Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

Appendix II. Theories of Matriarchy and Patriarchy

IN the last century, certain theories were put forward, and widely discussed, concerning the existence of matriarchal and patriarchal phases in the development of society. There is perhaps some danger that the theory outlined in this book may be regarded as simply a re-hash of these theories, with psychological trimmings, and it therefore seems advisable to draw attention to the differences. It may also be interesting to reassess these theories in the light of the knowledge we now have.

The most noticeable feature of these theories was their very sweeping character. They sought to postulate a pattern of development which would be true for every society: they constituted attempts to set up a theory of “social evolution” — an ambition obviously derived from the theories of biological evolution which were creating a sensation at the time. Thus Sir Henry Maine maintained, in his Ancient Law(1861) that the patriarchal system of authority was the original and universal system of social organization, matriarchal societies being an unstable and degraded form occurring only where women outnumbered men. In contrast, Bachofen, in his Das Mutterrecht, published in the same year, maintained that matriarchy was the original primitive stage of culture, everywhere preceding patriarchy. There was also a further difference, for Maine postulated that the earliest social unit was the family; the family had existed before tribe or nation appeared, and these had been built up by uniting families into clans, clans into tribes, and so on. Bachofen, on the other hand, postulated that before matriarchy there had been, in the history of each society, a state of sexual promiscuity, with no stable family life. Thus he saw each society as evolving through three phases, promiscuity, matriarchy, patriarchy, whereas Maine saw each society as evolving from a collection of isolated patriarchal families into a patriarchal tribe or nation, with matriarchy as a degenerate form.

Even if one knew no more than this, it would not be a very wild speculation to guess that Maine was a patrist, anxious to establish the god given character of the patriarchal family, and that Bachofen was a matrist concerned to show that the father’s had supplanted the mother’s authority.

Actually, Maine’s desire to prove the rightness of the existing social and family structure is very obvious; and in the discussion which followed, the question of the origin of marriage became a major focus of interest.

As will be seen, both these theories shared the assumption that societies do in fact pass through a series of stages, and that these stages are the same for all societies; they differed only about the nature of the stages. Today, this is widely regarded as a false assumption and no less an authority than Professor Gordon Childe has sought in his Social Evolution (1951) to prove that it is false. As the reader will realize, the theory put forward in this book is not a theory of social evolution, designed to account for the whole development of society. And, since it shows societies passing freely backwards and forwards between matrism and patrism, there is no question of one being a later, or a “higher” stage than the other. Furthermore, as is stressed in the last chapter, the whole study is confined to the European cultural tradition. I should expect quite marked departures from this pattern in certain circumstances — for instance, where polygamy was practised or where other factors in psychological make-up became dominant.