/may"tree ahr'kee/, n., pl. matriarchies.
1. a family, society, community, or state governed by women.
2. a form of social organization in which the mother is head of the family, and in which descent is reckoned in the female line, the children belonging to the mother's clan; matriarchal system.
[1880-85; MATRI- + -ARCHY]

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Social system in which familial and political authority is wielded by women.

Under the influence of Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and, particularly, the work of the Swiss anthropologist Johann Jakob Bachofen (b. 1815, Basel, Switz.
d. 1887, Basel), some 19th-century scholars believed that matriarchy followed a stage of general promiscuity and preceded male ascendancy (patriarchy) in human society's evolutionary sequence. Like other elements of the evolutionist view of culture, the notion of matriarchy as a universal stage of development is now generally discredited, and the modern consensus is that a strictly matriarchal society has never existed. Nevertheless, in those societies in which matrilineal descent occurs, access to socially powerful positions is mediated through the maternal line of kin. See also sociocultural evolution.

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▪ social system
      hypothetical social system in which the mother or a female elder has absolute authority over the family group; by extension, one or more women (as in a council) exert a similar level of authority over the community as a whole.

      Under the influence of Charles Darwin (Darwin, Charles)'s theories of biological evolution, many 19th-century scholars sought to formulate a theory of cultural evolution. The theory known as unilineal cultural evolution, now discredited, suggested that human social organization “evolved” through a series of stages: animalistic sexual promiscuity was followed by matriarchy, which was in turn followed by patriarchy. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan (Morgan, Lewis Henry), the Swiss anthropologist J.J. Bachofen (Bachofen, Johann Jakob), and the German philosopher Friedrich Engels (Engels, Friedrich) were particularly important in developing this theory.

      The consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that while many cultures bestow power preferentially on one sex or the other, matriarchal societies in this original, evolutionary sense have never existed. However, some scholars continue to use the terms matriarchy and patriarchy in the general sense for descriptive, analytical, and pedagogical purposes.

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Universalium. 2010.

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