The globe may well be in the grip of what philosopher and economist Genevieve Vaughan denounces as “unworkable, uncompassionate hypermasculine values gone mad” (Vaughan 2005). To anyone who has not been completely programmed, numbed, or lulled to sleep by the self-preserving machinations of patriarchy, it should be clear that “rule by the fathers” is not working. The values and behaviors that have been intrinsic to what Riane Eisler (1987, xvii) calls the “dominator” model of society have gotten the entire planet into hot water, quite literally: The rising of global temperatures, the melting of the ice caps, the gradual creeping up of sea levels, and fiercer-than-ever tropical storms are just a few of the dire consequences of political, economic, and religious decisions made by men who have become detached from Mother, be she human, planetary, or divine.
Indeed, dominator governing systems, which inherently and sometimes violently exclude the participation of women and eschew a female-oriented “ethics of care” (Gilligan 1982), have created a world in which unbridled capitalism, terrorism, warfare, environmental destruction, the decimation of indigenous cultures, threats to creaturehood (including human) posed by genetic engineering, and the specter of an all-out nuclear armageddon have already caused massive suffering and are now bringing humanity to the brink of catastrophe.
In the midst of these severe challenges, a vision of an alternative social form is emerging on the part of a growing group of scholars, artists, activists, and indigenous peoples who have persisted in living their own way of life despite the pressures of colonization, missionization, and globalization. These individuals are bringing forth the idea that matriarchy –- an age-old structure for organizing human society based on non-violence, consensus-based decision making, gender balance, and respect for nature -- may be much better for the human organism than “father rule.” As sources of wisdom and models for human communities, matriarchal societies may provide new pathways and solutions to the current world crisis.
The theoretical and action-oriented movement propelling these ideas is emerging as a new social science called Matriarchal Studies. For the past 30 years, German philosopher and social scientist Heide Göettner-Abendroth has been developing this field, naming it, formulating the theory behind it, and gathering together the thinkers and activists who have been working on it in isolated pockets around the world. Her organizing of two international conferences in this area in recent years has now given the field a sense of identity, coherence, and momentum.
The latest of these conferences took place in San Marcos, Texas, in September 2005, and marked a deepening and expansion of the dialogue begun at the first World Congress on Matriarchal Studies in Luxembourg in September 2003. The recent conference, subtitled “Societies of Peace,” was a meeting of indigenous people (mostly women) from many of the world’s still existing matriarchal societies, and researchers from dominant societies of the West, making it a truly impressive international, intercultural event. The audience was similarly diverse; some 350 people attended from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Haiti, Costa Rica, Brazil, Bolivia, Nepal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Israel, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and other countries.
The Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, held at Texas State University’s performing Arts Center September 29-October 2, was itself an example of one of the principles of matriarchy – the belief in the importance of spreading social wealth through large-scale gift giving. Co-organizer Genevieve Vaughan, director of the Center for the Study of the Gift Economy and a long-time philanthropist, financially sponsored the bulk of the conference, making it possible for participants to attend gratis and for presenters to have their transportation and lodging paid for. This allowed women from all over the world to share their wisdom, regardless of their economic status. Co-sponsors included Dr. Sandra Mayo of the Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies at Texas State, the Indigenous Women’s Network, the Institute of Archaeomythology, the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess International, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Women’s Spirituality Program of the California Institute of Integral Studies, all centered in the United States.
This article is based on my notes from a select group of presentations, namely, those made by two of the native elders in attendance from North and South America, as well as those made by several of the women and men from various regions of Africa. Due to space considerations, I have regrettably had to leave out coverage of many of the 36 presentations delivered at the conference, all of them excellent, including those from Asia, Europe, and the United States. Among the matriarchies represented that I will not cover here were the Juchitán of Mexico, the Kuna of Panama, the Shipibo of Peru, the Samoans of New Zealand, the Koisan of South Africa, the Kabyles of Algeria, the Mosuo of China, the Khasi of Northeast India, the Nayars of Kerala/Southwest India, and the Minangkabou of West Sumatra. I will conclude this article with a brief discussion of the political declaration that speakers and participants created at the end of the congress to generate concrete alternatives and practical solutions to the exploitative system of patriarchy.
