The M other-Age

Ibsen’s heroine, Nora, aspired to emerge from her sheltered “doll’s house” and to become an autonomous human being as well as a wife and mother. But was such a thing possible? Scholars looked to the past for answers to this question—often with dismal results, for history and prehistory seemed to show that woman’s subordination was universal throughout time and space. “Aeons of wrong, ere history was born,” wrote the British reformer Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy,

With added ages passed in slight and scorn,

Maintained the chains of primal womanhood,

And clogged in turn man’s power of greater good.1

Other feminist authors often painted the same depressing picture. In the opinion of John Stuart Mill, in “the very earliest twilight of human society. . . every woman. . . was found in a state of bondage to some man.2 And motherhood had cemented woman’s domestic servitude, for male con­trol of reproduction was widely assumed to be a universal feature of human social organization. The French historian Ernest Legouve remarked that woman had often been deprived of her “honor as creator of life,” the creative role in reproduction having been ascribed to fathers.3 Evolutionary theory, which purported to discover the origins of human society among present-day “primitive” peoples, yielded still more discouraging results. The human male in the “savage state,” wrote the great Darwin, kept his female “in a far more abject state of bondage than does the male of any other animal.”4 Indeed, lamented Odette Laguerre in the French feminist paper La Fronde, the most convenient argument against gender equality was that “during all of histo­ry and among all peoples the man was the natural chief of the familial group. We must therefore believe that he is made to command and the woman to obey.”5

The greatest obstacle to any change in the economic, political, or familial position of the mother was the belief that her subordination in the patriarchal family was dictated by nature and therefore necessary and inevitable. In the

latter decades of the nineteenth century, however, new interpretations of human prehistory and history challenged this widely accepted idea. Patriarchy was not a universal aspect of human civilization, declared some scholars, and mothers had not always lived a life of abject dependence—they had once been independent, self-supporting, and even powerful. Feminists found this an exhilarating message, for if the father-headed family was not a God-given and universal order, but merely a political arrangement that had risen in response to historical circumstances, then it might also come to an end. Far from an arcane and cloistered pursuit, the new research was widely discussed in and outside academic circles, and often provided the indispensa­ble theoretical basis for political campaigns for the rights of mothers. But like any body of theoretical knowledge, the history of the family had complex and ambiguous implications. If patriarchy was an evanescent family structure, then what should replace it: a family headed by a mother, or an egalitarian male-female couple? And what would be the consequences of patriarchy’s demise? This question aroused enough anxiety to set off an anti-feminist backlash. This chapter will first look at the intellectual context in which this new knowledge was produced and then at these feminist and anti-feminist interpretations.

The debate on the origins of the human family went back at least to the seventeenth century, when the exploration of the New World brought Europeans into contact with cultures that seemed to them to represent an earlier stage in human development, perhaps even a “state of nature.”6 For example, the seventeenth-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes doubted that patriarchy was the primordial form of the family, for “in the condition of mere nature, where there are no matrimonial laws, it cannot be known who is the father, unless it be declared by the mother, and there­fore the right of dominion over the child… is consequently hers.”7 And the Enlightenment philosopher Theodor Gottlieb von Hippel attributed the subordination of women to male aggression rather than to any law of nature.8 Some feminists of the early nineteenth century insisted that the primacy of the mother-child bond, already ordained by nature, must also be recognized by law. In the 1830s, French Utopian Socialist women pro­claimed that “woman is the family, and the child should bear her name!”9

But with the defeat of the Revolutions of 1848, a massive counterrevolution arose to discredit such dangerous notions. This conservative movement enlisted some of the era’s most prominent scholars in the defense of patriarchy and other traditional forms of authority.10 In 1861, the British jurist Sir Henry Maine declared on the basis of a massive study of Western legal traditions that the human family had always and everywhere been ruled by fathers. The Roman legal tradition, which Maine considered the origin of all Western law, divided society into the private realm of the household, ruled by the father’s authority (or patriapotestas) and the public realm of the state, in which his role as head of household entitled the father to citizenship. Maine did not consider this form of the family immune to historical change—on the contrary, he noted that the marriage relation in his own time had evolved “from status to contract.”11

