Breaking the Taboo on “Matriarchy”
First World Congress Explores Women-Centered Societies

Marguerite Rigoglioso


Matriarchy. It's a word most of us have been taught to fear -- or hate. Psychologically, it has become equated with hostile notions of female abuse of power or man hating. As an anthropological concept, it has been laughed out of the academy by "real" scholars who “know” that female rule never existed. Anyone who considers possibilities to the contrary is branded a shoddy academic or, worse, a "radical feminist.” In recent years, Goddess feminists who have been exploring evidence for women's political, social, and religious authority in prehistory, history, and contemporary culture have been pejoratively labeled "feminist matriarchalists" by one well-publicized secular feminist who has vociferously attempted to dismiss their work. In short, the term "matriarchy" has become so weighed down with negative connotations and political baggage that most self-respecting women have distanced themselves miles from it -- even if just to be safe.


Fortunately, one brave woman has done the opposite. Heide Gottner-Abendroth, a German author and former university professor, has dedicated her life and career to reclaiming "matriarchy," studying its many meanings and manifestations, and applying such knowledge in service of empowering women and reversing the cultural and environmental destruction that patriarchal systems have wrought on the planet for thousands of years. "I insist on using the controversial term matriarchy instead of other words such as gylanic and matristic, because I think that female researchers should use the strongest and most provocative words for the task; it helps to prevent their work from being ignored," she wrote in the Winter 1999 issue of ReVision. Privately, she has remarked that "matriarchy" is the next in line for reclamation after "witch," a term that has at last gained respectability in many academic and social circles.


As the founder of modern matriarchal studies, Gottner-Abendroth organized the first-ever World Congress on Matriarchal Studies in Luxembourg, which was held September 5-7, 2003.


An Historic Gathering of Women

As a newly enrolled doctoral student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, I made attending this conference the inaugural event of my first semester of studies. I was thrilled to join my American friends and colleagues Vicki Noble, Joan Marler, Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, Leslene Della Madre, Elisabeth Sikie, and Max Dashu at this event, as well as hundreds of other women and a smattering of men from all over the world who no longer wanted to bend to the tyranny of the anti-matriarchalists in the academy.


It was clear from the title of the conference, "Societies in Balance: Gender Equality in Matrilineal, Matrifocal, Matriarchal Societies," that matriarchy was being considered in the form in which it manifests in various contemporary cultures -- as a social contract promoting "gender equality" rather than "female rule." As the many panels presented by anthropologists, theorists, activists, and artists would reveal, matriarchal societies of the past and present have much to teach us about how men and women may live in harmony with one another, with people of other cultures, and with the earth herself. Coming in this post-9/11 period, with all of its warfare and religious and political right-wing extremism, the exploration could not have been more timely -- or needed.

The setting was the Luxembourg Congrès' large, tiered auditorium, which was equipped with simultaneous translation booths high above the speakers in front, and headsets at each seat. The entire conference was translated into it German, English, and French, rendering the event a mini-United Nations.

This article is based on notes I assiduously took during the three-days of the conference.  It focuses on what, to me, were the most revelatory presentations, namely those discussing how particular contemporary matriarchal societies around the world look, feel, and operate.


What is Matriarchy, Anyway?

Conference organizer Heide Gottner-Abendroth opened the congress by describing "matriarchy" as it has emerged in recent anthropological research. She reiterated the idea familiar to readers of Riane Eisler that "matriarchy is not the reverse of patriarchy" -- that is, it is not a social structure in which women dominate and abuse men. Disputing the idea that rule exclusively by women has ever existed (an argument that was unfortunately not given space for discussion at the conference), she described modern matriarchies as "societies characterized by high degree of balance" -- economic balance, egalitarianism between genders and generations, and consensus-based politics.


