Theories of Matriarchy and Patriarchy
(see Matrism/Patrism Explained)
From Sex In History by Gordon Rattray Taylor (1973)

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.

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.

If I have now made clear both the difference in the nature of the basic concepts employed, and the relatively limited way in which I have attempted to apply them, it may be interesting to consider briefly whether any part of the nineteenth-century theories can be salvaged by reconstructing them in terms of the new concepts. It seems to me that Bachofen and his followers (notably MacLennan, J. H. Morgan and, in the present century, Briffauk and Thomson), even if they were wrong in supposing that societies pass through specific phases of development, must be credited with perceiving that there are three main patterns, or model types, of social organization and that these three patterns are associated with (and, in fact, caused by) three distinct patterns of "family" organization. These three patterns are:

  1. "group" marriage, in which each child feels itself to have a multiplicity of parents,
  2. the maternal family, in which each child feels itself primarily under the control of, and related to, its mother, with male influence somewhat indirect, and
  3. the paternal family, in which the child feels itself primarily under the control of, and related to, the father, with the mother in a subordinate position.

There are, of course, many intermediate forms, notably polyandry and polygamy, where the child feels itself to have a multiplicity of parents of one sex, but only one of the other, but there is no need to go into these various complications here. (27)

The question whether these three family patterns tend to succeed each other in a particular order remains for the moment without a satisfactory answer. The weight of probability seems, at the moment, against their doing so, but the case has still not been adequately investigated; Bachofen and his followers were very properly criticized for adopting a defective method: they took data from "primitive" societies and assumed that because their culture was simple they were in some evolutionary sense "earlier". We realize now that many of these so-called primitive societies have undergone a long evolution, and cannot be regarded as providing evidence of earlier evolutionary phases. But this is a negative argument; what is needed is a comprehensive study of the order in which these phases have, in fact, succeeded one another in a large number of specific societies. Such a study is, of course, very difficult since primitive societies are costly to study, have few records, and are everywhere being distorted in their development by the impact of Western culture.

However, the present theory provides a tool with which the social evolution of prehistoric periods may be explored rather more readily than at present. For it seems to be consistently true that matrist societies possess mother deities, patrist societies father deities, and intermediate forms deities of both sexes, provided the deity appears in human form at all — while societies in which marriage is on a group basis appear to favour totemistic or animal deities. Fortunately, most societies retain some traditions about the changes which have taken place in the character of their deities, and often there are physical records in the form of cave-paintings, carvings and so forth, from which the nature of their deities can often be inferred. Since various authorities, notably G. R. Levy, in The Gate of Horn, have shown the great antiquity of totemistic and mother religions, it would seem premature to reject the theory that the paternal family, and hence the patrist society, may have made a relatively late appearance in prehistory.