Worldbuilding

Creating Matriarchies

In modern times, human societies are overwhelmingly patriarchal. That creates a great opportunity for worldbuilders to make their setting stand out – it’s going to be a long time before matriarchal societies get boring. Unfortunately, many depictions of these cultures feature a simple role reversal. A matriarchy isn’t just a patriarchy with women in place of men. Here’s some guidelines that will help you build realistic matriarchies.

What is a Matriarchy?

First, we have to know what we’re talking about. Some scholars argue that egalitarian societies are actually matriarchal societies, because even if they could, women wouldn’t choose to oppress men. Others define a matriarchy as a society that is woman-centered, but not necessarily woman-controlled. They have some good points, but we’re trying to create an interesting setting. So for our purposes, I’ll define a matriarchy as a society where all else being equal, a woman will have more authority than a man. I’m also going to say this is true at all levels of leadership – from an empress all the way down to the head of a family.

The Biological Causes of Patriarchy

While many gender characteristics are arbitrary and vary from culture to culture, a few are closely tied to our reproductive differences, and lead to gender roles that are surprisingly consistent across cultures and over time.* We’re going to look at those, because they’ll tell us why rule by men is so common, and how we might tip the scales back toward women without altering everything we know about gender.

So what are these all-important differences?

Women bear children.

While men generally have little reason to say “no” when a woman wants to reproduce with them, women have nine months of inconvenience and a possibly life-threatening ordeal to look forward to. As a result, men have a much greater incentive to control women than women have to control men. Women raising children can benefit from a man’s labor and resources, but they don’t need power over men just so they have children to raise.

While you can’t change men’s incentive to control women, you can make reproductive control impossible to achieve. Creating an effective means of birth control is the first step. The more effective and universal birth control is, the less effective rape becomes as an evolutionary strategy.

A few changes to human biology can go even further. Just give women the ability to choose whether they keep, delay, or discard a potential pregnancy. Even better, you could make women infertile when they are under stress. That would make it very difficult for a man to get a woman to have his child under duress. Whatever your methods, your goal is to make pleasing women the only way that men can reproduce. That will change the balance of power dramatically.

Men are stronger and more aggressive.

During times of limited mating opportunities, men may have to engage in risky conflicts in order to reproduce. Their additional physical power and aggressiveness isn’t always bad – it makes them good protectors. But protection generally goes hand in hand with oppression. If you look at other protector/producer partnerships, you’ll find that the protector inevitably controls the producer.

In times of war and upheaval, men’s ability and willingness to fight becomes an asset to society. Warlike cultures will probably glorify men more than they would otherwise. So in a matriarchy, a long history of peace is likely.

You can also alter biology to solve this problem. Just making women and men the same size would have dramatic consequences. In animal species, the larger sex is usually more violent, and more dominant. Smaller men would be both a cause and an indicator that their role in society isn’t an aggressive one.

Magic can also even out the physical power balance between the genders. If everyone has magic, that extra male strength won’t mean as much.

Using Social Factors to Create Matriarchy

You can further incline your society toward matriarchy by devising a series of historical events that have taught the population that women, not men, will keep everyone happy, productive, and safe. The requirements for this are twofold:

  1. Men make some big screw up, and as a result many important male leaders are killed or ousted.
  2. There are women ready to fill the power vacuum. They provide a solution for the terrible screw up.

A minor example is modern day Iceland. During the global economic bubble, most of the banks in Iceland did an incredible amount of risky lending. They put Iceland on top of the financial world – until the economic collapse. When it was over, the country was in financial ruins, and the only bank left standing was the one run by women instead of men. Shortly after, the first female Prime Minister of Iceland – who was openly lesbian – was elected.

While Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time setting is not matriarchal, its history could have created a matriarchy. In that setting, every male mage went crazy and did terrible damage, and female mages saved everyone. The natural result of these events would have been greater respect for female mages, not the suspicion the books depict.

Factors That Won’t Create a Matriarchy

There are a couple of factors that seem likely to influence the balance of power between genders, but historically have not – at least not on their own:

  • The level of demand for women. When women are in high demand as mates, a bride price is offered for them. When they aren’t, the bride’s family provides a dowry. Either way, women are still treated like commodities; the only change is the wealth of their fathers.
  • The uncertainty of male parentage. While cuckolding is a problem for men, patriarchy has solutions. For one, there’s monogamous marriage. Secondly, matrilineal descent can be combined with patriarchy. For instance, a king would be succeeded by his sister’s sons rather than his own. This ensures his resources are passed to children he’s related to.

What Are Matriarchal Cultures Like?

You probably come from a culture with a lot of legends about great warriors. That’s because your culture is patriarchal. Switching to a matriarchy doesn’t mean having women warriors win glorious battles*, it means glorifying all the qualities that are strongly tied to women.

Chief among those qualities is motherhood. Even in a patriarchy, mothers often have an honored position. In a matriarchy, mothers will almost certainly dictate the law of the land. You can expect strong extended families led by a woman everyone is descended from. Leaders would likely be referred to as mothers – “Clan Mother” instead of “Clan Chief.”

There may not be marriages as you know them. Monogamous marriage – with a man and wife living together – exists primarily to allow men to care for offspring that he can be relatively sure are his. Women benefit from marriage by getting the devotion and resources of a man, but having her brother help out could serve just as well.

