The woman’s periodic hemorrhage and her further loss of blood at childbirth early suggested blood as the creator of the child (even as the seat of the soul) and gave origin to the blood-bond concept of human relationships. In early times all descent was reckoned in the female line, that being the only part of inheritance which was at all certain.
The primitive family, growing out of the instinctive biologic blood bond of mother and child, was inevitably a mother-family; and many tribes long held to this arrangement. The mother-family was the only possible transition from the stage of group marriage in the horde to the later and improved home life of the polygamous and monogamous father-families. The mother-family was natural and biologic; the father-family is social, economic, and political. The persistence of the mother-family among the North American red men is one of the chief reasons why the otherwise progressive Iroquois never became a real state.
Under the mother-family mores the wife’s mother enjoyed virtually supreme authority in the home; even the wife’s brothers and their sons were more active in family supervision than was the husband. Fathers were often renamed after their own children.
The earliest races gave little credit to the father, looking upon the child as coming altogether from the mother. They believed that children resembled the father as a result of association, or that they were “marked” in this manner because the mother desired them to look like the father. Later on, when the switch came from the mother-family to the father-family, the father took all credit for the child, and many of the taboos on a pregnant woman were subsequently extended to include her husband. The prospective father ceased work as the time of delivery approached, and at childbirth he went to bed, along with the wife, remaining at rest from three to eight days. The wife might arise the next day and engage in hard labor, but the husband remained in bed to receive congratulations; this was all a part of the early mores designed to establish the father’s right to the child.
At first, it was the custom for the man to go to his wife’s people, but in later times, after a man had paid or worked out the bride price, he could take his wife and children back to his own people. The transition from the mother-family to the father-family explains the otherwise meaningless prohibitions of some types of cousin marriages while others of equal kinship are approved.
With the passing of the hunter mores, when herding gave man control of the chief food supply, the mother-family came to a speedy end. It failed simply because it could not successfully compete with the newer father-family. Power lodged with the male relatives of the mother could not compete with power concentrated in the husband-father. Woman was not equal to the combined tasks of childbearing and of exercising continuous authority and increasing domestic power. The oncoming of wife stealing and later wife purchase hastened the passing of the mother-family.
The stupendous change from the mother-family to the father-family is one of the most radical and complete right-about-face adjustments ever executed by the human race. This change led at once to greater social expression and increased family adventure.