Economically, she said, matriarchies have subsistence economies in which "quality comes before quantity as the organizing principle." Lacking hierarchy and centralization, they are economically cellular and regional, with growth, communication, and empowerment occurring through "an expanding horizontal network."  “They are 'sustainable' in the true sense of the word, living in peace and harmony with nature," she said. As such, she noted, matriarchies provide true alternatives to the globalization that she believes threatens to destroy our world.


Socially, such societies lack hierarchy and violence against women and children. They also display "an orientation of mutual care and love." Matriarchies are highly spiritually oriented and conceive of the world as divine and feminine in nature.


The "Epitome" of Peaceful Civilization:  Indonesia's Minangkabau

Pioneering feminist anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday shared some of her long-term ethnographic research of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia, which she details in her latest book Women at the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy. The Minangkabau, she noted, call themselves a matriarchy and proudly consider their form of culture to be "the epitome of civilization." With 4 million people in their homeland, the Minangkabau are the largest matrilineal (passing on descent through the maternal line) society in the world. Ruled by the Dutch and Japanese for some 300 years, the Minangkabau have in recent decades been granted nationhood and have embraced their traditional matriarchal practices once more.


Sanday stated that the Minangkabau, who are also, interestingly, culturally Muslim, do not define matriarchy as "female rule," but as a social system rooted in "maternal meanings," in which all members are dedicated to promoting human well-being and nourishing the weak and vulnerable. This social philosophy, she said, differs from notions of competition and "survival of the fittest" that are endemic to Western civilization.


For the Minangkabau, nature is the foundation of social order. Rules of culture and laws are derived from the "benign" aspects of nature. For example, because in the animal world it is the mother who bears the next generation and is closest to the offspring, the Minangkabau believe that human practices should follow accordingly. Moreover, they contend, women and children should be protected by the social group just as females and their offspring are in nature. The Minangkabau call the law based on such natural principles adat, and consider it to be a sacred governing philosophy.


In Minangkabau families, the senior woman serves as the central figure, is a font of comfort, nurture, and hospitality, and is the one to whom all family members take their problems. She is highly honored, considered to be a source of goodness, and is associated both with the "central pillar" of the home and the butterfly, which symbolizes the head female in her regalia.


Sanday noted that because in Minangkabau society the uncle holds household authority, acts as the primary male caregiver, and guides and educates his sister's children, some at anthropologist have erroneously concluded that the Minangkabau are not a matriarchy. However, she said that such anthropologists fail perceive that the major social activities of the culture are nevertheless women-centered. "No social group holds power over another," she said. The final power, she said, rests in adat, the law.


Narrow definitions of matriarchy as " female rule," Sanday argued, "imply that women must be like men in order to operate powerfully, and that power means 'power over others.'" Women's actual role in matriarchal societies is complex, she told the audience, a fact she only came to appreciate through her own 20 years of studying the Minangkabau. Applying lessons from the Minangkabau to the present-day situation of global conflict, she said, "The only way to protect the world is to protect the well-being of the weak and vulnerable. If this were understood, we'd all enjoy world peace."


The Magic of Kabyle Women in Algeria

One of the most fascinating and informative presentations discussed the central position of women among the Berber people of northern Africa as exemplified by Kabyle culture. Presenter Malika Grasshoff, an historian, author, and indigenous ethnologist of Kabyle lineage, shared insights both from her fieldwork and her own experiences growing up in a village in Kabylia in Algeria until the age 17. Her research is permeated by her personal experience, and offers much previously unpublished material about the rites and myths of a society on the brink of extinction in which the women and mother play central roles. Two of her books (available in French but not English, unfortunately) describe the magical world of the Kabyle women.


Grasshoff noted that the Berbers are known as the oldest people in northern Africa and still live today in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. For a while, they were Christianized, but later became Muslims due to the conquest of northern Africa by the Arabs. Nevertheless, she said, the Berbers of Kabylia (Algeria) have retained their pre-Islamic customs.


