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The Challenge of the Matriarchy

By Evelyn Reed

[A presentation made during a debate with Professor Walter Goldschmidt, past president of the American Anthropological Association, on May 24, 1975, at the University of California at Los Angeles by Evelyn Reed from Sexism and Science, Evelyn Reed, Pathfinder Press, 1978]

Woman's Evolution, which deals with the hidden history of women, is a feminist book. But it is more than that; it marks a new theoretical turn in anthropology, which in recent years has witnessed a progressive deterioration in its methodology. Let us examine the reasons for this decline and what is required to put anthropology back on the right track.

Anthropology was founded by Morgan, Tylor, and other nineteenth-century evolutionists, who defined the new science as a study of prehistoric society and its origins. The two most important of the numerous discoveries they made were: Primitive society was a collectivise egalitarian system having none of the inequities of modern society, which is founded upon the patriarchal family, private property, and the state. It was likewise a matriarchal society in which women occupied positions of leadership in productive and social life and were held in high esteem.

These features stood in such sharp contrast to the conditions which prevail in patriarchal society that they soon gave rise to controversies which brought about a deep division in anthropological circles. After the turn of the century new trends of thought arose, led by Boas, Radcliffe-Brown, and others, who rejected the method and principal findings of the founding scholars - even while paying anniversary homage to them.

These schools abandoned a comprehensive evolutionary approach and substituted in its place empirical and descriptive field studies of contemporary primitive peoples surviving in various parts of the globe. They discarded Morgan's three stages of social evolution - from savagery through barbarism to civilisation - without offering any pattern of progression of their own. They say it is not possible or even necessary to go back to savagery, although this earliest historical period was by far the longest, comprising 99 percent of human life on earth. They foreshortened human history to the last ten thousand years or less of the million-year span of its evolution.

Some of those who formerly accepted this surgical operation are now complaining about the decadent state of anthropology. In a (London) Times Literary Supplement round-up covering the state of anthropology over the past fifty years, the British anthropologist Rodney Needham writes:

Evolutionism was succeeded by diffusionism, which was supplanted by functionalism, and this in turn was superseded by structuralism; but after all these academic shifts and turns the state of secure understanding of man and his works has remained disappointingly static.... with increasing specialisation and professionalism, social anthropology has actually become steadily duller and more trivial [July 6, 1973, p. 785].

As anthropology became more trivialised, further explorations into the matriarchal epoch and the hidden history of women virtually came to a halt. Students in the universities were taught that Morgan and the other founders of anthropology were "old-fashioned" and "out-of-date." In academic circles the matriarchy became a non-subject.

To justify this discrediting of the pioneers it is usually contended that there was "insufficient" documentation on the prior existence of the matriarchy, and, in any case, no one could ever draw any "universal" conclusions about a remote period that was forever closed off from view.

This contention is highly ironical since the opponents of the evolutionists have not hesitated to set forth some "universal" theories of their own. They say that the matriarchy never existed and the patriarchal family is eternal. They further say that women have always been the inferior sex, as they are today, because of their child-bearing functions and other biological disabilities. Finally, they say that male supremacy has always existed because of the superior physical and mental abilities of the male sex.

How do they know these are "universal" phenomena if no one can ever penetrate into the facts about 99 percent of human life on earth? And where is the evidence to back up these assertions? Without such evidence their case is unproven.

The claim that there is insufficient documentation on the prior existence of the matriarchy is unfounded. The pioneer scholars brought forth a wealth of materials derived from different avenues of investigation. They assembled this data from literary sources as well as from actual observations and field studies on the matrilineal structure still surviving in many regions of the globe. They noticed that wherever matriliny was still in force patriarchal institutions were either nonexistent or only feebly developed. And they drew cogent conclusions from their studies of primitive customs, traditions, myths, and rituals which had survived from the former matriarchal epoch.

Unanswered Questions

If, as they argue, all this evidence is "insufficient," why have they so arbitrarily cut off further investigations of the subject so that more evidence could be obtained? And why, even on the basis of the evidence now available, do they refuse to answer certain questions on the priority of the matriarchy?

