Aspects of the “Woman Question”: Part 2
(Based on Notes of a Series of Lectures on “The Sexes in Evolution.”)
The status of woman in primitive society is examined. There are divergent opinions among the anthropologists themselves regarding this feature of social development. Some assert that a matriarchal stage lasting a long time was passed through by most primitive civilisations—a stage in which women were dominant. Others believe that if such a state did exist it was probably of short duration. They claim that though evidence unearthed in Egypt, Mesopotamia and elsewhere indicates that a high degree of civilisation existed as far back as 20,000 years ago, there is very little to show that women occupied a truly dominant position.
The only way to arrive at an answer to these questions is to study the lower cultures that can be observed to-day, or have been observed and recorded within “historical” times. Where there is history there is, of course, continuity from prehistory, and it is the task of the anthropologist to trace this continuity as far back as possible.
Briffault, in his monumental work, “The Mothers,” concludes that women occupied a relatively high position. In his opinion, the primal human group is not the family (in the modern sense), but a larger group which he calls “motherhood.” The assertion, he says, that “the family is the foundation of society” is belied by all the facts, anthropological and biological. He bases his claim for a belief in the relatively high position of woman on the fact that they could not have forced themselves up from an original subjection to the position they are assumed to have occupied. To some extent he appears to have followed Bachofen, though Bachofen could hardly have been conversant with the theory of the development of the human species from pre-existing orders. Support is lent to Briffault’s contention of the existence of a matriarchal group by researches which have revealed that early economic relations were based on productiveness, and not on property, and that women were the chief producers. Out of woman’s early activities, based on the maternal instinct which conserves the highest interests of her offspring, was established the principle which afterwards governed human groups—the principle of cohesion and sympathy—a factor which made organisation possible and progress attainable.
At one period she was elevated to the ideal of the mother goddess. As a divinity she was set apart what time the male was busy reacting to the herd instinct, and incidentally diverting the line of social development. At another period she is degraded to the position of a chattel, actually below that of cattle as regards her value. In early Greece women sank so low that they were treated as mere agencies of reproduction. In Biblical times both Moses and St. Paul were hostile to women, and the same hatred was displayed by both Tertullian and Origen, early Fathers of the Christian Church.
We then pass on to a consideration of her position within historical times, where the evidence is more reliable and easier to interpret. Under Feudalism the position of women improved somewhat, and in the Renaissance we find their lot still better, comparatively. But with the growth of wealth in the later Middle Ages their position changed from that of the cult of the saint to that of a mere colourless female character compelled to servitude. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution changed conditions forced them from this servitude to that of another kind—production in the home, with child labour as one of its deadly features, until, with the rise of modern capitalism, we arrive at conditions as we find them to-day.
(To be continued.)
(Socialist Standard, August 1928)