Matriarchy -- A Definition Revisited
It will first be helpful to review the definition of matriarchy that Göettner-Abendroth presented at the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, which she has developed based on her thirty years of historical and ethnographic analyses of matriarchal cultures. Göettner-Abendroth, the founder of HAGIA International Academy for Modern Matriarchal Studies in Germany, stresses that matriarchies are not “a mere reversal of patriarchy, where women somehow rule over men -- as it is commonly misinterpreted.” Rather, she says, they are
without exception. . . egalitarian societies. . . . societies that are free of domination, but they still have their guidelines and codes. And this is what makes them so attractive to those looking for a new philosophy to support the creation of a just society. (Göettner-Abendroth, para. 2)
According to Göettner-Abendroth’s definition, matriarchies are characterized by specific traits at four different levels: the economic, the social, the political, and the cultural. At the economic level, matriarchal societies are characterized by reciprocity. Women have the power of distribution of goods, and matrilineal inheritance is the order of the day. The society is egalitarian and includes mechanisms for distributing wealth will to prevent goods from being accumulated by special individuals or groups. At the social level, matriarchies are matrilocal; people live together in big clans and kinship is acknowledge exclusively in the female line. At the political level, decision making is communal and consensual. Decisions begin in the clan house and are carried out to the village level via delegates, who may be the oldest women of the clans or the brothers and sons they have chosen to represent them.
On the cultural level, matriarchal societies are characterized by religions in which divinity is seen as imminent in the earth, nature, and the cosmos, and there is no separation between sacred and secular. Everyday tasks take on ritual meaning, the cycles of the seasons and other astronomical events are celebrated, and frequently the universe is conceived as a female or divine Mother. Göettner-Abendroth posits that this form of matriarchy was humanity’s original social structure, and that it has persisted into contemporary times in various in pockets around the world, albeit now in many cases with patriarchal, patrilineal, and patrilocal overlays.
The following summaries of several of the presentations at the Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies affirm Göettner-Abendroth’s definition, and offer further details about how matriarchy presently manifests in several different cultures.
Iroquoian Women Claim Political Power
Barbara Alice Mann, an elder of the Bear Clan of the Ohio Seneca, Iroquois/Haudenosaunee, and author of Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas (2000), roused the audience on the first day of the conference with her entertainingly delivered and provocative keynote speech on the Iroquoian/Haudenosaunee model of woman power. “I am continually astounded by the apparently fixed idea of even left-of-center academics that women are, by definition, a powerless group,” she began. Western feminists forget, she said, that in many Native American cultures women have long held the reins and that, in fact, the inspiration for the feminist movements in Europe and the United States were the Gantowisas, the Iroquoian/Haudenosaunee clan mothers who have politically, economically, socially, and spiritually led their people for centuries. After some one hundred years of civil war among the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee, it was the Gantowisas, she said, who were instrumental in bringing the struggle to a close by helping to codify new laws into the Iroquois Constitution in the 12th century.
Detailing some of the history of the indigenous peoples of the Ohio region, Mann noted that the culture preceding the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee, the Mound Builders, was led by an elite male priesthood that maintained power through brutality and spiritual terror. In the ninth century, she said, six families, led by women, rose up and left the culture. The clan mothers of these families replaced hunting with corn cropping as the primary means of food gathering, and established democratic governments in which women and men shared power. “These powers put women in the driver’s seat of the new League,” Mann said. Women retained the sole right to initiate issues in council, to declare war, and to select and impeach men and women for political office, among other exclusive rights.
Civil war persisted between the “Priest Way” of the Mound culture and the “Corn Way” of the matriarchal peoples of the new League until more and more individuals refused to fight and defected to the “Corn Way.” Mann spent time describing the skillful and nonviolent way in which the Jigonsaseh, or Mother of the Nations of the peoples of the Corn Way, caused the war to collapse entirely. After organizing the people of the Corn Way to gather on the shores of the lake surrounding the island of the ruling Mound priest to illustrate that he no longer stood with the people, the Jigonsaseh sent emissaries, the Peacemaker and Ayonwantha, “not to kill him, but to make him an offer he could not refuse”: he would be named First Chairman of the Men’s Grand Council if he agreed to come over to the Corn Camp. The priest accepted the role immediately. With the war now won, the Great Law was recited to all the people. “Collaboration, not domination, was the key,” said Mann, affirming the power of the matriarchy to overcome even patriarchy itself.
