What might a matriarchy look like?

All societies tend to be male dominated in pretty much all walks of life, such as running the government and businesses. Governments that differ widely in ideology are often similar when it comes to the subordinate roles played by women. Given that the world is not in great shape, it is natural to speculate how things might be different if women ran things. Unfortunately there are no models of such structure.

But I came across this article by Angela Saini that looks that the Mosuo, an isolated community in southwest China, that is as close to a matriarchal society as one can get, and whose lives have been described by Choo Waihong in the book The Kingdom of Women. Choo grew up in Singapore but moved in with the Musuo and has become one of them. Her background gives her the ability to compare how a female-dominated society compares with a male-dominated one.

In this small tribe on the borders of Yunnan and Sichuan, near Tibet, children live in their mothers’ homes, and women practise what has been described by observers as “walking marriage”, choosing any number of sexual partners without commitment. The tribe worships a mountain goddess, named Gemu

Once they reach puberty, girls dress in skirts, in red and pink, while boys adopt trousers. The women tend to cook, and men are chosen to do the heavy manual work, although there appears to be little division of labour beyond these jobs. Gender does matter.

Everything else bucks the norm. At birth, a child belongs exclusively to her mother’s home. She is raised there, fed there. Her name, her identity, everything, comes from this family. Because of the practice of “walking marriage”, siblings often have different fathers, but this means little since the fathers themselves live away with their own mothers. This doesn’t mean that men aren’t raising children – they’re just not always raising their own. Their primary role is in supporting those in their mother’s home, including their sisters’ offspring.

This has a profound effect on behaviour and attitudes. Choo is quick to notice just how starkly the traditional stereotype of the meek, coy Chinese woman is overturned. “The Mosuo woman positively rocks with confidence. It is not an aggressive confidence but a self assurance that comes from deep within. I see it in her tall and straight-backed gait … She even sits tall,” she writes, with a mixture of envy and awe. On a night out (and Mosuo women like to party, she adds), the girls are the ones who stride up confidently to the men, to introduce themselves and buy a round of drinks.

Mosuo women enjoy a sexual freedom unheard of in China and most other parts of the world. When she comes of age, a young woman is given her own private “flower chamber”, in which she can welcome her male consorts – as many or as few as she chooses over her lifetime. This is her choice. It’s a world, in short, in which women have true agency.

Nearly every cultural norm is reversed. Unlike in the rest of China, where the sex ratio is grossly skewed in favour of boys because of selective abortion and foeticide, the arrival of a Mosuo daughter is a cause for celebration. It means the matrilineal bloodline will continue. And Choo is astonished to find that in this community her voice is automatically respected because she is a woman – not despite it.

More than anything, her experience is a lesson in what male privilege really means. What men in her own culture take for granted, for the first time, she can, too, because the tables are turned. Choo finds herself treated in a way she has never been before, for the simple fact that she now belongs to the dominant sex.

As Saini points out, there are constraints for women here too. Traditional roles still exist for the genders except that they are switched in many areas.

Saini writes that as is the case with most formerly isolated communities, modernity brings with it greater interaction with the outside world and the Mosuo’s days are likely numbered as new roads provide greater mobility, tourism grows, and young people move away, attracted by the cosmopolitan life in bigger cities.


  1. jaxkayaker says

    Do the men have multiple partners also? It doesn’t sound as if there are pair bonds, seemingly a confounding factor in the comparison to other cultures.

  2. Mano Singham says


    I have no idea how that extraneous symbol got in! I have eliminated it. Thanks.

  3. John Morales says

    Perhaps societies need be neither patriarchal nor matriarchal.

    (It’s not like matter and antimatter!)

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