This article argues that the first domestic institution in human history was not the family but the matrilineal clan. Engels here follows Lewis H. Morgan’s thesis as outlined in his major book, Ancient Society. Morgan was an American business lawyer who championed the land rights of Native Americans and became adopted as an honorary member of the Seneca Iroquois tribe. Traditionally, the Iroquois had lived in communal longhouses based on matrilineal descent and matrilocal residence, an arrangement giving women much solidarity and power. When nonhuman primate society and earliest human society, identifying sexual competition and the “jealousy of the male” as the vital issue that needed to be overcome to allow the emergence of the oldest form of family involving “group marriage”.
Primitive communism was based in the matrilineal clan where women lived with their classificatory sisters – applying the principle that “my sister’s child is my child”. This kinship solidarity empowered women to take action against uncooperative males. Engels identified the “world historic defeat of the female sex” – the switch from what he called “mother-right” to “father-right” – with the onset of farming and pastoralism. This shift from matrilocality to patrilocality manifested itself in men’s increased control in the home. Engels wrote: “The man took command in the home also.” The book begins with an extensive discussion of Ancient Society which describes the major stages of human development as commonly understood in Engels’ time. In contrast to other contemporary essays on the subject, Engels emphasizes the importance not of primitive psychological development but rather of social relations of power and control over material resources, sometimes related to the development of new technologies.
Morgan, whose account of prehistory Engels largely accepts as given, focuses primarily on the first two stages of Savagery and Barbarism but only ventures as far as the transition into Civilization. The terms Savagery and Barbarism as used by Morgan were meant to be objective and not terms of derision or disparagement as they might be assumed to be then or now. The Pairing Family, first indications of pairing are found in families where the husband has one primary wife. Inbreeding is practically eradicated by the prevention of a marriage between two family members who were even just remotely related, while relationships also start to approach monogamy. Property and economics begin to play a larger part in the family, as a pairing family had responsibility for the ownership of specific goods and property.
Polygamy is still common amongst men, but no longer amongst women since their fidelity would ensure the child’s legitimacy. Women have a superior role in the family as keepers of the household and guardians of legitimacy. The pairing family is the form characteristic of the lower stages of barbarism. However, at this point, when the man died his inheritance was still given to his gens, rather than to his offspring. Engels refers to this economic advantage for men coupled with the woman’s lack of rights to lay claim to possessions for herself or her children (who became hers after a separation) as the overthrow of mother-right which was “the world historical defeat of the female sex”.
For Engels, ownership of property created the first significant division between men and women in which the woman was inferior. It develops from the pairing family, as we have already shown, during the time of transition from the middle to the higher stage of barbarism. Its final victory is one of the signs of beginning civilization. It is founded on male supremacy for the pronounced purpose of breeding children of indisputable paternal lineage. The latter is required, because these children shall later on inherit the fortune of their father. The monogamous family is distinguished from the pairing family by the far greater durability of wedlock, which can no longer be dissolved at the pleasure of either party. As a rule, it is only the man who can still dissolve it and cast off his wife.