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The extent of a society’s development is most clearly reflected in the freedom
women enjoy, and in the extent to which they are able to express their creativity.
The way we live today, as members of society, is influenced by a worldview, and
a sense of history, that are based to a large extent on male principles: an ideol-
ogy of male dominance and universal patriarchy, the foundations of which are
underpinned by structural and physical violence. The principles of matriarchal
societies contradict this worldview.
Matriarchal Society and the Gift Paradigm
Motherliness as an Ethical Principle
The emerging subject of Modern Matriarchal Studies is the investigation and
presentation of non-patriarchal societies, both past and present. Even today there
are societies that exhibit matriarchal patterns in Asia, Africa, America, and Oceania.
None of these societies are, however, a reversal of patriarchy, where women are
perceived to rule over men—as it is often commonly believed. Instead, they are all
egalitarian societies, without exception. This means that hierarchies, classes, and
the domination of one gender by the other are unknown to them. This is what
makes them so attractive to those looking for a new philosophy to create a just
society. Nevertheless, while they are societies free of domination, they still have
guidelines and codes of conduct that govern relationships and community.
Equality in matriarchal societies does not mean a mere levelling of differences.
The natural differences between the genders and the generations are respected and
honoured, but they never serve to create hierarchies as is common in patriarchy.
The different genders and generations each have their own honour, and through
complementary areas of activity, they are geared towards each other.
This can be observed at all levels of society: the economic level, the social level,
the political level, and in the areas of their worldviews and faiths. More precisely,
matriarchies are societies with complementary equality, where great care is taken
to provide a balance. This applies to the balance between genders, among genera-
tions, and between humans and nature.
The differentiated patterns of existing matriarchal societies have been researched
in detail. But history alone will not reveal how matriarchal people thought and felt,
how they conducted their politics, and how they lived out their faith. To be able
to observe this is an advantage of anthropology. Over the past few decades, my
major work has been to research, describe, and present a wide range of matriarchal
societies throughout the world. Based on cross-cultural examination of case after
case, I have outlined in my work the structures and regulative mechanisms that
function across all levels of matriarchal societies (see Goettner-Abendroth 1988,
1991, 1995, 2000).
I call all non-patriarchal societies “matriarchal” despite of the word’s various
connotations. But I believe the term should be redefined. This redefinition would
be a great advantage especially because, for women, reclaiming this term means to
reclaim the knowledge about cultures that have been created by women.
Philosophical and scientific re-definitions of words mostly refer to well-known
words or terminologies. After these words have been re-defined, scholars can
work with these new interpretations, but the words do not lose contact with the
popular language of the people. In the case of the term “matriarchy,” we are not
obliged to follow the current, male-biased interpretation of this word as signifying
“domination by the mothers.” The only reason to understand “matriarchy” in
this way is that it seems to parallel our understanding of the word “patriarchy.”
However, the Greek word archÈ has a double meaning. It means “beginning” as
well as “domination.” Therefore, we can translate “matriarchy” accurately as “the
mothers from the beginning,” while “patriarchy,” on the other hand, translates
correctly as “domination by the fathers.”
The word “patriarchy” could also be translated as “the fathers from the beginning.”
This nevertheless leads to its meaning as “domination by the fathers,” because not
having any natural right to “beginning,” they have to enforce it through domi-
nation! By the same token, since the mothers clearly are the beginning by their
capacity to bring forth life, they have no need to enforce it by domination.
Defining “Matriarchal Society”
Up until recently, scientific research in the field of matriarchy has lacked clear
criteria for defining matriarchal societies and a scientific methodology to prove
their existence, despite several competent studies and an extensive data collec-
tion.1 This absence of scientific rigour opens the door to the emotional and
ideological entanglements that have been a burden to this research from the
beginning. Patriarchy itself has not been considered critically and stereotypical
views of women, as well as a neurotic fear of women’s alleged power, have often
confused the issues.
