“Queen of the Family”: The Mother as Matriarch
Like every rich and complex work, Das Mutterrecht could support a wide variety of interpretations. One of these was offered by Bachofen’s account of the age of classical matriarchy, when women dominated both state and family. This model found minority support among feminists of every country but was most fully elaborated in France and Britain. However, French and British theorists pursued different political agendas: the French emphasized social solidarity and the creation of a motherly state, the British the empowerment of the individual woman through the winning of suffrage and other political rights.
In France, many socialist theorists of both genders aspired to return to what Engels had portrayed as the original family structure—a unit consisting of a mother and her dependent children. Aline Valette, one of the earliest female socialist authors, started from a critique of Marxism. Marx had emphasized productive labor, the paid work performed chiefly by men, but had made no mention of the reproductive labor that was performed by women. Had the majority of women whose labor consisted wholly or chiefly of reproduction (housework and child care) no role to play in the class struggle? Valette argued on the contrary that both workers and mothers were victims of the same injustice: just as men had been cheated of the true value of their productive labor by capitalism, women’s “product,” children, had been appropriated by men. Alongside the class struggle she placed the struggle against sex oppression, and insisted that woman “the producer of humanity” must be restored to the “role that she deserves.” 29 Valette called on the state to recognize and support a family structure in which mother and children lived independently of male control.30 An advocate of gender equality in politics, education and the workforce, Valette also exalted gender difference and hoped that women, when fully enfranchised, would infuse the nurturing spirit of motherhood into public life.31
French feminists of the middle and upper classes, who had far more time for research and discussion than their working-class contemporaries, showed an even greater enthusiasm for the history of the family. The central role in publicizing and developing the new knowledge was undoubtedly played by the eccentric and single-minded Celine Renooz. Born in 1840 to a wealthy family in Liege, Renooz had only the usual conventual education and was married in 1859. The marriage, which produced four children (all of whom died early of tuberculosis), was miserable, and Renooz eventually set up an independent though economically precarious household in Paris.
Meanwhile she pursued her intellectual interests, which centered on the fashionable subject of the origin and evolution of life. In 1878, while reading at the Bibliotheque Nationale, she developed the novel theory that the true evolutionary origin of the human race was in plant life, the head corresponding to the root ball, and the body to the trunk and branches of trees (in fact, she showed that a human being resembled a tree turned upside down).32 Like other theorists of her era, Renooz argued against Darwin that true nature of human beings was not competitive, like that of many animals, but cooperative, like that of the plants which (or so she seemed to believe) lived in peace and harmony.33 We should hardly be surprised that Renooz’ theories were rejected and ridiculed by the male scientific establishment. Her intense, even paranoid anger at her critics seems to have triggered another theoretical insight, this time into the pervasively masculine bias of all existing knowledge. Although by no means the first or only critic of what Charlotte Perkins Gilman called “our androcentric world,” Renooz stood out among her contemporaries as the advocate of an alternative feminist science designed to liberate woman “from all the infamous historical lies and to rehabilitate her glory.”34
In a series of voluminous works, Renooz laid out a history and psychology of gender relations. She drew on many of the era’s popular theories, particularly those of the British biologists Patrick Geddes and J. Arthur Thompson, who argued from Darwin’s theory of sexual selection that the reproductive biology of males, human and animal, was “katabolic”—wasteful of energy— whereas that of females exhibited the “anabolic” tendency to conserve and create energy. The psychological consequences were impatience and instability in males, patience, stability, and “integrating intelligence” in females.35 Considering that these traits entitled women to the supreme role in religion, culture, and society, Renooz affirmed Bachofen’s glowing picture of a long prehistory when woman was “queen of the family” and “in charge of everything that requires patience, prudence, logic, perseverance.”36 She concluded that the only advantage possessed by the inferior sex, physical strength, had enabled men to overcome this peaceable and glorious regime and to establish an order that still bore all the marks of the destructive male psyche.
