Analysis of Claimed "Nonpatriarchal Societies"

by Steven Goldberg

When I first wrote The Inevitability of Patriarchy nearly forty years ago, the social science literature (especially introductory texts) was littered with vague references of “matriarchies” and “non-patriarchal societies.” I found the evidence claimed for such societies curiously vague. In the book, and the revised and updated version, Why Men Rule (Open Court, 1993), I suggested that three institutions have been universal. I.e. there has never been a “matriarchy” or even a “non-patriarchal society” or society lacking the other two institutions I discuss below. (The evidence of a physiological reason for the male-female difference manifested in the universality is overwhelming, but that need not concern us here.).

None of the thousands of societies on which we have evidence lacks:

1. (Patriarchy) The upper positions of the hierarchies of every society are overwhelmingly filled by men. A Queen Victoria or a Golda Meir is always an exception in her society and is always surrounded by a hierarchy overwhelmingly male. (There are a very few, tiny societies with relatively little hierarchy, but in all such societies an informal male dominance plays a role similar to that of patriarchy.)

2. (Male Status Attainment) The highest-status (non-maternal) roles are occupied primarily by males. The high-status roles are high-status not primarily because they are male (ditch-digging is male), but because they have high status, which elicits from males, more strongly than from females, whatever behavior is required to attain the status. Which roles are given high status and which behavior is required to attain these roles are, let’s agree for argument’s sake, socially-determined. But the greater impulse to do whatever is necessary to attain whichever (non-maternal) roles are given high status is a function of male physiology.

3. (Male Dominance) Both men and women feel that authority resides in the male in male-female and familial interactions, and that the woman must “get around” the male to attain power. This is manifested in familial authority’s being invested in the father or mother’s brother in every society. Even when male dominance is absent from law (as in the United States) or formal custom (as in “chivalrous” societies), the expectation is still one of male dominance. This is attested to in the U.S. by, for example, the feminist’s detestation of male dominance and her incorrect attempt to explain it in purely social terms.

Attitudes concerning the desirability or undesirability of these institutions may vary greatly over time and place, but such attitudes play a minor causal role and have little effect on the presence of the institutions.

There are, of course, in many societies some women with leadership and other high-status roles, and dominance within relationships and within the family. Just as one would not deny that men are taller than woman just because some women are taller than some men, the crucial point to remember is that the empirical reality to be explained is statistical on the level of individuals and only absolute and universal on the societal level. It is on the societal level that a population’s observation of the statistical behavioral differences between males and female becomes, through a sort of social “law of large numbers,” absolute. This can, of course, lead to discrimination (exaggeration of the differences flowing from physiological differences), but the direction of discrimination is determined by physiological differences and observation and expectation of behavior rooted in them. (E.g., no society’s discrimination punishes more-aggressive men.)

Now, needless-to-say, it behooves one who has written a book titled The Inevitability of Patriarchy to demonstrate that any claimed exceptions are not exceptions. And before and after publication of the books a number of “exceptions”—societies lacking the institutions—were claimed.

Tellingly, not a single person making such a claim was a professional anthropologist; for forty years I have asked anthropologists if there was one among them who would put his or her reputation on the line and specify a society that lacked the institutions I discuss. Realizing that I would consult the original ethnographies of the societies they invoked, not one has suggested that there is such a society.

However, many bloggers, reporters, and sociologists have published “what about the XXXXX of YYYYY” claims. With each suggestion I have had to traipse down to the Research Branch of the New York Public Library and dig up the original ethnography of the latest claimed exception. (The thick dust on, say, the 1881 Proceedings of the Norwegian Anthropological Association, or whatever, made it clear that the person making the claim had never looked to the original ethnography and that the ethnography did not begin to deny the existence of the institutions I discuss.)

In my books I listed all claimed exceptions made at the time of publication, along with quotations from the original ethnographies, quotations which made it clear beyond dispute that the societies were in no way exceptions in any way relevant to the institutions .

Subsequent to the publication of Why Men Rule, further claims have appeared and I have checked them out and found them to be as lacking as the previous claims.

In some cases the claims were clearly made for ideological reasons. But in others there was a confusion about matrilineal societies, claims that confused matrilineality with “matriarchy.” While matrilineal societies often (but far from always) treat women relatively well, they do not begin to lack the institutions we discuss.

Below are the “exceptions” claimed since publication of Why Men Rule and descriptions of them from the original ethnographies. (In one case, a newspaper article, there is no ethnography, so I spoke to the anthropologist who had visited the group.

