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"Patriarchy" (derived from patriarches ("chief or head of a family" in Greek) is a label for a society in which male is the favored gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privilege. That position is reinforced by societal and cultural norms, religious teachings, media portrayals of gender roles (specifically female inferiority), the use of perceived feminine characteristics as insults, and even formal definition of gender roles, including laws limiting women's rights.
Male power in a patriarchy can manifest itself at family, community, social and governmental levels. For example, in the family realm, fathers could have dominion over their unmarried daughters, husbands over their wives, and sons over widowed mothers. The "man of the house" makes the ultimate decisions on everything from size of family to the family budget to methods of discipline. In the patriarchal community, businesses are generally run by men and local leaders as well as respected elders are men. The social rules and norms are set and enforced by men. The formal definition of patriarchy as a form of government is of one controlled by men by designed limitation, be it functionally a theocracy, a monarchy, dictatorship or partial democracy with limited enfranchisement. Colloquially, critics can describe any government comprised disproportionately of men as a patriarchy, even full democracies.
Most, though not all patriarchies are/were patrilineal (property, name, or heritage goes from father to son). Judaism and Navaho culture provide examples of matrilineal descent and/or matrilineal property-transfer in largely patriarchal societies.
A majority of human societies of the last 2,000 or so years have been patriarchal. There is disagreement about earlier in history, with some proposing the existence of matriarchal or at least sex-egalitarian societies, and others suggesting this is a myth promoted by some feminists. Although it is disputed whether such societies ever represented a norm, there is strong evidence that in at least some cultures women had a relatively high status. Notable examples include the Berbers, most Tungusic and Mongolic peoples, and certain Native American tribes like the Hopi.
Gender roles and discrimination in patriarchies
Because patriarchy defines men as the rulers, men's and women's roles are strictly defined and, in a sense, enforced. Women must be seen as inferior, weaker, generally less capable, less intelligent, and less worthy. Their work is equally considered "lower." They are relegated to hearth and home. Cleaning, caring for the family, and serving the husband. In fact, in the rare instance that men do "the same work," the men get titled positions to distinguish that they are doing something "better" than women. They are chefs, to a woman's "cook." They are fashion designers to a woman's "seamstress."
But critically, the same pressure exists for men to conform to particular roles. One classic example (though not universal by any stretch) is that men must be tough and strong, must not cry, must not back down, must be willing to get into physical altercations to solve problems. Because of the need to have such rigid roles, patriarchies are largely intolerant of anyone who lives outside of the norm. This of course includes homosexual and transgender individuals, but also men who prefer intelligence or gentle persuasion to physical violence, men who wish to be involved fathers, or men who want to be primary caregivers. (Think "nurse" vs. "doctor.") In a patriarchal society individuals who do not conform to certain standards risk being marginalized.
Patriarchy and feminism
Recognizing and opposing patriarchy is a major theme in feminism. Feminist analysis points to the many aspects of patriarchy in society and how these are perpetuated, often subtly and unconsciously, in social norms and popular culture. Patriarchy is still pervasive and highly disempowering, and — despite the achievements of feminism — is still a powerful force in even the most modernized societies. Modern statistics (especially regarding student achievement, college graduation rates, and the political power of women's groups) support the idea that, while patriarchy is still around, things are gradually changing.
Criticism and denial
Patriarchy "skepticism" is common among "men's rights" advocates and other critics of feminism. Their basic argument seems to be "Feminism has been massively successful so far, and women make up 50% of the population, so they must already have equal power." (Oh, we're sorry, where's the first female POTUS? Oh, that's right; until 2012 only 8 women received more than 1,000 votes in a presidential primary and far fewer women have run than men.) To which, their counterargument would be: "Then, or somehow just a very small percent of women have voted, or women themselves have chosen men to represent them, even when a woman could have been elected." Anyhow, it's to be noted that even if a woman does gets elected as POTUS, that wouldn't mean we have got rid of Patriarchy, as the problem runs a lot deeper. Or even better, some generic, odd idea that women actually control society, as evidenced by the cries of their loss of power. We're all gonna die! There are some aspects of society in which men do have certain disadvantages, such as in the criminal justice system, or in certain historically female-dominated professions such as nursing; however the MRAs make the mistake of attributing this to the evils of feminism, rather than realizing that it is precisely because of patriarchal attitudes that such disadvantages exist.
A few especially insane MRAs, confused by the fact that higher life expectancy is commonly cited as evidence of the privilege of white people and/or residents of developed countries, attempt to argue that the higher life expectancy enjoyed by women since the early 20th century (when death from childbirth became less common) is evidence that women are a privileged group.
It should be clear from the foregoing that 'patriarchy' is, at best, an umbrella term applicable to the wide span of human cultures in which men take precedence over women in public, and sometimes private, life.
Throughout history, societies have varied quite a bit in how many legal rights were granted to women. Societies also differed in which people enjoyed certain rights — for example, high-class women could enjoy more (and certainly different) legal rights relative to low-class males. Though, ceteris paribus, women always drew the shortest straw in society.