In Kabyle culture, the woman is seen as the mother of the clan. In fact, the central post in the house is called "woman" and is the repository of female spirits that guard the house. However, like Sanday, Grasshoff noted, "You can't see the central position of the woman if you don't interpret the culture correctly," referring to the fact that anthropologists who have not been privy to the inner workings of the Kabyle people have not comprehended its matriarchal essence.


Kabyles speak an oral Berber dialect, Grasshoff said, which has been passed down by the mothers. Because the culture possesses no written records, the old people, she says, are "seen as living books."


Kabyle society, Grasshoff noted, comprises a mosaic of villages, "small republics" governed by the elders. The social structure is endogamous, that is, marriage takes place among members of the village. Thus, blood relations play a significant role in governance. The social structure is characterized by collective living in which members mutually support and protect one another. This attitude of protection, she noted, extends to the dead. "Both the living and the dead belong to one group,” Grasshoff noted. This mindset, she explained, emerges from the culture's embrace of the mother as the central figure.


Economically, old Kabylia was a closed subsistence society that relied on the products of the earth. "There was no competition, no importing or exporting," Grasshoff said. That way life persisted until the 1980s, but has slowly been changing over the past 20 years. Still, by and large, private property does not exist; houses belong to everyone.


Magic & Ritual

The Kabyle engage in magical ritual behavior with nature as a means of ensuring the existence of the group. For example, every October sheep are bloodily sacrificed so that the people may claim ownership over the harvest. "If they don't do that, they say the harvest is wasted," Grasshoff said.


Rituals, she said, are passed from mother to daughter. For example, the Kabyle women ritually make pots, which symbolically represents "making earth into life." Pot making is coordinated with the cycles of the seasons and the stages of the moon. Pots must dry during the summer and can be put in the kiln only when the corn is harvested, after which they are painted with magical symbols. The coordination of pot making with natural rhythms, she explained, is done to insure fertility. "If they don't carry out this activity, fertility will stop," she said.


Pot making, Grasshoff noted, serves as an activity of sympathetic magic on a number of levels. Kabyle women make pots via a magical formula that expresses unity among men and women, and among humans and the earth. "The round shape and hole of the pot," she said, "represent the vulva, thereby also unifying earth (clay) and woman. "


Textile creation, which is women's work, as well, is similarly imbued with multivalent magic. "You cross two elements and then you must cut the threads off the loom, which is like cutting the umbilical cord or cutting plants from the earth," she explained. "The women are essentially mothers of nature."


The ornamentation of ceramics and weaving constitutes a secret language among women, Grasshoff noted, for these motifs are directly related to their femininity and their fertility. "I've learned their magic script, which they put on pots and inside the walls of houses," she said. Such  sacred signs are exclusively passed from mother to daughter. Unfortunately, she noted, with French language education, knowledge of the script is steadily disappearing. (When I personally asked her whether some of the signs were similar to those appearing in the Tassili frescoes in Algeria, which may take as far back as 8000 B.C.E., she said that she had noticed some similarities, and that the question merited further research.)


The analogy between the fertility of the land and women is a strongly held one in Kabyle culture.  "A lot of magic is connected to women's belts," said Grasshoff, alluding to the fact that to Kabyle women connect the "belt" to the "womb." "The womb is considered her inner garden." Similarly, she said, a pregnant woman is seen as an inner garden, and so does not engage in field work. "To work the land while pregnant, you jeopardize the child," she said.


In order to become pregnant, women will often pray to their ancestors. Birthing rituals, Grasshoff reported, are exclusively the province of women. Birth, for them, is linked to the lunar cycle. A mother typically prays to the moon for a successful childbirth, and newborns are washed in water that has been exposed to the moon. "Men would never be present at a birth," she said, noting that when European women told Kabyle women that men are now present in Western delivery rooms, the Kabyle women scoffed, “Do you have to prove that the child came from you?” Menstruation rituals too, are secret, magical in nature, and only open to Kabyle women.


