The Americas

Central, North, and South America have long been havens of matriarchal cultures, which puzzled or outraged the Europeans recording it, depending on their level of cultural flexibility. Toward the end of the twentieth century, besides increasingly serious and reliable studies from Western scholars, Indigenous American scholars began offering studies of their own cultures.

Central America

In the mid- to late-twentieth century, as matriarchy was being taken seriously, as opposed to sustaining cat-calls, a number of interesting studies of Central American matriarchies were performed. Keeler 1956 focused on the matriarchal Kuna (“Cuna”), but he 1960 made an unfortunate cross-cultural comparison in his second book. Howe 1978 offered a sturdy look at matriarchal control of Kuna chiefs by their people. Chiñas 1987 did not quite claim matriarchy for Juchitán, settling for “matrifocality.” Bennholdt-Thomsen 1992 argued for the central economic role of women in Juchitán, and in 1994, analyzed this society in light of modern Matriarchal Studies. Bennholdt-Thomsen, Suhan, and Müser 2000 returned to the economy of Juchitán, defining it in light of the gift economy of Juchitán's festivals. Moeschk- Olowaili 2009 reinterpreted the Kuna using the modern definition of matriarchy.


Keeler, Clyde Edgar. Land of the Moon-Children. 1956, reprint. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Keeler boldly described the Kuna people of Central America as a “primitive matriarchy” (7), noting the role of the mother as final arbiter and power in the family.


Keeler, Clyde Edgar. Secrets of the Cuna Earthmother:A Comparative Study of Ancient Religions. New York: Exposition Press, 1960.

Continuing his theme, Keeler brought out this comprehensive study of Kuna religion, arts, and social life. However, he offered a fraught line of thought in his comparison of the Kuna culture to unrelated Middle Eastern cultures, while, as a personalized account, his study displayed all the foibles of such an approach.


Howe, James. “How the Cuna Keep Their Chiefs in Line.” MAN 13 (1978), 537–53.

Using a more academic approach than Keeler in this unsensationalized view of Kuna women's power, Howe's article studied the matriarchal control of Kuna chiefs by their people, describing a sophisticated and intentional matriarchal structure behind the Kuna's egalitarian system.


Chiñas, Beverly L. Matrifocality: The Essence of Isthmus Zapotec Culture. Chico, CA: Dept. of Anthropology, California State University at Chico, 1987.

Chiñas again attempted to define the social form of Juchitàn, this time by dubbing it “matrifocality,” but her new definition remained shaky due to her continued reliance on outdated terminology and Western analyses.


Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika. “ Die Würde der Frau ist der Reichtum von Juchitán: Kulturelle Barrieren gegen die Verarmung durch Entwicklung.” In J. Möller, ed. Das Ei des Kolumbus?  Bielefeld: Reihe AMBOS, no. 31, 1992, 88–100.

German ethnologist Bennholdt-Thomsen stepped into the discussion from a matriarchal perspective. In “ Die Würde ” (translating as, “The Dignity of Women is the Wealth of Juchitàn”), she showed the central role of women in resisting the impoverishment of the so-called “Third World” by forced capitalist development.


Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika: Juchitàn Stadt der Frauen. Vom Leben im Matriarchat, Reinbek bei Hamburg 1994, Verlag Rowohlt (meaning: Juchitàn, City of Women. Life in a Matriarchy)

Bennholdt-Thomsen provided an insightful analysis of the society of Juchitàn, reinterpreting its economic and social organization of women in light of the gift economy and modern Matriarchal Studies, showing the reciprocal economy, a mixture of men's agrarian labor, women's locally markets, and gift-giving during festivals. The gift economy is described by her as the engine of this wealth-creating economy.


Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika, Cornelia Suhan, and Mechthild Müser, eds. FrauenWirtschaft: Juchitàn – Mexikos Stadt der Frauen. Munich: Frederking & Thaler, 2000.

In FrauenWirtschaft (meaning, “The Women's Economy”), co- edited with Suhan and Müser, the authors illuminated the essential role of women in Juchitàn's intentionally independent subsistence economy. Additionally, they investigated the conception and practice of “gender,” in its variety of ways of life in Juchitàn.