What’s more, mothers often prefer their sons to stick around rather then going off to marry. That’s probably why many societies with female family heads have “visiting marriages” – instead of a couple living together, the man visits the woman at her home. Generally, this is a system of serial monogamy; they split up and see other people when they want to. Any children born of the union are part of their mother’s family, and their primary male caretaker is their uncle. The father usually still plays a minor, and often ceremonial, role in their life. An unknown father would be a personal disappointment, but not something that’s culturally taboo.

If husbands and wives live together in your matriarchal culture, it will probably be matrilocal – the husband leaves his family and comes to live with his wife and her parents. In this situation, daughters would become much more valuable than sons – not just because women would be considered superior, but because they won’t leave the family when they marry.

In a matriarchal society, traditional “men’s work” would be degrading. You could even make your society vegetarian – across cultures, meat is almost always provided by men, whether by hunting or managing livestock. Perhaps your culture has a supporting belief system that states men are “unclean,” using their association with animal slaughter and warfare as a justification for oppressing them.

For any career that has significant cultural value, you can expect women to dominate. Women would be scholars, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and business leaders. Men, on the other hand, might be restricted to menial labor. If you are creating a warlike society, all the generals and higher officers would probably be women, even if the average soldier is still a man.

Men who do gain prestige would be from the most wealthy and powerful families. The only path to recognition for other men would be through their association with their notable sisters, mothers, and wives.

Choosing Gender Stereotypes

So far I’ve discussed gender characteristics that have a biological basis, and are surprisingly stable. Gender stereotypes, on the other hand, are arbitrary associations. They don’t have much basis in reality, but they are used to justify existing gender roles and the current balance of power. You’ll need some for your culture; otherwise, you’ll end up with an egalitarian society. While that would be fantastic in real life, it won’t lead to the matriarchy we’re aiming for in this post.

Here are some common types of gender associations that are completely arbitrary. Gender stereotypes always come in pairs, spreading the idea that men and women are polar opposites:

  • One gender is lustful, the other is prudish.
  • One gender is smart and wise, the other is stupid and foolish.
  • One gender is passionate, the other is logical.
  • One gender is virtuous, the other is sinful.

This may be hard to imagine, but you can make a matriarchal culture where women are believed to be lusty, foolish, passionate and sinful. Stereotypes don’t change the balance of power, they only justify it. In cases where women are given the more positive trait, it will justify why they should rule and why men must be controlled. When men are given the more positive trait, it will be used to place as much burden on them as possible – explaining why they have to devote all their time and energy to serving women.

And of course, don’t forget to give your genders contrasting hairstyles, clothing, and assigned colors. The women of your culture would be laughed at if they were ever mistaken for men.


Using a matriarchal society will mean rethinking many of the conventions you are used to. But it’s those small and interesting details that will make your world come alive.

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Comments

  1. Joab

    Thank you so much! I’m currently mulling a story set in a matriarchy so this is very timely!

  2. Saumya

    This is incredible. As a feminist and writer, I learned a lot! Thank you!

  3. Lillian Ripley

    Great post- I’d like to add some ideas that came to my mind:
    The most convincing argument I’ve heard to explain why men were sent to war and women were kept at home is that men are more expendable than women. Because one man can impregnate multiple women at the same time, losing the majority of the male population does not change how many children can be produced. In a matriarchy the disposability of men can be the driving philosophy behind using them in the militia as well as why men are valued less and subjugated by the women. Men could even be considered dead as soon as they are born.
    In nature, when the females choose their mates, it is common for only a few males to be chosen. This compounds the replaceability of men by dividing them into the valuable alpha males and the unwanted beta males.
    Even in our patriarchal culture men are still threatened by this concept of replaceability.
    An interesting product of patriarchy are all the theories and philosophies that were created to downplay or remove the woman’s role in reproduction. Aristotle posited that women supplied matter but the man supplied the soul via his semen. Spermists believed that sperm were miniature complete humans that only needed women as incubators. In a matriarchy, sperm could be viewed as nothing more than lubrication and that sex merely stimulated the women to start the pregnancy process.

    • Chris Winkle

      Great ideas! I thought about the expendability vs strength factor after reading your costuming piece, and I think it’s really two ways of looking at the same thing. Women are the limiting factor on reproduction, therefore most men are expendable, therefore they have to compete with one another to reproduce, therefore they become stronger and more aggressive in order to compete, and then all of those factors lead to them being the ones that go to war. And as you point out, a Matriarchy wouldn’t change that, men would still compete for women. Although in a patriarchy they compete by controlling women or at least trying to wear down a women’s resistance (“she’s playing hard to get”), whereas in a Matriarchy they would probably peacock in the manner of birds, hoping to impress and be selected. Being an alpha male might mean being a man who has earned the favor of women, instead of being the man who wins directly against other men.

      Great point about cultural notions of reproduction. Reminds me of the phrase “bearing his children.” Clearly patriarchal influence there.

    • Vilya

      “In a matriarchy, sperm could be viewed as nothing more than lubrication and that sex merely stimulated the women to start the pregnancy process.”

      If interested, there is a very similar example for this narrative on reproduction in The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. (http://kingkiller.wikia.com/wiki/Ademre#Sexual_beliefs_and_behavior)

  4. Kitti

    ” The more effective and universal birth control is, the less effective rape becomes as an evolutionary strategy.” THIS is basically the absolute best thing about modern society. You might think the best thing is hot water or sliced bread in a bag, but in truth, birth control and safe abortions are making life more worthwhile for everyone.

    • Kiersten

      Actually I think the best thing is plumbing and sanitation, but you’ve got a great point here too!

  5. Vilya

    Awesome writing, thank you!

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