What’s in a matriarchy?

While doing my Anti-Caturday series, I’ve noticed a pattern; all complex societies in nature tend to be matriarchal. Apes seem to be the sole exception that proves the rule.

Taken for a Ride by Neal Sanche
Taken for a Ride by Neal Sanche

In a lot of science fiction societies are always patriarchal, whether they be so far into the future as to be unrecognizable or completely alien. I’m reading The Mote in God’s Eye (originally published in 1974) and something that’s really bothering me are the gender roles. Combat happens in space and in power-suits and yet… And yet there are no women in combat. Despite the fact that throughout history in all countries (I’m not basing this on Disney’s Mulan, by the way πŸ˜€ ) have gone to extreme lengths to join combat. Despite the fact that being discovered as a woman meant certain death. Both men and women have always done things that do not conform to rigid gender definitions. The general direction in society seems to be toward more egalitarian systems

But what would a matriarchy look like? A lot of it would most likely be patriarchy reversed; women in positions of power with the same sorts of entitlements that men enjoy today. But women as a whole are not men. There are differences even though the jury’s still out on exactly how much of that is about nature and how much of it is about nurture.

The Iroquois, surprisingly to me at least, have/had an impressively comprehensive matriarchy. For this reason I will use the Iroquois nation here as the baseline for a matriarchal society although I don’t by any means propose to be an expert.

Women of the Iroquois were in charge because women could create life. The chief and the clan mother were democratically elected but the chief could at any time be ousted by the council of womenm, leaving the chief’s sister to nominate a successor. Women took care of the tending of crops because they had power, they would have the veto vote on any law and the final word on whether the clan/nation would go to war.

The Iroquois nation also completely crushes the notion that if women were in power, there would be constant peace and never war; before 1638 the Iroquois nation lived an area that was most of the current state of New York. By the end of 1711 they had conquered and assimilated most, if not all, of the area covering the current states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. The expansion period is called the Beaver Wars. The odd and interesting thing about Iroquois combat though is that instead of slaves they adopted captured enemies as symbolic replacements of dead soldiers. And they would also work hard to assimilate conquered people, to turn them into naturalized Iroquois.

From what I can gather, family and society seem to be in a more pronounced role in the Iroquois nation than it has ever been in the Western society. The Iroquois culture was/is naturally a melting pot of many different cultures, all coming together into a cohesive whole. And that would certainly seem to be a big departure from the patriarchal expansionist cultures which have mostly been interested in homogenizing the cultures they conquered.

The thing I’m taking out of this research is that people are people, regardless of whether they have dangly or retracted bits between their legs. Women, ultimately, are no better in power than men are and we would all most likely be better off striving toward a truly egalitarian society.

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3 thoughts on “What’s in a matriarchy?

  1. I’m curious to know which “complex societies in nature” you’re referring to. I’ve studied ants, so I know that the social insect societies are extremely matriarchal, but it would it nice to hear what other examples you have in mind.

    I haven’t read about the Iroquois before; it’s nice to have a good example of a matriarchal culture for the next time I get stuck in a nature/nurture debate about gender roles. Thanks for an interesting post!

    1. From the insect kingdom of course bees, wasps and hornets come to mind. From mammals at least orcas, elephants and hyenas come to mind immediately. I’m forgetting others too. While researching orcas it just hit me that it seems like almost every time that I come across a species (other than ape) that’s remarkable for their societal behaviour, they’re matriarchal. πŸ˜€

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