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In an alternative world, matriarchal society is dominated in every way that women always are number 1 position, such as empress, queen, chief, etc. Men can only become the number 2: vice president, advisors, etc. You get the idea.

But there's a strange thing they practice polygyny. You would think a matriarchal society would practice polyandry. But no, only 1% have multiple husbands. Even then it's for special circumstance and high ranking and nobility do it.

In that society, 44% of people practice polygyny.

I know this isn't much. But what would be a good excuse for these practices? Excluding that men are secretly running the world.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 23 at 16:20
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    $\begingroup$ Is the population 50% male? $\endgroup$ May 24 at 20:37

16 Answers 16

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The Real Marriage is Between the "Wives"

From a genetic point of view it makes sense that only a small proportion of the males get to breed with most of the females. Namely the most genetically fit males with the greatest chance of successful offspring. The remaining males are expendable and can be used for example as soldiers without compromising the species' future.

You are asking for the social point of view. How can we have a situation where females are superior yet often share a husband? The answer is the relationship is not a collection of husband-wife unions with equal partners. Rather it is a collection of woman-woman unions, with the male serving as the second-class partner. He is a stable way for them to have children, rather than wasting energy looking for separate men, and perhaps fighting over the same man to have their separate children. Rather they will choose a man at the start as the genetic father, and that child will have several mothers.

The man is not a husband in the conventional sense of "life partner". Rather he is a designated friend-with-benefits. His position as a fellow human being might be just as high as them. But his position in the family is lower. If they want children he will be the genetic father. He might or might not help his wives raising the child, depending on what the wives want. If he displeases the wives he might be demoted and replaced.

Typically one woman will "propose" to another and the marriage between the two women is the big celebration, with the man playing only a minor role. If each woman has a man already they have to discard one of them. Sometimes neither woman has a man and they find one later.

Families with three women usually form when a two-woman household "proposes" to a third woman. This entails another marriage celebration.

Bonus: DWKrauss points out how, in this setup, there is no requirement for a sexual relationship between the wives. It is much more important to marry someone you are happy to raise children with. On that note it might be common to marry a sister or other relative, since you will have similar ideas of how children should be raised, and find a man outside the family. Genetically this is a good idea since it means the child has genetic material from both mothers regardless of who birthed it.

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    $\begingroup$ This also means the relationship between women doesn't necessitate a sexual one. You can marry your business partner, or a political rival to secure a new alliance. The personal stuff counts, not sex (although it can, it just doesn't have to.) This would be a nice social institution. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 22 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ This is how lions do it. A long term family of sisters and aunts, with the resident male possibly just passing thru. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    May 22 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ Shades of "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress". $\endgroup$ May 23 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ @ikkachu: one reason I can think of is that male lineage is considered important (this might only matter for sons), and if a women has multiple husbands, it may be impossible to figure out the actual father of any child. Maybe this one-husband-policy is enforced through laws, maybe through social pressure. $\endgroup$
    – Jasmijn
    May 24 at 12:16
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me a lot of the episode of Enterprise with that species with 3 genders, but 1 of the 3 genders just gets passed around from family pair to family pair as needed when they want to have kids. Only in this case, you'd have family pairs with the same gender and the second one possibly being passed around/replaced as needed. $\endgroup$ May 24 at 14:55
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War (and privilege)

In this society, women are the leaders, generals, strategists. Men are the front-line troops. Leaders are valuable; grunts are expendable. If a queen has the forces to win a battle decisively, well and good. But if it takes sacrificing large numbers of troops to win, she will do what is necessary.

"I poured out the blood of my armies like water." - Empress Jadis of Charn

In a warlike society with this attitude, male mortality will be higher than female mortality, leading to a population with more women than men.

Now, each woman would prefer to have her own husband, or perhaps multiple husbands. But the population imbalance makes it impossible. The nobility use their power and privilege to marry as many men as they please. Everybody else has to settle for what they can get.

In this society, the family name is passed on through the mother. As in many real-world societies, people attach great importance to keeping their family name alive through their offspring. Most women, therefore, place a high priority on bearing children, and to bear children, you need a man. Sharing a husband isn't ideal, but it's better than remaining unmarried and childless.