Let me pose three most important queries:

  1. Opponents of the matriarchy do not deny the presence of the matrilineal kinship system, since it exists to the present day in many primitive regions. Where did this matrilineal structure come from if not from the ancient matriarchal epoch?
  2. Why has the passage from matrilineal to patrilineal kinship always been in that direction, never the other way around?
  3. Why is the ancient system of matrilineal kinship and descent found nowadays only in primitive regions and never in the advanced patriarchal nations, which have long lost and forgotten their matriarchal origins?
Those who fail to deal with these and related questions are merely asserting that the matriarchy never existed and the patriarchy is eternal. They have neither documentation nor adequate arguments to prove their contentions. Their method is prejudiced rather than scientific. It has produced more obscurity than clarity on the subject of human origins.

A leading American anthropologist, Marvin Harris of Columbia University, admitted this in a recent interview: "Sometimes I think that the primary function of establishment anthropology is to fog the truth" (Psychology Today, January 1975, P. 67).

Under these circumstances it is not surprising that anthropology has retrogressed in theory and method, even though additional valuable information on particular peoples has been accumulated. Once the academic anthropologists abandoned the evolutionary method and discarded the findings on the matriarchy, they not only cut off the major portion of our history but also any possibility of understanding the peculiar institutions and customs of matriarchal society.

Two of these are of primary importance: One is that curious institution called totemism; the other is the primitive kinship system. Early scholars devoted many years, some even lifetimes, to studying these subjects; their research shed considerable light on them, even though they were unable to answer all the questions their own studies had raised. But their successors, with their narrowly empirical method, have been even less able to fathom these fundamental phenomena of primitive life.

Turning Subjects into Non-subjects

This frustration had led some of them to decide that since they could not decipher these institutions they should be erased from the record. Totemism and kinship were thereupon dismissed as mere figments in the imaginations of earlier anthropologists. Thus, after having declared the matriarchy a non-subject, they went on to relegate its key institutions - totemism and kinship - to limbo.

Two examples should suffice to indicate how this vaporisation of primitive institutions is taking place.

Rodney Needham, who is said to have published more original work on kinship than any other anthropologist, including the French professor LÚvi-Strauss, declared in a recent book, "There is no such thing as kinship" (Remarks and Inventions: Sceptical Essays about Kinship).

Fred Eggan, reviewing this work for the December 13, 1974, (London) Times Literary Supplement, commented "this must be a difficult admission to make, since one does not waste twenty years on a non-subject without some emotional costs." Since the book deals with a non-subject, he characterises it as a "non-book."

In the United States we witness an even more remarkable situation. A compilation commemorating the centennial of Lewis Morgan, the discoverer of the primitive kinship system, was published in 1972 by the Anthropological Society of Washington for its prestigious Smithsonian series. It is called Kinship Studies in the Morgan Centennial Year. It contains a paper by David M. Schneider of the University of Chicago entitled, "What is Kinship All About?"

"The answer is simple and self-evident," he states. Kinship is an invention of Morgan's, and "in the way in which Morgan and his followers have used it, does not correspond to any cultural category known to man" (his emphasis, p. 50). Schneider thus agrees with Needham and writes that "there is no such thing as 'kinship."' Since this is a complete turnabout from his previous position on kinship, he apologises for the book he wrote in 1968 called American Kinship and says its title is a "misnomer." More to the point, he has converted his subject into a non-subject.

This is all the more surprising and dismaying because Schneider together with Kathleen Gough edited the compilation, Matrilineal Kinship, which appeared in 1961 on the centennial of Bachofen's work, Das Mutterrecht. Is this major work by Schneider and Gough now also a non-book on a non-subject?

Apparently Schneider is himself uneasy about this trend toward the evaporation of anthropological categories by renouncing anthropologists. But his attempt to justify or even explain the repudiation borders on the incredible. He writes:

For a while anthropologists used to write papers about Totemism... Goldenweiser and others then demolished that notion and showed that totemism simply did not exist.... It became, then, a non-subject. In due course LÚvi-Strauss wrote a book about that non-subject, in which he first explained that it was a non-subject and therefore could not be the subject of the book.... The "matrilineal complex" suffered the same fate in the hands of Lowie.

In my view, "kinship" is like totemism, matriarchy, and the "matrilineal complex." It is a non-subject.... If you like to think that I have devoted a good part of my intellectual life to the industrious study of a non-subject, you are more than welcome to do so. If you think that I have now talked myself out of a subject for study you are quite right, too ["What is Kinship All About?" in Kinship Studies in the Morgan Centennial Year, p. 50].