Following Bachofen, Renooz charged that males had consolidated their hegemony by rewriting history to obliterate all traces of women’s former greatness. “In order to justify his power,” she declared, “he (man) claimed that it had always existed.”37 In 1897 she founded the Neosophical Society (Societe Neosophique), which was dedicated to the recovery of women’s history, and created a complete two-semester course in the subject. Some of the topics included the “golden age” of matriarchy, women in ancient societies and in world religions, witchcraft and the persecution of witches, the renaissance debate on women’s status (querelle des femmes), and women in the modern world. A prospectus for this course, which she taught in her home in the Rue du Bac, stated that only serious students were welcome and that the tuition was twelve francs per semester.38
The development of this new science and its application to various contemporary issues became the central aim of a new group founded in 1898, the French Group for Feminist Studies (Groupe Frangais d’ Etudes Feministes, or GFEF). Its leader was Jeanne Oddo-Deflou, a self-educated intellectual who, when her family had refused to allow her a classical education, had taught herself Latin and Greek. The group created a scholarly field devoted to the study of women—in fact, what we know now as “women’s studies.” Among its first decisions was to commission a translation into French of the substantial introductory chapter of Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht—certainly one of the first translations of any portion of the work—which appeared in 1903. They translated only this portion, explained Oddo-Deflou in her preface, because the entire work would have been too long and expensive to be accessible to most women. Oddo-Deflou did not affirm all of Bachofen’s ideas: she took issue with his assertion that the victory of patriarchy had brought the reign of enlightenment, and objected that on the contrary it had opened a new era of oppression, marked by “atrocities from which the world has suffered too long, the most cruel wars, the most violent hatred.”39
The translation, which was sent to women’s organizations in several other European countries, caused a considerable stir in the French feminist community.40 A series of front-page articles in the most widely read feminist newspaper, La Fronde, edited by the prominent leader Marguerite Durand, indicated that the new science of women’s history was of interest to a wide feminist public.41
Many feminists used historical arguments to support legal reforms that would ensure the right of mothers to equal rights with fathers, or even to supreme authority, or puissance maternelle. The suffrage leader Hubertine Auclert defended the mother’s right to give the child her name. She further suggested that a humane republic that cared for all its citizens might more appropriately be called matrie (motherland) than patrie (fatherland).42 And she envisaged a nurturing society that was not unlike Bachofen’s organic and peaceable matriarchy. “When she becomes a citizen,” Auclert argued, “the French woman will fulfill her duties even better, because her role as an educator will create unity within the human collective, and her maternal solicitude will embrace the entire nation.”43 The socialist Nelly Roussel cited the research of the GFEF to argue that “at a certain time, woman enjoyed much more extensive rights that she has today.”44
The new history inspired high-flown claims. The scholarly evidence accumulated over the past forty years, wrote Jeanne Oddo-Deflou, “establishes that periods where women were predominant really existed, and that they were very different from our own. . . . According to certain authors, the
Matriarchate was a veritable golden age. The fortunate lives of a people who practiced pure and tender virtues were marked by peace, unity, and fertility. In physical health and spiritual serenity, they enjoyed the favor of the benign regime to which they had voluntarily submitted.” When free of the political and intellectual domination of the more brutal sex, women would not simply imitate their oppressors. “Men will never persuade them,” she predicted confidently, “that they must throw off their sex in order to end their servitude. They will hate men’s blind egotism too much to imitate it.”45
But not all French feminists shared this nostalgic longing for the lost golden age—indeed, commented the journalist J. Helle, the arguments between the “Bachofistes” and the “anti-Bachofistes” often became heated.46 Renooz, whose own overbearing personality refuted her theories about innate female humility and selflessness, arrogantly complained that many prominent feminists did not greet her messianic message with the proper reverence.47 Among them was the brilliant and acerbic Madeleine Pelletier, one of very few who developed a principled critique of the ideology of gender difference. To Pelletier, the Bachofen fad was all too typical of French feminists—a group led by women who were afraid to endanger their privileged position as the wives of rich men by advocating radical causes such as woman suffrage. What safer fantasy for such respectable ladies than the return of the matriarchy, when women had sought no higher honor than motherhood? Of course, this caustic critique hardly took into account the very substantial interest in matriarchal theories among socialist women, most of whom were hardly leisured socialites. Drawing on a wide knowledge of archeology and anthropology, Pelletier bitterly denounced the fashionable infatuation with mother-goddesses—such cults, she pointed out, had flourished in societies in which actual women had a very low status. “Future societies may build temples to motherhood,” she concluded, “but only to lock women into them.”48
In Britain, as Carol Dyhouse has observed, the history of the family was also a prominent theme of discussion in such avant-garde circles as the Men’s and Women’s Club, a mixed society of free-thinkers founded in the 1880s, and the Fabian Women’s Group. Socialist writers such as Karl Pearson and Edward and Eleanor Marx Aveling publicized Engels’ picture of a matriarchal prehistory.49 Mona Caird, a member of the Men’s and Women’s Club who was widely read in anthropology, took the discussion in a militantly feminist direction. She speculated that the mother-headed family had developed when “agriculture was women’s industry, while men went out hunting.” Accepting Bachofen’s idealized view of the matriarchy as a “golden age” of peace and harmony, she rejoiced that “at the very outset. . . something other than mere force was the director of the earliest human relations.”50 Caird claimed that the mother-child bond was the only familial bond that had been and still was recognized by all human cultures and that paternity was a much more recent concept. “For many centuries after the father had become head of the family… he rested his claims upon the children solely on the fact that the mother was his property, not upon the fact of his fatherhood.”51 In an era when such forms of patriarchal power were on their way to extinction, Caird demanded for the mother “a moral right to final authority over her children.”52 But Olive Schreiner, another member of the Men’s and Women’s Club who had grown up in South Africa, responded to these claims with skepticism, for her observation of male supremacy among African peoples had convinced her of the universality of the patriarchal family.53
