2 minute read


Nineteenth-century Evolutionary Theory

J. J. Bachofen began the modern debate about matriarchy with his 1861 book on "mother right," in which he argued that one early social formation was a family which traced descent through the mother, and in which "government of the state was also entrusted to the women" (p. 156). Bachofen developed a three-stage model: In the barbaric or hetaeristic stage (from the Greek hetero, meaning both), neither men nor women had control, and people engaged in indiscriminate sexual activity, worshipping Aphrodite and valuing the erotic above all else. Then women tired of this system and banded together for their own defense, creating a matriarchy in which Artemis and Athena emerged as the main deities. Agriculture was developed during this period, and so were the stories of Amazons and Furies. Bachofen argued that "matriarchal people feel the unity of all life, the harmony of the universe" (p. 79), and embraced a philosophy of "regulated naturalism" in which maternal love was the basis of all social ties. In the final stage of the development of civilization, men seized control from women, and their struggle to assert their domination was reflected in stories of Zeus triumphing over the Titans, Hades raping Persephone, Perseus slaying the Medusa, and Oedipus killing the Sphinx. Bachofen interpreted mythical accounts of sexual conflict as evidence for a historical transition from matriarchy to patriarchy.

Friedrich Engels developed a materialist version of this theme in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), arguing that matriarchy developed from a situation of group marriage, in which paternity was uncertain so only female blood lines could be traced reliably. Early human societies were presumed to have been egalitarian, and various forms of inequality were introduced in conjunction with the emergence of private property. When property rights came to be invested in men, the development of patriarchy was tied to the birth of capitalism, in which laborers were no longer the owners of the products of their labor.

Anthropologists working on comparative evidence from a number of societies tried to develop a more rigorous definition of matriarchy. E. B. Tylor grouped matrilineal descent with postmarital residence in the wife's household and evidence that "the wives are the masters" in the family (p. 89), and described the Minangkabau of Indonesia as one possible matriarchy. He later reconsidered this position and decided that the term maternal family would be preferable to matriarchy, since "it takes too much for granted that the women govern the family" (p. 90). Lewis Henry Morgan's intensive studies of the Iroquois documented political institutions in which women played important roles, and his Ancient Society (1877) formed the basis of Engel's speculations. But as more field studies of matrilineal societies were completed, few of them seemed to have anything approaching female rule over men, and by 1921 Robert Lowie's Primitive Society concluded that there was no evidence that women had ever governed the primitive equivalent of the state.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMatriarchy - Nineteenth-century Evolutionary Theory, Twentieth-century Gender And Kinship Studies, Alternatives To Matriarchy: Matrism, Gender Egalitarianism, And Diarchy