I do not address the issue of putative “ancient goddess societies”. One life has time for only so much nonsense. Other than to point out that—even if it were true that there were a prehistoric society with a female goddess as the most powerful god, a dubious claim without meaningful evidence—this would demonstrate only that religion does not determine the hierarchical system; such a society—even if it did exist—would still patriarchal. And, in any case, claims of such a society have been demolished by Philip G. Davis' Goddess Unmasked, Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of The Moon, Cynthia Eller’s The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, and the work of Robert Sheaffer. A helpful summary is Charlotte Allen’s “The Scholars and The Goddess” in the January, 2001 Atlantic Monthly.



The father is the head of the family. He is known as nokgipa (owner). He can punish any member who does something wrong. “(Pg. 57)

Women are quite excluded from village administration. A woman can never be a village headman (nokma).” Pg. 60

Institutions of The Garo of Meghalaya; M.C. Goswami and N. Majumdar (Calcutta: Nababharat Publishers)



The head of the household has numerous ritual, moral, and legal rights, he…” (Here Meek details these rights, making clear that the “head of the household” is always a male and that all political leaders are men.):

Law and Authority in A Nigerian Tribe; C.K. Meek (London: Oxford University Press, 1937 Pg. 98



A close examination of the cultural notion of men and women, and the division of gender roles, shows that the characterization of the Khasi as matriarchal is misleading. On the contrary, there are strong social pointers which show that women are considered inferior to men. In Khasi conception, men are believed to be physiologically and intellectually superior to women,. In keeping with this line of thought the Khasi not only invest jural powers in men, but also treat them as protectors of women. “

“(The word for adult male—rangbah—) projects man as a powerful being infused with high moral integrity and the physical and mental ability to shoulder the multiple responsibility of society. This stands in sharp contrast to the conceptualization of women. Women are seen ato be physically and mentally weaker than men and hence require the latter’s guidance and protection. As the “weaker sex”, women are not only expected to submit themselves to the control of the brother and mother’s brother, on the one hand, and the protection of the father and husband on the other, they are also excluded from important areas of decision making both within the family and society at large.”

Forest Societies in Asia”, Tiplut Nongri in Gender Relations in Asia; Govin Kelcar, Dev Nathan, Pierre Walte (Eds) Pgs. 238-240



A PBS program’s promo (but not the program itself) termed the Trobriand Kiriwani group a “matriarchy.” The anthropologist in the program was Annette Weiner. Elsewhere Weiner writes the following about the Kiriwani:

Political Organization. Each ranking matrilineage is controlled by a chief but the highest-ranking chief is a member of the tabalu matrilineage and resides in Omarakana village. The most important chiefly prerogative is the entitlement to many wives. At least four of each wife's relatives make huge yam gardens for her and this is the way a chief achieves great power. But if a chief is weak, he will have difficulty finding women to marry. The villagers of all the islands elect councillors who are members of the Kiriwina Local Government Council. Chiefs sit at the Council of Chiefs, and the Omarakana chief presides over both councils. Chiefs' kula partners are the most important players in other kula communities, and chiefs have the potential to gain the highestranking shells.

Sociopolitical Organization: Each ranking matrilineage is controlled by a chief but the highest-ranking chief is a member of the tabalu matrilineage and resides in Omarakana village. The most important chiefly prerogative is the entitlement to many wives. ….The villagers of all the islands elect councilors who are members of the Kiriwina Local Government Council. Chiefs sit at the Council of Chiefs, and the Omarakana chief presides over both councils. Chiefs' kula partners are the most important players in other kula communities, and chiefs have the potential to gain the highest ranking shells. (By ANNETTE B. WEINER)




Custom recognizes the eldest brother as the real husband whose conjugal rights over the wife are supreme and superior in relation to the younger brothers.” (Pg.152)

The structure of society is through and through feudalistic with the different strata of the social pyramid marked out. At the apex is the gyalpo, the lineal descendant of the monarchs who once ruled the land. Around him cluster his collaterals, scions of the social royal dynasty who all together form the social dynasty. (Pg. 153)”

Ladakh; Shridhar Kaul (emphasis added)

"As Angchuck is the oldest brother, he is the head of the household” Page 55

"Men tend to hold the public positions and often sit separately from from women" Pg. 68

"Undoubtedly monks rank higher than nuns in the formal hierarchy. Pg. 69

Ancient Futures: Learning from The Ladakh; Helena Norberg-Hodge

San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991



Men are associated with strength and courage…husbands inevitably precede their wives.”

