Have you ever considered worldbuilding a matriarchy? Are there any such examples in history and what would a matriarchy need in order to work? To celebrate Mother’s Day, Janet, the founder of World Anvil chats with her own mother, archaeologist and ancient historian Professor Lin Foxhall, about matriarchies and gender dynamics, both past and imagined. Learn more about societal roles, cultures, and power structures through this expert discussion!
What is a Matriarchy?
Let’s first define what a matriarchy is before delving deeper into the discussion. The idea of a matriarchy is about how societies in the past might have been organized. It all goes back to a man called Johann Jakob Bachofen. Shortly after Darwin defined the theory of evolution, some people thought that the evolution of culture and society worked the same way as biological evolution. We now know that’s not true—human societies are much more complicated! At the time, however, Bachofen thought primitive (and therefore, in his opinion, simple and underdeveloped) societies might have been matriarchies because that would imply women are in control.
However, as far as we know from anthropology, there is no evidence that there ever was a truly matriarchal society where women controlled everything and men were the subordinate group. But there have been a lot of societies called “matrilineal”, which has to do with how kinship and relatedness work. Western European and North American societies are bilateral, because both the paternal and maternal lines are considered for kinship. Other societies are patrilineal, and some are matrilineal. In many of these matrilineal societies, the person who would take on the social role of the father is the mother’s brother.
Nonetheless, while true matriarchies haven’t existed, women did have agency in ancient societies too. It is also important to note that if the ruler is a woman, her country isn’t necessarily a matriarchy. Very often women are either queens by accident, because there are no men to take the role, or because they just take over, much like Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who was the regent but decided to take over the government. Even if a woman is in power, most other women in a non-matriarchal society will still have fewer rights or be second-class citizens.
What rights did women have?
Women are at a disadvantage in many societies, and especially in the past their rights were explicitly limited: they couldn’t own property, set up businesses, vote, etc. But even in societies where women’s rights are severely limited, there are women who manage to carve out agency in all sorts of different ways. In many societies, women become more powerful with age—this is a great cultural detail to keep in mind when designing your characters!
In other cases, different genders are allowed to do or own different things. In matrilineal societies, women can often own property and have more agency. For example, in some of them, women owned all the houses, while men owned all the fields. You can also use this in your worldbuilding as a “show, don’t tell” for your culture’s gender roles!
Motherhood and how it affects the power of women
It’s interesting to talk about the role of motherhood in women’s societal status. In human societies, biology is not determinative, in the sense that it doesn’t determine our culture. We’re “beyond” biology, but it still encourages societies to go down one route rather than another. However there’s one very important thing among all societies—and in fact, all mammals: it’s very easy to verify motherhood. Pregnancy is visible and there will usually be people there helping the mother give birth, as it’s very difficult for a human to give birth alone.
On the other hand, it’s very difficult to verify fatherhood. Even with modern technology, mitochondrial DNA is transmitted by the mother only, which means that it’s very easy to prove descendence matrilineally, but not through the paternal line. In the ancient world, where this technology didn’t exist, there was always concern about who the father was. This is one of the reasons there are social rules that restrict women: you can’t verify fatherhood, so societies need to control what women do.
Powerful women in history: Cleopatra and Boudica
Let’s take two powerful and influential women in history as examples, and see their roles in their respective societies. Cleopatra and Boudica were both in charge, but their societies weren’t matriarchal.
Cleopatra, unlike Hatshepsut, doesn’t become the pharaoh. Instead, she had a husband—who was also her brother. She was a queen at a time when the Romans were trying to take over Egypt, and her husband was the pharaoh. So, while she was also a political agent on her own, but while she was a queen, she was never the ruler.
Boudica lived in the British Iron Age. It was a stratified society and she was in the elite. She was a royal and ended up as an important military ruler through a combination of agency and desperation, as the Romans were taking over and there was no one else to take the lead against them.
But it’s important to understand that all of these badass women were acting outside of the norm—they were exceptions!
How could a matriarchal society work?
As we have discussed, there has never been a matriarchy in history as far as we know. Despite that, a matriarchy could easily appear if fatherhood was easier to prove than motherhood. Fish people could be a great example, because of the different reproductive behaviors displayed by fish!
A notable example of a matriarchal society in recent media is the Barbie movie. Besides Midge, the pregnant Barbie, the concept of motherhood is not at all a part of that society.
Of course, there are other genders too that can affect societal roles. We know through different sources that there were many different kinds of gender roles in history that weren’t binary, beyond our own categories of gender. The minute you introduce groups like that, you suddenly have a much more complicated society. A fascinating example is the Vestal Virgins of the Roman Empire. Chastity was very important for them (they were supposed to be virgins) and the “reward” was that they had the same rights men had.
But biology is not the only thing that can influence this. Cosmology and religion is a fundamental part of most societies. Societies based on religions that give more importance to men than women (like Christianity) will tend to be patriarchal. There could be religious groups or clans within a society that have special privileges (like the Vestal Virgins) or just a different gender system. Fantasy can allow for any possibilities, limited only by your imagination!
Listen to the full interview!
Want to learn more about matriarchies through an in-depth discussion with Janet and her mom, Professor Lin Foxhall? Check out the full interview on YouTube and Spotify!
Who is Lin Foxhall?
Lin Foxhall is the Rathbone Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at the University of Liverpool. She also serves as editor of the Journal of Hellenic Studies, Cambridge University Press. Previously she was the Dean of the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures at Liverpool and led the University wide heritage research theme. Professor of Greek Archaeology and History at the University of Leicester, and Head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, where she was one of the leaders of the team that discovered the body of Richard III. She has held posts at St Hilda’s College, Oxford and University College London, and Visiting Professorships in Germany, Denmark and the USA. She studied at Bryn Mawr College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Liverpool, where she obtained her doctorate. She is also Janet’s mom! Check out her Twitter!
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