While thinking about tribal structures, and at the same time arguing against the patronizing, patriarchal vision of the future some novelists irritate and intimidate women with, it occurred to me that those of us learning neo-tribal living patterns should pay attention to how tribes dealt with key gender issues: division of work, and power.

That in turn led me to muse over how modernity has assiduously promoted “everything coed.” Until relatively recently, even within western cultures, separate men’s and women’s worlds still existed. Then, an avalanche of pressure came from all those modernizers relentlessly pushing coeducation and comingling of the sexes in work, play, and everywhere. Anything less than enforced heterosociality — constant male-female interaction in virtually all spheres of life — was decreed hopelessly old-fashioned and outmoded, even unfair. I’ve decided to give it another look.

In tribal situations women’s society and men’s society tend to remain distinct. Sometimes, there is also older children’s society as well, and room for other-gendered people. Women work and talk together, do their own rituals together, and are steeped in the lore and wisdom that women have shared from time immemorial. Their power in society derives in large part from the very fact that they have a separate vibrant culture of their own. A tribal version of “sisterhood is powerful,” if you will.

Among the Iroquois, for example, the men were hunters, warriors, and chiefs. The women were farmers, anti-social behavior watchers, allocators of common resources, and the makers and unmakers of chiefs. Each gender had its own sphere, but neither’s work was devalued, and neither was out of luck politically.

What strikes me as really important is that the insistent co-mingling of the sexes in our society has fed the gender wars — neither sex has a sphere where women can hang easy with other women, or men with men. And men and women must compete against each other economically in the increasingly vicious workaday world. No wonder we get on each other’s nerves! We’ve got to find a way to end the gender conflicts, because the resource constrained world of the future will see those come ahead who are part of effective alliances, and able to duck the efforts of the elites to “divide and conquer.” Learning from tribal knowledge that enabled women and men to live at peace with each other, cooperating successfully in times good and bad, may be crucial.

While I don’t expect that people will flock to living in matrilineal longhouses, I see a trend returning to the tribal affinity clusters of friends (both kith and kin). Blood/marriage families are unsafe for women trapped in abusive relationships and ongoing power struggles; many men are conditioned by the culture they grow up in to expect entitlements from “their” women they never would dare insist on with others. Moreover, blood families are unequal by definition; younger people are expected to defer to the authority of age, eldership, experience, convention, and property. But groups of friends are groups of equals. When groups of equals form the self-organizing foundation of society, then the larger social formations — bands, clans, tribes, as well as villages, small towns, neighborhoods — tend toward equality. If I were 20 again, this is the pattern I would choose. Husbands come and go, but good friends remain.

Women’s and men’s cultures have staged a small comeback with women’s and men’s therapy and support groups, women’s moon lodges, and men’s gatherings such as the ManKind Project. Once, there was a flurry of women’s communities, but that did not last. Perhaps militant separatism does not stand the test of time. I have followed with interest reports on a Brazilian village where the men work in distant towns during the week, and the women have formed a cooperative and run the place according to their rules. Apparently, this is a something of a trend in many rural settlements in Brazil, as government payments and land transfers go mainly to women. (The story surfaced as the crassest click-bait, the worst I have seen, of a “women-only” community looking for men. Lurid come-hither pictures taken out of context.) This village of 300 has existed as an unconventional community for over 100 years. Perhaps it gives us another model to work with… women run things in place — not the home; the entire community! — while men go out to hunt down the money. It allows for the creation of a strong women’s culture, yet also brings men and women together in a way worth celebrating.

Which brings back to mind a memorable book, Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. In this utopia/dystopia the women and their gentle men friends have pulled off a big one. Outwitting the warriors, they contained them and gained power of life and death over them. Yes, the means are underhanded and the results are tainted by the means. That part rubs many of us wrong way. But it is one of the very few realistic fictional takes on what it may require to turn society back to one that is run by “reasonable” people, after we’ve been hijacked by warmongering, egomaniacal bullies for thousands of years. Like the baboons, we must find a way to reset. We need to grow a powerful women’s culture, far more imbued with solidarity than is the case today. And we need a strong alliance of gentle(r) people of both genders, and a way to give the warriors scope for who they are while constraining their ambitions to some extent so that they stop wreaking such havoc with the planet and our human world.

Here is how one society has done it. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present the Mosuo of China, a matrilineal, agricultural, tribal ethnic group of Yunnan high country, bordering Tibet.

The Mosuo language has no words for murder, war, rape, or jealousy, and the Mosuo have no jails and no unemployment. Although the Mosuo culture is most frequently described as a matriarchal culture; it’s more accurate to refer to it as “matrilineal”. Accurately speaking Mosuo have aspects of matriarchal culture, in that women are the head of the house, property is passed through the female line, and women tend to make the business decisions. Political power, however, remains in the hands of males, creating a gender-balanced society. Mosuo women carry on the family name and run the households, which are usually made up of several families, with one woman elected as the head. The head matriarchs of each village govern the region by committee.

Probably the most famous – and most misunderstood – aspect of Mosuo culture is their practice of “walking marriages” (or “zou hun” in Chinese), so called because the men will walk to the house of their partner at night, but return to their own home, within their own tribal family, in the morning. The man will never go to live with the woman’s family, or vice versa. He will continue to live with and be responsible to his family, and the children of his sisters and nieces; she will continue to live with and be responsible to her family. There will be no sharing of property.

Among the Mosuo, since neither male nor female children will ever leave home [to marry], there is no particular preference for one gender over the other. The focus instead tends to be on maintaining some degree of gender balance, having roughly the same proportion of male to female within a household. In situations where this becomes unbalanced, it is not uncommon for Mosuo to adopt children of the appropriate gender (or even for two households to ‘swap’ male/female children).

According to patriarchal macho Argentinean writer Ricardo Coler who decided to find out what it was like to live in a non-patriarchal culture, and spent two months with the Mosuo in southern China: “Men live better where women are in charge.”


a Mosuo woman in festive garb