(It is possible to have a child without being married, but women who go this route are typically looked down upon: it implies that they are so poor they couldn't even afford to share a husband.)

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  • $\begingroup$ I'd couple this with a female-led society inevitably putting a much higher priority on reducing childbirth deaths, which was the leading cause of death in women prior to modern medicine. If they managed to make that rare, while keeping the leading cause of death in men prior to modern medicine, that might do the trick (if we ignore how Natural Selection would respond) $\endgroup$
    – T.E.D.
    May 24 at 19:44
  • $\begingroup$ This answer is so obvious that I'm very much surprised how the one above (imho quite contrived) has more votes! We must remember that polygamy benefits the women more than men in the first place, and that it's more common in places where men die in fight more than usual. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 at 14:55
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Men are deemed inferior, therefore those few decent ones which happen to be found are used to improve the species, and their only task is to fecundate as many women as possible.

Each chosen one is given as husband to many wives, so that their offspring can produce valuable people.

For the more technically advanced nations the man is reproduced in the same way as race horses are: their sperm is used for artificially inseminate as many women as possible, without physical intercourse. In this way, technically a man has many wives, but practically none.

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    $\begingroup$ Are they deemed inferior? We live (some countries moreso than others) under a general patriarchy and most men (specially the most staunchinly anti-feminist ones) would never say they consider women inferior. Instead, they say women are naturally more apt to certain tasks, such as the beloved and much respected (by them) position of "mothers". Your last paragraph veers too much into antifeminist paranoia - you seem to think that women do not like men, or heterosexual sex, and they would only want men for their sperma, but nobody has ever proposed substituing women for blowjob machines. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 24 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Clarification: I'm not accusing you of sexism, L.Dutch. ;) Just noting that this answer of you goes too far away from its initial assumption of "matriarchy with poligyny". $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 24 at 13:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft As far as I can see, L.Dutch is simply portraying a possible setup for a civilization. If things are asymmetric where you live in one way, that does not mean that an asymmetric civilization which favors women will be a mirror image of it. History has a LOT of examples of what unequal societies can look like, and many have been far more unequal than just about anything you will find in the world today. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 25 at 19:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I don't think this is a bad answer (I haven't downvoted it), but I find it subpar for the general high-quality answers L.Dutch usually provides. I find the chain of thought "matriarchy = feminism = feminazis = man-hating women" troubling. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 26 at 6:27
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft I admit, this is a less flushed out answer then L.Dutch normally posts, but the OP goes beyond just saying women have most positions of power, he says "matriarchal society is dominated in every way that women always are number 1 position". There is a cultural difference between places where positions of power are normally being held by a gender (like the US Senate) and always being held by a gender (like the Roman Senate). This difference infers that tho OP is not referencing modern feminism, but something more like a role-reversed Rome where one gender was openly called inferior. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 26 at 13:49
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The best of the best

Although it's easy to think from a human society perspective, there can be cultural differences in a human like society that request different ways to mate. One way this can be different is the drive of women to get the very best.

The woman are choosing for the male, not the male for the women. It is accepted for the male to have sex with multiple woman, as it creates the best offspring. Depending on the society there can be a lot of subtle differences. There can be protectionism of the male, where the women that mate with the male decide if he can have more and who can be added to the group. There can be a free for all, allowing any woman to choose that husband. The woman can also have a tight bond between anyone who has chosen the same husband.

The importance here is choice. Societies can look a lot like each other, but differ in how the mates are chosen. In the above examples the men are completely left out. In our own patriarchal society however you do see that women can still choose a lot themselves in many societies. Even in some harem situations, although rare. A matriarchal or patriarchal society doesn't mean there is no agency in the non dominant sex. It just means that the dominant party often has more to say.

The woman have first say, initiating most of the romantic or reproductive relationships. That can make them dominant, even if the men can decline the advances. But if you want to drive the point home, remove all agency from the men.