Herodotus was shocked to learn that Egyptian women participated in public life, were judges in the local courts, and had the right to borrow money and trade in property in their own names. Still, Egypt was a patriarchy under the broad sense; when Hatshepsut became pharaoh, she donned a false beard.
In one sense, patriarchy would appear to be a human universal of sorts. Societies without extensive social stratification may be quite egalitarian, but even there social roles are divided by genders. The converse, "matriarchy", exists only in myth and legend. They appear in the pseudohistorical accounts of Robert Graves (the White Goddess) and Marija Gimbutas, and in myths such as that of the Amazons.
In the nineteenth century, a body of pseudohistory obtained in which it was imagined that early human beings were ignorant of the relationship between sexual intercourse and paternity. J. J. Bachofen and Friedrich Engels published speculative anthropology in this vein. According to this legend, the discovery of fatherhood started a social revolution in which men tried to control women sexually to guarantee that the children they bore were truly their own.
In fact, no human culture has been discovered that is ignorant of paternity, though their explanations of how it works differ widely before the advent of microscopic biology. Beliefs that paternity was somehow unknown to our ancestors at some stage no longer command much respect in anthropology. The belief was fostered by inadequate protocols for field work. When strangers come to town and ask where babies come from, you'll tell them about storks and cabbages.
Modern women are under various social restrictions which seek to regulate their participation in public life — including for important leadership roles, military participation, etc. Scholars point to this society or that where lineages were traced through maternal, as opposed to paternal, lines (e.g. in contemporary Judaism) or where women held hereditary offices. Matrilinearity is no token of the absence of patriarchy.
In fact, in all societies where social stratification exists to the extent that differences in status between human beings become apparent, men predominate in formal leadership positions — even where women face no formal barriers to entry. In abrahamitic theocracies especially, men regularly control the private lives of women as well.
While equal representation of the sexes in political positions is one important component of a progressive and equal society, it's not a good indicator (when taken by iyself) of the state of patriarchy in a wider nation.
Aside from success stories like Sweden or Iceland, a few of the countries in which women hold political office at rates even close to parity remain rather unusual. Rwanda and Bolivia are outliers as the only nations with legislatures containing more women than men. And no one claims that the social structures of Rwanda or Bolivia are not patriarchal.
To sum up:
- if the definition of patriarchy is any society where "male is the favored gender, and in which men hold power, dominion and privilege", and
- if predominance of men in public, formal leadership is evidence that males are favored for positions of power, formally or informally;
then every human society that has those roles is a patriarchy. No sufficiently complex society has ever not been a patriarchy. The converse, where female is the favored gender, and where women hold most public positions of power, is something that has never existed in any human culture. Patriarchy therefore is a strong candidate for being a human universal.
It's easy to assert that there is widespread assumption of gender roles, and that those assumptions hurt women. But there is also evidence to support the claim. A June 2014 study corroborated this notion in the realm of negotiation. The study found that popular stereotypes that women are easier to manipulate continue to persist, and that in almost exactly the same percentage of the population as these perceptions hold, more men are willing to lie to women than men in contract negotiations. This is one measurable, clear way in which a systemic bias harms women specifically.
- Note how Ancient Greeks sneered at "effeminate" Ancient Persian men for wearing trousers: Mayor, Adrienne (2014). "12: Who Invented Trousers?". The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 195. ISBN 9781400865130. https://books.google.com/books?id=rboWBAAAQBAJ. Retrieved 2017-10-08. "[...] Xenophon, who was personally familiar with Persian riding clothes, did not advise Greek riders to wear trousers. [...] For the classical Greeks the very idea of trousers evoked anxiety and ambivalence - they were just 'too foreign.' Even Alexander the Great, who irritated his soldiers by enthusiastically adopting Persian-style dress after his conquests, never took up trousers. The Greeks derided the barbarians' trousers as 'effeminate,' a sign of weakness, mocking them as ridiculous [...]."
- The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Cynthia Eller
- The Genocide of Matriarchal Societies, Daily Kos, 2007
- See the Wikipedia article on Gender roles among the indigenous peoples of North America.
- The world's fastest patriarchy disproof, Josh O'Brien, A voice for men, March 12, 2014
- What is Patriarchy?, New Left Project
- Ptahhotep, trans. John A. Wilson. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to The Old Testament. James B. Pritchard, ed. Princeton University Press, 1950. 412
- See the Wikipedia article on Amazons.
- See generally Bachofen, Johann Jakob, Das Mutterrecht: Eine Untersuchung ub̈er die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach ihrer religiösen und rechtlichen Natur ("Mother-Right: An inquiry into the gynarchy of the old world according to its religious and legal character") (Krais & Hoffmann, 1861)
- Engels, Friedrich The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, (1884); see generally ch. 2, "Family"
- See generally Eller, Cynthia (2011). Gentlemen and Amazons: The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, 1861–1900. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Women in National Parliaments, International Parliamentary Union (2017)
- See generally Goldberg, Steven. Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance. Chicago, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1993.
- Gender stereotypes about women's ease of being misled predict negotiator deception