It can be counted among the ironies of history that the first important challenge to Maine’s theory emerged from the same mid-century conservative movement. The Swiss legal historian Johann Jakob Bachofen ascribed all pro­gressive movements, feminism presumably included, to the impious disre­spect for tradition that pervaded contemporary society. Born in 1815 into the mercantile patriciate of Basel, Bachofen studied law in several European countries. Among his teachers was German legal scholar Friedrich Karl von Savigny, a romantic theorist who presented law as the expression of the his­tory and spirit of a people. Much of Bachofen’s research was conducted in the British Museum, home of the Elgin Marbles that showed the mythical struggle of the Amazons, as well as in many Italian cities. When the demo­cratic movements of the 1840s in Basel threatened the position of his class, Bachofen withdrew from his public offices into the comfortable life of a wealthy independent scholar.12 In search of the cultural roots from which his own generation had been (in his opinion, disastrously) torn, he returned to the classical world, and particularly to the archaic period of Greek civilization, which preceded the classical civilization of Athens by a century or more.

When Bachofen began his work in the 1850s the modern fields of arche­ology, anthropology, and ethnology hardly existed. Troy, Mycenae, Knossos, and the cities of Mesopotamia were as yet un-excavated, and a pre-Darwinian conception of human prehistory (which according to the Bible dated back only to 4004 bc) placed ancient Greek civilization among the earliest of human cultures. By comparison to what later became available, Bachofen’s source material was extremely limited, and this was one of the reasons that later generations of scholars rejected his methods as outdated and unscien­tific. So have today’s feminist scholars, who are particularly critical of his use of mythology as a historical source—an approach that is discredited today.13 But despite the limitations of his chronological and scholarly scope, Bachofen was in some ways ahead of his time. A product of nineteenth-century roman­ticism, he also anticipated the much later insights of psychoanalysis and the social sciences. certainly he regarded myth as a historical source, but not for a factual history of events—in fact, he regarded the positivist methods that were fashionable in his day with the utmost contempt. Rather, he used mythology as a guide to the deep structures of consciousness which, much more than political or economic developments, he considered to be the true “lever of history.” Such meanings, encoded in symbolic language, could not be grasped by the pedantic labors of philologists and historians but only by intuition: “the shorter path of the imagination, traversed with the force and swiftness of electricity.”14 Bachofen’s interpretive method in fact resembled present-day deconstruction; it attended not only to the content of classical texts but even more to the gaps, silences, and inconsistencies that had resulted from an editing process by which (or so he believed) a later genera­tion had expunged the traces of an earlier narrative.

Bachofen’s method would later commend his work to feminist scholars who found his picture of a historical record riddled with omissions, distor­tions, and silences all too credible. But they were even more fascinated by his results, published in 1861 in an erudite and hefty volume which contained many quotations in the original Greek.15 The earliest forms of human society, he announced confidently, had been based on what he called mother-right (Mutterrecht), a legal system that was based on matrilineal inheritance and a female-headed family structure. An elaborate evolutionary narrative explained this system’s rise and fall. In its earliest stage of development, Bachofen spec­ulated that the human race had lived, not as had previously been thought in patriarchal families, but in a state of sexual promiscuity under the auspices of the goddess of lust, Aphrodite. As the physical fact of paternity was not understood, households were headed by women, and children legally belonged to their mothers alone. Bachofen depicted the mother-child bond poetically as the first social tie and thus as the basis of all moral sensibility: in that dark time, he reflected, woman must have been “the repository of all cul­ture, of all benevolence, of all devotion, of all concern for the living and grief for the dead.”16 Bachofen pictured this first era as one of male dominance, in which men sexually exploited women.