Had this been a European, patriarchal story, she emphasized, “Towns would have been taken, and armies slain. The winning queen’s men would have killed the losing king, with the murder celebrated in song as holy vengeance. Then, men would have taken over the new government. Later histories might briefly mention how pretty and sweet-tempered the queen was.”
Zapotecs: Respect for Women, the Earth, Community
One of the conference favorites was Doña Enriqueta Contreras, a midwife/healer from Oaxaca, Mexico, who talked about the Sierra Juarez Zapotecs of Oaxaca as a cultural matriarchy. Speaking in measured tones with grandmotherly dignity, Contreras conveyed through a translator her own experiences and wisdom as a Zapoteca shaman. The sacred ancestral law of the Zapotecs, she said, has long set out a template for matriarchal social structure by stressing reverence for Mother Nature and the ancestors, and harmony between humans and nature. “These are laws our communities have held for thousands of years in our communities, and we’re still here, despite the Spanish,” she said.
Women and men in her culture have the same rights, Contreras noted. “Mutual respect is at the heart of family for us,” she said. “We don’t have schools and are illiterate but we know our respect as mothers and we participate in the community.”
Economically, Contreras observed, the Zapotecs have an “exchange philosophy” whereby men and women must serve the community on common projects. The name of their annual festival in July literally means, “I give to you, you give to me,” and is a ritual of large-scale gift-giving. Politics and money, she said “make the soul sick.” “The poor person who works Mother Earth will not have money but will have something to eat,” she said.
Contreras ended with a warning and a call to action. “Many people are afraid,” she said. “Our actions are terrifying us. All the chemicals, the trash; we’re destroying the Earth. Let us bring ourselves to consciousness. If we start to collaborate to nourish our planet, there is still time to make changes so we do not destroy ourselves.”
Women as Leaders and Healers in West Africa
Wilhelmina J. Donkoh, a faculty member in history at the University of Ghana, talked about the Asante, one of the matrilineal Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana as a culture of cooperation, as well. Female leaders, she said, play a central role in the sociopolitical system of the Asante, but, she stressed, they do so in collaboration with men. “There is an intricate network of relationships that recognize women as central and important but acknowledge men’s role,” she said.
Asante ancestry is traced to a mother figure, which is also reflected in Asante origin stories. In one of the culture’s stories, the female foundress descends from the skies with a retinue of people and settles on the earth to populate it. In another origin account, men and women emerge from the earth and the women become founders of clans or lineages. The female-founded clan forms the basis of Asante society. Every person of the clan is seen as inheriting “blood” from the mother and “spirit” from the father. “One is always certain of the mother, but not necessarily the father,” explains Donkoh. The concept of “cousins” or “aunts” does not exist among the Asante; all women are considered mothers and all children of the clan are considered brothers and sisters. While matrilocality, or living on the mother’s homestead, is preferred, in some cases a new wife may go to live with her husband’s family.
Spiritually, the Asante acknowledge multiple levels of reality: the future spirit realm of the unborn, the present realm of the living, and the realm of life after death. Natural phenomena such as rocks, mountains, and lakes are seen to be the dwelling places of female spirits. Female deity is balanced by the presence of a supreme being who is considered male, an omniscient force that provides people with essentials such as water and sun. “Akan society is a sacred society,” Donkoh observed. “They acknowledge spirit in all they do.” Ancestors, for example, are honored through an offering of the first morsel of every meal and the first drop of every drink.
Socially, although a woman’s brothers and sons have superior claim to property, women control the resources. The fact that they are responsible for insuring the perpetuation of the lineage, Donkoh noted, grants them a strong position. Political decision making is done by consensus among men and women of an ancestral line who meet to discuss important issues. Often male representatives from the heads of lineages are then sent to local councils to represent their clan. Pointing to the complexity of the society, Donkoh noted, however, that a hierarchical system separating “royalty” from commoners does indeed exit alongside this seemingly democratic structure.
Traditionally in Asante society, both men and women serve as political leaders. The highest-level female leader is believed to be the mother of the entire society and it is she who chooses the male leadership. Although the male leader assumes the public role, the female leader serves as a behind-the-scenes advisor, and, in times of crisis, may be consulted by the male council. In general, the female leader is responsible for settling domestic affairs.
