Mother-Right and Male Supremacy

The expansion of productivity in all areas, that included animal and crop husbandry as well as the household industries, gave the labour power of ancient peoples the impetus and capability to create a greater productive yield than was essential to satisfy their needs and support their level of life. This expansion of production correspondingly increased the daily quantity of labour power required from each individual member of the family, household and village. Hence it became a necessity to recruit extra labour from outside the community in order to cope with the expansion of productivity. At this stage we enter the era of human conflict, of wars between groups. There is no evidence so far that strife took place between people prior to the agricultural and pastoral stage of social development. Only when extra labour forces became necessary for production does war arise – both to conquer new territory and to obtain slaves. Slaves were pressed to work, having been the captured men and women of vanquished villages and territories.

Slavery, the first great social division of society, arose out of the expansion of labour productivity and the accumulation of wealth, coupled with the unequal distribution of that wealth. This first cleavage arose inevitably out of the prevalent historical conditions of the period and as a result of technological advance and increased productivity. With the creation of a surplus class society appeared in the form of masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited. It was at this stage of the development of society that the ownership of herds was transferred from the communal ownership by the tribe or gens into private ownership by individuals. It is at this point that we can determine changes taking place within the family as a result of the development of private ownership of the means of production vested in the herds.

The private ownership of herds alongside newly acquired wealth determined the occurrence of revolutionary changes within the family, especially with respect to the division of labour between men and women. private herds in the possession of men became the means whereby men gained control of the means of producing the basic necessities of life. Prior to animal husbandry man as a hunter had owned his weapons and equipment of the hunt when he had procured the essentials of the tribe’s existence. But later, as we now see, man came to domesticate animals and then to breed them in order to increase his possessions, which constituted a new mode of production. Furthermore, by owning cattle privately a man would also own whatever commodities – and this included slaves – he received in exchange for his cattle, sheep, goats etc. Man exchanged the surplus for other commodities, and all surplus was appropriated by the man – unlike the woman, who despite deriving certain benefits, owned no herds – who owned the property used as a production means.

During the stage of savagery and the hunter-gatherer mode of existence, the hunting ‘savage’ had accepted his mutually co-operative but secondary role in regard to the household and the women of his community. However, with the growth of animal domestication and its accumulation of wealth and slaves through conflict, pastoral man desired that his personal wealth be inherited by his sons. Such was the socio-economic determinant behind the subordination of women, their delegation to a secondary role in society, and deprivation from the ownership of the new means of production. Man used his pastoral activities to attain supremacy and relegate the woman to second place thereby ending ‘mother-right’, and substituting patrilineal inheritance for matrilineal in the majority of ancient societies.

Previously the division of labour between the sexes within the family had exerted a control over the distribution of property between the man and woman. This was the case with savagery and the household it entailed. With the development of pastoral economies the division of labour between the sexes did not change, but the property relations did. It was the external relations with respect to labour division that altered because the man had accumulated private property in the form of herds outside the family household. The internal household relations, the family division of labour was reversed thereby reflecting the changing economy of the tribe. Previously the woman’s household supremacy had been based upon the domestic work and the position it conferred, but in the face of the economic competition of male pastoralism female labour passed into subordination. Man’s previous hunter activities had been the reason for female domestic supremacy. Now man’s economic activity had become the reason for female subordination because her labour counted for les than that of the man, especially as the man was the major whereby the family acquired its basic necessities of life. In other words male acquisition led to male ascendancy whereas female household labour became a secondary, comparatively unimportant addition to the men.

Male supremacy was thus established in the home with man’s private ownership of the means of production aiming the final blow to mother right. male supremacy was continued and consolidated by the establishment of ‘father right’, inheritance of property by sons, and the laying down of the foundations of monogamous marriages based upon the unequal distribution of property between the two sexes. It is at this pint we can proceed to analyse the transition from the elementary conjugal or pairing family to the property based institution of monogamous marriage in developing class societies.

In ancient society there occurred over a period of time a trend towards the definite narrowing of familial boundaries. Initially the familial ties encompassed the entire tribe within which elementary units of conjugal pairs existed. These pairs consisted of a man and woman with their offspring embedded in a matrix of mutually dependent kinship ties. No doubt, just as with modern non-industrial tribes, variations on the basic pattern existed. A gradual process of exclusion took place whereby nearer, than remoter kin were eventually less involved with the conjugal family. This process eventually excluded close relatives by marriage until there remained only a molecular structure composed of a pair of loose knit individuals. Death dissolved this conjugal pair, as did break-ups for other reasons disrupt this type of marriage. Women if in short supply became prone to  exchange, the object of a bargain and obtained by gifts to her kin. Such marriages were terminable by both partners, and the explanation lies in the nature of the economic basis of each particular situation.

The pairing family at this stage of the development of human society was an unstable union that prevented the establishment of independent family household units. Such conjugal pairs found their viability with the primitive communal household where matrilineal mother-right existed, being embedded in the knowledge of a knowable mother as opposed to a probably unknowable male parent. In such a household mother-right entailed respect for the mother, because female supremacy was firmly rooted in social relations and economic foundations, that provided the mutual support for all members in recognition of importance of the survival of the gens. All gens members of the female line remained on one location whereas the males came from other gentes to become members of the matrilineal and matrilocal community. But as has been shown this changed and was replaced by male domination. Bearing this in mind it is time to examine female supremacy within the gens.