Finding the Mother in the Landscape

Another presentation of particular interest to me, given my own work with landscapes sacred to the goddess in Sicily [see "The Rape of the Lake," Goddessing issue #14, 2001], was that of Kurt Derungs, a German scholar of mythology and fairy tales. Derungs' slideshow focused on how matriarchal cultures have typically venerated various aspects of their landscapes -- such as mountains, rivers, lakes, and the hills -- as the central manifestation of their primary goddess or ancestress. Matriarchal cultures, he said, embrace a philosophy of nature as being imbued with imminent divinity. Place names and landscape names can thus provide keys for the recognition of many cultic sites and sacred places that would otherwise go unnoticed by scholars operating from a patriarchal lens.


Derungs discussed a new interdisciplinary research methodology he has been developing for the past 12 years, which he calls "landscape mythology." With this methodology, he said, one can "read a landscape like a text," gleaning important information about a region's history and local cultures’ philosophical and religious viewpoints. Underpinning landscape mythology, which draws on ethnology, archaeology, and mythology, is an understanding of “matriarchal philosophy” in which the artificial split between humans and nature, the profane and the sacred, is not present. (It is, in many ways, similar to the methodology of archeomythology developed by Marija Gimbutas). A landscape mythological approach to interpreting any archaeological site therefore pushes to the fore the characteristics of the landscape and site names as elements for cultural analysis.


Derungs explained that in matriarchal cultures, landscape is typically seen as the body of a goddess. For example, the cult mountain and lake of the Mosuo people in China are immanent manifestations of their divine ancestress. Derungs also discussed aspects of Vietnam's landscape that reveal traces of female divinities and ancestresses of the local matriarchal societies. The Mekong River, for example, is considered the "Mother of All Waters." In Northern Vietnam, the names of the rivers that ultimately flow into one another -- White, Red, and Black -- reflect the cult colors of the region's matriarchal societies and represent a triad of goddesses that are ultimately "one."


The Mekong Delta also contains a holy mountain whose name means "Black Woman," and which is adored as a holy ancestress. That veneration has continued to the present day by the Buddhists, who have established a mountain on the temple where they venerate a black stone as a dark mother. Derungs noted that the profile of the local landscape, which resembles a woman lying down with her hair flowing into the sea, is similarly venerated as a goddess. "If you can read the landscape, you see a direct analogy to the matriarchal mythology that we ordinarily can read only in texts," Derungs said.


Derungs also described a cave 50 km south of Hanoi, now occupied by Buddhists, in which stalactites are named "Mother Breast," "Milk Breast of the Mother," and "Brother of the Mother." He pointed to the fact that this latter name reflects the classical matriarchal social practice of describing all familial roles in relationship to the mother.


In Malaysia, a special island carries the name "Island of the Pregnant Woman." On that island, Derungs reported, is situated a holy lake that resembles a womb or vulva. "The local custom is that women who want to become pregnant go to the lake and drink," he said. In fact, the whole island is in the shape of a pregnant woman, and at the place of her womb, a river emerges. "The lake is the regenerative power of the ancestress," he said.


Derungs concluded by describing a natural hillock west of Zurich dating to 3000 B.C.E. that contains graves in which people were buried in fetal position. While archaeologists had trouble interpreting this discovery, Derungs said that the site’s meaning was at once illuminated when the methodology of “landscape mythology” was applied to the problem. "This hillock was a landscape of the ancestress," he explained. "Using this system of body analogy, it becomes clear that the people were put back into the womb as embryos waiting for rebirth."


During the question and answer period, one audience member commented that archaeologists typically scoff at the idea that ancient peoples could have perceived landscape forms that, in effect, require an aerial view to which they would not have been privy. I commented that such an epistemological problem could be easily solved by acknowledging that most ancient peoples probably used sacred medicines that allowed them to experience trance journeys in which they could see things not ordinarily perceptible in waking consciousness. The medicine would have given them access to “out-of-body” travel in which they could have seen their landscape from above and perceived forms and patterns in it. I noted that in reclaiming ancient women's traditions it will also be important to reclaim the use of sacred medicine as a means of gaining knowledge of the seen and unseen universes.


