Background: Victorian Theories of the Origin of the Family

Since its origins social anthropology has been a battlefield for political argument. An especially obvious example of this occurs in postulates concerning the historical development of family structures. Until about 1860, very few questioned that the family as they knew it was an inevitable, innate social institution based on the authority of a male family head. But feminist attacks on female subordination demanded that women’s inferior role be defended and justified, either as a continuation of a desirable tradition, or as the latest stage of an evolutionary sequence.

In 1861 Sir Henry Maine, a professor of jurisprudence, wrote Ancient Law, a defense of patriarchal theory based on the New Testament, the Hindu Laws of Manu, and the Twelve Tables of Rome, from which he extrapolated a case for the foundation of all known societies from a common patriarchal basis. This embarrassed social anthropologists of the time because of its obvious failure to consider ethnological data, and because its simplistic, non-evolutionary approach made Maine an unpleasant fellow-traveller. Perhaps if patriarchal theory could be derived without a consideration of the facts, it might appear to be founded on crude prejudice. They were able to fashion an alternate defense, however--that man in his “natural” state was not necessarily monogamous or patriarchal, so that his present family structure must be the result of progressive evolution. Engels merely reversed this argument and postulated that the Victorian family was the result of degeneration or devolution in earlier structures.

J. J. Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (1861) initiated the conception of matriarchy. He saw a continuing struggle between the sexes as one of the mechanisms for social change. The history of the family was divided into three stages:

  1. hataerist stage--This was a period of aphroditism or promiscuity, without marriage, and in which women were victims of male lust.
    However, women rebelled and staged a worldwide Amazonian revolt, and moreover, a successful one!
  2. matriarchy--During this period women as mothers dominated cultural institutions; female sexuality triumphed; and monogamy was forced on men (compare Engels).
    However, men in turn rebelled and triumphed, creating the present social order of
  3. patriarchy--in which male supremacy is recognized everywhere.

Notice that this three stage pattern is one seen in many nineteenth-century views of history--Hegelian, Comptean, Saint-Simonian, Arnoldian, Marxist, etc. In each of these theories, the third stage is viewed as the best. In the case of Bachofen, the third stage of patriarchy embodied the subordination of the female fertility principle to “the purity of the divine father principle”; i. e., the conquering of matter by spirit.

English anthropologists disliked Bachofen’s use of mythological sources and his postulate of an armed Amazonian rebellion--given what they believed about the nature of women, concerted female rebellion was an impossible occurrence, or even if it had occurred, the women could not have been successful. Neither could women have ruled the children under a monogamous family system, for men’s natural ability at ruling would have caused them to assume authority. Several Victorian anthropologists therefore altered Bachofen’s evolutionary sequence to render the notion of a matriarchal stage palatable.

John McLennan, a lawyer, was the author of Primitive Marriage (1865), Studies in Ancient History (1876), and The Patriarchal Theory (1885). He proposed an alternate three stage evolution, from:

  1. primitive promiscuity; through
  2. group marriage with descent in the female line; to
  3. monogamous marriage with male descent.

McLennan had to account for matrilineal descent without the aid of Amazon warriors (29). Kinship through women could occur only if paternity were unknown, he reasoned--i. e. in group marriage. He postulated a gradual shift between stages rather than an abrupt transition (no female or male rebellions).

He also postulated a theory of female infanticide--once women were of no productive value, in times of social and economic stress female infants were killed, creating a shortage of women and therefore necessitating polyandry (the sharing of one woman by several men, see footnote p. 39) or exogamy, marriage outside the tribe, which could be accomplished by stealing women by force. Since women thus stolen became the private property of individuals, group marriage was dissolved. The growth of private property occurred simultaneously, and caused fathers to want to identify their sons in order to transmit property.

Sir John Lubbock, a widely known specialist in anthropology and archeology, added further refinements to these views. His Origin of Civilization and The Primitive Condition of Man (1870) argued that the patriarchal family was the “civilized” culmination of centuries of evolution. Lubbock was repelled by savage sexual patterns, especially their degradation of women, as shown by the fact that some tribes had no word for “love” and had not achieved monogamous mariage. For Lubbock the prevalence of matrilineal succession simply showed how little faith was placed in the virtue of women in those days. Matriarchal power was implausible since women are unassertive, and 'savage' women would be especially unlikely to "uphold their dignity.”

Lubbock emphasizes capture by force as the basis of individual marriage; male posessiveness made love possible (what McLennan had seen neutrally Lubbock elevated into a psychology of sex, note p. 32). Also paternal affection caused the desire to transmit property to sons. Engels was thus not the first to link monogamous marriage with male descent and transmission of property. None of these anthropologists considers that property might have been held by women, or that fathers might desire to transmit property to daughters or to the latter’s children.

