mukhim, a Khasi and editor of The Shillong Times explains in Dame Magazine.
"And even if a man abandons a woman he has impregnated, the children are never [considered] 'illegitimate.'"
Last but not least, the Mosuo—a society in southwestern China—may be one of the most fascinating demonstrations of a matriarchal society today. "Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head," describes PBS Frontline World. "The head matriarchs of each village govern the region by committee." The Musuo are known for their tradition of zouhun, or walking marriage, a union where women are free to take different sexual partners—no stigma attached.
As Dame Magazine points out, Mosuo women each have their own babahuago, or flower room, to receive visits from lovers. Dame writes, "No one worries about commitment since any resulting children are raised in the mother's house with the help of her brothers and the rest of the community."