Sexual Freedom for China’s Mosuo Women

The intriguing Mosuo culture, which comprises some 30-50,000 people in the rice-growing region of Southwest China, was the topic of several presentations.


Ruxian Yan, professor of ethnology at the Institute of Nationality Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, explained that the social structure of the Mosuo is based on egalitarianism, but that the mother represents the "origins of life" in this society. "The female is always considered greater than the male," Yan said. This can be seen, she explained, in the fact that the Mosuo consider the sun, the larger astronomical body, to be feminine, and the moon, the lesser body, to be masculine. A larger tree will also be given the feminine name, while a smaller tree will be linked to a masculine name. "Women are very proud to be the ones in charge of the structure of the society," Yan said.


The entire Mosuo system revolves around the mother. "The mother is the most respected person in Mosuo society," Yan noted. All social problems are under her the consideration, and it is the mother's love and interpersonal skills that play a large role in keeping relations among family members and neighbors harmonious. Mosuo embrace a communal ethos in which mothers consider their siblings’ children also to be their own, and in which children, in turn, consider themselves to have multiple mothers. Property is passed down through the female line.


One of the most remarkable aspects of this society, from the modern Western perspective, is the nature of the sexual relationships between men and women. Women receive lovers in their private rooms, generally at night; by the morning, the men have returned to their own maternal homesteads. This renders love relations between men and women to be "sexual pleasure relationships only," Yan said. The women therefore have a great deal of sexual freedom and may enjoy multiple relationships at the same time. Marriage does not exist in the most traditional form of this society. Thus, unlike in the West, where the spousal relationship becomes the focus of the family unit, for the Mosuo, the mother-daughter relationship is the focal unit.


Spiritually, the Mosuo are guided by female ancestors spirits. Their two divinities of protection are the female mountain and "mother" lake of their landscape.


A Culture with Greater Psychological Well-Being

Lama Ga tusa, a Mosua himself and associate professor at the Social Sciences Research Institute of Yunnan Province in China, further discussed relational and economic patterns of the Mosuo. Because men and women spend time as lovers only during the night and in the daytime remain on their respective matrilineal homesteads, he said, "relationships between them are based on love, not on who has money, power, and connections."


Commenting in favor of the Mosuo "marriage" pattern, Ga tusa said, "How can you expect one person to fulfill all of your needs? Why do you have to get married to turn a pair of lovers into enemies? Can the love between a husband and wife ever replace the feeling between a mother, children, and other family members?"


Ga tusa further pointed out that in Mosuo culture property belongs to the family and is controlled by the mother. "So if the man and woman break up," Ga tusa said, "everything will be fine." Similarly, because children belong to the maternal family, children do not suffer when a love relationship breaks up.


Ga tusa cautioned, however, against idealizing Mosuo, as some researchers have done. "Some think that our culture is only about singing, dancing, and making love. But in fact, we have to work very hard," he said.


Ga tusa noted that Mosuo women are considered to have a much more important role in child-rearing than men. "From the beginning of the pregnancy, a man cannot get involved in the woman's life. It is forbidden for him to even show up in her house," he said. The birth of the baby is considered a sacred event at which only of women are present. However, he said, Mosuo believe that death "should not be seen by women" because it is unpleasant.


"Because Mosuo have space for their emotional and material life, and because they have a stable family structure, they are happy," Ga tusa concluded. Rape is unheard of in this culture. Autonomy is respected to such a degree, he said, that even when young people choose to leave the village for the city, the mothers do not interfere in their decisions. "They don't try to stop the children, because doing so causes conflict," he noted. Women who leave, he said, generally end up returning to the community because of the greater social status they enjoy among their own people. "Both boys and girls feel more confident about their culture when they come back home," he said.