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    $\begingroup$ "In our own patriarchal society" I think that the status of modern, Western society as a patriarchy vs a matriarchy is likely to be disputed. Feminists say one thing, their opponents are likely to say another. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 24 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 people discuss also about the Earth being flat or round ;). Even years ago, what most would now definitely see as patriarchal, was debated. What a society is can be changed with just a different perspective. My perspective is that most western societies are definitely still patriarchal on the sexual front, which this answer is mostly about. An opinion, but I think an answer can have some opinions to them. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 24 at 6:17
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    $\begingroup$ @nick012000 Western society as a patriarchy or a matriarchy is disputed just like racism against blacks in the USA is disputed: white supremacists think that, in any case, white people is the one being oppressed and the rest of the people who are not insane think otherwise. Women status is slowly improving all over the world, sure enough. It only highlights how far we're yet. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    May 24 at 13:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft I don't think it's really disputed that feminists have been a dominant political force in the Western world for 20 years at the very least. Just look at all the big businesses that openly support feminist and LGBT causes. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 24 at 22:59
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There are hardly any males.

It is an accident of the genetics of this population. Male babies are very rare. Perhaps there is one for every 40 or 50 female babies. Males are so rare that there is not a specific male gender, gender meaning the cultural construct. This society definitely has culturally defined roles because that is what makes us human. But there are none that correspond to chromosomes - genetic males are considered to be the same as the females, except there is one thing that they can do that the females can't, and sometimes they do it.

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  • $\begingroup$ In that case u can't handle them as expendable units, and it would most likely lead to opposite situation $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    May 22 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ While this explains polygyny, it makes the #2 position for males impossible: Men are too rare and too precious. If there is only 1 male per 40-50 women men are most likely to be raised as spoiled and heavily protected individuals that are pretty much locked inside to avoid losing them. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    May 22 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ @Otkin Rarity doesn't have to imply they would be valued more by society. The rarity of males might be due to selective abortion or infanticide, because male children are deemed less valuable to that society. Note that you'd only need about a 2:1 ratio for all or most males to have 2 female partners. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    May 23 at 9:20
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    $\begingroup$ Doing some quick arithmetic, if you want 44% of women to share a male partner with one other woman, and the rest of the women have an exclusive male partner, then you want about a 5:4 ratio - close enough to 1:1 that you might not even notice without doing a census, and this would mean aborting about 1 in 5 male fetuses. For comparison, in 2005 in China there was about a 6:5 ratio of male to female births partly as a result of the one-child policy. This ignores same-sex relationships; you could have the numbers closer to even if men are more likely than women to choose a same-sex partner. $\endgroup$
    – kaya3
    May 23 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @kaya3 Your reasoning is not wrong, but it does not apply to Willk's scenario. They suggest a situation where one of the necessary for reproduction sexes is extremely rare. $\endgroup$
    – Otkin
    May 23 at 18:56
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Rapid population growth.

Men and women play an asymmetrical role in reproduction: men make their contribution at conception and then are largely superfluous outside a support role, while women are biologically committed throughout the pregnancy (and even beyond, e.g. nursing) and are unable to begin another until the last one is finished. Because of this, men are capable of producing children MUCH faster than women: a man with 10 wives can have 10-20 kids per year, while a woman with 10 husbands can still only have 1-2 kids per year.

If this society has a desperate need to grow its population as quickly as possible, either to recover from some massive catastrophe or out of a need to fill newly-acquired territory, it might make sense to pair politically, socially, religiously, or biologically important men with many women, to produce children as quickly as possible. The only requirement would be a reason why some men are more valuable (or available) than others, to explain why a symmetrical 50/50 population leads to an asymmetrical marriage arrangement.

The nature of the population crisis and the male selection process could be anything, but for a few examples:

  • The world is ravaged by a virulent disease which only some people are immune to. Facing a downward spiral of population size, the High Priestess has allowed individual men with immunity to be "shared" by multiple women from important families that need to produce heirs who can survive into adulthood.
  • After discovering the Hyperspace Network, the United Federation of Women have begun sending colony ships to habitable worlds. For efficiency, each ship carries 1,000 women as the primary crew, and 50 men to ensure viable population growth for the new colony. After a few generations the gender ratio will naturally even out, but for now each man will be required to impregnate multiple women in order to reach a self-sustaining population size.
  • After a devastating war that saw over half the young men die on the battlefield as grunts for their ambitious female commanders, the Empress has declared that each remaining man must take at least two wives to ensure the next generation and secure the future of the Empire.

