A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 14

For women, the agricultural revolution was a counterrevolution

How, in the view of 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, did early human society based on mother right, or matrilineality and matrilocality, become patrilineal and patriarchal?

For his explanation in “Ancient Society,” Morgan drew on his knowledge of the evolution that resulted in Grecian and Latin patriarchal clans: “[Matrilineal clans] possessed the following among other characteristics: 1. Marriage in the gens [clan] was prohibited; thus placing children in a different gens from that of their reputed father. 2. Property and the office of chief were hereditary in the gens; thus excluding children from inheriting the property or succeeding to the office of their reputed father. This state of things would continue until a motive arose sufficiently general and commanding to establish the injustice of this exclusion in the face of their changed condition.

“The natural remedy was a change of descent from the female to the male. All that was needed to effect this change was an adequate motive. After domestic animals began to be reared in flocks and herds, becoming thereby a source of subsistence as well as objects of individual property, and after tillage had led to the ownership of houses and lands in severalty [property owned by individual right, not held in common], an antagonism would be certain to arise against the prevailing form of gentile inheritance, because it excluded the owner’s children, whose paternity was becoming more assured, and gave his property to his gentile kindred.

“A contest for a new rule of inheritance, shared in by fathers and their children, would furnish a motive sufficiently powerful to effect the change. With property accumulating in masses and assuming permanent forms, and with an increased proportion of it held by individual ownership, descent in the female line was certain of overthrow, and the substitution of the male line assured.” (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985 [“a direct photographic reproduction of the corrected 1878 edition”], pp. 345-46)


Monogamous marriage, material surplus and private property

Along with a change in the line of descent, a new form of marriage emerged in the realm of social/sexual relations. Frederick Engels writes in “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”: “[Monogamous marriage] is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs. It is distinguished from pairing marriage by the much greater strength of the marriage tie, which can no longer be dissolved at either partner’s wish. As a rule, it is now only the man who can dissolve it and put away his wife.” (New York: International Publishers, 1972, p. 125)

Engels continues, “[Monogamous marriage] was not in any way the fruit of individual sex love, with which it had nothing whatever to do. … It was the first form of the family to be based not on natural but on economic conditions — on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property. … When monogamous marriage first makes its appearance in history, it is not as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest form of such a reconciliation.

“Quite the contrary, monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: ‘The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.’ And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.” (pp. 128-29)

Further along in “Origins,” Engels elaborates on the ramifications of the sexual division of labor following the introduction of material surplus: “The ‘savage’ warrior and hunter had been content to take second place in the house, after the woman; the ‘gentler’ shepherd, in the arrogance of his wealth, pushed himself forward into the first place and the woman down into the second. … The division of labor within the family had regulated the division of property between the man and the woman. That division of labor had remained the same; and yet it now turned the previous domestic relation upside down simply because the division of labor outside the family had changed.” (p. 221) Engels is referring, of course, to the man’s effective possession and control of the agricultural surplus: the animal herds and stores of grain.


The sexual counterrevolution

Engels notes, “Together with slavery and private wealth, [monogamous marriage] opens the period that has lasted until today in which every step forward is also relatively a step backward, in which prosperity and development for some is won through the misery and frustration of others.” (p. 129)

What was the nature of this “misery and frustration”? Engels discusses at length how the imposition of monogamy meant a serious restriction on women’s sexual rights, but for men, he observes, it has been a frequently ignored or disregarded obstacle. But much more than women’s sexual rights was lost: “The overthrow of mother right was the ‘world historic defeat of the female sex.’ The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” (pp. 120-21) The bitter truth described by these words has almost global confirmation in the recorded histories of women’s lives on every populated continent.

In the booklet “Feminism and Marxism,” Workers World Party founder and leader Dorothy Ballan provided important ideological outreach to the burgeoning U.S. women’s movement of several decades ago when she wrote, “The origin of the word ‘family’ meant slave, and the family included a man, his wife, children and slaves. The women were acquired into this economic unit for the purpose of procreating heirs to whom to bequeath private property — and as such, the family served the interests of the possessing class.

“This was the real origin of the family. When social production became transformed into private production, the nature of the family changed from a socially cooperative foundation as it existed under the matriarchy to the private foundations of the patriarchy. … The conversion of social property to private property eventually meant even the conversion of humans to private ownership.

“For primitive women, childbearing not only provided a greater impetus for her to participate in social production, but was virtually a form of social production itself. The husband had no authority over her, and she was never dependent upon him economically or materially.

“This became transformed into its opposite, with marriage and childbearing isolating and insulating women from social production, making her totally dependent on her husband, and reducing her to the role of procreation for inheritance, and to the role of servant for [her] husband.” (New York: World View Publishers, 1971, p. 16)

As we stressed at the beginning of Part 13 of this series, the so-called agricultural revolution, with the accompanying transition to patriarchal, class-divided society and “monogamous” marriage for the woman, was neither a quick nor a simple change. In the following several installments we will only be able to touch on some general aspects of this complex and prolonged counterrevolution of the social/sexual relations between men and women, a transformation based on the introduction of private property.

McCubbin is the author of “The Roots of Lesbian and Gay Oppression: A Marxist View,” New York: World View Forum, 3rd ed., 1993. To order, send $10 to World View Forum, 147 W. 24th St., 2nd Floor, N.Y., NY 10011 with name and address, or order from Amazon.com.