Monday, 9 June 2014

Imagining matriarchal worlds

I came across an interesting blog post on world building today. The topic was matriarchies, and how to create a believable society run by women for ones book. Though I’m not planning to write such a novel, the post triggered a few ideas of my own.

The post, Creating Matriarchies by Chris Winkle, lists various reasons for why patriarchies are prevalent. There are biological reasons for example: women bear children, which puts them in physical risk and in need of protection, and men are stronger and more aggressive. And there are cultural stereotypes that uphold the idea that a patriarchal society is better. The writer then lists various possibilities for why this state of reality might have been upturned. The reproductive system might be solely in the hands of the women, or men could be physically smaller and weaker than women, for example. Men might have caused such a screw up that their leadership would no longer be valid.

These are all interesting points. However, they all assume that you base your imaginary world on our patriarchal society. That cataclysmic changes would have to take place for a society run by women to come about. They assume that societies naturally develop into patriarchies.

But patriarchy, like all forms of society, is a cultural construct. We create it with our actions, and we uphold it by repeating the cultural conventions that made the form of governance possible in the first place. In our world, drastic changes would probably be needed for a matriarchy to happen. But you do not have to base your fantasy society on our world.

So, if you want your world to be a matriarchy, why not create a culture that naturally assumes that women are superior to men?

The reasons for why your society is matriarchal you can make up yourself – or you can choose not to give any explanations. A culture where the rule of women is commonplace wouldn’t constantly try to find reasons or justifications for it. Just like ours isn’t explaining why we live in a patriarchy. It would be a natural state of affairs.

When you imagine a society where its natural for women to be in power, you free your imagination to creating societies and worlds that are unique and fresh. You wouldn’t be bound by the notions of biological imperatives; your society would either have different imperatives, or it wouldn’t put similar store to them.

Matriarchal society could be matrilineal, the base of women’s power in accumulating inherited wealth, as the writer of the blog post suggests. He, however, notes that just because children inherit their mothers doesn’t break men’s influence over women. Roman culture is a good example of a society where children inherited their mothers and men were more likely to favour their sisters’ children than their own. But you don’t have to be bound by such ideas in your matriarchal society. Wealth might be meaningless, or if you don’t want men to interfere in the inheritance process, you don’t have to let them. Just make sure that the reasons are logical within the context of your creation.

Cultural norms and stereotypes need not be the same in your creation as ours. There need not be the idea of a weaker sex, or gendered work similar to ours. Your culture doesn’t have to repeat our notions of motherhood. The person giving birth doesn’t have to be the one to rear the children, or motherhood isn’t seen as a hindrance to participating in the society. There are tribal societies even in our world where women rule, because men are too busy to hunt for food; they don’t see the provider of food as someone who should naturally be in charge like in our society.

Rubens (1577-1640): Amazonenschlacht c. 1619.
Try to see past the stereotypes of our societies. Create your own stereotypes, should your story require them – they can be a powerful narrative tool – or do without. A great example of a society where gender lines are blurred is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. None of the characters are described by their gender attributes and everyone is referred to as ‘she’. It frees the author from the notion that genders are different or that the gender somehow dictates a person’s role in the society. The reader is left to question the importance of genders in the first place.

It is, of course, perfectly possible to create a matriarchal society that is an offshoot of our own. But why settle for that when you have the power to create something new? Think outside the box that is our world. Assume that women are in charge because they should be in charge and proceed from there. Who knows where it might lead you.


  1. Great post, Susanna. I totally agree with taking a different approach when world-building a matriarchal society. In my series, the alien species are froglike and matriarchal. It makes sense; amphibian females are often larger than males, they product all the eggs too, with many males competing. So, it was an obvious choice to develop a race where females were the head of the species. :D

    1. Thanks, Geoff. And trust you to base your alien species on frogs... ;) Sounds very interesting.