Such is the sad state of anthropology today in the hands and heads of confused and despairing men. They frankly admit that, one by one, the most significant subjects have been degraded to non-subjects and their books reduced to non-books. Are we now to look forward to the final admission that anthropology itself is bankrupt and a non-science?

Indeed, Robin Fox, a co-thinker of Needham and Schneider and author of the book Kinship and Marriage has now come to question what anthropology is all about and how he fits into it. He opens his later book Encounter with Anthropology, with the following confession:

This is a book about anthropology by a puzzled anthropologist who does not know quite how he fits into his discipline any more. And judging by the book reviews of some of his colleagues, the discipline has its doubts about the relationship. Something is wrong somewhere [p. 9].

This is the end result of the wrong course taken more than half a century ago by the anti-evolutionists. It has brought about the stagnation and demoralisation of a once - vigorous branch of social science. Some anthropologists, like Evans-Pritchard, are alarmed by this confirmation of a warning once issued by Maitland that "by and by anthropology will have the choice of being history or being nothing" (Kinship Studies in the Morgan Centennial Year, p. 14).

What is needed to rescue anthropology from its blind alley? It must return, although on a higher level, to the evolutionist and materialist approach of the pioneer scholars.

That is precisely what I have tried to do in my book Woman's Evolution, which begins with the basic premise of the priority of the maternal clan system or matriarchy. Upon this foundation 1 have been able to develop new theories that explain the meaning and purpose of certain enigmatic institutions of savage society, including the ones so cavalierly disqualified as non-subjects - totemism and kinship.

Totemism and Taboo

My own theory on totemism came about, somewhat accidentally, through a closer examination of taboo, which is indissolubly connected with totemism. I could not accept the standard reason given for the primitive taboo - that it was directed against incest. Primitive peoples were ignorant of the most elementary biological facts of life, including how babies are conceived and the inevitability of death. How, then, could they have understood the concept of incest, which presupposes a very high degree of scientific knowledge? Genetics, for example, is only as old as this century.

Moreover, the taboo was a double taboo, applying to food as well as to sex. In fact, the clause applying to food was the more elaborate and stringent prohibition. Most investigators were aware of this twofold character of the taboo, but because the food prohibition seemed inexplicable, they focused their attention on the sex clause, and assumed that it was directed against incest. But the very fact that it was as much a food as a sex taboo ruled out this assumption.

But this raised the question: why so stringent a food taboo? Since the taboo is regarded as the oldest prohibition in human history, going back to the primeval epoch, the thought entered my mind that it must have been directed against cannibalism. There was a logic to this surmise which was confirmed by my subsequent researches. Apes in nature are vegetarians; our branch of the primates became meat-eaters only after they became hominids. How could they know, at a time when they were still part ape, that all hominids belonged to a species distinct from all other animals?

In other words, the earliest hunters had to learn what flesh they could not eat at the very time they were learning how to hunt, kill, and eat flesh foods. This dilemma, stemming from biological ignorance, could only be solved through social and cultural means. To my mind, this explains how the first social regulation in human history - totemism and taboo - developed. It was first and foremost a prohibition against cannibalism, and it began as a protection of the totem-kin.

Totem-kinship marked the dividing line between human flesh that could not be killed or eaten and animal flesh that could. Those who were born of the same horde of mothers and who lived and worked together in the same community were the totem-kin; that is, the human beings, the "people." Outsiders and strangers were non-kin and therefore non-human; they were "animals" which could be killed and eaten. Thus, while totem-kinship began on a small and limited scale, it furnished protection for the in-group, or kin - group - the primal horde.

Subsequently this protection against cannibalism became broader in scope. This was accomplished through the interchange system, usually called "gift-giving," by which different groups began exchanging food and other things with one another. These acts converted them from strangers and enemies (or "animals" in the most primitive concept) into new kinds of kinsmen and friends. These linkages created a network of affiliated clans which ultimately became the large tribe. On this higher cultural level cannibalism dwindled to an occasional ritual until it vanished altogether.

Not an Incest Taboo

The other clause of the taboo was simply a sex taboo, having nothing whatever to do with incest. As many scholars have pointed out, male sexuality in the animal world - where males fight one another for access to females - is a violent force. Such individualism and competitiveness had to be suppressed since human survival depended upon the closest cooperation of all the members of the group. Thus, it became imperative to overcome animal sexuality and to convert fighting males into the human brotherhood.