Olowaili, Antje Moeschk. “Goldmother Bore Human Children into the World: The Culture of the Kuna.” In H. Goettner-Abendroth, ed. Societies of Peace. Toronto: Inanna Publications, 2009, 80 − 91.

German Moeschk-Olowaili gave a traveller report on the Kuna, in which she reinterpreted Kuna culture in a modern, matriarchal context.

North America

The many matriarchies of the Native North America have been variously examined in the last century, with four primary groups garnering attention below: the Iroquois, Cherokee, Choctaw, and Pueblos.


The Iroquois

The Iroquois have formed a favorite topic of matriarchal studies since Morgan's 1851 look at the Iroquois (see “History,” above). The Tuscarora linguist and ethnologist Hewitt 1915, 1927, 1933 included the female interface in Iroquoian government in the three works pertinent here. Seneca anthropologist Parker 1916 dealt with women within the structure of the League. Kurath examined women's dance ceremony, while Brown 1975 considered the impact of their economic power on their status. Mann and Fields 1997 included women's centrality in the founding of the League, while Mann 2000, 2010 severally examined the sources of Iroquoian women's traditional authority.


Hewitt, John Napoleon Brinton. “Some Esoteric Aspects of the League of the Iroquois.” Proceedings of the International Congress of Americanists 19 (1915), 322–26.

Grasping the traditional interface of the twinned cosmos in the rich and complex worldview of the Iroquois, Tuscarora scholar Hewitt referred to its replication in the “Mother” and “Father” sides of the League (325).


Hewitt, John Napoleon Brinton. “Ethnological Studies among the Iroquois Indians.” Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections 78 (1927), 234–47.

Tuscarora scholar Hewitt again explicitly discussed the “Mother” and “Father” sides of the League (240–41).


Hewitt, J. N. B. “Status of Woman in Iroquois Polity before 1784.” Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1932. Washington, D.C.: 1933, 475–88.

Hewitt examined here the traditional role of women, before the disempowerment of the League by the American Revolution and the attacks following the establishment of the U.S.


Parker, Arthur C. The Constitution of the Five Natives or the Iroquois Book of the Great Law. Albany: The University of the State of New York, 1916.

Parker's Constitution is, perhaps, the best-known, and certainly the most accessible version of the Constitution of the Iroquois. A Seneca scholar, Parker listed the all-important women's portion of ancient League law, “Clans and Consanguinity,” sections 42–54, which recognized that the women, alone, possessed the land, giving them sole economic control, while outlining their jurisdiction over governmental positions.


Kurath, Gertrude. “Matriarchal Dances of the Iroquois.” International Congress of Americanist's Proceedings, no. 29, vol. 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952, 123–30.

In this paper, Kurath looked at the way women's ceremonial dances reflected and supported their high cultural prestige.


Brown, Judith K. “Iroquois Women, An Ethnohistoric Note.” In Rayna R. Reiter, ed. Toward an Anthropology of Women. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975, 235–51.

In this article, Brown surveyed economics as the key to Iroquoian women's high cultural standing.


Mann, Barbara Alice, and Jerry L. Fields. “A Sign in the Sky: Dating the League of the Haudenosaunee.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 21.2 (1997), 105–63.

The Ohio Seneca scholar Mann shows that the Iroquoian matriarchal structure was seeded by the Head Clan Mother, Jigonsaseh, one of the three founders of the Iroquois League in 1142 C.E., particularly in connection with her insistence on the use of an agricultural subsistence base of corn.


Mann, Barbara Alice. Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2000.

In Iroquoian Women, now considered a classic, the historian and Ohio Seneca Mann gathered up every possible source, for her lavish definition of Iroquoian matriarchy. Using Indigenous traditions as well as written documentation to present an Indigenous view of Iroquoian women at the social, political, economic, and religious levels of traditional society, she corrected the on-going misinformation about Iroquoian society.


