See M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere, ed., Woman, Culture, and Society (1974); R. Reiter, ed., Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975); C. Eller, The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory (2000).
There are many existing matrilinear and matrilocal societies, such as those of the Minangkabau or Mosuo. However, strongly matrilocal societies are sometimes referred to as matrifocal, and there is still some debate concerning the terminological delineation between matrifocality and matriarchy.
Most modern anthropologists and sociologists assert that there are no known examples of human matriarchies from any point in history, and Encyclopedia Britannica describes their views as "consensus", listing matriarchy as a hypothetical social system. Some examples of matrifocal societies, however, are known to exist. The Britannica article goes on to note, "The view of matriarchy as constituting a stage of cultural development is now generally discredited. Furthermore, the consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that a strictly matriarchal society never existed. For more information see the appendix Patriarchies in dispute.
There is also dispute about matrifocality (see Matriarchy vs. matrifocality). Matriarchy is defined by some as distinct from matrilocality, which some anthropologists use to describe societies where the maternal side of the family manages domestic relations, owing to the husband joining the wife's family, rather than the wife moving to the husband's village or tribe. If, additionally, family property passes down the maternal line (matrilineality), the wife is effectively supported by her extended family, especially her brothers, these maternal uncles serving children of the couple as "social fathers", while the husbands tend to be more isolated.
The notion of prehistoric matriarchy and of its replacement by patriarchy can be linked to the historical "inevitabilities" which the nineteenth century's concept of progress through cultural evolution introduced into anthropology. Friedrich Engels, among others, formed the notion that some primitive peoples did not grasp the link between sexual intercourse and pregnancy. Research indicated that sexual intercourse occurred from early ages and pregnancy only occurred much later, seemingly unrelated to the sexual activity. He proposed that they had no clear notion of paternity, according to this hypothesis; women produced children mysteriously, without necessary links to the man or men with whom they had sex. When realization of paternity was discovered, according to the hypothesis, men acted to claim a power to monopolize women and claim their offspring as possessions.
Records of these belief systems were the result of errors in early ethnographic techniques, which in return were the result of unsophisticated methods of field work. Some respondents in cultures studied denied the concept of paternity and discussed culturally determined religious concepts, myths, and legends about the origin of children. In other cultures, when strangers arrived and start asking where babies come from, the urge to respond imaginatively was hard to resist, as Margaret Mead discovered in Samoa.
In fact, while prior to the relatively recent discovery of egg cells and genetics there have been many different explanations of the mechanics of pregnancy and the relative contributions of either sex, no human group studied after the late nineteenth century, however primitive, has been found to be unaware of the link between intercourse and pregnancy in humans.
There were, however, concepts of parthenogenesis among some animals and deities in the earliest of human records that persisted for thousands of years in the writings of Ancient Egypt and other early historical cultures. Even more interestingly, there also were myths and legends that asserted that males had given birth among both deities and humans in some early historical cultures.
The fact that each child has a single father has come more recently, however; by 400 B.C. classical Greek and Roman writers thought that the seed of two men might both contribute to the character of the child.
By the time these ethnographic records were corrected in anthropology, however, the idea that a pan-cultural matriarchy had once existed had been integrated into theories of comparative religion and archaeology, and was used as the basis of new hypotheses that were unrelated to the professed ignorance of primitive people about paternity.
Whether matriarchal societies might have existed at some time before historical records is unknown, and opinions about this remain controversial.
The controversy began in reaction to the book by Johann Jakob Bachofen Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861. Several generations of ethnologists were inspired by his pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following him and Jane Ellen Harrison, several generations of scholars, usually arguing from known myths or oral traditions and examination of Neolithic female cult-figures, suggested that many ancient societies might have been matriarchal, or even, that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures of which we are aware.
This was reinforced further by the publication of The White Goddess by Robert Graves and his later analysis of classical Greek mythology and the vestiges of earlier myths that had been rewritten after a profound change in the religion of Greek civilization that occurred within very early historical times.
From the 1950s, Marija Gimbutas developed a theory of an Old European culture in neolithic Europe which had matriarchal traits, replaced by the patriarchal system of the Proto-Indo-Europeans with the spread of Indo-European languages beginning in the Bronze Age. From the 1970s these ideas were taken up by second-wave feminism and, expanded with the speculations of Margaret Murray on witchcraft, by the Goddess movement, feminist Wicca, as well as work by Elizabeth Gould Davis, Riane Eisler, and Merlin Stone.
