Introduction and Definition

Evidence of matriarchy had always existed in Western chronicles, albeit scattered or hidden amidst other ethnographic tidbits, all of them filtered heavily through the androcentric lens of Christian missionaries or European travelers. Most of these old European sources were either puzzled or horrified by women-led cultures, having had nothing to attach them to but scary stories from Herodotus about the ferocious Amazons as “men-slayers” or the Christian theological depictions of sinful Eve, resulting in the “burning times” (witch hunts). Moving out from Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, especially into Africa and the Americas, home to many matriarchal cultures, was very unsettling to the patriarchal paradigm of Europe. Until quite recently, this culture shock combined with colonialism ensured that scholarship on matriarchy was crafted exclusively by elite, Western scholars, nearly all of them male and coming from nothing remotely resembling a matriarchal culture. Nineteenth-century scholars were all infiltrated by the unilinear, universal evolution theory, as a part of European-American colonialism, sporting racist and sexist roots. These disabilities distorted comprehension of the matriarchal form of society, allowing Western scholars either to dismiss it outright as a fantasy or to portray it crudely, as a wicked, Amazonian domination of men. This background left enduring marks on the scholarship around matriarchy until new interest was piqued among German and American scholars in the nineteenth century, moving thought from the Amazonian conception to the definition of matriarchy as a “mother right.” These scholars remained mired, however, in the racist and sexist premises of European colonialism, well into the twentieth century. As colonial Eurocentrism lifted in the mid- to late-twentieth century, scholars from non-Western, matriarchal cultures worldwide began chiming in on the conversation, in order to revamp old ideas together with Western female scholars. The “maternal values” in matriarchal studies do not indicate Western sentimentalism, but principles formulated by Indigenous, matriarchal societies themselves, in their sayings (e.g.: Minangkabau) and in their social rules (e.g.: Iroquois), based on the prototype of Mother Nature, as conceptualized in mythology, proverbs, songs, etc. Collating all the evidence of non-Western and Western, twenty-first century scholarship, matriarchy is here defined as mother-centered societies, based on maternal values: equality, consensus finding, gift-giving, and peace-building by negotiations. Gift-economies, defined by modern Matriarchal Studies as a transitive relation in closed communities, is a core concept of all matriarchies. The result is a gender-egalitarian society, in which each gender has its own sphere of power and action. All these societies are characterized by matrilinearity, matrilocality, and women as keepers of the land and distributors of food, based on a structured gift economy. As derived from inductive studies of singular matriarchal societies and in collaboration with Indigenous scholars writing on their own communities, the current definition of matriarchy is a mother-centered, gender-egalitarian society that practices the gift economy. Modern matriarchal studies primarily assesses the patterns of those cultures, past and present, in their unique displays of gender egalitarianism and generally social egalitarianism.