Early in January 2014, a U.K. press report highlighted a statistical imbalance in the ratio of male and female children among certain ethnic minority communities in Britain that suggested that female fetuses were being systematically aborted. Interviews that accompanied the report gave a picture of enormous social and cultural pressure on the women of these communities to produce sons rather than daughters (Connor, 2014). Whatever the truth behind the statistics, the pressure to produce male children instead of females is a disturbing manifestation of patriarchy, a state of affairs that is as widespread as it is pernicious. This article explores some of its ramifications.

Definition: What Is Patriarchy?

There are a number of definitions of the term “patriarchy,” some of which are more specific than others but not all of which are relevant to the modern enterprise of gender studies. In political thought “patriarchy” has traditionally denoted a hierarchical society in which power resides in the male property-owning father-figure both at the familial level and by extension or parallel at the state level. Thus, a man has legal power over his wife, his children, and his servants/slaves, who are regarded as his property alongside his land; the fathers of the state—that is, its governors and the head of state who are likewise free property-owning males—wield equivalent power over the rest of the state, which consists not only of elite males but also of women and other subordinate classes including non-propertied males. This explains the origin of the term “patriarchy,” which etymologically means the “rule of the father.” Ancient Roman society is a good example of a patriarchal constitution, and the picture given in the Hebrew scriptures of society in Iron Age Israel is likewise patriarchal: the biblical legal codes are addressed to males throughout and conceive of men alone as the legal actors, even at one point listing women alongside house, oxen, asses, and servants as men’s property (Exod 20:17). In addition, the sign of the covenant between God and Israel of which the laws are supposedly an expression is male circumcision (Gen 17:9–11), which excludes women.

In addition to this strictly political definition, however, patriarchy is also conceived of more widely to refer to a system in which males in general are privileged over women in general. Understood in this sense, the concept of patriarchy has been widely used in feminist writing, and feminists in many areas of study have made it their job to show how the workings of such patriarchy have blighted, and continue to blight, the lives of women. A helpful definition of patriarchy is given by the feminist theorist Sylvia Walby: it is “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Walby, 1990, p. 20). This definition is sufficiently specific to capture the essence of patriarchy, but sufficiently general to be exemplified in a range of situations. Another definition, framed in terms of a description of what it means to be patriarchal, comes from Allan Johnson: “A society is patriarchal to the degree that it promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women” (Johnson, 2005, p. 5; emphasis in original). The key characteristic of patriarchy, as Judith Bennett (2006, pp. 57–58) points out, is that it refers to a situation in which women as women are subordinated or disadvantaged in relation to men of the same class. It is not a claim that all women are subordinated to all men, which is clearly not the case; rather, it highlights the fact that women are routinely and systematically disadvantaged in comparison to their male peers. In this sense it is not simply a question of individual males’ attitudes toward or treatment of women, nor a question of how individual men or women fare in relation to an absolute standard of power, wealth, or self-determination. Rather, it is about the overarching patterns of advantage and disadvantage that are produced by prevailing attitudes toward males and females and by expectations of how they ought to relate to each other and to wider society. These attitudes and expectations may or may not be explicitly enshrined in law, but they are often implicit in the way that laws are framed and are often more determinative than the law for how individuals behave.


In considering how patriarchy functions to disadvantage women, it is important to note that gender-based subordination frequently interacts with other systems of subordination or disadvantage such as those based on race, social class, or religion, thereby creating a range of oppressions that affect certain groups of women disproportionately. The system of disadvantage is therefore much more complex than simply being a question of binary opposition between men and women, since as Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out it has often been the case that women of color or of lower social status have experienced more oppression from privileged (white) women than from men of their own group, such white women serving as the conduits for patriarchal values (Schüssler Fiorenza, 1992, pp. 114, 123). Hence, to highlight these other dimensions of oppression that are an integral part of patriarchy but are rendered invisible when focusing purely on gender-based oppressions, Schüssler Fiorenza coined the term “kyriarchy” as an alternative to “patriarchy.” If patriarchy is the rule of the father, kyriarchy is the rule of the master (or kyrios). Like “patriarchy,” the term “kyriarchy” refers to a system of dualistic oppositions that justifies the domination of certain groups by certain other groups, and it certainly includes the domination of females by males. However, it goes beyond gendered domination to refer to a hegemonic male’s domination of men and women whom kyriarchal logic has constructed as inferior by definition on account of their racial or social or religious identity.

Moreover, the term recognizes that women who are members of the elite classes are equally capable of behaving in an oppressive manner toward women and men from those classes that are constructed as inferior. This is a critique that has become particularly pointed with the rise of postcolonial perspectives in scholarship, but that is also reflected in the development of womanism and mujerista theology, two modes of feminist activism that originated among women in the United States. Womanism is a critique of patriarchal/kyriarchal oppression from the perspective of women of color, and as well as highlighting gender-based oppression it addresses issues of race and class that are overlooked by white “elite” feminism. The term “womanist” was coined by African American writer and activist Alice Walker in 1983. Similarly, mujerista theology was established by Ada María Isazi-Díaz in 1987 as a liberational critique that speaks to the experiences of Hispanic women, who in a majority white society are also often oppressed economically and racially as well as on the grounds of their sex.


A fundamental characteristic of patriarchy/kyriarchy is androcentrism, or male-centeredness. Schüssler Fiorenza defines androcentrism as “a linguistic structure and theoretical perspective in which man or male represents the human” (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2013, p. 102); according to her analysis, “androcentrism characterizes a ‘mind-set’,” whereas “patriarchy represents a socio-cultural system in which a few men have power over other men, women, children, slaves, and colonized people” (Schüssler Fiorenza, 2013, p. 60). Androcentrism results in the privileging of male interests because it takes the male as the default human being and arranges systems on that basis. As Bem puts it, “males and male experience are treated as a neutral standard or norm for the culture or the species as a whole, and females and female experience are treated as a sex-specific deviation from that allegedly universal standard” (Bem, 1993, p. 41).

Androcentrism is strongly disadvantageous to women in a host of different ways. For example, many career paths in Western capitalist economies assume a pattern of work whereby the employee works consistently long hours on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis, and the greatest rewards (salary and promotion) and securities (pension and other welfare benefits, job security) accrue to those who are able to fulfill such a commitment. But this is a pattern of employment and progress that is based on a male model, in that it makes no allowance for career breaks such as those that are required for childbearing or for the flexibility of working hours that is often needed to manage child-care responsibilities. It is true that in these days of increased awareness of women’s rights and equal opportunities, in the United Kingdom employers are legally required to grant maternity leave to women and are not allowed to discriminate against women when recruiting. However, the fact remains that the basic pattern of work assumes a male employee who will not need accommodation for family matters because he has a female partner at home to take care of them. This means that women who do need such accommodation are of necessity disadvantaged in employment and often find themselves faring significantly worse than men in recruitment, in career progress, and in the consequent job-related securities. Indeed, even women who do not actually need accommodation for child care and family responsibilities can be disadvantaged because of an ingrained sense that careers are for men and women should not deprive men of what is rightfully theirs.

Some sense of the disadvantaging of women in career terms can be gained from a briefing paper for the British House of Commons dated 31 May 2013, which gives statistics about the representation of women in public life and the professions (Cracknell, 2013). Taking the university sector as an example, the statistics show that although the number of female academic staff has increased rapidly since 1994, in 2011–2012 women made up only 20 percent of full professors and 39 percent of all other academics. This is despite the fact that according to the statistics compiled by the Government’s Higher Education Statistics Agency, 56.4 percent of all students in university-level education in the United Kingdom in 2011–2012 were female. In this as in other areas, therefore, women are disproportionately concentrated at the lower end of the career ladder.


One of the most vexing issues relating to patriarchy is how it originated. This is important, because if patriarchy and the abuses associated with it are not to be regarded as simply the inevitable result of human beings’ essential gendered biological characteristics, there must have been a time when patriarchy did not exist; and this in turn means that it must have had a beginning in time. Gerda Lerner is not alone among feminist theorists in locating the origins of patriarchy—at least for Western civilization—in the move away from tribal societies (who sustained their existence by means of subsistence horticulture and hunting) toward statehood. She postulates a number of factors in the shift toward male dominance of women: (1) the development of animal husbandry, most probably by men, which would have resulted in surpluses of animal products such as pelts for the men who carried it out; (2) the development of agriculture, which was labor-intensive, required a larger workforce, involved activities such as ploughing that were unsuitable for women with children, and generated some surpluses for those (again, probably men) who carried it out; (3) intertribal warfare during times of scarcity, which would have resulted in increased status for the male combatants and their acquisition of surpluses as the result of conquest; and (4) the exchange of women between tribes, which would have served to stabilize intertribal relationships and also to facilitate generation of the larger workforce needed for agricultural subsistence but that contributed toward viewing women and/or their reproductive capacity as commodities. These developments eventually came together in the emergence of archaic states, in which kinship alliances were replaced by class divisions dependent on who owned what and who was in control of the distribution of surpluses. This would locate the beginnings of patriarchy around seven thousand years ago (Lerner, 1986, pp. 36–53; see also Gross, 2009, pp. 165–167; Johnson, 2005, pp. 70–75). Although this might seem an inordinately long period of time over which patriarchy has been operative, it is nevertheless relatively short in the context of the whole of human history and prehistory, suggesting that the development of patriarchy was a response to changes in external circumstances and environment rather than an expression of an innate aspect of human genetic makeup whereby men “naturally” dominate women.

Indeed, archaeological and anthropological studies have provided ample evidence for non-patriarchal societies in which complementary roles for males and females accompany an equitable distribution of power and resources among women and men. Richard Lee and Richard Daly cite the precolonial Native American Iroquois and the modern-day !Kung of Botswana as two examples of tribal hunter-gatherer societies in which men and women have separate roles but equal access to resources. Such societies function largely on the basis of kin groups and would be inoperable without the equal participation of men and women. In terms of food production, men are the hunters, while women gather and grow plants and vegetables, work that can be done along with children. However, the unpredictable nature of hunting means that it is impossible to survive simply on what the men catch, so that for the !Kung people meat is a supplement to the diet rather than its mainstay (Lee and Daly, 1987, pp. 34–35). In such societies, then, women with their horticultural food production play a major and active role in the survival and well-being of the community alongside the men. On the assumption that a similar lifestyle and division of labor would have existed in pre-patriarchal tribal societies, women would also probably have been responsible for a number of technical innovations related to their work of food production, such as basket-weaving and pottery, in order to create means of carrying and storing their produce. They would also have possessed significant knowledge in matters such as healing based on plant pharmaceutical products.

Two features of these societal models should be noted. First, they should not be regarded as matriarchal. Matriarchy is simply an inversion of patriarchal hierarchy that elevates women at the expense of men, whereas these societies are more accurately regarded as egalitarian or (somewhat less idealistically) as non-patriarchal. They do not evidence a privileging of women over and above men; rather, they demonstrate a collaboration between men and women in which both parties share in the tasks that are vital to the well-being of the community as a whole, assisting each other in their respective tasks where necessary and having equal access to the means and fruits of production.

To date, there is no known evidence for a matriarchal society in which women dominated men as men dominate women under patriarchy. Although theorists from the nineteenth-century such as the Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen (1815–1887) onward have argued for pre-patriarchal matriarchies (Bachofen’s book Das Mutterrecht was published in 1861), this is not a widely accepted position even among feminist scholars. Indeed, Bachofen’s ideas have been discredited because of the mistaken basis for his argument: he assumed that myths such as the Orestes cycle or the defeat of the Amazonian women in which female principles were subjected by males reflected some kind of historical reality: instead of the overthrow of a primordial matriarchy, they may instead be an expression of subliminal anxieties and conflicts in the present (Davies, 2005, pp. 505–506). Not even more recent theorists who are strongly pro-women in their interpretation of the archaeological and other evidence have argued for matriarchies in the full sense. Marija Gimbutas is a good example of a scholar whose controversial and expansively woman-friendly reconstructions of prehistoric society in Old Europe have nevertheless urged an egalitarian rather than a strictly matriarchal society (Gimbutas, 1991). Gimbutas has been criticized for her overly utopian and sweeping reconstructions and for reading too much into the available evidence (Gross, 2009, p. 162; Hogenson, 1991; Thornton, 1999), but even she eschews a matriarchy proper, arguing instead for a matrifocal and matrilineal society centered on worship of the Great Goddess, who was peaceful rather than aggressive and confrontational.

There is general agreement, then, that matriarchy proper has never existed. The precise contours of these non-patriarchal societies would of course have varied from context to context, but all would have operated on the basic principles of shared and cooperative labor and comparable access to skills and resources for both males and females. The fact that such societies have existed and do still exist in some areas indicates that patriarchy is not an inevitable result of the human genetic makeup, but that it is a contingent response to particular historical circumstances and so should be possible to terminate, given the appropriate circumstances.

Biological Factors: Is Patriarchy Natural?

The preceding text has indicated that patriarchy should not be seen as biologically determined; it is not the result of immutable and fixed characteristics of men and women that compel humans to interact in ways that subordinate females to males. However, there remains a popular assumption—and indeed, some scientists continue to argue—that there is a biological element to patriarchy; that it is natural for women to be subordinate to men because men are naturally stronger, more dominant, more aggressive, and more intelligent, whereas women are naturally weaker, more passive, more self-effacing and nurturing, and less intelligent. Such assumptions have been common in the West for millennia, largely due to the mistaken and misogynistic speculations of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.), whose ideas about the physical and mental constitution of women pervaded the Greco-Roman society in which Christianity was born and nurtured and which were adopted by the exponents of this new religion in their dogmatic speculations. Perhaps most famously, Aristotle considered the female to be a “mutilated male” (On the Generation of Animals II.3), a concept that was later repeated by the mediaeval Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologia 92.1. Aristotle also regarded the human female as inferior to the male, made to be ruled by the male (Politics I.5, 12, 13), and as having a smaller brain than the male (On the Parts of Animals II.7).

Even though Aristotle’s ideas about the physiology of women have been refuted by modern science, the gender stereotypes and prejudices generated by Aristotelian thought have endured in Western society because of their incorporation into Christianity. As a result, even though there is enormous variety among both men as a class and women as a class in terms of their actual physical, emotional, and intellectual characteristics, and even though men and women as classes are emotionally and intellectually comparable and equally capable of undertaking strenuous physical activity, many modern paradigms distinguish emphatically between men and women and form the basis of human socialization from birth. These paradigms are patriarchal in that they conceive of men as physically, intellectually, and socially dominant and women as more delicate, less capable, and made for childbearing and supporting roles. Sadly, advances in biological knowledge have had little effect on deep-rooted, prejudicial ideas about women’s basic inferiority to men, and it is this witting or unwitting refusal to accept the possibility of women’s comparability to men that fuels the arguments to prove that patriarchy is biologically determined. Indeed, as Carmen Schifellite (1987) argues, such attitudes may well even influence the way that research is undertaken and how its results are interpreted.

Gender roles.

As noted previously, patriarchy dictates appropriate behavior for males and females and depends on a strong fundamental differentiation between the two. Indeed, without the maintenance of hierarchical divisions between males and females, patriarchy could not function. While roles for men and women in patriarchal societies are often presented as natural accommodations to each sex’s innate predispositions, more recent theorizing has distinguished biological sex from social gender, highlighting the constructed nature of gender as learned and inculcated by constant repetition from an early age. In British or American society, one only needs to think of rough-and-tumble girls being reprimanded for not being ladylike, or of boys being taunted as “girls” for crying or lacking in sporting prowess, to recognize the constant conditioning process for making male and female human beings conform to ideal constructions of masculinity and femininity. Gender-role socialization begins from birth with the toys and clothing colors that the newborn is given, and adults often treat male and female children differently in ways that affect the children’s self-perception—for example, by playing more roughly with boys than with girls even at a very early age (see Bem, 1993, p. 34), and encouraging boys to be noisy and active but girls to be quiet and restrained. Because the gender socialization process is so pervasive, it is extremely difficult to determine how much gender-stereotypical behavior is the result of innate predisposition or of socialization. Some individuals may have the innate predispositions deemed appropriate to their sex, but the argument that sexually differentiated behavior emerges from such predispositions is unjustifiable. The realities that gender-role socialization must be learned and continually reinforced and that the standards of acceptable behavior for “men” and “women” differ from place to place clearly indicate how unnatural gender norms are.

Like other systems of oppression such as slavery, patriarchy persists partly as a result of collusion of those who are oppressed with the system that oppresses them. It is certainly true that women internalize and perpetuate patriarchal values just as strongly as men. Supporters of patriarchal values often claim that women themselves reject feminist demands such as the right to work on an equal basis with men or claims for reproductive rights such as contraception and abortion. Stereotypical patriarchal values about female sexual purity are inculcated into daughters by their mothers, even to the extent that in some African, Asian, and Middle Eastern societies mothers perpetuate practices such as female genital mutilation in order to keep their daughters eligible for marriage (see WHO Fact Sheet No, 241, 2013). Such acceptance of patriarchal practices, however, is a survival mechanism, particularly in societies where women are entirely dependent on men for financial support; although women might wish to change or resist the structures, the very nature of the structures that leave them without power or independent access to resources prevents them from doing so.

Patriarchy and Sexuality.

Not only is gender constructed along patriarchal lines; the duality of biological sex itself is likewise a patriarchal construct. Bodies are commonly identified as male or female on the basis of the reproductive organs they possess, but there are significant numbers of individuals who have indeterminate genitalia and cannot be readily identified as one sex or the other. In addition, some perceive themselves to be in the wrong body (i.e., men who perceive themselves as women, and vice versa) and some persons find that their bodies may fit one sex profile in terms of genital identity but another in terms of other characteristics such as height, strength, body hair, breast development, and so on. Biological sex is therefore much more accurately regarded as a continuum or spectrum than as a dichotomy between male (strong, superior) and female (weak, inferior). As is the case with gender, the constructedness of patriarchal dualistic sexuality can be seen from the enormous amounts of time and money that are spent by both men and women on physical training and medical and cosmetic procedures to make their bodies conform more closely to the supposed norms for their sex. Bodies of “men” and “women” do not just happen; they are painstakingly created and carefully maintained.

Homosexuality, prostitution, double standards.

Given this painstaking cultivation of dualistic sexuality both in terms of gender roles and biological sex, it is understandable that patriarchy cannot tolerate deviations from the model, such as homosexuality or lesbianism, that destabilize it. Men whose sexual desire is for another man and women who desire another woman both undermine patriarchal constructions of hegemonic masculinity by highlighting the fragility of such constructions. Gay men threaten “real” men both by putting other men in the position of women—that is, under sexual scrutiny from someone of equal or possibly greater power—and by allowing themselves to be used as women (that is, as the receptive partner in sexual congress). Gay women threaten “real” men by being unreceptive to their sexual advances. Gays and lesbians blur the boundaries of sex and gender, and in patriarchal terms they embody a feminization of patriarchal heterosexual masculinity.

Patriarchal sexuality, then, is configured in exclusively heterosexual terms, in which males have the prerogative of sexual initiative and sexual dominance. Such norms create distinctive configurations of both male and female sexuality: female sexuality is regarded as belonging to males, and male virility is measured in the number of female conquests a male can achieve. It thus promotes a notorious double standard of patriarchal sexuality whereby males are entitled, even expected, to have free sexual access to multiple women while women are expected to maintain virginity before marriage and chastity within it; they can be severely punished for failing to do so, even when their supposed failure is the result of coercion. The tension between these incompatible expectations for male sexual access and female sexual seclusion is resolved to some extent by means of prostitution, which allows males to have sexual access to a wide range of women while their own women remain chaste. Because of her sexual availability the prostitute is thus a despised but necessary figure in the patriarchal construction of sexuality. The effect of this construction of male–female relationships is to separate the recreative, pleasurable aspects of female sexuality from its reproductive, mothering aspects, so that women are defined as either mothers or whores, and female sexual pleasure is associated with unchastity. The biblical story of the patriarch Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar (Gen 38) is a good example of this double standard: Judah is perfectly happy to visit a prostitute himself, but when he hears that his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar is pregnant because of prostitution he orders her to be burnt.

Patriarchy and Religion.

The discussion thus far has focused on social expressions of patriarchy and the human elements in it. However, the religious dimension of patriarchy is also noteworthy. It is fairly widely agreed that a society’s religious systems will reflect and legitimize its social ideals, and so it is not surprising that patriarchal societies often have strong male divinities. Nonetheless, societies whose pantheons include female as well as male deities are not necessarily less patriarchal; female deities in a polytheistic pantheon can be allocated to quite subservient positions, and the chief deity can be a male with a consort, thus modeling patriarchal marriage notions. Even the presence of powerful female deities in a mixed pantheon does not in itself guarantee an egalitarian social structure; the religious systems of ancient Greece and Rome, for example, included powerful female as well as male deities, and yet both societies were highly patriarchal. However, on the positive side, the presence of goddesses creates an association between woman and the divine and gives space for women as religious actors. A good example of this is the festival known as the Thesmophoria celebrated by women (more precisely, the wives of citizens) in ancient Athens in honor of the earth mother goddess Demeter and her daughter Kore or Persephone. The rites appear to have involved sacrificing pigs, which symbolized female sexuality (Parker, 2007, p. 275), letting them rot in a pit together with imitation male genitals made of dough, and collecting some of the remains of the previous year’s pig and dough offerings to spread on the fields at sowing time (pp. 272–273). According to Robert Parker, the festival, from which men were specifically excluded, gave its female participants the glory of being in charge of the rites on which the fertility of the fields depended—no small privilege—as well as relating to women’s own fertility (pp. 279–280).


If polytheism provides some mitigation for women of patriarchal structures, however, there is a strong link between monotheism and the enforcement of patriarchal societal values. Indeed, monotheism itself is almost always patriarchal; until the emergence of the modern Western goddess movement in the late twentieth century, a female monotheistic deity was unknown. The three main monotheistic religions of the current era—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all have a lone male deity who embodies the principles of divinity and takes upon himself the functions of both male and female but who in his controlling and organizing function is most readily seen as male. This is highly significant, for in the famous words of Mary Daly, if God is male, then the male is god (Daly, 1973, p. 19). By having a male monotheistic deity, masculinity is associated with divinity, strength, control, and divine right, whereas femininity is associated with humanity, weakness, fallibility, and the need to be controlled and to obey. The idea of female inferiority is thereby given divine sanction, making it much harder to combat in environments where patriarchal monotheism is a significant factor.


Patriarchy is, then, a complex, multifaceted and all-encompassing phenomenon that permeates the fabric of many a modern society and has a strongly detrimental effect on the well-being of millions. Even though much progress has been made in Western societies such as the United Kingdom and the United States toward challenging patriarchal structures and correcting the balance of injustice, there is still a long way to go. Legal reforms are to be welcomed, but often they can only address the symptoms of patriarchy rather than treating its cause, which is in the deeply engrained attitudes of both men and women. Real change will come about only with a change of attitude, together with a commitment from those who wield political and especially economic power, to enable a more egalitarian state of affairs.




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Deborah W. Rooke