Historical Development of Matriarchal Theory

Aside from Herodot was Lafitau 1724 one of the first to describe matriarchy, acting as a prelude and, perhaps, a prod to succeeding theorists, including Adair 1775, who was astounded by “petticoat government.” Committed, academic inquiry into matriarchal societies started with U.S. anthropologist Morgan 1851 in his study of the Iroquois League. Independently of Morgan, the Swiss historian Bachofen 1861 discussed the structure of “mother right.” Morgan 1877 returned to decry Indigenous matriarchies as primitive, with anthropologist Carr 1884 closely describing Iroquoian matriarchy, but with a shudder.


Herodotus. Hrsg. William Below. 2. Ausg. 4 Bde., London: Luke Hansard, 1806.

In discussing the women warriors of the ancient world, Herodotus recounted scary stories about Amazons as self-mutilating “men-slayers” (3: 12), seeding and cementing a long-standing Western resistance to considering the topic. Originally published in Greek, ca. 425.


Lafitau, Joseph-François. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times. Ed. and trans. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. 2 vols. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1974.

A Jesuit missionary, Lafitau described daily Iroquoian life, recording that “nothing was more real” than the “superiority” of the women in northeastern North America (1: 69). Comparing Iroquoian matriarchal society to ancient, “classical” texts, led Lafitau to present the matriarchal Iroquois women in terms of the European ancients, starting an unfortunate but long-lasting habit. Originally published in French in 1724.


Adair, James. History of the American Indians. Ed. Samuel Cole Williams. Johnson City, TN: Watauga Press, 1930.

In the process of attempting to “prove” that Native Americans were the “Ten Lost tribes of Israel,” James Adair necessarily encountered the matriarchies of the eastern Woodlands. His shocked characterization of Indigenous matriarchies popularized among settlers his slur of “petticoat government” as a wanton and immoral way to live (Adair, 232). Originally published in 1775.


Morgan, Henry Lewis. League of the Ho-dé-no-saunee or Iroquois. 2 vols. New York: Burt Franklin, 1901.

Heavily advised on Iroquoian culture by renown Seneca chief Häsanoanda (“Ely S. Parker”), Morgan helped found the social science of anthropology with his landmark study of the North American Iroquois League. The League of the Ho-dé-no-saunee study made possible, for the first time, a systematic look into the world of a highly developed, contemporary matriarchal culture. Originally published in 1851.


Bachofen, Johann Jakob. Myth, Religion and Mother Right. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967.

With Das Mutterrecht, or “mother right,” Bachofen worked from classical antiquity, laying the groundwork of the cultural-historical branch of matriarchal research. His significant contribution lay in comprehending his topic as “mother right,” creating a theoretical understanding of its features and development. But his theory remained problematic, shaped by the patriarchy of his own time and place. Originally published in German in 1861.


Carr, Lucien. “On the Social and Political Position of Woman among the Huron-Iroquois Tribes.” Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Reports 16 & 17, 3.3–4 (1884), 207–32.

Carr described to denounce Iroquoian matriarchy. Declaring the system a “pure mockery of the man's helplessness,” Carr lamented that, “From the cradle to the grave, there was never a time when the Iroquoian man was not subject to some woman” (Carr, 222–23). His review of the powers, rights, and duties of the Clan Mothers nevertheless described a functioning matriarchy.

Western Feminist Usage of Matriarchy

Indigenous matriarchies became Exhibit One of Western feminists, including Fletcher 1888 and Wagner 2001.


Fletcher, Alice. “The Legal Conditions of Indian Women.” In Report of the International Council of Women. Washington, D.C.: Rufus H. Darby, 1888, 237–41.

Fletcher upended racist stereotypes in her report on traditional Native American women's strengths. The Seneca Falls feminists appreciated the political powers of Clan Mothers, but failed to grasp the economic, spiritual, and social aspects of matriarchy.


Wagner, Sally Roesch. Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists. Summertown, TN: Native Voices, 2001.

Wagner's history of the Seneca Falls and nineteenth-century U.S. feminist movement examines its appreciation, appropriation, and illustrative use of the contemporary Iroquoian matriarchy in demanding social, political, and economic rights for Euro-American women.

Marxist Use of Matriarchy

Marxists, especially Engels 1884 in the nineteenth century and Reed 1975 in the twentieth century, turned the existence of matriarchy into the earliest stage of the stages of Marxist history, as delineated economically.


Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. New York: Penguin Classics, 2010.

Using Marx's notes, post-mortem, as well as his own, Engels argued that control over private property enabled men to overthrow matriarchy to seize control of the home, formerly a female domain. Not only a social institution, monogamy also had an economic basis, rooted in the patriarchal victory of private property over matriarchal, communal property. Originally published in German in 1884.


Reed, Evelyn. Woman's Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975.

Reed argued that all culture had sprouted from the mother-child relationship. In the process, she biologized matriarchy, re-presenting many Engelian arguments. Because she was a Marxist, her representation of matriarchy was confined to Marxist preconceptions.

Rightist Usage of Matriarchy

Rightists recognized but scorned matriarchies, politically, racially, sexually, and psychologically. Returning to the topic, Morgan 1877 now scorned matriarchy as residing in the lower levels of cultural development, while Powell 1897 confined it outright to “savagery.” With Sigmund Freud famously claiming that “anatomy” was “destiny” (and Freud was quoting Napoleon), it became popular to view matriarchy as physiologically based, as in Briffault 1927, so that Western biases about “savagery” and physiological dismissal of women continued to define the analysis of matriarchy into the twentieth century.


Morgan, Henry Lewis. Ancient Society, or Researches in the Lines of Human Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Company, 1877.

Morgan's problematic work constructed a unilineal, stages-of-history theory (savagery→barbarian→civilization), a form very popular among European theorists in the nineteenth century. His strict and universal theory of cultural evolution lurched forward through set steps, culminating in patriarchy, with Morgan categorizing matriarchy as “barbarian,” and necessarily also primitive, stage. This heavy interpretive framework was to prevail in Western culture over the next century.


Powell, John Wesley. “Report of the Director.” Fifteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Smithsonian Institution, 1893–'94. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing

Office, 1897, xvii–cxxi.

Director of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology, Powell's annual report recognized that matriarchy existed, but (following Morgan) admitted its presence only at the most “primitive” levels of culture. He asserted that matriarchy was properly replaced by patriarchy as the supposed advancement, the step before “civilization”, following the racist-sexist schema of then-Western science (Powell, civ–cv).


Briffault, Robert. The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions. 3 vols. 1927. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1996.

Briffault traced all basic patterns of social behavior and institutions back to the instinctual conduct that he supposed was characteristic of female, rather than of male, actors. A fundamental female influence, based on motherhood, was incomprehensible in regard to patriarchal societies, so Briffault concluded that development of large-scale social institutions was matriarchal in their early stages, but has to be understood as preliminary, not final.