In the excerpt below from his timely new book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men, Robert Jensen challenges men not just to reject patriarchy, but also to embrace feminism. More than articulating a cogent argument cataloguing the terrible harm patriarchy inflicts on women—and its poisonous impact on men—Jensen shares his own awakening to feminism through insights he first began having more than three decades ago. He invites men to confront our fear of giving up privilege as a necessary step to take on the road to an egalitarian, feminist-informed future—a world where men can be free.
Three decades of paying close attention to cultural/political/ economic/ecological trends in U.S. society leave me more persuaded than ever that radical feminist analyses are the most compelling account of the sex/gender system available, and are crucial to a much-needed comprehensive radical analysis of the unjust and unsustainable systems that define the world today.
Rather than weigh in on all the theoretical debates that have surfaced in feminism in recent decades, I will sketch the framework that has helped me grapple with sex/gender issues, renewing my introductory disclaimer: In trying to understand how to organize my own life, I come to judgments about the nature of the society in which I live from a position of considerable privilege, and others may deem those judgments wrong or objectionable. But claiming that someone with privilege shouldn’t speak about his intellectual positions and political conclusions because of those disagreements—in this case, a man speaking about patriarchy and feminism—would, paradoxically, let privileged people off the hook for defending their political and moral decisions. Every day all of us—men and women—make decisions on how to act in the world based on an analysis of the sex/gender system, whether or not we articulate that analysis in public or are even aware of our analysis. In my view, it’s more productive to disagree openly and defend one’s assumptions, definitions, evidence, and logic.
Patriarchy, from Greek, meaning “rule of the father,” can be narrowly understood as the organization of a human community (from a family to a larger society) that gives a male ruler dominance over other men, and overall gives men control over women. More generally, patriarchy is used to describe various systems of institutionalized male dominance, though some historians argue that the term should not be used so generally, that patriarchy is “father domination” based on generational authority and a specific conception of family power, which is just one form of male dominance.
While patriarchal systems developed thousands of years ago, the contemporary feminist critique of patriarchy as an allencompassing cultural/political/economic system that disadvantages/subordinates/oppresses women emerged in the second half of the twentieth century; Kate Millett is usually cited as the first feminist writer to use the term in this way, in her 1970 book Sexual Politics.
In contemporary social analysis, patriarchy is typically understood as “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.” In that definition from sociologist Sylvia Walby, “social structures” is a key term that “clearly implies rejection both of biological determinism, and the notion that every individual man is in a dominant position and every woman in a subordinate one.”
Similarly, historian Gerda Lerner defined patriarchy as “the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.” Patriarchy implies, she continued, “that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources.” The specific forms that patriarchy takes differ depending on time and place, “but the essence remains: some men control property and hold power over other men and over most women; men or male-dominated institutions control the sexuality and reproduction of females; most of the powerful institutions in society are dominated by men.”
Psychologist Sandra Bem used the term “androcentrism” to describe this same “privileging of males, male experience, and the male perspective” that leads to men defining women as the other, with a focus on:
- her difference from, and her inferiority to, the universal standard or norm that he sees himself as naturally representing;
- her domestic and reproductive function within the family or household that he sees himself as naturally heading; and
- her ability to stimulate and to satisfy his own sexual appetite, which he finds both exciting and threatening.
These definitions don’t contend that all women have the same experience in patriarchy, or that “feminine” has been defined in the same way everywhere for all time. But, as historian Judith Bennett puts it, “woman” “usually acts as a stable category—for its time and place—that can critically determine a person’s life chances.” That pattern of women’s relative disadvantage vis-à-vis men is clear, according to Bennett: “Almost every girl born today will face more constraints and restrictions than will be encountered by a boy who is born today into the same social circumstances as that girl.”
Where and when did this idea of hierarchical organization and male dominance take root in human societies? Patriarchy, along with other entrenched forms of hierarchy, is a relatively recent development in Homo sapiens’ 200,000 years on the planet, an observation that challenges the conventional caveman story about the history of sex/gender and power. The cartoon image of a prehistoric man clubbing a woman and then dragging her by her hair, presumably going off to mate with/rape her, sums up a common view: Because males are, on average, physically larger than females, males must have dominated since the beginning of the human species. While there are always debates over history, and even more frequent debates over prehistory (the period of human existence before written records), there is no evidence for this common view of patriarchy-since-the-beginning.