Gad Agyako Osafo, who runs an alternative healing practice in Ghana, spoke about the power of women in his society by noting that his own teacher of the healing arts was a priestess. “The women practitioners are more effective,” he stated. Midwives in his culture, he noted, are usually elderly women well-versed in plant medicine. Older women, he said, have been key in preserving the traditional healing methods against the onslaught of Western medicine – and now against attempts by Western pharmaceutical companies to appropriate indigenous plant knowledge.
Speaking of women’s reproductive customs, Osafo noted that because in Akan culture menstruating women are believed to have the power to neutralize all spirit energies except that of the supreme god, they must seclude themselves outside the house for the period of their bleeding. Men are not allowed to witness childbirth, which is considered a mystical activity. Children are thought to be incarnated ancestors, and thus Akan women are encouraged to have large families.
Stating, “Our world is not just what we can see,” Osafo echoed Wilhelmena Donkoh in affirming the Akan belief in a world inhabited by a universe of spirits. Inattention to spiritual forces is seen to result in disease in both the body and the natural environment. The Akan believe in such “supernatural” causes of disease as punishment by spirits and deities for transgressions, the withdrawal of ancestral help due to dissatisfaction with an individual, disruptions by spirits of the dead, and a person’s own thoughts. Osafo noted, however, “If God allows a disease to befall you, he also gives you an idea of where the medicine is.” The Akan thus attune themselves to the messages that they believe are available all around them.
Osafo spoke of the nurturing aspect of the matriarchal Akan tradition evident in public festivals in which communal cleansing, purification, ancestor veneration, and the solicitation of help take place. “It’s a form of group therapy for the clan,” said Osafo. “It gives you the feeling that you have people behind you who will carry you like a mother does a child.”
Female Preeminence and Complementarity Among the Tuareg
Professor Hélène Claudot-Hawad, an anthropologist in France who studies the Tuareg (Imajaghen) of the Sahara, spoke of the preeminent role of the feminine in this nomadic society indigenous to North Africa. Such preeminence, she explained, is embedded in one of the Tuareg origin stories. In this story, a “single body” encompassing “the all” descends through the void, lands on undefined space, and begins to move, leaving parts of itself behind. The first part it leaves is female, while the second part is male. Male, female, time, and space are thus created in this primordial void.
Claudot-Hawad noted that such a cosmogonic view indicates the Tuareg belief that female comes before male, that differences are essential for existence to progress, and that the parts are complementary. Always, however, “Mother is primary,” she said. All relations are seen to proceed from the female: a brother, for example, is called a “son of the mother,” and an uncle is considered a “son of the mother’s mother.” Among the Tuareg, the founding ancestors of entire groups are generally considered to be women whose husbands are unknown.
“If the Tuareg construction of the world begins with the female, life consists of plurality and diversity, a universe split along two axes, male and female,” Claudot-Hawad continued. Tuareg community thus revolves around a female inner core and an exterior of men, all of whom are united by their line of descent. Women are responsible for the domain of the tent, the Tuareg home, and serve as shining beacons to attract admirers and visitors to their realm. Men operate more in the world outside of the tent. Rivalries and tensions between the two realms are resolved through ritual and symbolic actions so that neither men nor women come to dominate the society entirely.
Fatimata welet Halatine, a schoolteacher in Mauritania, shared some of her impressions about her culture as a Tuareg woman herself. Hailing originally from Timbuktu in Mali, she explained that the name of her city, “Tin Buktu” in fact means the place of “Buktu,” a Tuareg ancestress who was a healer. Halatine told listeners that her mother came to the marriage with her father with property -- tents and livestock -- attesting to the economic empowerment of Tuareg women. Women choose their own husbands, she said, and may divorce at will.
Vestiges of Matriarchy in South Africa
In contrast to Northern and Western Africa, where evidence of past and present matriarchy is relatively robust, in South Africa the situation is somewhat different. Yvette Abrahams spoke about the difficulty in researching gender relations among South Africa’s indigenous people, the Khoekhoe (pronounced koi-koi), primarily due to a lack of ethnographic source material from recent centuries and oral history. “Here, 250 years of slavery lie like a sword between our knowledge of who we were before colonialism and who we are now,” she said. Another reason for the difficulty in teasing out matriarchal social structures is that the Khoekhoe were a classless society at the time of colonization. “This means, for instance, that there were no developed systems of chieftains and therefore no highly visible women chiefs or queens with whom the colonizers were forced to interact,” she said. “A classless society was practically invisible to the people who left written records, because they had grown up in a society where the principle of hierarchy was so ingrained as to render any other system unthinkable.”