The definition of matriarchal studies that I present below has has been derived
from my cross-cultural studies of matriarchal societies that continue to exist
worldwide. I will present the various criteria for matriarchal society on four dif-
ferent levels: the economic level, the social level, the political level, and on the
On the economic level, matriarchies are most often agricultural societies, but
not exclusively so. Goods are distributed according to a system that is identical
with the lines of kinship and the patterns of marriage. This system prevents goods
from being accumulated by one special person or one special group. Thus, the
principles of equality are consciously kept up, and the society is egalitarian and
non-accumulating. From a political point of view, matriarchies are societies with
perfect mutuality. Every advantage or disadvantage concerning the acquisition
of goods is mediated by social rules. For example, at the village festivals, wealthy
clans are obliged to invite all inhabitants. They organize the banquet, at which
they distribute their wealth to gain honour. Therefore, on the economic level they
produce an economy of balance, and I thus call matriarchies societies of economic
On the social level, matriarchies are based on the union of an extended clan.
People live together in big clans, which are formed according to the principle of
matrilinearity, i.e., kinship is acknowledged exclusively in the female line. The
clan’s name, and all social positions and political titles, are passed on through the
mother’s line. Such a matri-clan consists at least of three generations of women: the
clan-mother, her daughters, her granddaughters, and the directly related men: the
brothers of the mother, her sons, and grandsons. Generally, the matri-clan lives in
one big clan-house, which can hold anywhere from ten to more than 100 persons,
depending on size and architectural style. The women live there permanently as
daughters and granddaughters never leave the clan-house of their mother when
they marry. This is called matrilocality.
What is most important is the fact that women have the power of disposi-
tion over the goods of the clan, especially the power to control the sources of
nourishment: fields and food. This characteristic feature, besides matrilinearity
and matrilocality, grants women such a strong position that these societies are
distinctly “matriarchal.” (Anthropologists do not make a distinction between
merely matrilineal, and clearly matriarchal societies. This continues to produce
The clans are connected to each other by the patterns of marriage, especially
the system of mutual marriage between two clans. Mutual marriage between two
clans is not marriage between individuals, but rather a communal marriage. The
married people do not leave the houses of their mothers, but practice visiting
marriage. That is, a husband will visit his wife in the clan-house of her mother,
where she lives, only in the evenings, leaving at dawn to return to his home, the
clan-house of his own mother. Due to additional patterns of marriage between
all clans, everyone in a matriarchal village or a matriarchal town is eventually
related to everyone else by birth or by marriage. Therefore, I call matriarchies
non-hierarchical, horizontal societies of matrilineal kinship.
On the political level, even the process of taking a decision is organized along
the lines of matriarchal kinship. In the clan-house, women and men meet in a
council where domestic matters are discussed. No member of the household is
excluded. After thorough discussion, each decision is taken by consensus. The
same is true for the entire village: if matters concerning the whole village have to
be discussed, delegates from every clan-house meet in the village council. These
delegates can be the oldest women of the clans (the matriarchs), or the brothers
and sons they have chosen to represent the clan. No decision concerning the
whole village may be taken without the consensus of all clan-houses. This means
that the delegates who are discussing the matter are not the ones who make the
decision. It is not in this council that the policy of the village is made, because
the delegates function only as bearers of communication. If the council notices
that some clan-houses are of a different opinion, the delegates return to the clan-
houses to discuss matters further. In this way, consensus is reached in the whole
village, step by step.
A population living in the region takes decisions in the same way: delegates
from all villages meet to discuss the decisions of their communities. Again, the
delegates function only as bearers of communication. In such cases, it is usually
men who are elected by their villages. In contrast to the frequent ethnological
mistakes made about these men, they are not the “chiefs” and do not, in fact,
decide. Every village, and in every village every clan-house, is involved in the
process of making the decision, until consensus is reached on the regional level.
Therefore, from the political point of view, I call matriarchies egalitarian societies
of consensus. These political patterns do not allow the accumulation of political
power. In exactly this sense, they are free from domination: They have no class
of rulers and no class of suppressed people; i.e., the enforcement bodies that are
necessary to establish domination are unknown to them.
On the cultural level, matriarchal societies do not know religious transcend-
ence of an unseen, untouchable, and incomprehensible all-powerful God, in
contrast to whom the world is devalued as dead matter. In matriarchy, divinity is
immanent, for the whole world is regarded as divine— a feminine divine. This is
evident in the concept of the universe as a goddess who created everything, and
as Mother Earth who brings forth every living thing. And everything is endowed
with divinity—the smallest pebble and the biggest star, each woman and man,
each blade of grass, each mountain.
