Sex in history, by Gordan Rattray Taylor

But leaving aside the question of scope, the present theory also differs inasmuch as the concepts of matrism and patrism differ importantly from the concepts of patriarchy and matriarchy. The nineteenth century theorists defined these concepts in terms of institutions: a patriarchy was a society where power was in the hands of men, property descended through the male line, the deity was served by priests, not priestesses, and so on. In contrast, matrism and patrism are defined in terms of attitudes. Institutions are very persistent and may last, with little change, into a period in which attitudes have altered considerably since the institutions were devised. We have seen how, in the Christian era, power remained in the hands of men, and the deity continued to be served by priests, throughout two matrist periods. Furthermore, the nineteenth century writers tended to see matriarchy and patriarchy as mutually exclusive patterns: there would necessarily be a transition period when a new phase replaced an old one, but, once established, the new pattern would remain stable for a long time. In contrast, the present theory sees patrism and matrism as extremes between which the outlook of a dominant social group seems to swing, so that intermediate forms are the rule rather than the exception, and a society might even maintain a balance for an indefinite period.

Since it is the existence of patrist attitudes which leads to the establishment of appropriate institutions, of which placing power in the hands of men is one, it might seem that the mistake of the nineteenths century theorists was merely to overlook the slowness with which institutions respond to changes in attitudes. But there is a more fundamental difference between the two pairs of concepts, a difference which may be briefly expressed by saying that matriarchy is not (from the psychological viewpoint) the correct opposite, or antonym, of patriarchy.

The characteristic of a father-identifier is to be interested in authority and to attempt to acquire it. The characteristic of a mother identifier is to be uninterested in power and not to be bothered about it; matrism is therefore radically different from matriarchy. How then are we to fit matriarchy into our scheme? I should regard a woman who coveted power as one who had identified with her father, and who was, in a sense, attempting to be like a man. We did not encounter this possibility in Chapter IV, where we discussed the theory underlying the concepts of matrism and patrism, because we considered only the identifications made by males. It is obvious that a female desire to act “like men” would emerge most strongly if men were at the same time attempting to act “like women” — though it seems clear that such a situation would be unstable, for, if a woman models herself on a man who is modelling himself on a woman, she reverts to her own type. This perhaps accounts for the rareness of true matriarchies and of what the early explorers called Amazons. As such ideas may, to some readers, seem far fetched, it is worth adding that anthropologists have found all these patterns of behaviour in existence among preliterate tribes, as Margaret Mead explains in her Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935).

It is perhaps worth adding that the proposition that the choice of institutions depends upon attitudes implies a considerable departure from the classical “diffusionist” theories of culture growth. According to such theories, a society will adopt, by borrowing from other societies, any invention, custom, technique or belief which it comes across. Thus it is customary to try to explain the development of troubadour poetry by looking for similar elements in Arab or Moorish poetry, and to explain the rise of the mystery religions in Greece by supposing that the Greeks learned such notions from India. All this may be true, as far as it goes, but the question remains open, why did the society respond to a particular influence at a particular time, and not some other influence? Thus, according to the present theory, it is impossible that a patrist society could adopt a matrist deity unless it has already begun to produce people with matrist personalities. Whether it then borrows the deity from a neighbouring country, or adapts some existing deity, or manufactures it out of whole cloth is really immaterial.