I’ve always been fascinated by depictions of matriarchal societies in books. They’re extremely rare in our own world (if they exist at all – please let me know if you know of any), meaning they’re most often explored in science fiction and fantasy, realms where the unusual, the unique, and the impossible are common occurrences.
By matriarchy, I mean a society ruled or governed by women in a simple sense, but also a society where women’s ideas, interests, and desires are valued above those of men. It’s different from a matrilineal society, where descent follows the female line (think of how cultural Judaism is inherited from the mother). It’s quite easy for one’s family name or identity to be derived from one’s mother while still existing in a culture that values men more. A matriarchy is more complex and more comprehensive.
In fiction, a matriarchal society is a deliberate choice. Sometimes the author intends to simply explore the idea, but usually it’s used as a way to critique our own patriarchal culture. Rather than presenting the matriarchy as a utopian ideal, though, most authors choose to present it as replete with its own problems and injustices. It’s not an antidote to patriarchies, but it is a response. And within the fantasy genre, where it seems like most authors like to write not just patriarchies, but patriarchies that strip women of most of the basic rights they now have in the 20th century western world, a book with a matriarchy stands out. It’s different, it’s interesting, and it’s always discussable.
On a pure story level, though, it’s a way for female characters to have the kind of power and influence that would be nearly impossible in a realistic novel, much the same way giving a girl magical abilities does. As a teen, that’s what drove me to these kinds of stories, and I wish there were more out there geared toward the 13-18 age range. I didn’t read many YA books in this vein as a teenager. Instead, I read adult books like Melanie Rawn’s Exiles series, which features a world where women hold power due to their ability to birth children, and Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series, where powerful magical women rule over men in often terrible ways. Bishop’s series is particularly interesting to me, since it takes the commonly-accepted ideas about the differences between men and women and subverts them completely. (I like Rawn’s series, but I’m weary of books where people revere women because they can get pregnant. It’s too often used as method in our own world to reinforce the patriarchy.) Her characters exist in a necessarily violent world, as such power structures are only established and maintained through violence.
I’ve collected a few YA books featuring matriarchies below. In some of the books, the matriarchy exists as a smaller society within a larger patriarchal culture, though some of them do feature entirely matriarchal cultures. Are there any others you can think of? Even older titles are fine here, since there are so few of them. Descriptions are from Worldcat, and I’ve also provided a bit of my own commentary on some of the titles in italics.
Trial By Fire by Josephine Angelini
In her hometown of Salem, Lily Proctor endures not only life-threatening
allergies but humiliation at her first high school party with her best
friend and longtime crush, Tristan. But in a different Salem — one
overrun with horrifying creatures and ruled by powerful women called
Crucibles, she is Lillian, the strongest and cruelest Crucible …
Lily’s other self in an alternate universe where Lily suddenly finds herself. There she is torn between responsibilities she can’t hope to shoulder alone and a love she never expected. [This will be published September 2, and it should be on your radar. I’m currently reading it. It’s got a really intriguing hybrid science/magic system the likes of which I haven’t read before, and the matriarchy in the parallel world is equally unique.]
Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow
Otter is a girl of the Shadowed People, a tribe of women, and she is
born to be a binder, a woman whose power it is to tie the knots that
bind the dead–but she is also destined to remake her world.
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
In a Brazil of the distant future, June Costa falls in love with Enki, a
fellow artist and rebel against the strict limits of the legendary
pyramid city of Palmares Três’ matriarchal government, knowing that,
like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die. [The matriarchy here is so detailed and so believable. Like the power dynamic in our own patriarchy, it’s simply taken for granted that the women rule and the boys die to make it so. I read this one for the Cybils (it was our winner) and it’s probably the best example I’ve read of a matriarchy where the purpose isn’t the matriarchy itself – the story still reigns. Bitch Magazine has a really interesting entry in their “Girls of Color in Dystopia” series about this book that explores the society and whether or not it can be considered dystopian.]
Night Flying by Rita Murphy
As the time for her solo flight on the sixteenth birthday approaches,
Georgia begins to question the course of her life and her relationships
with the other women in her unusual family. [This addition is courtesy of Liz Burns, @LizB.]
Prized by Caragh O’Brien
Sixteen-year-old midwife Gaia Stone is in the wasteland with nothing but
her baby sister, a handful of supplies, and a rumor to guide her when
she is captured by the people of Sylum, a dystopian society where she
must follow a strict social code or never see her sister again. [I only have vague memories of reading this, but I do remember that Sylum is very matriarchal, not the world at large.]
Epitaph Road by David Patneaude
In 2097, men are a small and controlled minority in a utopian world
ruled by women, and fourteen-year-old Kellen must fight to save his
father from an outbreak of the virus that killed ninety-seven percent of
the male population thirty years earlier. [I haven’t read this one, but I’d be really interested to know just how utopian the world really is. I’m super wary of this kind of setup – has anyone read it who can weigh in?]
Sister Light, Sister Dark by Jane Yolen
Tells of the coming of the White Queen –of deception, and war, and the changing face of history. [This is clearly quite vague. I got this title from kind Twitter respondent Stephanie Appell, @noseinabookgirl. I haven’t read it, so I don’t know the specifics of the culture represented.]
I’ve also read that the House of Night series by P. C. and Kristin Cast feature matriarchal societies, but I’m not sure how. If you’ve read them, perhaps you can weigh in. I also feel like there might be some historical fantasy – or perhaps simply historical fiction – out there that’s Pagan-centric and features matriarchal societies, even if they’re small ones. No YA titles come to mind, though.