In such a culture, everything is spiritual. In their festivals, following the rhythms
of the seasons, everything is celebrated: nature in its manifold expressions and the
different clans with their different abilities and tasks, the different genders and
the different generations, believing in the principle of “wealth in diversity.” There
is no separation between sacred and secular; therefore all tasks, such as sowing
and harvesting, cooking and weaving are at the same time meaningful rituals.
On the spiritual level, I thus define matriarchies as sacred societies as cultures of
The Relationship between Matriarchal Societies and the Gift Paradigm
In order to explore the relationship between matriarchal societies and the gift
paradigm, we need first to examine the guidelines and codes of conduct that
govern relationships and communities in matriarchal societies.
There is no private property and there are no territorial claims. The people
simply have usage rights on the soil they till, or the pastures their animals graze,
for “Mother Earth” cannot be owned or cut up in pieces. She gives the fruits of
the fields and the animals to all people, and therefore the harvest and the flocks
cannot be privately owned; instead they are shared equally.
The women, and specifically the oldest women of the clan, the matriarchs,
hold the most important goods in their hands, for they are responsible for the
sustenance and the protection of all clan members. The women either work the
land themselves or organize the work on the land and the fruits of the fields, and
the milk of the flocks are given to them to hold and distribute equitably among
Matriarchal women are managers and administrators, who organize the economy
not according to the profit principle, where an individual or a small group of people
benefits; rather, the motivation behind their action is motherliness. The profit
principle is an ego-centred principle, where individuals or a small minority take
advantage of the majority of people. The principle of motherliness is the opposite,
where altruism reigns and the well-being of all is at the centre. It is at the same
time a spiritual principle, which humans take from nature. Mother Nature cares
for all beings however different they may be. The same applies to the principle of
motherliness: a good mother cares for all her children in spite of their diversity.
Motherliness as an ethical principle pervades all areas of a matriarchal society,
and this holds true for men as well. For example, among the Minangkabau in
Sumatra, if a man desires to acquire status among his peers, or even to become a
representative of the clan to the outside word, the criterion is: “he must be like
a good mother.”
This is not a romantic idea of motherliness, as it has often been portrayed by
the patriarchy, which has has lead to the concept of motherliness being devalued
as a merely sentimental clichÈ. This is the way in which patriarchy systematically
obscures the caring and nurturing work done most often by mothers, by women.
Without this work of daily care, there would be no help for the sick, no aid in
crisis situations of any kind, no assistance for the elderly. In particular, there would
be no children, which means any society would cease to exist in a short while.
Motherly work is the most important work of all; it is work for life itself, work
for our future. It is because of its great importance, that this work is intentionally
made invisible by patriarchy.
Matriarchies consciously build their existence on this work, which is why they
are much more realistic than patriarchies, not to mention the fact that they have
much more vitality. They are, on principle, need-oriented. The guidelines on
which their societies are based aim to meet the needs of each with the greatest
benefit for all.
Gift giving is, therefore, not a coincidental, arbitrary act in matriarchal societies,
something confined to the private sphere. On the contrary, it is the central feature
of their society. In matriarchal societies, goods, nurturing, care, cultural creativity
in ritual events, all circulate as gifts. These gift are manifest in the festivals which
are at the core of these cultures and which drive their economies. Matriarchal
societies celebrate the festivals of the agricultural year, along with the lifecycle
festivals of the individual clans, festivals that are also celebrated together with the
whole village or town. During these festivals the goods and food, nurturing and
care, and cultural presentations are “moved around”: not in the sense of exchange
with the expectation of something in return, but as an unconditional gift. For
example, a clan that has had a bumper crop and is able to collect a great harvest
will give this fortune away at the first opportunity. At the next festival, this lucky
clan will overextend itself by inviting everybody in the village or town or district,
will lavishly care for their well-being, feed them and give them cultural presents
like music, dancing, processions, rituals, which everybody participates in accord-
ing to their religious traditions. The clan hosting the festival will not hold back
anything. In a patriarchal society, this would be considered suicidal behaviour
and would ruin the giving clan. But in matriarchal societies these festivals work
according the maxim: “those who have shall give.”At the next big festival another
clan, one that is by comparison better off than the rest of the community, will
take on this role. Now the others are invited and gifts are lavished upon them.