Families of the Forest: The Matsigenka of The Peruvian Amazon; Alan W. Johnson (Berkeley: University of California Press) 2003 Pg. 92


Mbuti (Bambuti)

Ema (mother) is associated with love (ekondi); eba (father) is associated with authority (mota).” (Pg. 287)

Basically, men hunt and...organize the molimo festivals. The women gather vegetable foods... “(Pg. 151)

...the hunters may be considered the political leaders of the band” (Pg. 127)

Turnbull, Colin, Wayward Servants (Garden City New York: The Natural History Press, 1965) page 271:

There is a slight danger of my appearing to be a rather mixed-up male/female chauvinist., for it is by contrast with my own society that I see womanhood among the Mbuti accorded such great prestiege and infinite respect. I think that would be putting it too strongly for the Mbuti. I have no doubt whatever in my mind that (the Mbuti) equate womanhood with motherhood.”

Colin Turnbull, “Mbuti Womanhood” in Frances Dahlberg (Ed.), Women The Gatherer (New Haven: Yale University Press, Pg.s 218-219.



“…There is obviously no doubt that (women) are subject to a great deal of male control… In the eyes of the law, a woman is looked upon as a minor.”

The Mende of Sierra Leone by K.L. Little (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1951 (Pg. 163)

“…in its broad outlines, the role assigned to women in (the Mende’s polygynous) soeiety is one of obedience and subservience to her husband…”

Representing Women: Sande Masquerades of The Mende of Sierra Leone; Phillips, Ruth B., (UCLA Fowler Museum, 1995) Pg. 45



An article in the Los Angeles Times spoke of an isolated Buddhist group in China, the Mosuo, in which women received considerably better treatment than in the non-Buddhist groups surrounding them. As is often the case, the article was increasingly misrepresented by one Internet source after another until the Mosuo were being presented as a “matriarchy”.

It took a lot of searching, but I got the number of Namu, the Mosuo woman whose research was misrepresented on the internet and managed to negotiate the Chinese phone system. We had a nice conversation, the gist of which is this:

She laughed when I said that some Internet folk had referred to the Mosuo as a "matriarchy." "How could we be a matriarchy. We're Buddhist and the religious leaders are all men. There's no other government. Men's and women's roles are a lot like when I lived in San Francisco. Compared to the non-Buddhist groups around us, women have a good position, but nothing (an American) would find unusual.”

Namu has written notes about the Mosuo, but at this point they are available only at the China Exploration and Research Society in Hong Kong. It's hoped that these will be translated into English, but Namu emphasized the bureaucratic and financial difficulties and an English version, indeed any published version, will not likely be available soon.

There is no ethnographic work on the Mosuo.



The Nagovisi believe that the husband must dominate the woman in domestic matters and that she ought to defer to him….Most women in Nagavisi defer to their husbands.”

Matriliny and Modernisation: The Nagovisi of South Bougainville; Jill Nash (New Ginuea Research Bulletin; Canberra, New Guinea, Australian National University, 55, Pg. 64


NAYAR (Nair)

The Karanvan (mother’s brother) was traditionally unequivocal head of the group…He could command all other members, male and female, and children were trained to obey him with reverence. “

E. Kathleen Gough, “The Traditional Kinship System of The Nayars of Malabar”, Social Science Research Council Summer Seminar on Kinship, Harvard University, 1954, Pg. 55)



The chiefs have their own courts…. The native administration also includes a speaker and elders. (While not so stated, it is clear from context that all of these are male.)”

The Sherbro of Sierra Leone; H.U. Hall Philadelphia: Univ. of Pensylvania Press, 1938) Pg. 2



The crux, then, of Tiwi territorial organization was not the band, but the household. A band was merely a temporary concentration in one district of semiautonomous households. which were food-collecting, living together, and sleeping together units of Tiwi life.What held the unit together was the central position and dominance of the father or husband...Pgs. 32-3)”

A large household, such as that of Ki-in-Kumi or any other big man, was a complete community in itself, with the old man as executive director. “

The Tiwi of North Australia ; C.W.M. Hart and Arnold R. Pilling, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1960) Pg.. 33



Sorcery on Vanatinai is almost entirely the province

of males” (Pg 203) (Note: Sorcery is the primary

source of high status.)

“…knowledge of sorcery is one of the primary means

by which certain men gain political ascendancy over

other men and women...” (Pg 205: )

Sorcerers on both Vanatinai and neighboring

Rossel Island are almost always male “(Pg 172)

The Vanatinai men who are known as

sorcerers are often the most influential

members of their hamlet.” (Pg 175)

And, in general:

The activities that are exclusively male...are high

in prestige, while one that is exclusively female is

very low in prestige.” (Pg 123)

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