This goal was also achieved through totemism and taboo. All males in the totem-kin group were forbidden access to any females of that group. All the older women were classified as the mothers (or older sisters); the women of a man's own generation were his sisters, and the female children were his younger sisters. In this way the antisocial characteristics of animal sexuality were suppressed, and the foundation for the tribal brotherhood was laid. The clan system of social organisation arose as a non-sexual, economic and social association of mothers, sisters, and brothers.

The two clauses of the taboo have an interlocking relationship. Food and sex represent the most imperative hungers in human and animal life; they are the twin driving forces behind the survival of the species. The hunger for food must be satisfied if the organism is to maintain itself., the hunger for sex must be satisfied if the species is to reproduce itself. The double taboo on food and sex therefore represents the earliest social controls over these imperative needs. And without these controls, human organisation could not have gained its start.

Far from being a figment of the imagination of early anthropologists or a non-subject, totemism is in fact one of the most important subjects to be investigated in reconstructing our most ancient history. Totemism and taboo represent the means by which humankind elevated itself out of animality. Totemism is all-inclusive; it not only represents the totem-kin and the totem protectorate against cannibalism but also all the social regulations that were required for humanising the species. Through totemism and taboo, humanity survived and thrived until it could reach a higher stage of social and cultural life.

Those who have turned away from the matriarchy, however, fail to understand totemism because it was the female sex that instituted it. Contrary to current myths about their status, women have not always been the inferior sex as they are today. In the beginning the females were the advantaged sex; they were the mothers, responsible for the survival of the species. Unlike males, who suffered from the biological handicap of incessant striving for dominance over other males, females could band together for the protection of themselves and their offspring. This nurturing, cooperative trait enabled the females to make the great advance from the maternal brood in the animal world to the maternal clan system in the human world.

Then, through the institution of totemism and taboo, the females were able to correct the biological deficiencies of the males. They began by socialising the two basic hungers. They expelled all internal hunting - whether for food or mates - from the group composed of totem-kin mothers, sisters, and brothers. By this means, both cannibalism and fights for dominance were overcome, and males were brought together as the clan brothers. This cooperative association of men - the fratriarchy, as I call it - has no counterpart in the animal world. It represents the crowning achievement of the totemic system, which was instituted by the women.

The Primitive Kinship System

Now let us examine the primitive kinship system, which sceptical anthropologists want to reduce to a non-subject.

The kinship system in its mature form grew up out of the totem-kinship system. The difference in development lies in the fact that the totem-kin included certain animals along with humans, whereas the mature system was restricted to humans alone. Lewis Morgan called this system the "classificatory" kinship system to distinguish it from the kinship system which exists today.

Classificatory kinship was a system of social kinship embracing all the members of the community, whereas our family system is restricted to the genetic members of the same family circle. In other words, all the members of the clans and affiliated clans were social mothers, sisters, and brothers, their biological relationships being unknown or irrelevant.

Like its predecessor the totem-kinship system, the classificatory system was also matrilineal; that is, kinship and descent were traced through the maternal line. However, the male line of kinship and descent in the matriarchal period was traced through the "fraternal" line, i.e., the mothers' brothers. This represents the "missing link" in fully understanding the matrilineal kinship system, which was also fratrilineal.

In the course of time, patrilineal kinship also became recognised when the man who married the mother became the father of her child. About eight thousand years ago, what Morgan called the "pairing family" (the father living under the same roof with the mother and her child) came into existence. Gradually the father and patrilineal kinship crowded out the mother's brother and fratrilineal kinship. However, it was not until the fully developed patriarchal family displaced the pairing family that the classificatory system of kinship was overturned and replaced by the family system of kinship.

It is not possible to understand the primitive kinship system without taking into account these evolutionary sequences. The worst errors have been made by those who declare that the patriarchal family has always existed; they write articles and books about "patrilineal bands" and "patrilineal clans" as though these were identical with the patriarchal family. In fact, the mere recognition of patrilineal kinship did not alter the basic structure of the clan as essentially matrilineal and fratrilineal.

Patrilineal kinship in the period of the matriarchy was no more than a paternal relationship between two matrilineal clans in which the mother-brother relationship remained pre-eminent and decisive. In other words, every so-called patrilineal clan was also and more fundamentally a matrilineal clan with the mothers' brothers occupying a more important and permanent status than the newly emerging husbands and fathers.