The concept of a matriarchal golden age in the Neolithic has been denounced as feminist wishful thinking in The Inevitability of Patriarchy, Why Men Rule, more recently by Philip G. Davis Goddess Unmasked, 1998, and Cynthia Eller, professor at Montclair State University The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 2000. According to Eller, Gimbutas had a large part in constructing a myth of historical matriarchy by examining Eastern Europe cultures that she asserts, by and large, never really bore any resemblance in character to the alleged universal matriarchal suggested by Gimbutas and Graves. She asserts that in "actually documented primitive societies" of recent times, paternity is never ignored and that the sacred status of goddesses does not automatically increase female social status, and believes that this affirms that utopian matriarchy is simply an inversion of antifeminism. The unscientific feminist scenarios of neolithic matriarchy have been called into question and are not emphasized in third-wave feminism.
The original evidence recognized by Gimbutas, however, of neolithic societies being more egalitarian than the Bronze Age Indo-European and Semitic patriarchies remains valid. Del Giorgio in The Oldest Europeans (2006) insists on a matrifocal, matrilocal, matrilineal Paleolithic society. The records of the earliest human writings in Ancient Egypt support the concept that prior to that time, egalitarian social organization existed in other locations as well. Ancient Egyptian women held property, had positions of power in the religious and social organization, and were able to divorce; furthermore, Ancient Egyptian lineage was traced along the maternal lines. Some of their traditions seem to have roots in the paleolithic culture that preceded their historically documented records.
Due to a lack of any clear and consistent definition of the word matriarchy several anthropologists have begun to use the term matrifocality. Matrifocality refers to societies in which women, especially mothers, occupy a central position, though the term does necessarily imply domination by women or mothers. Anthropologist R. L. Smith (2002) refers to 'matrifocality' as the kinship structure of a social system where the mothers assume structural prominence. The Nair community in Kerala in South India is a prime example of matrifocality. This can be attributed to the fact that the community being warriors by profession, were bound to lose male members at youth, leading to a situation where the females assumed the role of running the family. Some consider the use of the term a euphemism, lacking a parallel to patriarchy, which is not redefined in the same fashion.
The Wemale culture of western Seram, studied by A. E. Jensen during the Frobenius Institute expedition of 1938, often is indicated as an example of matriarchy. See: Karl Kerenyi noted in passing (introduction to Eleusis : Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter 1967, p. xxxii). On the other hand, anthropologist Donald Brown's list of "human universals" (i.e. features shared by all current human societies) includes men being the "dominant element" in public political affairs (Brown 1991, p. 137), which he asserts is the contemporary opinion of mainstream anthropology. Feminist Joan Bamberger argues that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominated (Bamberger 1974), although there are many known matrilineal societies.
The Trobriand Islands were considered a matriarchy by anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, however, Malinowski defined that matriarchy as the rule of a family by the wife's male relatives, such as her brothers, rather than literal patriarchy (the rule of the family by its father); the dispute this view has engendered is discussed at that entry.
Anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday favors redefining and reintroducing the word matriarchy, especially in reference to modern, matrilineal societies such as the Minangkabau. This group lives in West Sumatra and numbers about four million; it is considered the largest and most stable matrilineal society in the modern world. Sanday argues that this society is a modern matriarchy defined, not in polar opposition to patriarchy, but on unique terms.
A clear and consistent definition has been given by Heide Goettner-Abendroth, who did cross-cultural research on all of the remaining contemporary matriarchal societies (in her major work on matriarchy). Her viewpoint is close to that of Sanday. One of her examples is the Mosuo people of Southwestern China. Furthermore, the Minicoy islanders also are considered to be one of the living matrilineal societies today.
Regardless of these documented cultures, the existence of any true matriarchal societies (as opposed to matrilineal or matrifocal societies) remains controversial among scholars.
Some traditional matrifocal societies have been presented by scholars and indigenous speakers at two conferences. The first World Congress on Matriarchal Studies was held in 2003 in Luxembourg, Europe; it was sponsored by the Minister for Women's Affairs of Luxembourg, Marie-Josée Jacobs, and was organized and guided by Heide Goettner-Abendroth. The second one took place in 2005 in San Marcos, Texas, USA; it was sponsored by Genevieve Vaughan and again led by Heide Goettner-Abendroth.
One problem seldom addressed in debates about matriarchy is the definition of power itself: in most societies, each sex holds more power in some areas of life, less power in others. For example, in the modern U.S.A., Federal-level lawmakers and policymakers are usually male; but some local (city and county) government bodies are made up mostly of women, while others are made up mostly of men, or are made up of roughly equal numbers of men and women. Likewise, while formal government is overall dominated by men, elementary and high schools--which influence everyone in the society--are usually female-dominated.
