What would a matriarchy look like?

While working the last two stories in the Knights and Necromancers series (stories five and six) I ran into this simple, yet complex, problem.

What does a matriarchy look like?

Or, more to the specific point I ran into with those two stories:

How would a woman from a matriarchy respond to visiting a patriarchy?

The first answer, one that serves quite well for the most part, is that she would be like any foreigner in an alien culture. Assuming that the patriarchy in question is a moderate one, closer to the Nordic countries in culture than Saudi Arabia and that the matriarchy is similarly moderate, the differences in culture, language, and traditions would probably outweigh any specific differences caused by the matriarchy versus patriarchy clash.

But that’s also a bit of a facile answer for someone like me who is prone to over-thinking everything.

Warning! The following post is going to include a lot of fantasy gobbledygook names and enough anal world-building to make your eyes glaze over. 🙂

First, some context.

In the world of the Knights and Necromancers series (Alaentera) there are a few dominant cultures.

  • The Kaden Republic which is a western-style patriarchy. Pick the gender power balance of any of the less liberal periods in any western country before the 1950s and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Their social structure is being shaken up, though, over time due to the influences of the Atani and the Raians.
  • The Atani Nations, where the stories take place, are a moderate patriarchy. They used to be much more egalitarian but have been ruled by the Kaden for several years and are beginning to pick up some of their bad habits.
  • The Corcorans. Their cultures vary wildly depending on which Immortal is in charge in each respective territory. Ranges wildly from hardcore totalitarian patriarchies to women-only islands ruled by misandrist Immortals.
  • The Raians. A loose coalition of island nations which share a common national identity, a strong relationship with one of Alaentera’s global super-powers (the Dark Tower), and a social structure that is matriarchal in varying degrees (less so in the northern islands, where things are pretty egalitarian, more so in the southern ones).

Then there are the other cultures on Alaentera which don’t feature much in the series but show that the world isn’t aligned according to a single kyriarchical model.

  • The Balan, where their God-Emperor has organised society along gender-blind eugenics-driven caste lines.
  • The Principalities which are a cluster of small nations on the Balan continent that either take up after the Balan system (caste-oriented) or the Kaden system, depending on which power has dominance.
  • The Corcoran Inland Nations. Which are just… different. Mainly because they aren’t human. They are also pretty isolationist.
  • The Islands of South Central Sea. Varies enormously from island to island.

So, we’re not talking about a single matriarchy in a patriarchal world. Other things to bear in mind that affect the picture:

  • Reliable contraception is common in Alaentera and where access is legal it is cheap and safe.
  • Magical manipulation of the human body has been practiced for thousands of years. This can make the physiological boundaries between the sexes in some cultures even blurrier than they are here in our world and can introduce other dynamics into the picture that don’t involve sex or gender..

Trying to imagine what a proper matriarchy would look like is trickier for me than you’d think, since, as a cisgendered white male, I’m going to be a bit oblivious to what it is like to be anything else. Doing so requires trying to discover some of the privileges and advantages I have.

The following strike me as possible facets of a matriarchy:

  • Property, wealth, and power is inherited along the female line first. A moderate matriarchy might let sons inherit but would still always operate under the assumption that the true authority and governance of their assets belonged to their wives, sisters, or mothers.
  • The female body would not be sexualised or objectified while the male body would be seen as fundamentally sexual and erotic, no matter what the context. The perfect female body would be a utilitarian ideal, giving priority to athletic performance and good health. The male physical ideal would exaggerate the sexualised characteristics of their body, sometimes in less than pragmatic ways. And because most parts of the male body would be sexualised, this would lead to depictions of the male body that are unrealistic caricatures.
  • The male would be seen as a fundamentally irrational emotional being, prone to outbursts and aggression, whose drives and testes-led behaviour prevented them from thinking rationally. The narrative that is used in a patriarchy to justify the actions of the privileged (testosterone, boys will be boys, etc.) would be used in a matriarchy as reasons to never give them any power to begin with.
  • Men would be cast as natural parents, that their protective nature made them prioritise their families over their careers.
  • A matriarchy that has ‘reformed’ and given males some rights, would still see a massive skew towards women in all higher offices, political appointments, and positions of power. The reason given is that men simply aren’t that interested in those positions since it would take them away from their families and that they have different priorities. Also, that they simply aren’t clever or rational enough to be able to compete with their female peers.
  • The positions of power where men gain influence are generally those whose influence is waning.
  • Most business contracts and dealings, most legal decisions and cases, will favour women over men.
  • It would be generally assumed that men don’t really enjoy sex and don’t really miss it when deprived, given the tame and lacklustre nature of their orgasm. Male sexuality would be considered to exist primarily to serve women, since, unlike men, women have proper sexual drives and experiences and suffer when deprived of sexual satisfaction.
  • A mother can choose who is supposed raise her children. If she decides to give the child to the father and walk away, the courts will force him to assume all responsibility and let her walk away with no consequences. It will be seen as natural that since the mother carried the child for nine months she should have the authority to choose which parent is ‘burdened’ by a child.
  • If a man and a woman both behave in the same identically bad manner, the man will be described as being fundamentally irrational, a ‘dog’ who is hurting everybody around him and doesn’t care about others. Most people won’t even notice or comment on the woman’s behaviour.
  • A man’s sexual availability is seen as being controlled by his sisters and mother. Even if suitors don’t have to ask them permission, they need to take care not to offend them or risk losing access to the man. This lack of control and independence is seen as protective and fundamentally to the male’s benefit.
  • Polyandry (one woman with many husbands) among the rich and influential would not be seen as unusual. If it isn’t legal then it would still be culturally codified and practiced. For example, the rich and powerful men in our culture frequently have a wife, a long-term mistress, and a series of shorter-term mistresses, each with culturally codified responsibilities and obligations towards the man. This could be seen as common law polygyny, even if it doesn’t have a legal mandate.
  • Even if it isn’t seen as normal for women to have many sexual partners throughout her life, sexual experience will never be more than a minor infraction, often seen as a sign of vitality and vigour even by those who disapprove.
  • Male on male homosexual activity would be seen as primarily being for the benefit of the female participant or spectator.
  • Female-only spaces would be seen as a natural part of society, a required part of a fully-functional social structure, while male-only spaces would be considered hostile, aggressive, and anti-social. The only exceptions are spaces that are only partially exclusive to men and are governed by women or are for the benefit of women in some way.
  • People would frequently refer to nature and human physiology to justify the status quo, no matter what the status quo actually is.