To understand this more clearly, a correction has to be made in describing the matrilineal kinship system. Usually this system is taken to mean that descent was originally traced through the mother-line alone. However, while descent in general was traced through the maternal line, precisely because the clan was a mother-brother clan-male descent was traced through the mother's brother-line.

This may come as a shock when we consider that under the taboo a clan brother could not marry a clan sister and therefore could not be the biological father of his sister's son. However, when we remember that primitive people were ignorant of biological paternity and that primitive kinship was exclusively social kinship, we can see that the mothers' brothers were just as capable of performing various functions for their sisters' children as the husbands and fathers who later took their place.

As the anthropological record shows, the mothers' brothers were the guardians and tutors of their sisters' sons - and the male line of descent, succession, and inheritance accordingly passed from maternal uncle to nephew. This line of descent prevailed throughout the entire epoch of the matrilineal clan system, even after patrilineal kinship was recognised. However, while it was possible to assimilate patrilineal kinship into the mother-brother clan without altering its basic structure, the same was not true of patrilineal descent. Changing the line of male descent from mother's brother to father shattered the fratriarchy - and that, in turn, brought down the matriarchy. Both were replaced by the patriarchy.

It is not possible here to go into all the factors that led to the drastic overturn of the mother-brother system by the fathers-system. The economic factors that led to the rise of private property, class divisions, and the downfall of women have already been spelled out in detail by Engels and others, and I have added some further data in Woman's Evolution. What concerns us here are the contradictions which developed in the relations between mothers' brothers and fathers, preventing an easy transition from male descent through the mother's brother-line to the father-line.

The "Divided Family"

In my book I explain that the matri-family (my term for Morgan's "pairing family") was the last stage in the evolution of the matri-clan system. Because it recognised the father and patrilineal kinship, it was a "divided family.' It was torn between two functional fathers - the mother's brother and her husband. However, the mother's brother held the fixed, permanent, and traditional ties to his sister's son, while the father had only ephemeral kinship ties to his wife's child. A son was kin to his father only as long as his mother's marriage lasted - and these marriages were easily and often broken.

Thus, while patrilineal kinship - of this weak and subordinate type - could be accommodated within the framework of the matri-family, patrilineal descent could not. A child's relationship to his mother's brother was a "blood" relationship in the primitive sense of that term. This meant that in all critical situations, above all blood revenge, the son stood on the side of his mother's brother, not that of his father. Along with these "blood" obligations, the son's line of descent, succession, and inheritance were passed down to him from his maternal uncle, not his father.

This perpetuated the division inherent in the "divided family" and was a serious obstacle in the path of the full development of a unified one-father family.

To us, in hindsight, it may seem like the easiest, most logical concession in the world for the mother's brother to resign his place in his sister's family, give up his matrilineal fathership of his sister's son, and move on to become the patrilineal father of his wife's son. But that is not the way it worked out at that historical turning point in the transition from the divided family to the one-father family.

The chains of tradition and custom bound the participants of that period. They did not know how or why they had inherited their one-sided matrilineal kinship system, nor did they know how to liberate themselves from it once it became outworn and obsolete.

The result was a protracted and bloody struggle between the contending categories of men - the matrilineal and the patrilineal fathers. I describe this transition in Woman's Evolution, which details the extremely painful process by which the divided family finally was replaced by the patriarchal one-father family. In the same process the family system of kinship replaced the former classificatory, or social, system of kinship.

My book ends with a fresh analysis of three great Greek tragedies about the myth-histories of Medea, Oedipus, and Orestes. All reflect in dramatic terms the terrible cost paid to achieve the victory of the patriarchal family. In other words, far from being eternal, the father-family came into existence only a few thousand years ago. And the primitive kinship system, far from being a non-subject, is precisely the subject that explains the birth of the father-family.

This is only a brief review of my theories on the key questions of matriarchy, totemism, and kinship. Using the evolutionary method, I have tried to rescue these subjects from oblivion. But there are many other topics covered in Woman's Evolution. 1 present new insights into what are obscure areas of investigation. These include such phenomena as exogamy - endogamy, parallel kinship and cross-cousin marriage, the rites of passage with reference to initiation and couvade, the origin of the blood-revenge system, and the interchange system usually called "gift-giving."

Hopefully, these explorations will send fresh breezes through the science of anthropology and help remove the pessimism that afflicts its outlook today. Under the impact of the women's liberation movement, many areas of our lives and history are taking on a new look. Not least among these is the earliest history of women, which can be recovered only through the avenue of anthropology.

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