Stating that true matriarchy doesn’t exist any longer among the Khoekhoe, Abrahams posited that any conclusions about ancient Khoekhoe matriarchy must be arrived at deductively. She discussed Cheik Anta Diop’s theory of the matriarchal origins of African society, complementing it with the “feminist update” of Diop’s work produced by Ifi Amadiume in the 1990s. Both scholars, she said, note the “internal diaspora” within Africa that began in the Greco-Roman period or earlier, when waves of patriarchal peoples began to infiltrate the continent, disrupt matriarchal ways of life, and bring with them class stratification. Vestiges of matriarchy may reside in Khoekhoe women’s knowledge of how to use indigenous plants for contraception and abortion. “We can find out quite a lot about Khoekhoe women by studying what they knew. In this way we should get a more exact picture of women’s position in Khoekhoe society,” she said.
Moving to Political Action
Given that an important stated aim of modern Matriarchal Studies is to create an egalitarian economy and a peaceful world, on the last day of the Congress speakers and participants jointly created a declaration outlining steps that may be taken to promote the reestablishment of matriarchal principles and practices worldwide. In this document, numerous participants denounced the neo-liberal globalization of the world economy as a manifestation of patriarchy that continues to erode the cultural integrity and economic well-being of existing matriarchies.
After the declaration was finished, several groups formed to take action on issues that had arisen during the congress. Groups coalesced around four themes: resistance to the building of retail chains such as Wal-Mart in indigenous communities; activism to stop the murders of women factory workers in Juarez, Mexico; efforts to transform the currently conservative political climate in the United States; and brainstorming for rebuilding the women’s movement from the perspective of Matriarchal Studies. These groups continue to communicate through the Yahoo group on Matriarchal Studies, to which many of the Congress speakers and participants have subscribed.
Both the First and Second World Congresses on Matriarchal Studies have demonstrated, contrary to what traditional academia has been professing for decades, that matriarchy exists and probably always has. The debate over “whether” is becoming more and more a moot point as indigenous peoples all over the world share information about the mother-centered, nature-respecting, peace-oriented societies in which they live. Now perhaps feminists, womanists, mujeristas, and female-affirming scholars and non-scholars alike may focus their efforts not on debates, but rather on figuring out how the principles of matriarchal societies may be revived on a large scale and put into practice. Indeed, the future of humanity may depend upon it.
Eisler, Riane. 1987. The Chalice and the Blade. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Göettner-Abendroth, Heide. 2003. “Modern Matriarchal Studies. Definitions, Scope and Topicality.” Paper delivered at the First World Congress on Matriarchal Studies, Luxembourg. September 5-7. Paper available at http://second-congress-matriarchal-studies.com/goettnerabendroth.html. (Retrieved March 1, 2006).
Mann, Barbara Alice. 2000. Iroquoian Women: The Gantawisas. New York: Peter Lang.
Vaughan, Genevieve. 2005. Untitled letter to participants of the Second World Congress on Matriarchal Studies. Congress materials handout. September 29.
by Marguerite Rigoglioso, M.A., Ph.D. student
Paper for Independent Study
Professor Charlene Spretnak, course advisor
California Institute of Integral Studies
 Some of the papers were repeated from the first World Congress and in fact I covered them in an earlier article available at http://womenvisionaries.com/Marguerite; click on “papers” and scroll down. In that article I also briefly address the issue of the controversy over the term and the concept of “matriarchy” both within the Western feminist community, and between feminists and traditional academia, which tends to deny the existence of matriarchies, past or the present.
 Thanks to Feminist International Radio Endeavor (FIRE), which broadcast the conference sessions daily, nearly all of the congress presentation may be accessed in audio format online on the Web site of FIRE (get acronym) at http://www.fire.or.cr (the site can be accessed in English at http://www.radiofeminista.net/indexeng.htm). I myself presented a paper at the Second World Congress, entitled “In Search of the Libyan Amazons: Preliminary Research in Tunisia,” but I will not discuss it is here. That paper will be published as part of the congress proceedings and is also available upon request from me at email@example.com.