But he speculated that under these Hobbesian conditions women found their lives altogether too nasty, brutish, and short, and used their moral ascendancy to force men into marital and familial ties, thus initiating a second period in which women dominated politics as well as the family. This was a period of genuine “matriarchy,” in which a matronly elite presided over a settled agricultural culture marked by reverence for the earth, nature, and female deities: “an air of tender humanity,” Bachofen wrote wistfully, “permeates the culture of the matriarchal world.”17

However, in a thinly disguised reference to his own revolutionary period, Bachofen recounted how this peaceful culture was shaken by a revolt of its male subjects. Amazon warriors, who took up arms to defend female rule, were soon converted to the new cult of the fertility god Dionysus—a divine rock star who drove his female votaries into wild ecstasies of drunkenness and lust. “How hard it is at all times,” Bachofen primly reflected, “for women to observe moderation.”18 The forces of patriarchy were victorious and ushered in a higher stage of civilization, which replaced the ancient cult of mother- goddesses with the worship of gods—particularly of Apollo, who symbolized the “heavenly light” of rationality. Rational too was the dominance of father­hood, defined as a legal relationship, over the fleshly and material mother-child bond. “The triumph of patriarchy,” Bachofen concluded, “brings with it the liberation of the spirit from the manifestations of nature, a sublimation of human existence over the laws of material life.”19

Bachofen’s text can be and (as we shall see) often was read as a classically Victorian narrative of progress that justified both patriarchy and conventional notions of male and female nature. “Bachofen’s matriarch,” complains the anthropologist Joan Bamberger, is “a far cry from today’s liberated woman.”20 But like the classical texts on which his work was based, Bachofen’s own book contained a subtext that subverted its ostensible mes­sage. In fact, Bachofen lent scholarly authority to the highly disruptive idea that the dominance of man over woman was not a God-given order but a political arrangement, contingent like others upon time, place, and culture. And this system of domination could never be entirely secure, for a female insurgency always churned beneath the surface of patriarchal society. Moreover, Bachofen’s account of the fall of the matriarchy was tragic rather than triumphal: a conservative dislike for modern times spoke through his poetic elegy for the pious, peaceful, and rural matriarchal world. And Bachofen was in fact no proper Victorian, for as a romantic he reveled in all that was grotesque, marvelous, and fantastic, and portrayed women in the unconventional roles of bloodthirsty Amazons, wise rulers, Dionysian revel­ers, even poetic Lesbians. Feminists would later find much inspiration here.

Bachofen’s weighty tome was decisively rejected by the classical scholars of his era, but before his death in 1882 he lived to see some of his basic ideas confirmed by the new field of anthropology. In the 1860s, as the historian Thomas Trautmann has observed, a “time revolution” that replaced the Biblical chronology with an immensely lengthened estimate of the age of the human race undermined the conception of the classical world as the earliest of human societies. Anthropologists now shifted their attention from the Greek and Latin classics to existing non-Western societies, and took those that they designated as “primitive” as models of the early stages of human evolution.

While invalidating Bachofen’s temporal perspective, this change buttressed his central conclusion. Though they observed no examples of true “matriarchy,” anthropologists often encountered female-headed family structures and gen­der roles that differed from those of Europeans. They concluded that female dominance and matrilineal family structure were characteristic of the low stages of human development, and patriliny and male supremacy of the higher stages. Dismissing Bachofen’s improbable account of a war between men and women, the anthropologists struggled to come up with an explana­tion for this transition. The American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan attributed it to the accumulation of property in the hands of men; and the Scottish John Ferguson McLennan to the custom of bride capture, which by removing women from their own kinship groups and isolating them amid their captors’ families made them subject to patriarchal control.21 Whatever its cause, this transition was widely accepted in the 1880s as a stage in a uni­versal evolutionary process which had culminated in the apogee of human history—the emergence of modern Western civilization.

