Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession

Glossary of Women's History

Court Records - Marriage Records, Wills
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Societies which are patrilineal define families as connecting between generations through the father’s line.  Societies which are matrilineal define families as connecting between generations through the mother’s line.

The succession of names, property, titles and other valuables in society tend to be passed on in either a female line or male line in different societies.  Patrilineal societies dominate in the world’s cultures; matrilineal societies tend to be primal societies.

Archaeological and anthropological evidence suggests that in the past, many more societies were matrilineal.

In matrilineal succession, women may inherit titles and names from their mothers, and pass them down to their daughters.  Sometimes, men in matrilineal societies are the ones who inherit, but they inherit from their mother’s brothers, and pass their own inheritances along to their sisters’ children.

In patrilineal succession, females do not inherit, unless there are no male heirs. In strict patrilineal succession, even distant male relatives inherit over close female relatives like daughters.  Property passes from father to daughter indirectly in many patrilineal societies: fathers provide dowries on a daughter’s marriage, which may then be paid to and come under the control of her husband or her husband’s father or other male relative.

Most theorists suggest that patrilineality was instituted by men overthrowing matrilineal culture.

  Patrilineal cultures tend towards assumptions that men matter more than women, and are secondary and “other.”  Patrilineal culture tends to reinforce patriarchal social organization.

In a 2003-2004 book Women Creating Patrilyny, Audrey Smedley argues that women may have defined and promoted patrilyny, by looking at West African societies.

  She argues that in patrilineal societies, men’s roles are more constricted than women’s roles are, and that women have significant decision-making within such cultural organization.

Some have observed that modern western culture is adopting more matrilineal-like structures, especially in poor communities where men are marginalized for other cultural reasons – race or immigration status, for instance.  The modern American imprisonment of a large percentage of the black male population means that many children do not have as much contact with fathers and other male relatives. Nevertheless, the overall system is still patrilineal.

Women’s property rights diminish the control that men have over women’s inherited property, or women’s right to dispose of their property by choosing who will inherit, and damper the effects on women of patrilineal succession assumptions.

In western cultures, it has become more common for women to keep their birth names after marriage; however, a substantial percentage of those women give their husband’s name to their children.

Adhering to some version of Salic law prevented royal daughters from becoming queens regnant; however, many monarchies have or are beginning to abolish the strict patrilineal assumptions in inheriting royal titles and power.