In every case, socially-inferior men are being paired with multiple female partners, all in pursuit of rapid population growth.

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They evolved differently and have fewer men (a variation of Willks answer).

Our society has about 50/50 births of men and women. By the time puberty is over there are somewhat more women than men due to the high mortality rate of male puberty. Subsequently a large portion of men take one woman to be with and the remainder (tries to) have offspring with the "extra" women.

Your society is matriarchal, their structure could have changed to reflect this. If women can "share" one man without the need for competition the need for men goes down. In our society the support the man gives in taking the risky food gathering and child support is a great boon in child survival. In your society the women would provide support and childcare for one another, reducing the need for men once more.

There are so few men necessary that they started being born in lower and lower numbers.

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Men are like slaves

(there are real-world societies that work somewhat like that, but in reverse)

Men are expensive.

Wealthy women have a lot of them and use most of them as a workforce.

Less wealthy women have one (the official norm, but not really a frequent occasion) or just own "shares" of one.

Or they have none.

Renting men is common and there is a competitive market of attractive men that are seen as a status symbol.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 Interestingly, that has some similarity with the demographics of real polygamous societies: wealthy old men have a handful of wives, and therefore there aren't enough wives for every man. The solution of men sharing wives isn't unheard but uncommon, although the quite equivalent solution is men marrying older and women becoming widow and remarrying several times in their life. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    May 24 at 17:47
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Men do all the lethal work.

They fight as soldiers, they work with dangerous chemicals, they tot around bales on the wharf and get thrown in and drown -- etc. etc. Now, while the vast majority of people who die on the job are male in our society, perhaps there are particular reasons why jobs are so much more lethal in theirs. Perhaps there is large scale warfare, or relentless fights with monsters, or contaminated lands that still must be used.

Additionally, women want only excellent men to father their children. This gives the men a powerful motive to take on risky jobs to show their skills and their courage.

Furthermore, the one set of women who get no benefit from a man is his family. Many of them die in their cradles, sometimes from neglect, others from malice.

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In all but the shortest-lived Utopian socialist societies, having lots of "things" is a sign of status.

In patriarchal societies, a way for a rich man to display his power/wealth/virility is to practice polygamy. This "works" because one man can impregnate a lot more women than women can bear and raise children.

So... why would a matriarchal society practice what seems to be a sign of patriarchy? Because men are still men: bigger, stronger, more violent. Thus, to pacify them, the matriarchy decided:

  1. practice polygyny to keep the men happy, and
  2. kill the weak baby boys, so that there wouldn't be an excess of men unable to find a mate.
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Hypergamy.

In the real world, it is widely attested that many women prefer a man who is "higher up" than they are: physically, socially, monetarily, and intellectually; this is called "hypergamy". You can see this reflected in things like the marriage choices of men and women with university degrees vs those without (women with university degrees marry "down" much more rarely than men with them do); IIRC there have also been studies that (heterosexual) women in modern Western societies tend to have more sex than (heterosexual) men do, because many of the high-status men have sex with lots of women, while the low-status men have little or no sex. It has been argued in various Red Pill/manosphere venues that the revealed preference of sexually-liberated women is for them to share high-status men, rather than monopolizing a low-status man.

I've seen it argued that this occurs because of reasons of evolutionary psychology; because of the biology of pregnancy and the heavy costs it imposes, it's in a woman's best interests to obtain the best genes available, to ensure the survival of their offspring - and that because the women who acted this way got a relative advantage over those who didn't, their genes became more likely to propagate.

Naturally, this social structure creates a large underclass of sexually-frustrated men, which in turn results in social instability that has been argued to result in patriarchal societies with monogamous marital norms having a competitive advantage over those societies that stray from this norm; those that strayed from it and remained relatively stable have typically been in situations where low-status men might be funneled into the military, where they might be able to hope to acquire foreign war-brides (though this is unlikely in a female-dominated society where kidnapping foreign women is likely to be frowned upon).