Mann, Barbara Alice. Spirits of Blood, Spirits of Breath. The Twinned Cosmos of Indigenous America. Oxford U.S.: Oxford Univeritsy Press, 2016.

Here, the Ohio Seneca scholar Mann presented a traditional view of the Native North Americans' rich twinned cosmology, composed of the female and male halves, from which women derived their high status, as keepers of the “blood” or “water” half.


The Cherokee

Cherokee author Awiatka 1993 looked at women's traditions, while Purdue 1998 and Carney 2001, 2005 looked at the functions of the Beloved and War Women.


Awiakta, Marilu. Selu: Seeking the Corn Mother's Wisdom. Aurora, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 1993.

In 1993, Marilou Awaitka offered an insightful presentation of the female-friendly and eco-friendly development of Cherokee cultural philosophy. Awaitka, herself Cherokee, examined the cultural content traditions of the female cultural first-mover of Cherokee tradition, Selu. She was able to trace out their impact on Cherokee philosophy.


Purdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700–1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

One of the best historical discussions of the woodlands Cherokee women came from Purdue in this work. Carefully distinguishing between the Cherokee elites and the ordinary people, she showed that traditional women retained many of their original roles and rights, despite invasion, removal, and attempts by white settlers to force Christianity on the Cherokee.


Carney, Virginia Moore. “Woman Is the Mother of All: Nanye'hi and Kitteuha: War Women of the Cherokee.” In Barbara Alice Mann, ed. Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands:  Selected Speeches and Critical Analyses. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001, 123–44.

The historian Carney, herself Cherokee, discussed the duties and rights of women of the traditional Cherokee, here looking at the centrality of War Women in their duties as speakers to the settlers.


Carney, Virginia Moore. Eastern Band Cherokee Women: Cultural Persistence in Their Letters and Speeches. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Cherokee scholar Carney gathered up three centuries worth of significant letters, speeches, and other writings of female Cherokee leaders, demonstrating their centrality to the cultural and political survival of their people.


The Choctaw

Eggan 1937, 1966 sought for the inception of Choctaw matrilineage. Choctaw authors McGowan 2001 and Pensatubbee 2005 examined colonial damage to this culture.


Eggan, Fred. “Historical Changes in the Choctaw Kinship System.” American Anthropologist 39 (1937), 34–52.

Eggan attempted to identify the derivation of the Choctaw matrilineal systems in this article.


Eggan, Fred. “The Choctaw and Their Neighbors in the Southeast: Acculturation under Pressure.” In Fred Eggan, ed. The American Indian. Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1966, 15–44.

Eggan looked at the forcible changes to Choctaw culture, including matrilineage.


McGowan, Kay Givens. “Weeping for the Lost Matriarchy.” In Barbara Alice Mann, ed. Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands: Selected Speeches and Critical Analyses. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001, 53–68.

A Choctaw, McGowan traced th e settler devastation of the Choctaw matriarchy, from invasion into the present. She looked at the despoliation of the once-strong Choctaw matriarchy by forced patriarchal assimilation imposed by the U.S., assessing the poverty that replaced the former plenty.


Pensatubbee, Michelene E. Choctaw Women in a Chaotic World: The Clash of Cultures in the Colonial Southeast. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Indigenous scholar Pensatubbee traced the impacts of colonialism on Choctaw women's roles.


The Pueblos

Looking at the southwest were Parsons 1939 and Benedict 1969 on the Pueblo peoples, with Benedict particularly examining the Zu ñ i. For the first time, Titiev 1944 focused on the important women's roles in Hopi Kachina rituals, while Waters 1966 collated traditional Hopi stories, and Washburn 1980 looked especially at Hopi social organization and arts. Laguna Pueblo scholar Gunn Allen 1986 provided a sumptuous and unapologetic examination of southwestern women's spirituality.


Parsons, Elsie Worthington Clews. Pueblo Indian Religion. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939.

Since matriarchy as a concept was still being defended, not defined, Elsie Parsons urged in 1939 that none of the perceived male supremacy in Pueblo cultures existed other than in the wish-fulfilling stories told by the men (40–41).


