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matriarchy

matriarchy, familial and political rule by women. Many contemporary anthropologists reject the claims of J. J. Bachofen and Lewis Morgan that early societies were matriarchal, although some contemporary feminist theory has suggested that a primitive matriarchy did indeed exist at one time. Claims for the existence of matriarchy rest on three types of data: societies in which women make the major contribution to subsistence, societies in which descent is traced through women (i.e., matrilineal), and myths of ancient rule by women. But myths of ancient female dominance invariably highlight women's failure as rulers and end with men assuming power. Anthropologists believe that these myths function as a rationalization of contemporary male dominance. Women may have greater political power in matrilineal societies than in other societies, but this does not imply matriarchy. Thus, while Iroquois women could nominate and depose members of their ruling council, the members were male and enjoyed a veto over women. Crow women could take ritual offices, but their power was severely limited by menstrual taboos. Women may also have indirect influence through their involvement in material production. In many horticultural societies women produce the bulk of the group's dietary staples. Even so, men often devalue this vital contribution, and usually have the power to expropriate it. The universality of male dominance is not, however, natural or biological, because the form of, and reasons given for, patriarchy differ in most cultures. Through studying the various ways that male dominance is organized and justified, anthropologists have concluded that it is culturally constructed.

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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