Women’s Power

(transcript from the DVD by Max Dashu. [Additional notes appear in brackets].)

[continued from Part One]


Turtle Dancers

The Haudenosaunee, or League of the Iroquois, exemplify this integral respect for women. Their Kaianerehkowa (Great Law of Peace) states,The lineal descent of the People of the Five Nations shall run in the female line. Women shall be considered Progenitors of the Nation.  They shall own the land and the soil. Men and women shall follow the status of their Mothers.”

Barbara Mann Book Cover

This indigenous constitution gave weight to women elders, the Gantowisas, who selected male chiefs and could remove them if necessary. Seneca scholar Barbara Mann states that the men’s council could take no political action before the women’s council forwarded it over for deliberation. [She also calls the female elders “the federal reserve board” of the Six Nations, referring to the women’s control of their own quite considerable produce.]

Mosuo farmers

Out of the many mother-right societies in Southeast Asia, the Mosuo culture of Yunnan has become famous for its egalitarian gender relations

Mosuo motherkin eating together in lodge

…and a social system built around brothers and sisters living together, under the guidance of  female clan heads. The security of children is guaranteed because economic survival and shelter is not tied to love matches.


Minangkabau women of western Sumatra show a confident dignity that flows from their adat ibu, “mother tradition.” They trace descent from a First Woman, Bundu Kanduang, and remain staunchly matrilineal although they converted to Islam centuries ago. Land passes down from the mothers, and husbands come to live in their wives’ households.


Many aboriginal Vietnamese highlanders sustained matrilineal and matrilocal cultures, with customs of female courtship and gender equality. These Rhadé women pound rice outside their longhouse next to statues of an ancestral mother and brother.


The BaPende mounted images of ancestral mothers on their clan lodges in southern Congo. They belong to what has been called “the Bantu Matrilineal Belt” of south-central Africa, which stretches from Namibia and Angola to Malawi and Mozambique. [The most gender-egalitarian societies in this group are found at the eastern end of the spectrum. In the west especially, many cultures are matrilineal but patrilocal, which separates women from their kin, and the wealth they produce goes to the men and their families; if divorced, they cannot take it with them.]

Kel Tamashek/Tuareg

Travellers in the Sahara have long been impressed with the grandeur and freedom of Tuareg women. The Kel Tamashek, as they call themselves, trace descent from a common female ancestor [under various names, among them Ti-n-Hinan and Lemtuna]. Medieval Arab travelers describe them as entirely matrilineal, and some remain so today. [In Mali, the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta observed that the women of matrilineal Walata "were shown more respect than the men." This simply means that men were not placed above women.]


The Akan peoples represent a major mother-right tradition in West Africa, most famously the Ashanti of Ghana. They have parallel offices for women from the clan level to the national queens or Asantehemaa.

Wayúu (also known as Guajiras)

In Colombia, the Wayuu people live in matrilineal clans, “based on the principles of human solidarity and an alliance with nature,” as the elder Renilda Martinez says. Women play central roles as weavers, artists and shamans—las piaches.


Kuna women create intricate appliqué cloths, the economic mainstay for this matrilineal culture of coastal Panama. They have their own female councils, and some are healers and prophets. Womanhood initiations like this are important ceremonies in Kunayala.


In the southwest Pacific, the matrilineal island of Vanatinai has one of the most gender-egalitarian cultures known. They shun aggression, and social prestige goes to givers, not those who accumulate wealth.


Chamorro women on the island of Guam had very high status and authority. A husband who committed adultery was sometimes punished by the woman’s mother-kin marching on his house and confiscating his goods.

[See this great site on Chamorro culture by Chamorro people, with a wonderful video on their creation story, based on sister Fu'una and brother Puntan.]

Medieval Basque woman

Europe no longer has any full-fledged mother-right cultures, though traces remain among the Basques, who tend toward daughter-inheritance and communitarian clans.

Matrilineage also survived into recent times in Spanish Galicia, and on certain Aegean islands in the Aegean sea.


In ancient Italy, the Etruscans kept the name of their motherline alongside that of the paternal kin. Greek and Roman sources were shocked at the liberty of women, who participated fully in public life, including sports.


In Yunnan, women often initiate courtship, a custom also common among aboriginal Vietnamese and Cambodians. These Lisu women are serenading potential lovers.


