This article originally appeared on Amuse.
According to Greek mythology, the Amazons were a race of warrior women who refused to live with men. So far, so sensible. In order to continue their survival, once a year the Amazons would visit the neighbouring tribe, the Gargareans, to have sex with the male inhabitants.
Once the Amazons had got what they wanted, they would discard their lover like a soggy tissue and return to their homeland – hopefully, pregnant. Nine months later, the Amazons would keep all the girl babies and either return the boys to their fathers or just leave them to die on a hillside somewhere.
For most of us, the phrase "matriarchal society" conjures images akin to the mythical sperm stealing, spear snapping, man-walloping world of the Amazons. But anthropologists are keen to stress that matriarchy is not the opposite of patriarchy. It does not mean a world where women rule over men.
Simply put, a matriarchal society is one where women are not disadvantaged by virtue of being women, where power is shared between the genders and where mothers are placed at the centre of the culture. And, believe it or not, there are still a number of matriarchal societies around the world today.
Heide Göttner-Abendroth is the leading world authority on matriarchal societies, having founded the International Academy for Modem Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality in 1986. She defines a matriarchal society as operating on four levels: economic, social, political and cultural.
Economically, matriarchal societies do not pass wealth through patrilineal lines. Rather, they share, and the matriarch of a group is responsible for distributing resources among the clan. Socially, these groups place motherhood at their centre – even the men embrace what it means to be a mother. Children are raised collectively in matriarchal groups, as everyone is their mother.
Women are not excluded from politics in matriarchal societies; instead, men and women collectively make any decisions that affect the group. And culturally, these groups worship female deities and view the natural world as female.
But what about the sex? Well, I’m glad you asked. In patriarchal societies, wealth has historically been passed down the paternal line. In order to make sure power and wealth are being passed directly from father to son, women’s sexuality and reproductive systems are rigidly controlled to ensure legitimate offspring, and female sexuality is shamed as a bad thing.
In a matriarchal society, there are no paternal lines, and as children are raised collectively it doesn’t matter who the biological father is. So, as you can imagine, sex and attitudes to women enjoying sex are vastly different from our own.
The Mosuo tribe live in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of South West China, and are often referred to as China’s last matrilineal society. Although their numbers are dwindling today, records of the Mosuo stretch back to at least 750BC, when the Chinese chronicles named their homeland as "nu kuo", or "the realm of women".
Mosuo women do not marry, take as many lovers as they wish and have no word for "husband" or "father". Lovers do not live together, but the women invite men to visit them in their dormitories at night. This arrangement is referred to as a "walking marriage" and is regarded as no one’s business but the couple involved. Walking marriages can be long term or may last just one night, but nobody would expect to only have just one such arrangement over their lifetimes.
Breaking up is equally fuss free – either the woman stops letting her lover come over or he just stops coming to see her. A significant initiation rite is a mother giving her daughter a key to her own dormitory so she can begin inviting lovers over – which certainly beats being given a copy of the Usborne Facts of Life and told to put a condom on a cucumber.
The Khasi live in North East India and number around 1 million. "Kha-si" means "born from a mother", and they have practiced matriarchy for thousands of years. The clan’s property passes from mother to daughter, children take their mother’s name and a married man will either live with his own wife in her mother’s house or he will just visit her at night to have sex. Divorce is as simple as both parties stating they don’t want to be with one another any longer. Khasi women will get through a number of husbands this way.
Although many matriarchal societies are ancient ones, there are more recent examples. In Southeast Brazil, for example, the small town of Noiva do Cordeiro is home to about 300 people, and women run everything. The town was established in 1891 when its founder, Maria Senhorinha de Lima, was exiled from her home and the church for leaving her husband to be with her lover. Branded a whore and an adulteress, Maria founded a community of women with the local sex workers who had been similarly shunned by the church. Today, the women continue to live as a commune and sell vegetables and crafts, rather than sex. Although some of the women are married, their husbands work away from the town.
The Alapine Village in Alabama is a female-only society that was founded in 1997 as a lesbian commune. Alapine was one of several lesbian communities that started life in the 1970s when a group of revolutionary women founded a camp on the beach in St Augustine, Florida. Today, Alapine Village stretches across approximately 108 acres and is home to 17 women. The residents farm the land in the day and hold regular communal activities, such as poetry readings and "full moon circles" at night. If anyone is interested, the Alapine Village is always keen for more recruits to swell their ranks – as long as they don’t have Y chromosome, of course.
Beyoncé once sang that girls "rule the world", and while that is not quite true just yet, these matriarchal societies show us that women can and do rule around the world in certain places. It is possible to build communities around maternal values that are based on need, rather than power and domination. What’s more, when women are in the driving seat, everyone lives a better life – and of course the sex is much, much better.