Matriarchy comes from the Latin mater meaning mother (the genitive form being matris) and the Greek arkhien meaning “to rule”. A matriarchal system is one in which women, specifically mothers, rule or lead, particularly in familial, tribal, community, organizational, and societal structures. In a matriarchal system, descedancy is traced through the mother’s bloodline and one’s foremothers are revered over their forefathers.
Gynocracy literally means “ruled by women.” It derives from the Greek gynē meaning “wife” or “woman,” and the Latin cratia, from the Greek kratia meaning “strength.” Gynocracy is often used interchangeably with gynarchy.
Why are these words of significance? It’s April, no longer women’s history month, so we no longer are forced to focus on the dope shit women have done throughout history. And despite the fervor most Americans felt when Kamala was elected, the United States is a far cry from having a gynocractic or matriarchal political system. In fact, it seems that women-led societies are one of two things- reserved for fiction novels (The Tiger Flu, A Door Into Ocean) or a memory of a very distant past.
Let’s delve into the matriarchy and gynocracy of the past, particularly in Africa. Why? Because Sankofa is a guiding life principle- that is, to know your future, you must understand your past.
I recently finished a Female Monarchs and Merchant Queens in Africa by Nwando Achebe (daughter of the late-great Nigerian author Chinua Achebe) and I’ve walked away feeling more empowered as a Black woman, feeling like I can knock down patriarchal systems with a flick of my finger because the power to do so courses through my veins.
The text highlights how extensive female leadership was throughout pre-colonial Africa. Women have always held authority in both the physical and spiritual realms, which is reflected in their political systems. The spirit realm is headed by a supreme God, who is the origin of all things. The African God is all-knowing and all-powerful, but it is not necessarily male. In the Western tradition, God is identified as male, but in most African societies, God is genderless. This is made most evident via the names for God. There are several different names for God throughout Africa; Nigeria counts 512 in their country alone. For example, Chukwu is Igbo for “the creator of all things,” while the Edo call God Osanobua or “the source of all beings who carries and sustains the universe.” These names do not indicate a specific gender through gender pronouns or stereotypical gender roles. In some cases, God is perceived to be dual-gendered or a combination of female and male principles, and this is made evident via God’s name. For the Ga in Ghana, the supreme God Ataa Naa Nyonmo is a combination of Ataa (old man) and Naa (old woman), and translates to Father Mother God. The Akan, also in Ghana, call God Kwasi Asi a daa Awisi meaning “The Male-Female One.” Muskikavanhu, a Shona metaphor for God, is associated with two fire-making sticks: kusika a stick with a hole in it, and the musika is twisted in the hole until fire is made. This is said to represent the female and male reproductive organs. These metaphors of God demonstrate the African cosmological principle of duality and balancing of forces; both the female and male principles are required for God to be whole.
Some African societies refer to the supreme God as a female, such as the Tarakiri Ezon of the Niger Delta, whose God is called Tamarau, whose name means “Mother.” Or the Krobos God, in Ghana, who is called Kpetekplenye, meaning “Mother of all big and wonderful things.” Mwari, from the Shona, is the most popular name for God and has several metaphorical variants. For example, Mbuya, a VaHera substitute, means “grandmother.”
I find it interesting that Western society is grappling with gender- stereotypes, identity, expression, gender being a social construct- but the pre-colonial African worldview has historically held a high regard for women. In the physical world, women were diviners, priestesses, rain goddesses, monarchs, and market queens, wielding great influence over political and economic structures. The Sotho people of southern Africa revere the modjadji, or the Lovedu rain queen, who performs rituals to call rain. This is critical to the region’s economic sustainability, where droughts are common and can destroy harvest and grass for livestock to graze. Roughly ten Merotic queens or candances often ruled over and protected the kingdom of Kush between 260 BCE and 320 CE. Amanierenas (40–10 BCE) ruled with her husband at a time of great prosperity throughout the nation. In the 20s BCE, she fought the Romans with one eye. Market queen Mama Benz of Cotonou Benin is so named because of her wealth; she typically manages the sale of textiles, shifting from purchasing Dutch Vlisco cost to Asian- and African-made textiles. I highlight a few of the countless African women that ruled judiciously and wisely in hopes of dispelling the myth that African communities are inherently patriarchal. In other words, men don’t run the world, despite what is messgaed to them throughout society.
The most fascinating aspect of Achebe’s research is on female kings. Again, African society demonstrates its progressive thinking centuries ahead of the modern-day developed world. In Africa, gender was understood to be fluid; men can express as women and women as men. This dynamic gives us leaders such as Pharaoh Hatshepsut of Ancient Egypt, King Naa Dode Akabi of Ghana, and Ahedi Ugabe of Nigeria. And of course, Achebe tells us of King Nzingah, who fought against the Portuguese and forbade anyone to call her queen.
Although it’s no longer Women’s History Month, women have always and will continue to matter in history every day. As a Black woman, I’m honored to say I share ancestral lineage with African societies that celebrated women leaders. If you find yourself in a position to do so, give Black women leadership opportunities, knowing that it is a part of her heritage to have a positive impact wherever she stands.