Round and round it goes in the community, and it is always the well-off clans
who have the responsibility for the festivals.
It is apparent that in this system an accumulation of material or cultural goods,
with a view to personal gain and enrichment, is not possible. Matriarchal societ-
ies are not based on accumulation, as are patriarchal societies. The opposite is
the case: the economic and cultural actions are geared towards a levelling of the
differences in living standards, and to the joy of everybody participating together
in the cultural performances.
A generous clan never gains any claim to material or cultural goods from
the other clans; rather, it wins honour. “Honour” in matriarchy means that the
altruism and pro-social action of this clan gains great admiration from the other
clans, and that this act verifies and strengthens the relationships between the
clans. Honour means priceless and invaluable human contact and cooperation.
It sets free the most honourable human feelings such as unreserved giving, true
devotion, benevolence, and friendship. It enables love to grow. Such a clan will
always be supported by the other clans should it have need of anything or even
fall on hard times. This reciprocity is also a question of honour.
The Matriarchal Model as Guiding Principle for the Future
It should be clear from this outline of matriarchies that these cultures demonstrate
knowledge of non-patriarchal, egalitarian patterns of society that are urgently
needed in this late phase of globally destructive patriarchy. During their very long
history, as well as in the societies that continue to exist today, matriarchies have
maintained and sustained themselves without domination, without hierarchies,
and without wars. It is particularly important to stress that the violence against
women and children that characterizes patriarchal societies all over the world is,
in these matriarchal societies, completely unknown
I have begun to consider that knowledge of the matriarchal model can have enor-
mous significance for present and future society. Indeed, compared to philosophically constructed futures that could never be implemented, matriarchal societies
are not abstract utopias built on ideas. These societies have been developed over
long historical periods, embody practical experience and thought gained over
millennia, and belong indispensably to the cultural store of knowledge of all of
humankind. Their precepts show how life can be organized in such a way that it
is based on needs: peaceful, non-violent, and simply human.
Together we can glimpse what this matriarchal model could mean for the situ-
ation our present day world is in.
On the economic level it has become impossible to further increase industrial
production—and so-called living standards—without risking the total destruction
of the of the planet’s biosphere. An alternative to this kind of destructive growth
are the communities that use a subsistence perspective as an economic strategy
for smaller units of organization, such as at the regional level. These communities
work frugally and self-sufficiently, stressing the quality of life over the quantity of
production. On a worldwide scale, it is urgent that we strengthen and enlarge the
still-existing subsistence societies, where production and trade are usually overseen
by women. We must not, under any circumstances, let them be sacrificed to the
process of globalization. Establishing regionalism in which the economy is guided
by women is a matriarchal principle.
On the social level the task is to prevent a further fragmentation of society, which
drives people deeper and deeper into solitary living and loneliness, becoming increas-
ingly ill and destructive. In the end, this is the matrix in which war and violence
grow. To counteract this, the goal is the formation of diverse communities. They
might be intentional communities or networks or neighbourhoods. Elective affinity
does not come about by merely shared interest; interest groups come and go very
quickly. Elective affinity only comes into being if there is a spiritual-intellectual
common ground. On this basis, a symbolic clan comes into being that is more
committed than any interest group. The matriarchal principle here is that these
clans are usually initiated, carried, and led by women. The measuring stick is the
needs of women and children who are the future of humankind, and not the power
or potency wished for by men that has led to patriarchal extended families, such
as the big political, economic, and religious men’s clubs, which have suppressed
and excluded women. These new matri-clans will integrate men totally, but with
a value system based on mutual care and love instead of power.
On the political level, the matriarchal consensus process for making decisions is
indispensable for an egalitarian society. This is the most important principle for
matriarchal community formation as it prevents the establishment of domination
by individuals or groups in newly organized symbolic clans of various designs.
A consensus decision-making process establishes the balance between men and
women, but also between the generations, because both older and younger people
have their say. Furthermore, it honours the promises formal democracy makes
but never keeps.
According to matriarchal principles, well-ordered groups of the new matri-clans
are the supporting social unit and the actual decision-makers at the regional level.
Flourishing self-sufficient regions based on susbsistence economies are the aim,
not nation states, nation-alliances or super-powers that grant more and more
power to the ruling classes and in which human beings are reduced to numbers
and have become merely human “resources.”