Another British milieu in which matriarchal theory flourished was the Theosophy movement, which gained many female devotees during this era. Theosophy, pioneered in Britain by the colorful Russian immigrant Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and her disciple Annie Besant, promoted the cults of ancient and modern mother-goddesses as an empowering alternative to patriarchal Christianity. Inspired by an idealized version of Hinduism and Buddhism, theosophists exalted the spiritual over the material aspects of experience, and some believed that the bygone era of matriarchy had been guided by an ethic that rated chastity and spiritual communion above carnal sexuality.54
The suffragist leader Frances Swiney, president of the Cheltenham branch of the National League of Woman Suffrage Societies, became a Theosophist in 1900 and in 1907 founded a society, which she called “The League of Isis.”55 For Swiney, who was a reader of Bachofen as well as more recent anthropological and ethnographic literature, the Egyptian goddess embodied the glories of a blessed age when the conditions surrounding marriage, sexuality, and childbirth had been infinitely superior to those of the modern era. Swiney’s best-known treatise, The Bar of Isis, invoked the authority of the great goddess, who had allegedly forbidden sexual intercourse during pregnancy and lactation, to justify an ethical code that placed the welfare of mothers and children above the sexual needs of men. In ancient Egypt, which Swiney imagined as a matriarchal culture, the mother had chosen “her mate, the time of childbearing, and regulated under the strictest tabu the number of her offspring.”56 The victory of patriarchy had brought with it the primacy of the “abnormal and fostered sexuality of the human male,” which had undermined the health of women, children, and the population as a whole by making women’s bodies into the “refuse-heap of male sexual pathology.”57
Swiney, whose works were widely reviewed and translated, refuted the popular argument that women who gained the rights of citizenship would be incompetent or unwilling mothers. “Poor biology, what illogical hypotheses are put forth in they name!” she exclaimed. Prehistoric mothers, she insisted, had been the best of citizens, whose wise rule had enabled the first people to “progress from the sub-human to the human.”58
Unlike their French contemporaries, who associated the matriarchal age chiefly with maternal nurture and social solidarity, British suffragists emphasized the political and economic power that ancient women supposedly had exercised. Another theorist who was widely cited in British suffrage periodicals was the American Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In an address entitled “The Primal Power,” published in the suffrage journal The Suffragette, Gilman painted a vivid picture of the free, skilled, and benevolent woman of the prehistoric age. “In those first, rude beginnings of humanity, it was the woman who invented industry, the woman who began needle-work, basket- work, work in clay, the cradle of all industry as well as the cradle of the child was in the hands of the woman. … In those days, she was a head.” Only “the overturning of the order of nature” had precipitated “an artificial order in which, for the first time, the male ruled over the female.” Woman suffrage, Gilman explained, would restore women’s control over motherhood: “in honor of her motherhood, she must be mistress of herself… By what law, by what right have the mothers of the world been made the servants?” The mothers of the future would “choose the best for the father of our children,” and create “a nobler motherhood than the world has ever seen.”59
Images of the matriarchal age raised the dread specter of female hegemony. A popular British novel of the 1880s, H. Rider Haggard’s She, featured an ancient goddess, known by the formidable title of “She-who-must-be – obeyed,” who threatened to come to England and depose that rival matriarch, Queen Victoria—a horror that was averted by the valiant exploits of the novel’s two British heroes.60 Another, Walter Besant’s The Revolt ofMan, portrayed a matriarchal dystopia of the future in which women subjected men to a reactionary and oppressively religious regime.61 The violent suffrage militancy that broke out in Britain between 1909 and 1914—a terrorist strategy that called for damage to property, though not to people—could not but exacerbate these fears. In his novel, Ann Veronica, published in 1909, the novelist H. G. Wells attacked the suffrage movement through the hysterical figure of Miss Miniver, who incited orgies of vandalism with epic tales of warrior queens and Amazons. “The primitive government was the Matriarchate. The Matriarchate!” she told her stone-throwing, window-smashing cohorts. “The Lords of Creation just ran about and did what they were told.”62
The debate on the origins of patriarchy gave hope to women even in Spain, where no organized feminist movement as yet existed. The Countess Emilia Pardo Bazan was a Spanish novelist, poet, and feminist who had translated the works of John Stuart Mill and August Bebel. Many scholars, she wrote in 1892, now considered that the subordination of women was not ordained by God, but was only a “sad episode in the history of progress, in which each step forward is taken in blood and tears. . . . In the dark caves of prehistory, the bestial force of the male subjugated his female companion. . . And the old tales and fables of the Amazons, Valkyries, and warrior women. . . indicate that women did not always submit, and were sometimes ready to repay force with force.” She hoped that this liberating knowledge would discredit the “somber and fearful pessimism” that excluded one half of the human race from the progress made by the other half and denied to women “every kind of dignity and happiness, except as the adjunct of her husband and children.”63