We tend to think of nature as being both brutal and patriarchal. Animals struggle to survive and mate, and we assume that means that males will dominate. But some non-human species actually have matriarchies, that work out pretty well. Here's what nature can teach us about the secrets of making matriarchy work.
Who Does What?
We know who is in charge of a matriarchal society - a female. Ah, but which female? That's the question. The two most famous and undisputed matriarchies — naked mole rats and spotted hyenas - have opposite ways of choosing their queens.
Naked mole rats have extended, and vicious, brawls to determine which animal will claim the crown. Perhaps the mole rats fight because they need the top spot more. A dominant female mole rat runs her clan the same way a queen bee runs her hive. She gets the best food and does the least work.
More importantly, she's the only one who gets to mate and reproduce. Second in rank to the queen are her chosen male mates. They have greater status than the rest of the clan. Beneath the male harem in rank are the soldiers, the biggest female rats around. As usual, on the bottom there are the workers. You do not want to be a worker. If it looks like you're going to be in a mole-rat-like society, fight like the very devil, or you'll be stuck digging tunnels for some other woman's brats.
Hyenas, and most other non-insect matriarchies, have a less totalitarian system of dominance. Their beta females can mate, can bring up their children, and can live long lives. What they gain in material options, they lose in social mobility. Spotted hyenas have royal lines. A dominant female's daughter will grow up to be the next dominant leader — a fact perhaps ensured by the precedence the dominant family takes during meals. They eat first and best. In this society, there are no chosen group of male consorts. Males often do the hunting, but the hunters rarely get a share of the kill. To keep from going hungry, male hyenas scavenge, and as often as they can, they hunt alone so they can eat what they bring down.
There is another option, and it's the one I prefer. Perhaps I'm betraying a prosaic republican soul but I shy away from a battle royale or a long-lived regal dynasty. I prefer the matriarchies that run along the lines of an ideal military.
In clans of orcas and elephants, the talented (and lucky) members rise through the ranks, gaining experience. By the time an elephant matriarch takes over the clan, she's probably the oldest and the biggest. More importantly, she knows things that other elephants don't - like where to get water, and what to do in an emergency. Whales operate the same way. In fact, orca females only take over the clan once they're past menopause, and the whole group benefits from it. If you're a killer whale, simply having an older female relative around greatly increases your life expectancy. The older your leader, the more likely she is, during a famine, to lead you on successful hunting expeditions. Age, experience, and the ability to find food - that's what makes a leader.
Who Does Who?
A better question to start this section with is, "Who does who, and why?" Motivation is more important than the simple question of partnership. Interpreted from the human point-of-view, a female chimpanzee who mates with nearly every male in the troop seems to have a lot of sexual freedom. That's not necessarily the case. Some zoologists believe that female chimpanzees will mate with many males simply to reduce the chance of any one of those males committing infanticide once the infant is born. It's not sexual freedom. It's a grim checklist.
Even in clans led by females, female sexual choice isn't guaranteed. When female elephants go into heat, males come running. Large numbers of males can be a problem for the entire troop - who have to keep them away from the beleaguered female, from the vulnerable calves, and from the herd's scarce sources of food and water. A male in musth (a hormone-driven mating cycle) is extremely hostile to other males and will fight them day and night, not pausing to eat or rest. This takes pressure off the female herd — but in return, the female has to pretty much staple herself to her guardian.
The naked mole rat, of course, has her harem, but her sexual freedom comes at the cost of every other female rat's sexual reproduction. Sexual and reproductive freedom is probably most available in hyenas. The spotted hyena has a genital set-up that is unique among animals. It may give them more choice than nearly any other animal about with whom they will have sex, and with whom they will reproduce. They have a pseudopenis; an extended clitoris through which they urinate, have sex, and give birth. In order to have sex a male has to place his penis in the pseudopenis, which is extremely difficult without her complete cooperation. Once the two have mated, the female has the option of simply peeing, and flushing out much of the male's sperm.
Female hyenas tend to mate with younger males, and males that have just joined the group. If you're running a matriarchy — let the birth control flow like water, and give women as wide a selection of male partners as you possibly can.
Won't Somebody Think of the Children?
So where do all those unattached elephant males come from? Where do the new hyena males come from? In nearly all social animals, clans are built around females. It's the males who go off into the world in search of mates. This is a dangerous time for males. A young animal in a new territory without the support of a herd is extremely vulnerable. Some males don't make it. In some cases, though, loner status can be a boon. A lone male elephant can survive on less food and water than a group of females. And if they need socialization or support, males of many different species have been known to form temporary groups. But there are also other options for how to deal with surplus males.
The first option comes from our aquatic friends, the whales. Orcas stick together. That's just what they do. Although males tend to take lower status in the group, they aren't driven out, the way males of most other species are. They live and hunt with the pod. What they don't do (for obvious reasons) is mate within the pod. When orcas are feeling frisky, multiple pods meet up and have a long, frenzied, multi-group whale-bang. If you're attached to your sons and don't want them roaming, this is one way to keep them close without getting incestuous.
Another way is to banish your daughters. This is the way its done with bonobos, the most recently-discovered matriarchy in nature. When bonobos first got to zoos, zookeepers noticed that male bonobos were frequently injured by females. Eventually they worked out that this was because they were unable to run off and hide in the trees when the females grew aggressive. Females, often in groups, rule the roost. These ruling groups are key. In bonobo society, young females go roaming and find new clans. There they curry favor with older females, working their way up the hierarchy by networking.
If they do well, their sons - not their daughters, who will be off on their own - will have higher status than other males. The male offspring of high ranking female bonobos get relatively high priority when it comes to eating, and get to mate with their mom's friends. They have to reap the benefits of their status while they're young, though. The second their mother dies they're at the bottom rung of the ladder with no way to work their way up again.
Tough break, guys.
[Sources: Secrets of the Bonobo Sisterhood, Indiana State University, Vertebrate Biology, BBC, How Do Male Elephants Interact With Other Male Elephants, The Truth About Spotted Hyenas, Among Hyenas, Females Dominate Jittery Males.]