Modern Development of Matriarchal Theory

At this point in the discussion, no scientific or agreed-upon definition of the matriarchal form of society existed beyond Bachofen’s vague “mother right,” nor did examinations consider the independent structures, mechanisms, or functions of female leadership by category. Instead, researchers presented what were often denigrations of female-led culture, expressing little more than their personal levels of culture-shock and denial. Alternatively, matriarchy was used for European polemics. This absence of scientific rigor opened up the door to emotional and ideological entanglements, constituting a burden on this field of research that only lifted in the 1990s.

Mid-Twentieth-Century Development of Matriarchal Theory

Diop 1959 created a significant definition of African matriarchy, but without recognition in Western discourse. The seminal work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas 1989, 1991 shook loose the encrustation around Western mindsets but without contributing any new definition of matriarchy. Adler 1982, O'Brien and Tiffany 1984, and Eisler 1987 attempted some definition.


Diop, Cheikh Anta. The Cultural Unity of Black Africa. Trenton, NJ: Karnak House Publ. 2000.

Creating a substantial definition of African mother-centered societies, the Senegalese historian Diop argued that Africa's cultures, continent-wide, had matriarchal roots going back to the earliest times. He argued that Africa's matriarchal roots formed the source of the unity among African cultures, although colonization by Arabs and Europeans had obscured this unity, engendering cultural heterogeneity. However, former internal African transformations are omitted by him. Originally published in French in 1959.


Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess: Unearthing the Hidden Symbols of Western Civilization, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989.

Gimbutas referred to the 30,000 female statuettes, usually glossed as “idols,” as goddess figurines, seeing them as symbols of ancient beliefs and social practice. However, she explicitly labelled the social and religious orders of these early cultures “matristic” and did not contribute to a new definition of the term “matriarchy.” (See also below, “Studies of Historical Matriarchal Societies, Mythology.”)


Gimbutas, Marija. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

Tracing women's social significance from Palaeolithic through the Neolithic, Gimbutas argued that women had held the rank of priestess in cultures venerating a variety of goddesses. In a broad overview, she documented the rich, urban cultures of Old Europe in the diverse cultural regions from the Danube valley to North Europe, labelling them “matristic,” or mother-centered, and additionally, created the “Kurgan theory” as a theroy of the rise of patriarchy in Europe. (See also below, “Studies of Historical Matriarchal Societies, Archaeology.”)


Adler, Margot. “Meanings of Matriarchy.” In Charlene Spretnak, ed. The Politics of Women's Spirituality: Essays on the Rise of Spiritual Power within the Feminist Movement. Garden City, NY: Achor Books, 1982, 127–37.

Adler summarized matriarchal studies, to date, without breaking new ground. She did offer at starting point for late-twentieth-century Western feminists, however.


O'Brien, Denise, and Sharon W. Tiffany, eds. Rethinking Women's Roles: Perspectives from the Pacific. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984.

An anthology, Rethinking criticized anthropology's then-male-dominated perspective while showing that female anthropologists had had an easier time than men in making contact with women of Indigenous cultures, hinting that much had, thereby, been omitted from the story of culture. Since the anthology's authors all came from different perspectives, however, they offered divergent and not necessarily compatible conclusions on matriarchy.


Eisler Riane. The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

A cultural historian and theorist, Eisler tried to upend the patriarchal imprint on the field of social and cultural history by applying her new terms, “andocracy” and “gylany,” to disrupt any lingering rubrics of male superiority vs. female inferiority that might have been distorting perception (Eisler, vii, 105). But her starting point was without any lasting effect on terminology, as “Matriarchy” remained the preferred term in the debate.

Modern Development of Matriarchal Theory

Modern, systematic definitions of matriarchy were established, independently of one another, by Goettner-Abendroth 2012 (starting 1988), Sanday 2002, and Mann 2000, with Vaughan 1997 defining the gift economy, since offered by Mann in workshop in Italy, 2005, as the common feature of all matriarchies. By this point, modern Matriarchal Studies was taking off as a discrete field of study with its own methodology and critical scholarly standards. It was presented to a broad public in conferences, at World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies, in 2003 and 2005, as anthologized by Goettner-Abendroth 2009. A third Congress on Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Politics followed in 2011.


Goettner-Abendroth, Heide. Matriarchal Societies: Studies on Indigenous Cultures across the  Globe. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2012/2013 (Origially in German 1988, 1991, 2000).

German philosopher of science Goettner-Abendroth founded modern Matriarchal Studies in 1988. She articulated a systematic, comprehensive definition of “matriarchy”, and by using an explicit methodology and a thorough critique of ideologies she gave the field a scientific base. From her long-time, cross-cultural research she inductively identified the “deep structure” of the matriarchal form of society: gender- egalitarian and consensus-oriented; manifesting maternal values in matrilinearity and matrilocality; and gift-giving food distribution. In her rich work, recent and still extant societies of this type are presented.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Ori gins of Sexual Inequality. 1981. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Sanday's large-scale, cross-cultural study of Indigenous societies disputed the dominant and then-popular argument even among feminists of universal female subordination. She argued instead that male dominance had come about as a solution to various kinds of cultural strains. She showed the full range of variation between male and female power roles and developed a theoretical framework for explaining this variation.


Sanday, Peggy Reeves. Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. Ithaca-New York: Cornell University Press, 2002.

Sanday began to develop an adequate definition of matriarchy from field work based on her observations of the Indigenous society of the Minangkabau in Sumatra (as discussed further in the section, Pacific Islands, below).


Vaughan, Genevieve. For-Giving, a Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Austin: Plain View and Anomaly Press, 1997.

In her provocative look at the connection between economics, mothering and language, Vaughan saw the gift economy as arising from the prototype of a mother's nurturance, as an economic and socio-cultural, not a biological, function. She posited that gift-giving permeates the whole of society lifelong, as a hidden economy that is exploited and fed on by the Western capitalist exchange economy.


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

Indigenous Ohio Seneca Mann analysed the cultural history of the Iroquois and explicitly labelled the cultural type as “matriarchy” (63), describing its characteristics as expressed in the political, social, economic, and spiritual realms of culture, paving the way toward a full definition of matriarchy, independently of Sanday and Goettner-Abendroth. (See, also, Mann in “The Americas, North America, the Iroquois.”)


Goettner-Abendroth, Heide (ed.). Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present and Future. Toronto: Inanna Press, York University, 2009.

Goettner-Abendroth edited the proceeding papers of two World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies, which she organized and guided, 2003 in Luxembourg and 2005 in Texas. The proceedings include the work of indigenous researchers commenting on their own matriarchal cultures in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia. Published in German in 2006: Gesellschaft in Balance, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag. The 2011 Congress papers were published on the internet: