In utterly barbarous tribes the women have more power in choosing, rejecting, and tempting their lovers, or of afterwards changing their husbands, than might have been expected. As this is a point of some importance, I will give in detail such evidence as I have been able to collect.

Hearne describes how a woman in one of the tribes of Arctic America repeatedly ran away from her husband and joined her lover; and with the Charruas of S. America, according to Azara, divorce is quite optional. Amongst the Abipones, a man on choosing a wife bargains with the parents about the price. But ‘it frequently happens that the girl rescinds what has been agreed upon between the parents and the bridegroom, obstinately rejecting the very mention of marriage.’ She often runs away, hides herself, and thus eludes the bridegroom. Captain Musters who lived with the Patagonians, says that their marriages are always settled by inclination; ‘if the parents make a match contrary to the daughter’s will, she refuses and is never compelled to comply.’ In Tierra del Fuego a young man first obtains the consent of the parents by doing them some service, and then he attempts to carry off the girl; ‘but if she is unwilling, she hides herself in the woods until her admirer is heartily tired of looking for her, and gives up the pursuit; but this seldom happens.’ In the Fiji Islands the man seizes on the woman whom he wishes for his wife by actual or pretended force; but ‘on reaching the home of her abductor, should she not approve of the match, she runs to some one who can protect her; if, however, she is satisfied, the matter is settled forthwith.’ With the Kalmucks there is a regular race between the bride and bridegroom, the former having a fair start; and Clarke ‘was assured that no instance occurs of a girl being caught, unless she has a partiality to the pursuer.’ Amongst the wild tribes of the Malay Archipelago there is also a racing match; and it appears from M. Bourien’s account, as Sir J. Lubbock remarks, that ‘the race, “is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong” but to the young man who has the good fortune to please his intended bride.’ A similar custom, with the same result, prevails with the Koraks of North-Eastern Asia.

Turning to Africa: the Kafirs buy their wives, and girls are severely beaten by their fathers if they will not accept a chosen husband; but it is manifest from many facts given by the Rev. Mr. Shooter, that they have considerable power of choice. Thus very ugly, though rich men, have been known to fail in getting wives. The girls, before consenting to be betrothed, compel the men to shew themselves off first in front and then behind, and ‘exhibit their paces.’ They have been known to propose to a man, and they not rarely run away with a favoured lover. So again, Mr. Leslie, who was intimately acquainted with the Kafirs, says, ‘it is a mistake to imagine that a girl is sold by her father in the same manner, and with the same authority, with which he would dispose of a cow.’ Amongst the degraded Bushmen of S. Africa, ‘when a girl has grown up to womanhood without having been betrothed, which, however, does not often happen, her lover must gain her approbation, as well as that of the parents.’ Mr. Winwood Reade made inquiries for me with respect to the negroes of Western Africa, and he informs me that ‘the women, at least among the more intelligent Pagan tribes, have no difficulty in getting the husbands whom they may desire, although it is considered unwomanly to ask a man to marry them. They are quite capable of falling in love, and of forming tender, passionate, and faithful attachments.’ Additional cases could be given.

We thus see that with savages the women are not in quite so abject a state in relation to marriage as has often been supposed. They can tempt the men whom they prefer, and can sometimes reject those whom they dislike, either before or after marriage. Preference on the part of the women, steadily acting in any one direction, would ultimately affect the character of the tribe; for the women would generally choose not merely the handsomest men, according to their standard of taste, but those who were at the same time best able to defend and support them. Such well-endowed pairs would commonly rear a larger number of offspring than the less favoured. The same result would obviously follow in a still more marked manner if there was selection on both sides; that is, if the more attractive, and at the same time more powerful men were to prefer, and were preferred by, the more attractive women. And this double form of selection seems actually to have occurred, especially during the earlier periods of our long history.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 2nd ed., John Murray, London, 1874, pp. 912-915.

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