CLIO TALKS BACK: What’s the Matter with Reckoning Descent Through the Mothers?

The well-educated Englishman known as James de Laurence (whose real name was James Henry Lawrence, 1773-1841) had the bright idea in the early 1830s of proposing that descent and succession be credited to the mother’s side – what he called “umbilical descent”. Long an advocate of women’s rights, Laurence published a small pamphlet in Paris (1831) called Les enfants de Dieu, which he then published in English as The Children of God (1833).

The pamphlet opened with this drawing, entitled “Descente ombilicale des Enfans de Dieu,” or “Navel string Descent of the Children of God.”

Laurence explained the drawing in the following words:
“The umbilical Table shews what would have been the descent of mankind but for the indiscretion of Eve. Eve is painted above with her children united to her body by their navel strings: the sons upright, because they never lie in; the daughters reclining, to produce other children. 
In every son, the navel string ceases, and consequently there is no continuation of his body; but from the daughters descend other sons who die out, and daughters who produce other children in their time. 
Several females, however, are represented childless, and two are departing with their issue to people other parts of the globe. 
The navel string being cut, every individual is as it were an island; could the navel strings have remained uncut, the whole race would form a continent, and every indivieual have his place like a horse harnessed in a team, or a soldier in battle array. 
By the umbilical string, every individual might trace his descent through a line of mothers to mother Eve.” 
Calling this new understanding of descent “Tokology,” Laurence insisted that Genealogy understood as lineage through the fathers (as presented in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, Chapter 3: “Genealogy of the Patriarchs”) and claimed to be the only possible understanding, was a mere “pretension.” Paternity was problematic, he asserted; only maternity could be documented. “A mother is the editor of the child – she alone can know who is the author. The navel string is the stalk that unites the fruit to the tree. How vain are the researches of the herald that are conducted by any other clue.” Clearly, Laurence was thinking against the grain by questioning customary “truth.”

With one dramatic claim, Lawrence challenged the preconceived, male-centered knowledge of his day by arguing for descent through the mothers. For most, this was a shockingly new way of thinking and it represented a big step forward in elevating the status of nineteenth-century European women.

Clio finds Laurence’s proposal most intriguing – “good to think with” – precisely because it puts women back into human history, at its very center. In fact, early feminists found his challenge to conventional wisdom very stimulating; they influenced the Saint-Simonian women of 1830s France among others throughout the following century.

 What do you think of Laurence’s Tokology? Why Not Umbilical Descent?

Source: James de Laurence, The Children of God, or the Religion of Jesus Reconciled with Philosophy, written originally in French (London, 1833).