Did Matriarchy Ever Exist?


University College London

Image by Tuli Litvak

Similar to that old chestnut and rather infuriating question ‘what came first the chicken or the egg’, the realm of feminist thought has too been struggling with a speculative uncertainty: did matriarchy ever exist? And to my surprise, and contrary to linear thought, leading feminist thinkers are more opposing such reality than those standing on the less feminist bandwagon. Which led to my thinking, why wouldn’t a feminist thinker want to accept that matriarchy did exist at some point in our otherwise male-dominated history? Wouldn’t the evidence (or speculation) that women ruled prehistoric society stand as a landmark for today’s arguments and fight for equality?

The real questions might be, is there any truth in mythologies of matriarchy and what substance do such truths or myths prove for feminist theory? Anthropologist and researcher at University College London Mark Dyble said “there is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture, when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.” Dyble’s theory might be correct, and also stands at a highly gender equal stance, yet it proves precisely what feminist theorists have dismissed as ideological narratives invented simply to justify a patriarchal rule.

Author of ‘Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory’ Cynthia Eller argues that in spite of overwhelming drawbacks in facts, the myth of matriarchal societies in ancient civilization continues to thrive. And most importantly, any significant critique of this myth must be based on a clear understanding of it: who promotes it and what they stand to gain by doing so; how it has evolved and where and how it is being disseminated; and exactly what this story claims for our past and our future.

An event at UCL will look at the genetic, ethnographic, archaeological and speculative evidence of a matriarchal history and what role such theories play in the continuing fight for gender equality.