Matriarchists vs Patriarchists in the 19th Century

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Source :JOAN BAMBERGER, in: The Myth of Matriarchy: Why Men Rule in Primitive Society

Joan Bamberger:

"There is little doubt that the public’s interest in primitive matriarchies has been revived. Suddenly magazine articles and books appear attesting to a former Rule by Women, as well as to an archaic life-style presumed to differ radically from our own. Because no matriarchies persist anywhere at the present time*, and because primary sources recounting them are totally lacking, both the existence and constitution of female-dominated societies can only be surmised. The absence of this documentation, however, has not been a deterrent to those scholars and popularists who view in the concept of primitive matriarchy a rationale for a new social order, one in which women can and should gain control of important political and economic roles.

The earliest and most erudite study of matriarchy was published in Stuttgart in 1861 by the Swiss jurist and classical scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen. His Das Mutterrecht (Mother right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the ancient world) had an impact on nineteenth-century views on the evolution of early social institutions. Arguing from mainly poetic and frequently dubious historical sources (Hesiod, Pindar, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Herodotus, and Strabo), Bachofen tried to establish as moral and historical fact the primacy of “mother right,” which he thought sprang from the natural and biological association of mother and child. Matriarchy, or the dominion of the mother “over family and state,” according to Bachofen, was a later development generated by woman’s profound dissatisfaction with the “unregulated sexuality” that man had forced upon her. A gradual series of modifications in the matriarchal family led to the institution of individual marriage and “the matrilinear transmission of property and names. ” This advanced stage of mother right was followed by a civil rule by women, which Bachofen called a “gynocracy.” The rule by women was overthrown eventually by the “divine father principle,” but not before mother right had clearly put its stamp on a state religion. Indeed, it was this sacred character of matriarchy, founded on the maternal generative mystery, that represented for Bachofen the bulk of his evidence in favor of ancient matriarchies. In the same year that Das Mutterrecht appeared, another scholarly work was published that supported an opposing opinion, namely that patriarchy was “the primeval condition of the human race.” Henry Sumner Maine’s Ancient Law sought to establish, by the method of comparative jurisprudence, that all human groups were “originally organized on the patriarchal model” (1861: 119). Maine’s argument rested on information contained in the Scriptures, in particular the early chapters of Genesis, and on Roman law. With the simultaneous publication of Das Mutterrecht and Ancient Law it may be said that the contest between the matriarchists and the patriarchists was launched in the intellectual circles of Western Europe. That neither side won a victory is owing to a paucity of evidence on both sides." (

More information

  • Note from MB: the following books would suggest that the above phrase in italics is not correct, see: Heide Goettner-Abendroth: 1) Matriarchal Societies. Studies on Indigenous Cultures Around the Globe; 2) Societies of Peace. Matriarchies Past, Present and Future. Inanna Publications and Educations Inc., Toronto/Canada 2009