The consensus in anthropology is that the small band level hunting/ gathering societies, which were the norm for most of human history, were generally egalitarian, with no institutionalized dominance of male over female, or vice versa. In most hunter/gatherer bands, males did most or all of the big-game hunting, and females gathered plant foods and sometimes hunted smaller game. The caveman view assumes that male big-game hunting gave men greater value and status, but the majority of calories in these societies came from the females’ gathering—women were the key providers as well as primary caregivers for small children. Social systems around the world varied, but most were neither hierarchical nor male-dominated.
Judy Foster and Marlene Derlet, authors of Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Millions Years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War, analyze the rise of patriarchy in the past 6000 years, working with the “Kurgan hypothesis” of the late archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, which focuses on the development of patriarchy among people speaking a Proto Indo-European language coming from the steppes of eastern Europe after domesticating horses. Foster and Derlet explain that pre-patriarchal societies were often matriarchal, but not in the sense of women dominating men. Instead, “matriarchy’” (or what Gimbutas called “matristic” societies and Marilyn French called “matricentry”—“small simple societies centered about mothers”) should be understood as describing more egalitarian societies that typically were matrilineal but with few restrictions on men or women based on sex differences.
Lerner analyzed the emergence of patriarchy in the ancient Near East around 3000 BCE, showing how the subordination of women and male control of their reproductive role preceded the development of private property and served as a model for the subsequent subordination of other humans by dominant ruling classes:
Economic oppression and exploitation are based as much on the commodification of female sexuality and the appropriation by men of women’s labor power and her reproductive power as on the direct economic acquisition of resources and persons.
The development of patriarchy is in part a product of the agricultural revolution, the domestication of plants and animals that humans began about 10,000 years ago. In agricultural societies, the communal and cooperative ethic of those hunter/gatherers was eventually replaced with ideas of private ownership and patrimony that led to men controlling women’s reproduction and claiming ownership of women. Here’s a short account, summarizing Lerner:
In the Neolithic Era, as larger and more hierarchal societies were developing, females increasingly became seen as a commodity in what anthropologists have called “the exchange of women”— groups giving women to another group for marriage alliances, as gestures of hospitality, or as part of rituals aimed at ensuring abundance. Lerner argues this system was not the result of a conspiracy of evil males, but instead was created by men and women because the practices were initially beneficial for all. Whatever the original motivations, Lerner points out the destructive consequences:
The sexuality of women, consisting of their sexual and their reproductive capacities and services, was commodified, even prior to the creation of archaic states [in the second millennium BCE]. The development of agriculture in the Neolithic age fostered the inter-tribal “exchange of women”, not only as a means of avoiding incessant warfare by the cementing of marriage alliances, but also because societies with more women could produce more children. In contrast to the needs of hunting/ gathering societies, agriculturalists could use the labor of children to increase production and accumulate surpluses. The first gender-defined social role for women was to be those who were exchanged in marriage transactions. For men, the obverse gender role was to be those who do the exchanging or define the terms of the exchanges. As a result of such widespread practices, men had rights in women which women did not have in men. Women themselves became a resource, acquired by men, much as the land was acquired by men.
With the rise of agriculture, women’s labor—not only their productive labor in the fields and villages but also their reproductive labor to produce the children needed for the increasing amount of work in the fields—became a resource that patriarchs claimed to own. And, as larger-scale warfare became more common, especially during periods of economic scarcity, females were captured and enslaved. This, Lerner argues, became the template for eventually enslaving men.
In pre-patriarchal societies, male and female humans had different roles that grew out of the realities of sex differences. The sex-role differentiation that was a result of biology (females bear children and breastfeed) was the basis for gender-role differentiation (males, who didn’t nurse infants, hunted and females gathered). While there was no single organizational style of hunter/gatherer society, Lerner points out that this differentiation did not automatically result in hierarchy and inequality:
The biological difference between men and women became significant as a marker of subordination only by the cultural elaboration of difference into a mark of degradation. In pre-state societies, before the full institutionalization of patriarchy men and women’s biological difference found expression in a sexually based division of labor. Women, either nursing babies, pregnant or encumbered with small infants, pursued different economic activities than men did, without this difference necessarily marking them as inferior or disadvantaged. It is the cultural elaboration of “difference” into a marker of subordination, a social construction which is historically determined, which creates gender and structures societies into hierarchies.
