In an article on “Marital Authority” in Le Correspondant, Mme. COLETTE YVER tells us that —
Feminine obedience and masculine authority, belonging to the very nature of men and women, imposed themselves, despite of everything, on the human pair. Civilization and politeness have weakened them in practice, without altering their mutual reactions. In vain will feminism rise like SPARTACUS against this eternal slavery. A freeman could be made of the ancient slave. Never can a woman be made a man.
The accuracy of the last statement nobody can deny. In regard to the “authority” of the husband and the “obedience” of the wife, opinions will differ. It may be maintained plausibly, as a result of observation and experience, that feminine obedience is largely a convention, a ceremony, a form of politeness rather than fact; and that any clever woman can lead a man by the nose, making him do what she wants him to do, persuading him that his was the idea and initiative. At any rate, the authority and position of the husband are historically usurpations. “Mother-right,” still existing in considerable regions of the world, seems once to have prevailed all over it. Today among the Fantis of the Gold Coast of Western Africa, mothers have the exclusive care of the children and are tenderly loved by them. The husband is of no account in the family, even though he be rich and powerful.
If a Maori child dies or is injured, all the mother’s relations join in an attack on poor papa, who must defend himself until he is wounded. Then his house is pillaged. By a big feast he finally satisfies the mother’s clan, to which he is a stranger, and whose motto is “All for one and one for all.” All the old hero-tales of father and son as enemies, of which, “Sohrab and Rustum” is the most famous, are reminiscences of mother-right. In the State of Selengor, in the Malay Peninsula, the happy bridegroom has to stay “under the roof and eye of his mother-in-law for about two years.” Even a royal bridegroom’s time of supervision and subjection is forty-four days. Observe, if you please, “marital authority” among the Bangais on the Zambesi. If you marry a girl in the next village, you have to work for your mother-in-law, split and carry her firewood. If you sit in that august presence, bend your knees carefully. “Put out your feet toward the old lady” and you will be put out of the house. If you are sick of this servitude, all you can do is to flee, leaving your children behind. Take the unjustly despised and infamously treated Hottentots. “Their women,” Mr. E.S. HARTLAND says, “were treated with high respect. The most binding oath a man could take was by his eldest sister; his wife ruled supreme in the house; and she possessed her own separate property.”
Among our American Iroquois the wife “was considered the mistress, or at least the heiress.” In the “long houses” of the Senecas, holding sometimes twenty families, the women of the clan lodged their husbands and ran the house. If any husband was a slacker, he was told to pick up his blanket and be off. A Cherokee mother-in-law and daughter owned the house. If Red Eagle or Red Fire Water didn’t behave himself, he was driven off the premises. The domestic harmony of the Zunis has often been admired. From ages beyond memory the wife has ruled the home. The father is only a boarder. The Hopi woman owns the stock, the orchards, everything. The woman proposes. And so on.
So, “marital authority” is a comparatively new invention. The shackles were once on the men’s legs. It may be suspected that they are there still.
(Published May 23, 1920; The New York Times)