That’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure there are other likely facets.

There are two kinds of people; human beings and women. And when women start acting like human beings, they are accused of trying to be men. Simone de Beauvoir

So, how would a woman from a matriarchy behave while visiting a patriarchy? This is assuming that we’re in a world that isn’t dominated by a single kyriarchical paradigm.

She’d just probably be herself and expect others to adapt to her behaviour, especially if she is a part of a community of people from her home culture. The visiting women would find things much more grating than the visiting men, obviously.

A woman used to power and influence would be personally offended several times a day by the behaviour of the locals and would find some of the hindrances she encounters annoying and unacceptable.

Both the matriarchy visitors and the patriarchy locals would be inclined to dismiss the other as barbarians and savages.

If the matriarchal visitors feel secure in their own expatriate communities they might consider playing along with some of the local gendered roles while they’re there to be a bit of harmless exoticism. If they can easily slip back into their native kyriarchy then the power imbalances of the patriarchal roles might be seen as safe, even playful, because they fundamentally haven’t lost their privilege.

If there is a longer-term profitable cultural exchange between a matriarchy and a patriarchy they would each probably begin to make allowances for their differences. The patriarchy would essentially treat women from the matriarchy as men and the matriarchy men as effeminate and lower class. Visiting dignitaries from a matriarchy would take up local male clothes and customs while in the patriarchy, provided the male fashions in the patriarchy were sufficiently different from male clothing in the matriarchy. They won’t think of it as taking up male roles but as taking on non-gendered roles in the local culture. But since it is a patriarchy, gender-neutral is synonymous with male.

It would be simpler for a patriarchy to treat matriarchal visitors as alien non-gendered (i.e. male) beings than as human males and females, especially if treating some of the visitors in the same way they treat their local women had dire consequences such as trade disputes or even war.

The same would happen in the other direction. Provided the fashions are sufficiently different, visiting patriarchy officials would take on what they see as non-gendered roles and customs in the matriarchy, the dress and manners of those in power, but would in reality be taking on female roles, since in a matriarchy, female is the neutral gender.

I’m sure there’s more to how a matriarchy would function, especially in this context (a world of many varying kyriarchies).

Any ideas?

2 thoughts on “What would a matriarchy look like?

  1. I tend to overthink things as well, filling notebooks full of thoughts such as these. I’m commenting merely to add something I’ve thought of on this topic you might find intriguing. Many real histories involve more egalitarian societies (and many native american nations are matrilineal). The shift toward patriarchy started in many cases as a gradual devaluing of natural female contributions to society. These tended to snowball in a vicious cycle, becoming increasingly exaggerated over time, other “faults” getting added.

    I’m not saying this is always the case (a devaluing of the roles one gender typically carries), after all, gender roles are not strictly universal across all cultures anyway. However, if our history had cause to value social skill and the caring for hearth and home more than bringing home the bacon (by outside work or hunting and war), we may have shifted toward matriarchy instead. Not sure how that helps any stories, but another tangent on this topic I enjoyed exploring in my journals.

  2. Imagined fictional matriarchal societies seem to always run into the same problems again and again. Gender roles are usually simply reversed and patriarchal control mechanisms (law, fear, violence) are assumed. The whole issue of the fact that ‘cute little boys grow up to be big strong men’ is never effectively dealt with, possibly because it leads to controversy, flames, banning. You see there’s an unstated divide in the internet world between “family friendly” content and the “other” content. Discussions about matriarchy are obviously about gender roles, gender politics, and of course gender sexuality. Many people involved in fantasy are underage and therefore must be ‘protected’ from certain ideas by internet moderators. On the other side are ‘fem dom’ fantasies that aren’t designed for anything but gratification by mostly male readers. Anyone who tries to bridge that gap is attacked. This makes ‘thinking out of the box’ when it comes to a fictional matriarchy very hazardous especially if you’re writing for a general audience. I suppose that’s why so many fictional fictional matriarchies are single gender and pretty asexual to boot. It eliminates the whole messy issue about “doing what, and with which, and to whom.”

    Like you I was curious about what a matriarchy might be like and in my web browsing stumbled upon some stories that seemed to create a unique vision of a matriarchy that seemed to honestly deal with some of the issues you brought up. They’re science fiction, not fantasy but as Clark said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    To find them do an advanced Google search for the following terms: Doctor Medea Circe Kali and MotherWorld – Orientation. Use the cached feature to get to the archived stories.

    Also there is a re-written cartoon series in that same site that appears written in the the same universe. Google Re-Written Manga – Fem School to get to it. There’s also a followup cartoon called Femboy School that is widely available on the net, probably because of its ‘kinky’ content.

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