Intrusions on Mosuo Culture

Yan briefly mentioned various cultural changes that have been imposed upon the Mosuo over the past several hundred years. With the commencement of the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), for example, a new political system brought male officials to power among the Mosuo, resulting in political office being passed down through male descendants. This practice was backed up by subsequent central governments, significantly affecting the matrilineal system of the local people. To this day, she said, the communist government is still headed by men at the local level, even though many people follow matrilineal traditions.


Eileen Walsh, a faculty member in cultural anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, noted that in the 1950s, when the Chinese government sent state ethnographers to research the Mosuo, they categorized the culture condescendingly as "a primitive matriarchy" and began to enforce rules to bring them more in line with “modern” society. The Cultural Revolution's one husband-one wife policy, for example, was enforced among the Mosuo for several decades through the threat of withholding grain rations. But since 1980s, she reported, Mosuo matriarchal practices have seen a great revival. Mosuo have obtained their own land and the freedom to return to their "visiting relations" tradition between men and women.


Nevertheless, said Walsh, the Mosuo are a society in transition, with many young people leaving the villages. The advent of tourists and media attention has also created a strange feedback loop in which the portrayed images of women being in control is actually eroding their power as men have begun to realize their differential status in comparison to the rest of China. As a result, for example, some men have refused to do field work any longer. Any families that make links to the Chinese government generally do so through the males in the family, and that, subsequently is influencing power relations, as well.


“Chopsticks Only Work in Pairs” for the Lahu

In another presentation, Shanshan Du, an assistant professor of anthropology at Tulane University, outlined four types of matriarchal societies. The most common, Du said, is characterized by "maternal centrality," which elevates the female principle over the male. This type of society does not lead to male subordination, but glorifies the female element, which is considered to hold the power of all life.  A second type of matriarchal society is characterized by "gender complementarity," in which gender equality is promoted through interdependence between sexes. Although men and women may hold sex-specific roles, such roles are equally valued, and both genders function together as complements to one another. A third type of matriarchal society operates within a framework of "gender triviality," in which gender differences are simply ignored. In such a society, both men and women may hold similar roles and engage in similar functions, such as handling all aspects of fishing or farming.


Du pointed to the Lapu people in the Tibetan Highlands of southwest China as an example of the fourth type of matriarchal society. This type, characterized by "gender unity," considers both sexes to be identical. The Lahu, she said, hold a deeply-rooted diadic world view that conceives of the ultimate divinity as a set of cross-sexed twins. Their recognition of the paired nature of divinity is translated into a social system in which marriage is valued as the highest state of being because it promotes the unity of the male and female. Identical standards are upheld for both sexes. This constellation of beliefs is embedded in their proverb, "chopsticks only work in pairs."


Among the Lahu, then, the married couple becomes a single team that jointly handles all labor and reproductive activities. Few tasks are gender-specific. Couples carry out the birthing and teaching of children together, as well as the agricultural and domestic duties. They sequentially divide property when children establish their own households. A "head" couple of the village serves as spiritual specialists, performing rituals for the entire community.


Given that Du’s paper was read in absentia, audience members lingered with questions as to whether the Lahu may, in fact, represent a society that has been moving away from more female-centered social patterns. They also wondered whether same-sex relations are sanctioned in such a society, and what happens to the property and children when Lahu couples divorce.


Juchitán -- An Alternative to Globalization

Ethnologist and sociologist Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen discussed how the Juchitán culture of southern Mexico embodies economic alternatives to globalization. In this matriarchal society of 100,000 people, where artist Frieda Kahlo has her roots, women have taken over the trade of seafood and crafts produced by their husbands. Their business efforts are driven not by the profit motive, Bennholdt-Thomsen noted, but by a desire to produce and sell quality goods. Because of women’s competent management of the local economy, the region is wealthy compared to other areas, which are plagued by poverty and malnutrition.


