Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession

The Rules of Inheritance

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Patrilineal societies, those that connect generations through the father’s line, dominate the world’s culture. And most sociologists would argue that we still live for the most part under a patriarchy, in which men serve as heads of almost every important social, cultural, and political institution.

But a few cultures throughout history were matrilineal and therefore connected generations through the mother’s line. These cultures included many Native Americans, certain South Americans, and the Spanish and French Basque. And although matrilineal law is not codified in the Torah, the Jewish Oral Tradition as written in the Mishnah outlines an overwhelmingly matrilineal society: a child of a Jewish mother is always Jewish, regardless of the faith of the father.

Patrilineal Succession

For most of history, patrilineal succession (a patrilyny) dominated family units. Names, property, titles, and other valuables were traditionally passed on through a male line. Females did not inherit, unless there were no male heirs. Even then, distant male relatives would inherit over close female relatives like daughters. Property passed from father to daughter indirectly, usually through dowries on a daughter’s marriage, which was paid to and came under the control of her husband or her husband’s father or another male relative.

Matrilineal Succession

In matrilineal succession, women inherited titles and names from their mothers, and passed them down to their daughters. Matrilineal succession did not necessarily mean that women held the power and property and titles. Sometimes, men in matrilineal societies were the ones who inherited, but they did so through their mother’s brothers, and passed their own inheritances along to their sisters’ children.

The Role of Women in Promoting Patrilyny

While most theorists believe that patriarchal systems came to dominate both Western and non-Western cultures through the use of force, social anthropologist Audrey Smedley’s research with the Birom people of Nigeria led her to posit that it might, in fact, be women themselves who willingly invented many features of the patrilyny.

Furthermore, she argues, men’s roles are actually more constricted than women’s roles, and that women have significant decision-making within such organization.

Moving Away From the Patrilyny

In many ways, modern western culture has adopted 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.

So too have various property rights laws over the past several hundred years served to diminish the control that men have over women’s inherited property and women’s right to choose who inherits their property.

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

And even if adhering to some version of Salic law has long prevented royal daughters from becoming queens regnant, many monarchies have or are beginning to abolish the strict patrilineal assumptions in inheriting royal titles and power.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession." ThoughtCo, Jun. 14, 2018, thoughtco.com/patrilineal-vs-matrilineal-succession-3529192. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2018, June 14). Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/patrilineal-vs-matrilineal-succession-3529192 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Patrilineal vs. Matrilineal Succession." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/patrilineal-vs-matrilineal-succession-3529192 (accessed June 18, 2018).