Men dominating power structures in societies across the globe? Women not being allowed to vote until the 1920s or own a credit card until the 1970s? Bodies of females being objectified by males / media / everybody? Women making on average 83 cents on the dollar to what men make (a gap that is thankfully shrinking as time progresses)? The “mental load” and automatic assumption of childcare duties that women so frequently take on?
Yes to all of these. But before we dive deeper into what the patriarchy is, I want to offer my brief description as a way to frame our thinking.
The patriarchy is a social system where men believe (consciously or not) they are entitled to control and power over women. This belief is reflected at a societal level with who is able to hold power, and who gets to live in a society that functions according to their needs. Most men, of course, would not express this belief out loud or even at a conscious level whatsoever (except maybe abusers, but even then, they have a thousand justifications for their behavior). But even without consciously believing this, men can be completely comfortable operating in a society that operates for their privilege, ignoring how this excludes women from power.
Where did the patriarchy come from?
I found myself curious about the actual origins of the patriarchy, realizing how little I knew, having never studied feminist theory or anything of the like. This is an important question because the origins of the patriarchy – or researchers’ best guesses about it– tell us a lot about how to address it. Was it something that came about because of natural order and this is how things should always be? Was it something created by systems of power? Let’s poke around and see.
I first went to the good old dictionary to learn the standard definition of what it is. One was about patrilineal descent: family lineage is traced through the males and the father or oldest male is the “head of household.” The second definition encompassed more of what I was thinking about, though: a system of society in which “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” (Oxford Languages).
Next I did some light research about the patriarchy’s origins. According to this New Science article, a shift occurred about 12,000 years ago when societies began to shift from hunter-gatherer to agrarian. With the shift to farming, women more often would move to join male partners on his land (as evidenced by DNA markers). A “patrilocal” society in which location revolves around the male (and the female moves to his home) favors men. Kind of like how your family will always be Team You instead of your partner, males in a patrilocal society have an advantage. The shift to farming also meant that men’s bigger size and greater strength offered more of an advantage as they defended their resources and land and passed it down through male lineage.
Another oft-cited perspective, compatible with the one above, comes from the historian Dr. Gerda Lerner. She wrote a book on the topic: The Creation of Patriarchy (1986). According to her research, patriarchy initially rose out of biological differences that were relevant during a certain time period of human development. Humans had shorter lifespans and women needed to procreate a lot and then nurse the babies so the tribe could continue to survive. (Women were also much more likely to die in this process, of course). But Dr. Lerner is clear to say that the needs of that particular era morphed into something of a “natural law” when in fact, it doesn’t have to be that way.
What began as a biological division of labor morphed into oppression due to societal forces, however. Dr. Lerner explains how the practices of exchanging women among tribes as brides and selling women in slavery helped found the oppressive system we now think of as patriarchy. Through such practices, women began to be seen as being unequal and having fewer rights than men. They were seen instead as property that males were entitled to.
Sounds to me like an innocent division of labor based on biology (in particular, biological needs of a specific era) became easily corrupted by the pursuit of power and wealth. Meanwhile, biology and “natural law” continued to be given as reasons for this systemic oppression.
The idea of women being considered property that men are entitled to really reminded me of a book I’m reading for my counseling practice: Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft (who is, by the way, a man – I did not realize this until partway through the book!). The author describes many patterns of abusive men (acknowledging both partners can be abusive but the vast majority of the time, the male exhibits these tendencies due to inherent power differentials in our society). The abuse most often boils down to some version of this idea: the abusing partner believes they are entitled to controlling / dominating their partner.
This is why I can, and could, never get behind the idea of “complementarianism” in evangelicalism / conservative Christianity. This is the idea that men are the sex chosen by God to lead, to be the authority, to dominate. Conversely, women are not. I’m sure many men in these marriages do a great job (not that I would know from direct experience, but I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt). But having the idea planted in your head that you are entitled to power and domination over another person – moreover, an entire class of people (See also Exhibit A: racism) just seems a bit… dangerous, you know?
So, as much as anti-feminists might be confused about this, feminism does not seek to dominate men. I know, it’s a confusing feeling to share power when you’re used to owning it all.
Established power hates to give up power.
I’ll end with a lighthearted note (also, minor spoiler alert for the new Ghostbusters movie). In the original Ghostbusters, the Bill Murray character is, quite obviously, a predatory, sexually exploitative character who is acting as a college professor who also works hard to seduce attractive female students. In one scene, he is trying to charm female student Sigourney Weaver by (falsely) praising her telepathic abilities while administering electric shocks to her male counterpart who supposedly doesn’t have such skill.
In the new movie (which I loved, as opposed to the original!), there is an end scene in which Sigourney Weaver is administering the same telepathic test to Bill Murray. When he admits he cheated, she freely administers electric shocks to him.
I’m pretty nonviolent and all, but it felt like some sweet, sweet justice. The 1984 Ghostbusters version did not age well with its antiquated, offensive gender dynamics (and portrayals of attempted sexual exploitation). I’m glad we have evolved beyond that as a society, though these dynamics still exist (just not so much on the big screen). But being able to see the Bill Murray character be held a tiny bit accountable and pay, in a small way, for the errors of his past?