Matriarchy was recognized by J. Bachofen ("Das Mutterrecht") and was deeply investigated by Lewis H. Morgan, LL. D. Many researchers studied the phenomenon of matriarchy afterward, but the basis was laid by the classics of sociology. In their works Bachofen and Morgan used such terms and expressions as mother-right, female rule, gyneocracy, and female authority. All these terms meant the same: the rule by females (mother or wife).
The following excerpts from Morgan's "Ancient Society" will explain the use of the terms:
"In a work of vast research, Bachofen has collected and discussed the evidence of female authority, mother-right, and of female rule, gyneocracy."
"Common lands and joint tillage would lead to joint-tenant houses and communism in living; so that gyneocracy seems to require for its creation, descent in the female line. Women thus entrenched in large households, supplied from common stores, in which their own gens so largely predominated in numbers, would produce the phenomena of mother right and gyneocracy, which Bachofen has detected and traced with the aid of fragments of history and of tradition."
Although Bachofen and Morgan confined the "mother right" inside households, it was the basis of female influence upon the whole society. The classics never thought that gyneocracy could mean "female government" in polity. They were aware of the fact that sexual structure of government had no relation to domestic rule and to roles of both sexes.
A famous legendary gynecocracy related by classical Greek writers was the Amazon society.
Bamberger (1974) examines several matriarchal myths from South American cultures and concludes that portraying the women from this matriarchal period as evil often serves to restrain contemporary women.
Historian Ronald Hutton has argued that there is no necessary correlation between the worship of female deities and relative levels of social or legal egalitarianism, noting the late classical Greek and Roman religions, where goddesses played an important role. Hutton has also pointed out that in more recent European history, in 17th century Spain, there were many religious institutions staffed exclusively by women.
Austrian writer Bertha Diener, also known by her American pseudonym as Helen Diner, wrote Mothers and Amazons (1930) which was the first work to focus on women's cultural history. She is regarded as a classic of feminist matriarchal study. Her view is that in the past all human societies were matriarchal, then, at some point, most shifted to patriarchal and degenerated.
The idea of peaceful matriarchal civilizations being destroyed by patriarchal, nomadic barbarian invaders has lived on as a powerful literary trope. The Nazi ideology of a master race of Aryan patriarchal conquerors was based in part on Müller's hypothesis about conquering Aryans being the founders of what he described as '"the European race".
More recent uses of the theme share essentially the same narrative. Mary Renault's historical novels about Greek mythology and history such as The King Must Die combine motifs of political conflict between goddess and god worshippers with The Golden Bough's hypothesis about dying and reviving gods. The patriarchal conquest of matriarchy motif is found in dozens of fantasy novels, from Marion Zimmer Bradley's historical revisions of Arthurian romance and the Trojan War to works such as Guy Gavriel Kay's A Song for Arbonne. Gender roles and the conflict of patriarch vs. matriarchy is a major theme in the Wheel of Time books by Robert Jordan.
In the StarCraft universe, the Dark Templar Tribes of Shakuras are ruled over by Matriarch Raszagal. Near the end of StarCraft: Brood War, she is killed, and names her Prelate, Zeratul (a male), the new leader of the Dark Templar, thus ending the Dark Templar matriarchy.
The near future sci-fi trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson features several matriarchal themes, including worshiping the mother earth and mars. The underground resistance centres round the matriarchal Hiroko Ai who secretly mothers the first generation of Martians using her DNA.
In the expanded universe of Star Wars, the women of Dathomir are portrayed as the ruling sex. Another matriarchy is the Hapan Consortium, a cluster of 63 planets, that are all ruled by the Queen Mother of Hapes.
In the fantasy world of Forgotten Realms, the evil Drow race is a highly matriarchal society. The females rule drow societies—a gynocracy; males are merely servants and are regarded as pets. The same goes for the aptly-named gynocracy of Telchos in the Lone Wolf setting.
Dreamfall, a game by Funcom, features a Goddess worshipping Matriarchal people, the Azadi. Men are described as having less freedom than women, but are in no way regarded as pets. The Azadi, though very religious with a very strict code of honor, have taken to conquering other races. Though their intentions are good, their "the cause justifies the means" attitude and their discrimination against Magicals make them responsible for many horrible crimes, as well as good deeds.
The remake version (not the original) of The Wicker Man, starring Nicolas Cage, takes place within a fictional matriarchy in the state of Washington. The society, Summersisle, is modeled after honeybee culture and behavior.
In the Warcraft Universe, the Night Elves lived in a highly matriarchal society, because almost all men became druids and spent large amounts of their time in meditative slumber, leaving the women to protect them and serve their goddess. This has changed in the recent game World of Warcraft, with gender roles being abolished due to a dip in population.