Titiev, Mischa. Old Oraibi. A Study of the Hopi Indians of Third Mesa. Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1944.

Titiev reported that Hopi life was shaped by ceremonies, giving a detailed overview of the seasonal ceremonies of the Kachina cult, noting that all life-cycle feasts were carried out exclusively by women in the home, with men not present, a fact missed by earlier ethnologists, men, themselves, focusing on other men. Titiev also gave some valuable insights into the women's ceremonies.


Waters, Frank. Book of the Hopi. New York: The Viking Press, 1963.

Waters offered rich material in his source book on the myths, legends, ceremonial festivals, and history of the Hopi, as gleaned from the reports of thirty traditional leaders, including women, thus providing perspectives missing from standard, male-only reports.


Benedict, Ruth. Zuni Mythology. 1935. New York: AMS Press, 1969.

Anthropologist Benedict closely looked at the matriarchal Zu ñ i people and offered one of the first comprehensive studies on Pueblo mythology, astounding some readers by reporting, among other things, that murder was unheard-of and that peace was the set-point of the culture.


Washburn, Dorothee K., ed. Hopi Kachina: Spirit of Life. San Francisco: California Academy of Sciences/The University of Washington Press, 1980.

Washburn's anthology provided a condensed overview of Hopi history, arts, crafts, and social organization, including as they touched women. Although all Western studies of Kachina lore remained hampered by the one-sided view stressing men's activities, Washburn included photos of traditional Hopi life, giving some indications of the long-ignored women's roles.


Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

The most important recovery of Pueblo women's traditions was undertaken by the Laguna Pueblo scholar, Gunn Allen, in this pivotal work. Throughout, Gunn Allen retrieved specific stories of female spirits, resituating them in an Indigenous interpretation that focused on the women's power and position in the culture. Allen's breakthroughs are still reverberating in Native North American scholarship.

South America

The Arawak have been notably studied in their matriarchal aspects. One of the first examinations of “mother right” among them came from Schmidt 1913. Goeje 1943 reconstructed Arawak mythology, while Rouse 1948 considered Arawak matrilineage. Armstrong and Métraux 1949 narrowed themselves to just one group, the Goajiro. More generally that these authors, Divale zeroed in on matrilocality, using the Arawak as examples 1974/1984, while the historical Amazons of the Amazon-River were Leite's topic 1989.


Schmidt, Wilhelm. “Kulturkreise und Kulturschichten in Südamerika.” In Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 45 (1913), 1014–30.

Schmidt's article (whose title translates as, “Regions and Layers of Culture in South America”) offered one of the first examinations of “mother right” among the Arawak of South America. Schmidt applied Bachofenian principles to his discussion.


Goeje, Claudius H. de. Philosophy, Initiation, and Myths of the Indians of Guayana and Adjacent Countries. Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie. V ol. 44 (1943), 1–136.

From any perspective, Goeje's monograph is an excellent reconstruction of the endangered mythology of the Indigenous cultures of South America, especially that of the Arawak.


Rouse, Irving. “The Arawak.” In Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 4., The Circum-Caribbean Tribes. Ed. Julian H. Steward. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1948, 507–46.

Rouse surveyed the different matrilineal groups comprising the Arawak in this article.


Armstrong, John, and Alfred Métraux. “The Goajiro.” In Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 4: The Circum-Caribbean Tribes. Ed. Julian H. Steward. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1949, 369–83.

In this focused study of one group of the Arawak, Armstrong and Métraux provided considerable detail on the Goajiro way of life and world view, although, due to their era, they did so without directly recognising that the culture was matriarchal.


Divale, William. Matrilocal Residence in Pre-Literate Society. 1974. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1984.

Divale looked at matrilocality in its diverse social forms, the Arawak inclusive. An instructive dissertation, this work did not become generally available until 1984.


Leite, Marcelo. “ Die Spur der Amazonen.” In Bild der Wissenschaft, no. 11, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags Anstalt, 1989.

In this article, whose title translates as “Traces of the Amazons”, Leite traced and summarized the historical material on the warrior women of the Amazon-River, who are in all probability related to the Arawak.