Assumptions about universal gender patterns break down when we look at polyandry among the Toda and other peoples. One woman taking several brothers as husbands was known in ancient India. The Pandava heroes of the Mahabharata epic were married to one woman, Draupadi.


In the Kamchatka peninsula of eastern Siberia, the matrilocal Koryak women had a form of birth control: drinking teas of konlakhin grass. Herbal contraception was also reported in Surinam, in the Pacific islands of Noumea (New Caledonia), and among the Catawbas of Carolina. [One early Russian traveler wrote that among the Koryak the shamans tended to be lesbians (koekchuch) and old women.]

Siberian tipi

Female inventors devised ways of lodging, feeding and clothing people. Siberian women used reindeer hides to make houses, clothing, packs, boots: everything in this picture except for the imported blouse.



Nentsy women erecting lodge

Women created portable lodges for nomadic lifestyles, like these Nentsy women of north Asia…

Lakota tipis
and the tipis and wigwams of North America, masterpieces of architectural design. These Lakota women made their homes and all their furnishings with buffalo leather.

Turkic woman setting up yurt

The beautiful yurts and gers of central Asia efficiently protect against cold with the insulating properties of felt--another female invention made by boiling, shrinking and pounding wool fibers.

Tibetan tent

In Tibet, women wove tents from yak hair; or in Arabia, from sheep and goats. In ancient times, these tents were women’s property. When an Arab woman wanted a divorce, she signaled that it was over by turning the tent around and putting her ex’s stuff out the door.


Wichita women built large houses thatched with prairie grass in for their matrilineal, matrilocal families in the plains of Oklahoma. [The Mesquakie and Ojibwa and Umatilla made domed houses covered with mats. Indian women built the vast majority of houses in North America.]

Adobe plastering

Building with adobe was women’s work in the Pueblo societies of New Mexico. So that when the Spanish came and forced the men to construct the first mission churches, people in the plaza laughed at the odd sight of males working with adobe bricks.


Women still build houses today in east Africa. Maasai women create frames by lashing saplings together

Maasai 2

Then they seal the walls with an earthen plaster. Even the men’s ceremonial enclosures are constructed by women. All over Africa, from Nubia to Botswana to Mauritania…

Burkina Faso mural

…women painted gorgeous murals on their houses in mineral pigments, red ochre and kaolin. The patterns have names and cultural significance. This compound in Burkina Faso shows an impressive fusion of architecture, sculpture and painting.

Lombok potter (Indonesia, near Bali)

Thousands of years ago, women invented pottery, which we used to cook and store food. We also discovered the biochemical technologies that make bread, cheese, yogurt, beer, and wine.

Shipibo potter

Ceramics were also important in ceremony and became a highly developed art form in which artists painted or incised sacred signs and cosmic maps, as on this Shipibo olla from eastern Peru…

Thai neolithic pots
In ancient Thailand, they painted red ochre spirals and vulvas, symbols of regeneration, on funerary vessels. [circa 2400 BCE]

Laguna pot
This ceramic art of sacred signs is still a living tradition in Laguna and other pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona.

Maricopa basketmaker, Arizona

Basketmakers also embedded culturally significant meanings into their work, which could be for special ceremonial occasions…

Aleut basketmaker, northern Pacific islands
Or for a wide range of everyday uses, from storage to cooking liquids with hot stones to divination trays, hats, and carrying containers.

Imashagh weavers (Berbers)

Weaving was another milestone of women’s craft, creating clothing, blankets, rugs, and drapes out of cotton, wool, bark, flax, nettles, and other plant fibers.

Mary Peters

The act of making cloth was sacred, and it was often used ceremonially. This woman, Mary Peters, was a leader in the revival …

Salish blanket
of Salish weaving in western Canada. In the 1700s Salish tapestries were treated as woven treasures.

Maori flaxen cloak
In New Zealand, Maori artists created patterned mantles out of flax

Arabian tapestry
And Arabian weavers made rich tapestries as draperies to divide the Bedouin tents into chambers

Ceremonial funeral cloth, Bali 
In Indonesia, women wove fine ikat cloths; this one was used in Balinese funeral rites.

Kasai velvet
BaKuba women in the Congo invented Kasai velvets, richly decorated with patterns in raffia pile.




Home | Catalog | Articles