But in fact, the extension of the temporal perspective ultimately under­mined this confident narrative of progress. For who could fathom the depths of prehistory, in which so many cultures had vanished without a trace? The German-born socialists Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx were enthusiastic readers of anthropology, particularly of the works of Morgan. In his treatise, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels started from Morgan’s theory that the age of primitive matriarchy had been marked by gender equality and communal ownership of property, and that patriarchy had resulted from men’s forcible assertion of private ownership in land and slaves. Engels insisted that this “world-historical defeat of the female sex” had opened a dark age of exploitation and inequality.22 Engels and his disciples, including the German August Bebel and the French Paul Lafargue, used this version of prehistory to justify their polemic against what they termed “bourgeois marriage.” Arguing that the first people had lived in promiscuity, the socialist theorists contended that marriage was no God-given order but merely a self-serving arrangement whereby male property-owners ensured orderly inheritance by establishing control over women and children. Certainly, the socialists did not advocate a return to mother-right, which they regarded as a primitive stage in social development. Nonetheless, Engels’ theory inspired several generations of feminists, both socialist and liberal, to affirm that patriarchy was not a permanent and universal, but on the contrary an evanescent and culture-bound phenomenon which would give way to more egalitarian forms of marriage and the family.23

As the war of ideas continued, conservative scholars mobilized anthropo­logical and historical evidence to defend traditional values—including marriage, religious sexual morality, and male supremacy—against this socialist menace. A potent weapon in the conservative arsenal was Darwinian theory, which in the later years of the nineteenth century was applied to the analysis of human culture. The widely read British sociologist Herbert Spencer denied that the mother-headed family could have ensured the survival of its offspring. He argued that only fathers could adequately protect women and children, and therefore that patriarchal monogamy was “the natural form of sexual relation for the human race.”24 Another prominent authority was the Finnish anthro­pologist Edward Westermarck, who in a well-received book on the origins of the family published in 1891 (and later in many revised editions) asserted that the innate tendencies of all male animals, especially of those of the human species, would always have dictated some form of marriage: “from what we know of the jealousy or all male quadrupeds, promiscuous inter­course is utterly unlikely to prevail in a state of nature.”25

At the turn of the twentieth century, progressive anthropologists retreated from some of their more controversial claims but not from their feminist and socialist sympathies. They dismissed the possibility of true matriarchy—that is, the political dominance of women—but insisted that the women of the past had often played a powerful and productive role in their households and communities. In a book that was widely cited in both Europe and North America, the American anthropologist Otis Tufton Mason asserted in 1899 that prehistoric women had been the chief creators of human culture. Mason argued against his Darwinist opponents that not only competition, but also cooperation had furthered the survival of human groups. Maternal tender­ness was the first civilized value. “All the social fabrics of the world are built around women,” Mason concluded. “The first stable society was a mother and her helpless infant, and this little group is the grandest phenomenon in society still.”26

By 1900, ethnological data was so profuse as to undermine any attempt to identify fixed and universal patterns, whether in sexuality, family life, gender roles, or any other aspect of culture. “All history proves,” declared the British novelist Mona Caird, “that there is, perhaps, no set of ideas so fundamental that human beings have not somewhere, at some period of the world, lived in direct contradiction to them.”27 The resulting turn to cultural relativism would shape the intellectual life of the twentieth century. Because many thinkers at the turn of the century were devastated by this erosion of cher­ished beliefs, customs, and ideas, the characterization of this period as an “age of anxiety” has become a cliche of history textbooks. But, like other dominant paradigms of intellectual history, this characterization of the fin de siecle is centered on male literary, artistic, and academic elites. Feminists did not share this foreboding—rather, many rejoiced that they lived in an era when even such a formidable institution as patriarchy was open to question. As a character in a pageant by the British suffragette Cicely Hamilton declared in 1910, “ ’tis good to be alive when morning dawns.”28