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A matriarchy is a form of government or tradition in which the balance of power is held by the senior females of a community. The term is sometimes used to refer to "government by women", although this is more properly termed gynarchy[?].

Matriarchal societies are rare, if not nonexistent. 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). Femenist Joan Bamberger notes that the historical record contains no reliable evidence of any society in which women dominanted (Bamberger 1974).

Whether matriarchal societies might have existed at some time in the distant past is controversial. Some schollars, arguing usually from either myths or oral traditions, have suggested that many ancient societies were matriarchal, or even that there existed a wide-ranging matriarchal society prior to the ancient cultures of which we are aware (see for example The White Goddess by Robert Graves). Some professional historians, however, claim that the "evidence" in the form of myths or oral traditions is too murky to conclude anything from. Some people use this lack of solid evidence as a basic for believing that there has never been a matriarchal society.

Regardless of actual historical fact, many cultures have myths about a time when women were dominant. Bamberger (1974) examines several of these myths from South American cultures, and concludes that, by portraying the women from this period as evil, they often serve to keep modern-day women under control.

Matriarchy is distinct from matrilineality and matrilocality[?].

Compare: patriarchy


  • Bamberger, Joan. (1974). The Myth of Matriachy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Scoiety. In Women, Culture, and Society, edited by Michelle Zimbalist Rosaldo and Louise Lamphere, pp. 263-280. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
  • Brown, Robert. (1991). Human Universals. Philadelphia: Temple University Press

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