The Story of Civilization: Political Elements – The Family

“Marriage began as a form of the law of property, as a part of the institution of slavery.”
Will Durant, “Our Oriental Heritage”, page 26.
(Chinese woman exposing her “lotus feet”, a common practice of binding — and deforming — women’s feet during imperial China, from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. Legend has it that the goal was to increase the status and beauty of women.)

SUMMARY: Even after the advent of the state, the family continues to be the basic political unit of society, but the woman, whose position was central to the family, becomes increasingly subordinate to man as agriculture and property develop.

Even after the establishment of the state, the essential government of mankind remained the institution of the family. A stream of children is as vital to society as the continuity of food.

It is very unlikely that the first humans lived in isolated families, even during the hunter-gatherer stage; man was saved by solidarity in the hunting pack and in the clan. When economic relations and political domination replaced kinship as the principle of social organization, the clan lost its position of substructure of society: below, it was supplanted by the family; above, by state.

Among the lower animals there is no care for offspring; throughout the animal kingdom, fertility and destruction decline as parental care increases. In the world of men, birth rates and mortality fall together as civilization advances.

Because it was the woman who performed most parental functions, the position of the man in the family was superficial and incidental, while that of the woman fundamental and supreme. So tenuous was the relationship between the father and his children in primitive societies that in large numbers of tribes the sexes lived apart. In Tahiti, for example, “family life is quite unknown”.

In general, the position of women in early societies was one of subjection bordering slavery. Her periodic incapacity, her lack of familiarity with weapons, the biological absorption of her forces during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and child rearing, made her disfavored in the struggle of the sexes, and destined her to a lower status in all societies, except the least and the most advanced. But despite her biological shortcomings, she was almost equal to man in stature, endurance, ability, and courage. At the hunting stage, she did almost all the work, except the capture of the game itself.

Most of the economic advance in primitive societies was made by the woman and not by man. She developed agriculture near the camp, and those complicated arts of the home. It was she who apparently developed sowing, weaving, making baskets, the art of pottery, carpentry, and the construction of shelters, and in many cases it was she who began primitive trade. “It was she who developed the home, slowly adding man to the list of her domesticated animals.”

But as agriculture became more complex and brought more rewards, the stronger sex began to take it with its own hands. The growth of transmissible property in the form of cattle and products of the soil led to the sexual subordination of women, because now man began to demand her fidelity; he wanted to transmit his accumulations to children who would be, presumably, his own. Property was now being inherited through the male; mother right turned into father right; and the patriarchal family, with the oldest male as its head, became the economic, legal, political and moral unity of society. In all essential respects, women and her children became the patriarch’s property, and their general subjection became even more pronounced and cruel than before. “Marriage began as a form of the law of property, as a part of the institution of slavery.”


  1. What is the main sub-structure of society today?
  2. What were the first families like?
  3. What was the importance of the primitive woman?
  4. Why was she even more subjected by man with the advancement of civilization?
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