This kind of regionalism does not mean people are limited to connecting
spiritually and culturally within just the one region, because this would lead to
the narrow mind of provincialism. The regions will have symbolic connections
with each other as sister-regions, and these connections will be realized through
cultural exchange in the celebration of joint festivals. In this way a free, horizontal
network comes into being between the regions. This network-based paradigm is
completely different from a centralized, hierarchical state control. In the age of
the Internet, this network is not limited to neighbouring regions, but can span
the globe. Why should a matriarchal region in Europe not have sister-regions in
India, Africa, the Americas, and yet another one in Polynesia? Such connections
are limitless, but they are totally different from the global structures and hierarchies
of exploitation that patriarchal states have with each other.
On the spiritual-cultural level, we will bid farewell to the various fundamental-
isms that are associated with hierarchical patriarchal religions and their claims to
absolute truth. With their claims to moral superiority they have debased and vili-
fied the earth, humankind, and especially the half of humankind who are women.
Now we have the opportunity for a new sanctification of the world in accordance
with the matriarchal imagination: the whole world, and everything in it, is divine.
This gives rise to celebrating and honouring all life on the planet—creatively and
freely: nature with her multitude of beings and phenomena, and her great diversity
of peoples, each with their own special capabilities. All this diversity is celebrated
to the full. In this way, matriarchal spirituality permeates everything and once
again becomes a central and integral part of everyday living.
It is evident that destruction of nature, sexism, and racism are not possible in
a future matriarchal culture. According to the matriarchal principle, diversity is
the true wealth of the earth, humankind, and culture. The values of the matriarchal
ethos are: balance, reciprocity on all levels, and the loving connection with all
living beings and phenomena of nature.
In all of this matriarchal spirituality is central. Matriarchal societies have always
been sacred societies. Their entire structure has been developed in accordance with
their spiritual beliefs. For this reason, establishing new matriarchal patterns in our
societies is not possible without an all-permeating matriarchal ethos.
To sum up, this new research called “Modern Matriarchal Studies” has presented
us with a rich spectrum of knowledge and practice that can be useful in our work
toward the development of a just and peaceful future based on a matriarchal
model. The gift economy/gift paradigm as presented by Genevieve Vaughan
(1997) also offers us a vision of what is possible, and demonstrates how, every
day and everywhere in patriarchal society, gift giving is practiced, and is, in fact,
what these matriachal societies are based on. Matriarchal societies demonstrate
that gift giving indeed embodies the highest value and the practical reality of whole
societies, past and present. We need not invent an abstract utopia to find social
structures that embody motherliness as an ethical principle and that practice
gift giving, because they have existed over the longest eras of human history,
and they still exist today worldwide. The social organization of matriarchal, gift
giving societies can inspire us, and teach us how to develop a future based on a
matriarchal model that will result in just, well-balanced, and peaceful societies,
in which women do not rule, but in which motherliness as an ethical principle
provides the foundation for life, for living, and for giving to satisfy the needs of
each for the benefit of all.
Heide Goettner-Abendroth was born in 1941 and is the mother of three children. She
has published various books on matriarchal society and culture and has become the
founding mother of Modern Matriarchal Studies. In 1980 she was visiting professor
at the University of Montreal (Canada) and, in 1992, at the University of Innsbruck
(Austria). In 1986, she founded the International Academy HAGIA: Academy for
Modern Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality in Germany. The results of her
research have been the basis for further studies and projects in many different countries.
She is one of the 1,000 “Peace Women” all over the world who have been nominated
by the Swiss Peace Initiative. Visit her website: www.goettner-abendroth.de.
For an extensive bibliography, see Goettner-Abendroth 1988, 1991, 1995, 2000.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1988. das Matriarchat I. Geschichte Seiner Erforschung.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1991. das Matriarchat II,1. Stammesgesellschaften in Ostasien,
Indonesien, Ozeanien. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag.
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 1995. The Goddess and Her Heros: Matriarchal Religion in
Mythology, Fairy-Tales and Literature. Trans. Lillian Friedberg. Stow, MA: Anthony
Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. 2000. das Matriarchat II,2. Stammesgesellschaften in Amerika,
Indien, Afrika. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer-Verlag.
Vaughan, Genevieve. 1997. For-Giving. A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin, TX: