Matriarchy: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Chevette Alston

Dr. Alston has taught intro psychology, child psychology, and developmental psychology at 2-year and 4-year schools.

Within a matriarchy, positions of leadership and power are held by women. Explore the history of matriarchy and an explanation of why societies have shifted away from matriarchy over time. Updated: 02/06/2022

What is a Matriarch?

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


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