This need for land and resources, marriage and

This lesson defines matriarchy, why they originated, why they are not as popular as they were before. Alternate terms for matriarchy are also given, as well as the reason why this type of society is not as popular as before.

What is a Matriarch?

A matriarch is defined as a woman who rules or dominates a family, group, or political administration.

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This person is typically known as the head of the family and its descendants or ruler of a government. This position is also known a gynarchy as a gynocentric society, where a feminine point of view is made the center of one’s world. The term for males in this role is a patriarch.

However, the roles are not viewed similarly. During the mid-20th century, anthropologists began using the terms matrifocal or matricentric to reflect a woman or mother as the head of the house, family, or society, but not in a dominant manner.

The History of Matriarchy

Matriarchy has historical roots in societies that had clan systems where the men were the primary hunters, gatherers, or warriors. Being a mother in these societies was very significant because men were away for extended periods of time or many times killed in battle.

This left women to be the heads of households or societies. Furthermore, for those that had tribal identities there was a need to establish and keep tribal territory. The endurance of the group depended on the number of healthy children that could survive into adulthood. Therefore the strength of the clan depended on the strength of the boys who would become potential hunters and the health of the girls to continue to bear children. Everyone knew who their mother was, but the identity of their father was often unknown.As time passed the nomadic or hunter-gatherer societies began to shift.

Societies became more developed and clans began to become larger. Smaller clans developed into stronger tribes and stronger tribes became cities and eventually nations. As society evolved into a more industrious way of living, the need for children became less relevant. Wealth and resources were valued over the need for healthy children.


With a need for land and resources, marriage and exogamy (or marriage outside of the clan) became a necessity for survival. The opinion of the female head of the group was at first important for who married outside the group, but this gave way to the opinion of the person who had the most resources making the decisions.

Do They Still Exist?

By tradition, there are still matriarchal groups and governments. However, there are not as many as when the fertility of women was more highly-valued. Any existing matriarchal societies today have a long established family lineage that’s survived the changes of what’s been defined as valuable in society over time.

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Learning Outcomes

After this lesson ends, you should be able to easily:

  • Define matriarchy
  • Contrast matriarchy with patriarchy
  • Describe the history of the matriarchal system
  • Give examples of modern matriarchies

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