The Nuclear Family in a Matriarchal Society

by Tarun

In the mountains near Lugu Lake in the high-country of China, a phenomenal community of people exists under completely different societal norms and familial structures. The Mosuo are known to be the last true matriarchal society in existence today, and have both matrilineal and matrilocal practices. What truly make this society unique are the coming-of-age traditions of young women and men. Upon reaching maturity at 13 or 14, girls undergo a “skirt ceremony”[1] in which they are given a room with private street access. Mosuo girls have complete autonomy over who enters their “flower room”; the only strict rule is that guests must be gone by sunrise. “There is no expectation of commitment, and any child she conceives is raised in her mother’s house, with the help of the girl’s brothers and the rest of the community.”[2]. To the Mosuo people, marriage doesn’t exist, only relationships of the “visiting kind” where there is no exchange of vows, property, the care of children, or expectations of fidelity.

Communities like the Mosuo where women enjoy high status and respect are very different from many familiar Western cultures. For example, Steven Goldberg, an American sociologist and author, argues that patriarchy has and always will be the way societies are structured.[3] This male-dominated, nuclear approach to the family unit contrasts the communal approach like that of the Mosuo. Feminist anthropologists would relate these differences to the gendered natures of those societies. The ‘traditional’ nuclear American family may have a skewed gender balance leaning toward masculine authority [i.e. men supporting the household both socially and financially], and strongly associates shame with promiscuity/sexual freedom especially amongst women. The Mosuo family unit is quite the opposite and could be interpreted as having a more equal gender balance. Gender and sexuality within the community is more open than in American culture, which shows a connection between predefined constructs of the sexes and the sexual practices without the constraints of monogamy.

Practice theorists would have taken a different approach, focusing more on the matriarchal vs. patriarchal hegemonic power structures associated with the Mosuo and Western societies. Anthropologists may explain that in Western culture, infidelity within the nuclear family is a way of liberating agency in the socially acceptable structure of a monogamous, patrilineal society. The Mosuo, however, may find agency elsewhere. For example, maintaining a frequent sexual relationship with an individual is abnormal and may express love and desire for monogamy where that culturally doesn’t exist. The Mosuo, a deeply complex culture, give Western anthropologists across fields a unique picture of what a liberated American culture might look like. With contemporary movements toward open relationships, this could be the future of the nuclear family.


[1] “Mosuo.” Wikipedia., accessed 12 November 2015.

[2] Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 128.

[3] Christopher Ryan et al., Sex at Dawn (New York: Harper Perennial, 2010), 132.

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8 Responses to The Nuclear Family in a Matriarchal Society

  1. Logan English says:

    I think this is so interesting! Especially after reading Veiled Sentiments and learning mainly about patrilineal societies, it is hard to understand this completely. I would be interested to hear more about this society and why it became the way it is. I would also be interested in hearing about how it has and will change over time.

  2. Nicole Mattson says:

    Very interesting article! I wonder how someone like Sherry Ortner who wrote the article “Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture” would respond to this paper because a lot of her research, like many feminist anthropologists of the time, worked under the assumption of universal male dominance. She concedes that male dominance is more hegemonic in the sense that there are differences found throughout different cultures and that women have some agency, but overall, to her, it seemed to be universal. Do you think that the Musuo people disprove this assumption completely?

  3. Antonio Gomez says:

    Amazing Article! I was very interested in everything you mentioned through it. I really didn’t think that matriarchal societies existed anymore at all. Coming from western cultures, this is not common at all since all of our societies are patriarchal. I definitely agree with what you mentioned related to feminist anthropology since after all our society is completely gendered, contrasting with the Mosuo community which isn’t. Men are viewed like the authority figure in most families and is it not acceptable for women to be completely open about sex. I really liked the way you used practice theory to portray how each culture practices agency. While cheating on your wife or husband may be an acceptable liberating agency in western cultures, the Mosuo may find agency somewhere else since cheating is not really a thing and they are completely open about sexual relationships.

  4. Awesome essay, I was really intrigued by the concept of the “flower room”. I had no idea that something like that was still used. Your use of feminine anthropology to discuss the assigned gender norms for the two socialites was really well done, it is indeed interesting to think what the traditional “Nuclear” american family would look like if it were more gender equal. your use of practice theory to discuss the different power struggles was also well done. Overall, great essay!

  5. Phoebe Holasek says:

    It’s so interesting to hear about cultures that, not only have the common differences like religion, or dress, but are fundamentally different in a surprisingly new way. Most people would be shocked finding out about a culture in which women (TRULY) have the sexual freedom of men. So much so that they are encouraged, and expected, to start sleeping with someone of their choice at the young age of 13 or 14! Its a stark contrast to the underlying belief in our culture that women should remain as “pure” as possible while men can go gallivanting around with whomever they like. I hope we start shifting to a culture more like this one, although I think monogamy should still be an option for women who want it, just not a necessity for sexual exploration.

  6. Johncarlos Roos says:

    Wow this is a truly eye opening piece never have I heard of anything of a place with no belief of marriage and the only type of relationship is the “visiting kind”. Personally the ritual that girls go through sounds very disturbing to me obviously but is a complete social norm within the Mosuo people which draws my attention even more. I would be very interested to one day see this group of people and how their family structure works, because I understand it is the last matriarchal society standing and obviously I have never lived a society like that growing up in the US.

  7. Kaitlin May says:

    This essay is awesome! I really liked that you went a little bit outside the box with your topic. This is also a very interesting focus because it seems like you deliberately tried to find a topic that illustrated the existence of the opposite of a widely held American belief. I think that this society would be of particular interest to Feminist theory due to their unique ideas of how gender and sexuality effect the nature of the family system. In so many societies there is hegemonic system in place that restricts women based on their ability to produce children. The Mosuo seem to embrace the power of women in this situation and elevate them because of it. Through the lens of Practice theory it is very interesting to contemplate if and how this model could work in American culture. Even though monogamy has become so socially ingrained I do not necessarily think it is a bad thing. I would like to learn more about the Mosuo to see what diverse sexual and romantic relationships develop because of the freedom their culture provides and respects.

  8. Noemi Olivas says:

    This essay was very fascinating. I had no idea this community even existed. Reading this article did make me wonder however what happens in this society if a man and woman fall in love? Are they shunned by the rest of the community or is it simply accepted? There are many aspects of this community that I find intriguing, like the skirt ceremony. Are these girls forced to participate if they don’t want to or is this ceremony something that girls grow up dreaming about (like little girls in Western society dreaming about the day they get married)?

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