The issue becomes one of female supremacy and the end of ‘mother-right’. During the stages of savagery and barbarism women had a position within the community that was respected, free and equal with the men. The primitive communal house was the very foundation of female supremacy throughout ancient times up until its dissolution during the transition from middle to upper barbarism. In the household the women had a matrilocal and matrilineal cohesion – it was the men who came from without. So, despite the unrealistic anti-historical claims of the male supremacists, women at the dawn of human history were not the slaves of men. Society existed prior to slavery, and history shows that at the inception of society men and women were equal in both labour and property.

During the era of savagery, and including the lower barbaric stage, the established wealth of a society consisted of its implements, shelters, and other equipment that would have  included rafts, boats, weapons, utensils and clothing. Wealth was clearly used everyday in the constant pursuit of the necessities of life. Such was the simple technological level of the hunter-gatherer living in his communal household. But the pastoral societies of later barbarism that were advancing beyond the lower level of earlier communities had wealth in the form of herds. These herds of cattle, pigs, sheep, goats and camels required only to be tended but not only that – this new wealth reproduced itself! Steadily the herd numbers increased to provide the pastoral peoples with a supply of meat and milk, hides and furs, that were never available to the hunter-gatherers in such quantities. Pastoralism created more than was required to satisfy the essential needs of its herdsmen and their families – it produced a surplus. As a result of such developments the pursuit of game became a sport and not the primary means of procuring food. The privations and dangers of the hunt were now o longer necessary to endure – thus, man turned his attentions to his herds and the power at home that the beasts now conferred upon him.

Wealth in the form of herds passed into the private possession of the men who by establishing ‘father- right’ became the heads of families. When wealth had become established in the possession of these family heads a real assault was mounted on the matrilineal household which heralded the end of the female gens and mother-right.  Pairing marriage was destined to be placed by the monogamous union that would provide attestable sons so necessary for the transfer of property and the developing laws of inheritance. As long as mother-right existed a man was prevented from passing his wealth to his son because the matrilineal family or kinship group would ensure that it would be shared amongst his female relatives on his mothers side. Pastoral man was faced with a dilemma – he was now owner of the most important means of production, and he also owned extra labour power in the form of slaves – but he could not pass his wealth to his son. The answer was simple. End mother-right!

Man’s importance within the family as wealth accumulated until he was more important than the woman’s – but for his children not to be disinherited on his death he had to change the descent through the female line to the male line. Decrees made the change over to father-right, but little evidence exists to tell us when this revolution in kinship rights took place. It is marked by unwritten history, shrouded in mythology and folk story, but occur it did. As we know, matrilineal vestiges remain to this day in various tribes. Certainly we can say that once man had the means of production within his hands that the change from mother-right to male supremacy was not only natural, it was inevitable.

With regard to monogamy and male supremacy the origin of monogamous marriage is to found with that male supremacy that developed out of the pairing marriage. This transition occurred, as we have seen, during the pastoral development period that characterised the change from middle to upper stages of barbarism. The defeat of mother-right and the establishment of male supremacy based upon the private ownership of property, coupled with the social division of society into antagonistic classes – masters and slaves – indicates that civilisation is beginning to develop within the socioeconomic structure of barbarism. Monogamous marriage has it roots in male supremacy and has the definite purpose of producing offspring with unquestionable paternity. Such a situation is absolutely necessary in order to comply with the regulations of inheritance of private property. At this time, because of the economic property considerations involved in the union the elementary pairing marriage is replaced by recognised marriage bonds. It is now a contract that cannot be mutually dissolved at will. The woman, like her husband’s cattle and slaves, is now property. She is owned, she is a commodity, to be bought and exchanged and part of her husband’s wealth, because she will, as a mother also produce children, but in more comfort than the herds in the fields. Nowhere do we find that infidelity by the man is looked upon as an indiscretion.

In competition with female slaves the wife has a position where monogamy is monogamy for her alone. Marital infidelity becomes the male prerogative in a society where slavery and monogamy co-exist, especially when slavery and monogamy have their roots in the same institution – the private ownership of the means of production. Thus we come to see that amongst the most advanced peoples of ancient times, as exampled by the civilisations of Greece and Rome, that marriage was still a union of economic purpose, of convenience, for gain and protection of property vested in male supremacy. Such monogamous unions were not romantic associations, they were just the result of sexual love matches, they were not rooted in the earlier natural conjugal pairings of communal society – but instead they were based upon economic and property considerations that represented a new social stage of the victory of the private over the commons. The victory of the man over the woman, the exploiter over the exploited. Class society had arrived and the patterns of marriage henceforth would be determined by the arrangement of thr class forces in a given society rather than the satisfaction of individual needs in time with social unity.

At its inception monogamous marriage was a progressive step, a necessary and inevitable advance, but monogamy that is bondage is not inviolate, it too must change and be replaced by equal monogamy and mutual co-operation and affection of the liberated family. Prior to private property there was primitive communal relations with equality in the home – it was private property, exploitation, slavery and monogamous bondage that came from outside the home. Monogamy appears initially in human society as an unequal partnership with one spouse, the wife, subordinate to the other, the husband. It is in this context that we discern that the first class division in society developed concurrently with the conflict between man and woman embodied in the monogamous marriage.


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