Juchitán culture is characterized by reciprocity, noted Bennholdt-Thomsen. Theirs is a "prestige economy" in which the more a family gives back to the community, the more respect it receives. Each family strives for the ultimate goal of becoming the patron of a large four-day festival at which merchandise, food, and plants are freely offered to the community.


Although Juchitán men handle political governance, the culture is mother-centered, with houses passed down through the mother line. "Proprietorship of the house by the mother means that the whole city belongs to women," Bennholdt-Thomsen commented. Economically, the Juchitán embrace the matriarchal practice of subsistence living.


Bennholdt-Thomsen also mentioned problems plaguing Juchitan society, such as the growing violence against women and cruelty toward animals in the marketplace. "Is not my belief that there were ideal societies, even in the Neolithic," she said. I'm against the idealization of what constitutes matriarchy. We shouldn't create a politically correct checklist."


Nevertheless, Bennholdt-Thomsen argued, matriarchal society such as the Juchitán still provide an antidote to the destruction that globalization and capitalism bring, both of which neglect values such as reciprocity and compassion. "Patriarchal society exploits the creativity of women while defining men as being exclusively creative," she said. Unfortunately, even the World Bank gives more attention to enterprises oriented toward consumption and profit, she noted, ignoring those that have to do with the care of children and people’s health. "Let's fight against the destruction of the environment. Let's activate the matriarchal principle," Bennholdt-Thomsen enjoined the audience


What About Female Rule?

One topic that was not given room for discussion at the conference was the idea of matriarchy as female rule. Given that women political, military, and spiritual leaders have been documented by historians going back to Herododus, I believe this is an important topic that belongs in the conversation about matriarchy. Historical records and recent archeological excavations confirm the existence of Amazon tribes in the Black Sea region dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages, for example. The existence of warrior queens in the British Isles going back to the Iron Age and Hellenistic period has similarly been documented. And then there are noteworthy female rulers such as Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tiye, and Cleopatra of Egypt; Semiramis of Babylonia; Makeda, or the Queen of Sheba; the “Candaces” or warrior queens of Ethiopia and Nubia; Queen Nzinga of Angola; and many of others


These facts raise important questions.  What are the ramifications of the fact that female-ruled societies may well have once existed? Should we completely eliminate consideration of this kind of structure as a social option? Is it a model that might have benefits for us? What are its positive aspects? Its pitfalls? What exactly is the role of the male in a female-led society? Is female militarism merely an unattractive product of patriarchy -- or does it reveal something essential about female nature? Does female rule inevitably degenerate into power abuses toward males? What is the relationship between female priestesshood and female leadership?


Such questions are especially pertinent given that feminist and women's spirituality groups, as well as lesbian communities, are female-headed. What lessons might we learn from our historical sisters about conducting leadership successfully today, both among our own single-sexed collectives and among the larger population?  To my mind, this is one last taboo frontier in the matriarchy question that merits further analysis and dialogue.


Who Will Take the Skein from Here?

The World Congress on Matriarchal Studies was a monumental, ground-breaking, and inspiring event whose significance will no doubt continue to be felt throughout the global feminist and women's spirituality movements for years to come. I call upon to our communities to consider hosting a second such event in the near future. Heide Gottner-Abendroth has agreed to be a consulting resource for anyone who wishes to take up the skein of yarn from here. She herself will be focusing her efforts in part on her 2004-05 Program in Modern Matriarchal Studies in Germany, which features courses that train women to become lectures in modern matriarchal studies, trainers in seasonal ritual festivals, and "priestesses of Matriarchal Mystery Festivals." (To contact Gottner-Abendroth, or for more information on this program or her organization, Academy Hagia, visit


So women, where will the Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies be?  Boston, San Francisco, Santa Fe. . .? Anyone?



Marguerite Rigoglioso is a Ph.D. student in the individualized pathway at the California Institute of Integral Studies, where she earned her master’s degree in women’s spirituality in 2001. She regularly teaches courses in women’s spirituality, religion, and the humanities at various Northern California colleges and universities. She can be contacted at