By standard definition, a matriarchy is a “family, group or state governed by a matriarch.” Anthropologists and feminists have since created more specific classifications for female societies, including the matrilineal system. Matrilineality refers not only to tracing one’s lineage through maternal ancestry, it can also refer to a civil system in which one inherits property through the matriline. This often leads to the division of such societies into matrilineal clans, or “matriclans.” Here are a few notable ones that still exist.
Living near the border of Tibet in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces, the Mosuo are perhaps the most famous matrilineal society. The Chinese government officially classifies them as part of another ethnic minority known as the Naxi, but the two are quite different in both culture and language.
The Mosuo live with extended family in large households; at the head of each is a matriarch. Lineage is traced through the female side of the family, and property passed down along the same matriline. Mosuo women typically handle business decisions and men handle politics. Children are raised in the mother’s household, and take her name.
The Mosuo have “walking marriages,” in that there is no institution and women choose their partners by literally walking to the man’s home. Couples never live together. Since the child always remains in the mother’s care, sometimes the father plays little role in the upbringing. In some cases the identity of the father is not even known. Instead, the male’s childrearing responsibilities remain in his own matrilineal household.
Living primarily in West Sumatra, Indonesia, at four million people the Minangkabau are the largest known matrilineal society today. In addition to tribal law requiring all clan property to be held and bequeathed from mother to daughter, the Minangkabau firmly believe the mother is the most important person in society.
Upon marriage, every woman acquires her own sleeping quarters. The husband may sleep with her, but must leave early in the morning to have breakfast at his mother’s home. At age 10, boys leave their mother’s home to stay in men’s quarters and learn practical skills. Men are always clan chief, but women select the chief and can remove him from office should they feel he failed to fulfill his duties.
The Akan are a majority in Ghana, where they predominantly reside. Most still adhere to the matrilineal social structure, despite pressure from the government. The Akan social organization is fundamentally built around the matriclan. Within this matrilineal clan, identity, inheritance, wealth and politics are all determined. All matriclan founders are female, but men traditionally hold leadership positions. Succession to inheritable appointments is still determined by the male’s relationships to the women in his matriclan. Often, the man is expected to not only support his own family, but those of his female relatives.
The Bribri are a small indigenous group of just over 13,000 people living on a reserve in the Talamanca Canton in the Limón Province of Costa Rica. Like many other matrilineal societies, the Bribri are organized into clans. Each clan is made up of extended family, and the clan is determined through the mother/females. Women are the only ones who traditionally can inherit land and also the only ones endowed with the right to prep the cacao used in sacred Bribri rituals.
Much like their Khasi neighbors in the North-East Indian state of Meghalaya, the Tibeto-Burman-speaking Garos pass property and political succession from mother to daughter. The youngest daughter is typically named heiress and her marriage will often be arranged. Sometimes the family may have to physically capture the future husband. Once married, the husband lives in his wife’s house. Should it not work out, the union is dissolved without social stigma. Marriage is not a binding contract, but one is expected to remarry after divorce. If a Garos woman pursues her own mate, she plays aggressor and the male demurs. Parents must still sanction the union, as any match remotely inter-clan is forbidden.
The Nagovisi live in South Bougainville, an island west of New Guinea. Anthropologist Jill Nash reported Nagovisi society was divided into two matrilineal moieties, which are then divided into matriclans. Nagovisi women are involved in leadership and ceremonies, but take the most pride in working the land entitled to them. Nash observed that when it comes to marriage the Nagovisi woman held gardening and shared sexuality at equal importance. Marriage is not institutionalized. If a couple is seen together, sleeps together, and the man assists the woman in her garden, for all intents and purposes they are considered married.