Lewis Henry Morgan, the chief influence on Engels, was an American little esteemed by British anthropologists. The author of Systems of Consanguinity and Affinity (1871) and Ancient Society (1877), he had lived among the Seneca Indians during an earlier period of his life, and had even been adopted as a tribal member. Morgan postulated 15 or 16 stages of evolution from primitive promiscuity to monogamy, a moral evolution restricting the sexual passions according to the “growth of a moral idea.” Morgan found considerable evidence for a promiscuous stage, whether people liked it or not.

According to Morgan, the first organization of society was made on the basis of sex--the separation between male and female constituted the first class dichotomy. Monogamy was an ideal form of social organization, but in the meantime polygamy was a reformatory stage permitting the rudiments of government. Polyandry, on the contrary evoked deep scorn, as “an excrescence of polygamy, and its repulsive contrast,” “it was scarcely entitled to the rank of a domestic institution.” Polyandry could only be the result of economic scarcity--since women had no productive function, large numbers of women and children could only be supported by surplus production.

Yet Morgan desired a higher stage in which women were equal; he saw this as the next great world historical change in the history of the family. His is the only theory which is open-ended, that is, provides for a change beyond the present. The transition to patrilineality had had a very unfavorable effect on women’s position, he believed. It is obvious, then, that Engels owes much to Morgan for his interpretation of the “world historical defeat of the female sex,” and his assumption that this defeat might be reversed.

Herbert Spencer also conceived of a form of Social Darwinism, though he asserted that civilizations were to be judged by the humanity of their treatment of women, and that the present (Victorian) society was notable for its relatively better treatment of women.

Engels, Origin of the Family

  1. What were the stages of the family, according to Engels, and how were property divisions associated with each?
    • consanguineous marriage, or marriage between all members of each generation, common in a state of savagery
    • punaluan--savage communistic household the foundation for the supremacy of women, 113
    • pairing--characteristic of the barbarian stage in which wealth was created in herds and property, 119*
    • monogamy--the stage of civilization, accompanied by private property, inheritance through paternal line
  2. Are there any latent assumptions on female nature behind Engels’ categories?
  3. What are the political implications of each stage? Does Engels provide a mechanism for the transition between stages? --The entire argument turns on an implied division of labor, and avoids the argument that, had they once been as powerful as claimed, women could have demanded a share in the newly acquired wealth.
  4. Does Engels view the sexuality of men and women as inherently different? 47, 119 women demand the limitation to one partner for themselves, reflecting an innate division of labor (this innate division had been assumed by all of Engels’ predecessors).
  5. He speaks of the overthrow of the mother-right--the “world-historical defeat of the female sex.” 120
  6. What does Engels think of the Victorian ideal of family life? slavery, 121--tendency to equate linguistic associations with historical reality
  7. What is the function of the monogamous family? --to produce heirs for the male, provide for transition of property, 125, related to the slavery of women, 126
  8. According to Engels,what caused the rise of prostitution? 127, 130, wage slavery
  9. Did the formation of the monogamous family cause capitalism? 125
  10. What is Engels’ attitude towards homosexuality? 128 What does he think of “modern individual sex love”? 128, 132 --homosexuality is the result of general degeneracy
  11. Engels has deep sympathy for women as an oppressed class, but he is not especially “revolutionary”/perceptive on the subject of sex--perhaps this is significant for the history of socialist theory and practice. What reforms does he envision, however? 139, 145
  12. Why is Engels preoccupied with the nature of the Iroquois gens? 147
  13. What were the alleged social results of the gentile constitution? 158, 159 (no state)
  14. How useful are the constant examples Engels provides?
  15. What are some flaws or limitations in Engels’ argument? (e. g. re: women’s work, sex, child-rearing, homosexuality)
    • he ignores the pre-capitalist oppression of women
    • ignores sexual violence even outside of capitalism
    • ignores psychological factors in marriage
    • confuses mother-rule and mother-right
    • ignores “bourgeois” discrimination in the professions
    • ignores the possibility of sisterhood as a social and political force
    • wanders off into tangential issues
    • demonizes the present, a repeated feature of historicist historiography
    • fails to see an independent role for women in effecting their own liberation

Some topics:

120 world-historical defeat of the female sex
128 prostitution and sodomy, 130
129, 132 marriage
134, 135, 137, 138 women’s labor, 221
139 children
145 paen to future
147 attempts to universalize
159 comments on state, 161
211 democracy, 215-16 overdoes respect for tribe--surely he doesn’t advocate a return to the past!
228 origin of “state”
233 laconic view of civilization *235-36 and its relation to art
*236 passionate indictment of civilization
237 anticipates the future