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    $\begingroup$ "IIRC there have also been studies that (heterosexual) women in modern Western societies tend to have more sex than (heterosexual) men do" Maybe you mean the percentage of sexually-active women is higher? For strictly heterosexual populations, it would seem that the occurrence of sex among men and women is exactly equal by definition (and, thus, that the average number of sexual encounters among men and women are roughly equal, to the extent that the populations of adult men and women are roughly equal.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    May 25 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ @reirab That's only true if the distributions are the same. If there's a uniform distribution of women having sex 2 times each, while the top 20% of men have sex ten times each and the bottom 80% of men have sex 0 times each, then the average woman has had sex 2 times and the average man has had sex 0 times. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 26 at 0:24
  • $\begingroup$ No, you're confusing median with mean (average.) Average (i.e. mean) is just total instances for the population divided by total population, regardless of distribution. Median is the 50th percentile. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    May 26 at 5:09
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Most of the answers here focus on choosing a partner as a genetic fitness decision. For most of human history, in most places, this has not been the primary concern of the ruling class. Consider how many noble families have resorted to inbreeding, to their great detriment, just for the sake of retaining power within their dynasty (looking at you, Habsburgs).

The rules surrounding how many partners a person can have in the ruling class is almost always an issue of power. The rules of marriage govern the production of heirs, the movement of wealth and political power. A marriage can join the wealth of two families into a powerful dynasty, or it can split up the wealth of a powerful dynasty into smaller less effective units.

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The men are the glue to alliances.

Suppose that women are the number ones, i.e., all the lords of the realm are female. So, how could Lady-Lord A and Lady-Lord B symbolically cement their alliance? The method of choice from history would be to marry their children.

However, both Lady-Lord A and Lady-Lord B could marry the same guy. Then the actual lords are united in marriage a trois, in constrast to their offspring. Furthermore, the offspring of Lady-Lords A and B would be blood-relations. (Policital) Marriages may end, but being blood-related never ceases.

The husband of Lady-Lords A and B would be a mutual super-envoy, since he has the most privileged access to both rulers.

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To eliminate the notion of fatherhood

Real power in a matriarchal society would flow from mother to daughter, and the notion of motherhood would be strong. The notion of fatherhood would be weakened by the fact that the offspring could be from any man /husband. Men would be isolated. Respected, yes, but only as individuals. Ephemeral, and heirless - not like the chain of daughters.

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    $\begingroup$ This sounds more like an argument for "why woment have multiple husbands", not "why (some) men have multiple wifes". $\endgroup$ May 24 at 22:12
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Elephant-like society.

Females form closely connected pairs that raise the child elephants together (alternating their fertility periods). Few such pairs along with their children may form a large group with a strong (of course female-top) hierarchy.

Adult male elephants live either alone or in homosexual pairs of old and young.

Older males almost always have a priority in mating, so majority of the offspring for a certain span of time and areal shares the same father.

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Hive society

You could model this off the way that a beehive or any colony is set up. The vast majority of bees or ants are female, but most of them are non-reproducing workers. Only the queens are able to lay eggs and produce offspring. The male drones have basically one job, which is to seek out queens in order to mate with them. The difference between a queen and a worker is whether they are fed the royal jelly while pupating - an honor reserved for only a small percentage of eggs. The difference between male and female eggs is whether or not they have been fertilized. A queen will lay eggs even if she has not mated, but these will all be exclusively female, mostly non-reproducing workers. She can only produce male drones if she has been fertilized by a male drone. This necessitates any males to go out and seek queens, often in other hives, because they will not mate with their own hive's queen. (Even an insect will avoid incest - despite those words being anagrams...)

Now to apply this model to a humanoid society, the only change you might want to make is that with these insects, the male is generally killed and eaten after mating - you might want to skip that part, allowing these drones to travel around from queen to queen. (And in this case a queen isn't necessarily the ruler of a whole country, but merely a small group, sort of like little city-states - you might have a hierarchy of regular queens, high-queens, empresses, etc. Give them whatever names you want at varying ranks, duchess, countess, whatever.) You might also allow your males to mate with non-reproducing worker females, but this would be just for recreation and not reproduction. The point being that males would be considerably less common, and a bit of commodity, but only for the purposes of mating. The queens (by any name) are the ones in charge. Some males may be given the honor of queen-consort, mating exclusively with the highest queen in charge, but most would be free agents, consorting with multiple lesser queens (and possibly some workers on the side just for fun).

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