The agricultural revolution gave rise to a new dynamic—the ability to stockpile food created opportunities for individuals to acquire power through control of that resource, a power that was claimed by men, which raises the unavoidable question of why it was men who seized that control. Sociologist Allan Johnson suggested that the answer lies in the way “[m]en’s connection to the creation of new life is invisible” and the fact that pre-patriarchal cultures lacked knowledge of how reproduction works. Men were more likely to experience themselves in ways disconnected from the larger living world and its cycles, compared with women who menstruate and bear children, making men more open to the cycle of control and fear that defines patriarchy: “Because pursuing control goes hand in hand with disconnection from the object of control, it is reasonable to suppose that as the idea of control emerged as a natural part of cultural evolution, men were more likely than women to see it as something to develop and exploit.”
It’s plausible that as human populations expanded with agriculture, men were more open to control of others as a “solution” to the problem of conflict, which would lead to greater fear of what other men might do to them, creating a spiral of control and fear. Whatever the explanation, in these patriarchal societies the generally egalitarian gender-role differentiation of hunter/gatherers went in a new direction, leading to the patriarchal reality of the contemporary world: In patriarchy, gender is a category that established and reinforces inequality.
Over thousands of years, patriarchal societies have developed various justifications for that inequality, many of which acquire the status of common sense, “that’s just the way the world is.” Patriarchy has proved tenacious, adjusting to challenges but blocking women from reaching full equality with men in the dominant culture. Women’s status can change over time, and there are differences in status accorded to women depending on other variables. But Judith Bennett argues that these ups and downs have not transformed women as a group in relationship to men—societies operate within a “patriarchal equilibrium” in which only privileged men can lay claim to that full humanity, defined as the ability to develop fully their human potential. Men with less privilege must settle for less, and some will even be accorded lower status than some women (especially those who lack race, class, or caste privilege; gender is not the only axis of inequality). But in this kind of dynamically stable system of power, women never achieve full humanity.
These analyses help us understand ourselves as individuals by illuminating the nature of the systems in which we live, though some use terms other than patriarchy. For example, sociologist Judith Lorber has argued that the term “patriarchy” has been overused without enough clarity but still she keeps the focus on the system: “I see gender as an institution that establishes patterns of expectations for individuals, orders the social processes of everyday life, is built into the major social organizations of society, such as the economy, ideology, the family, and politics, and is also an entity in and of itself.
This short account of patriarchy’s history reminds us that while male dominance has its roots in biological differences between male and female humans, gender inequality is a product of history and politics, not merely biology. Just as there was a prepatriarchal period, there could be a post-patriarchal era in human affairs, a point when we transcend the hierarchy of patriarchy. It’s important to remember that patriarchy is not the default setting for human societies, but rather a recent development. Restating for emphasis: In the 200,000 years of the species Homo sapiens, patriarchy accounts for less than 5 percent of our evolutionary history. If we consider the two and a half million years of the Homo genus, our direct ancestors, patriarchy is less than 0.5 percent of our history. We cannot predict whether the human species will create new social formations in which biological sex-role differentiation (females remain the only humans who give birth) gives rise to stories we tell about the meaning of that difference that are not based on hierarchy and that do not produce social inequality. But we can strive for such a future. The social/political movement that seeks such a future has been—and is—feminism. If humans inevitably will tell stories about the meaning they make of sex differences—that is, if we can’t escape some kind of story about gender—feminism is essential to challenging the meaning that humans today make of gender in patriarchy.
- “Not All Male Dominance Is Patriarchal,” by Linda Gordon and Allen Hunter, Radical History Review, 71, Spring 1998
- Sexual Politics by Kate Millett, Doubleday, 1970
- Theorizing Patriarchy by Sylvia Walby, Basil Blackwell, 1990
- The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner, Oxford University Press, 1986
- Why History Matters: Life and Thought by Gerda Lerner, Oxford University Press, 1997
- The Lenses of Gender: Transforming the Debate on Sexual Inequality by Sandra Lipsitz Bern, Yale University Press, 1993
- History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism by Judith M. Bennett, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006
- The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas, Harper, 1991
- From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women, Volume 1 by Marilyn French, McArthur & Co., 2002
- Invisible Women of Prehistory: Three Million Years of Peace, Six Thousand Years of War by Judy Foster with Marlene Derlet, Spinifex Press, 2013
- The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G. Johnson, Temple University Press, 2014, 3rd edition
- “History Matters: The Grand Finale” by Judith Bennett, https://girlscholar.blogspot.com/2009/03/history-matters-grand-finale-guest-post.html
- Paradoxes of Gender by Judith Lorber, Yale University Press,1994