An in depth look at how we know
Some people seem to be under the impression that patriarchy is a term that was made up by feminists to demonize men. Although many feminists do use that word to speak of the systemic inequality that women still suffer in our culture, it actually means something very specific beyond that, something that is much more than a power imbalance between men and women.
I’ve heard more than one man challenge the fact that we even still have a patriarchy. After all, women can vote, and they have the same legal rights as men. Heck, a woman is the Vice President of the United States. But that’s about as reasonable a metric as saying that we no longer have any racism in the US because Blacks can vote and have the same legal rights as Whites. Heck, a Black man was elected President a while back — twice, and racism still very clearly exists.
Beyond the equal legal rights of women (and Blacks, which are only about 50 years old), patriarchy has other components with very specific elements. We are still living in a patriarchy because those components are overwhelmingly in effect — both the ones that relate to the state of things between men and women, as well as other elements. Before we look at how patriarchy still exists, we need to get on the same page about what it truly is.
Widespread patriarchy first came into being around 6–9 thousand years ago when warlike northern tribes overran or assimilated the peaceful and egalitarian cultures that had predominated until that time and imposed upon them a new social structure, as well as new deities. We went from matrilineal, matrifocal cultures that revered the Divine Ancestress who brought life and instead became a patrilineal one that worshipped a thunder god or father god who brought death. Unlike the Divine Ancestress, who had a male consort, signifying the belief in balance, these male deities did not have a consort or were noticeably dominant over their wife, and some were even positioned as the killer of a goddess. One example of this is the Babylonian myth of how Marduk slays the primordial mother goddess Tiamat to bring order to the world.
To be clear, pre-patriarchal societies were not matriarchal. That would simply mean a dominance-based hierarchy where women have control over men. Instead, we had egalitarian societies where women and men had equal status and worked together for the survival of the clan — something that lasted well into Neolithic proto-agricultural societies such as Çatalhöyük.
A story in New Scientist entitled Why Egalitarian Societies Died Out, has this to say:
“FOR 5000 years, humans have grown accustomed to living in societies dominated by the privileged few. But it wasn’t always this way. For tens of thousands of years, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were widespread. And as a large body of anthropological research shows, long before we organized ourselves into hierarchies of wealth, social status, and power, these groups rigorously enforced norms that prevented any individual or group from acquiring more status, authority, or resources than others.*
Decision-making was decentralized and leadership ad hoc; there weren’t any chiefs. There were sporadic hot-blooded fights between individuals, of course, but there was no organized conflict between groups. Nor were there strong notions of private property and therefore any need for territorial defense. These social norms affected gender roles as well; women were important producers and relatively empowered, and marriages were typically monogamous.” (as distinct from harems or polygyny — socially monogamous does not necessarily equate to sexually monogamous, however)
The first sentence of the New Scientist quote is important because it speaks to a central aspect of patriarchy — social stratification. This was the first time that class distinctions or significant hierarchy came into widespread use, and they were maintained by force or the threat of violence. This is an important aspect of patriarchy — a social system that embraces and rewards ruthlessness and a might makes right mentality. This is distinctly different from a time when the wellbeing of the entire clan or settlement was a primary survival strategy.
Christopher Boehm is an anthropologist and primatologist who is currently the Director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. He believes that suppressing our primate ancestors’ dominance hierarchies by enforcing these egalitarian norms was a central adaptation of human evolution. Enhanced cooperation lowered the risks of Paleolithic life for small, isolated bands of humans and was likely crucial to our survival and evolutionary success.
But with the onset of patriarchy, not only are women controlled by men in a way that they hadn’t been before, but the strong have power over anyone who is less so and a kind of feudal system emerges. A relatively small number of elites ostensibly protect, but also control a larger number of highly stratified classes, with the most powerless and the poorest making up the widest part of the pyramid. Until 50 years ago in this country, both by law and by custom, White men were at the top of the hierarchy, White women were below them, and on it went until you get to poor Black women as the very bottom of the pyramid.
Despite the change in laws, and some upward mobility for previously bottom classes, this hierarchy is still largely in effect. The more that the pyramid flattens, with less stratification and more equality, the more some people feel that their birthright is being stolen and react accordingly. For those who believe in the hierarchy, and the zero-sum system, any gains by someone else are perceived to come at a loss to them.
These are the rules and properties of the patriarchy:
Might makes right and those who are strong control those who are weaker.
Men hold the bulk of both political and economic power as well as moral authority in society.
Traits that are considered masculine like control, competitiveness, and stoicism are more desirable for everyone than traits that are considered feminine like empathy, nurturance, and cooperation.
Little boys must be tough and action-oriented; little girls must be pretty and docile.
Boys and men must never embody anything remotely feminine because anything feminine is deemed as less-than.
“The core cultural ideas about what is good, desirable, preferable or normal are associated with how we think about men and masculinity.”
In a pyramid-shaped hierarchy, you must constantly dominate or risk being dominated. If you don’t win, you lose.
The rules are enforced through creating fear, the threat of pain, coercion, and the ostracization of those who will not comply.
“Patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”
Not only are women to be (consciously or subconsciously) dominated, but any individuals or classes of people that are deemed to be weaker or inferior will be because it is a zero-sum system. If you don’t win, you lose, and so it’s imperative to always try to appear to be the dominant one in any interpersonal interaction. Racism is a form of patriarchy. So is homophobia. So is garden variety bullying.
Our work environments are primarily built around patriarchal dominance-based hierarchies as well, although that is beginning to change in industries that value the adaptability and agility of allowing those closest to the work to make most of the decisions in more partnership-oriented organizational structures.
In deciding how to govern, one critical choice is between patriarchy and partnership. Patriarchy expresses the belief that it is those at the top who are responsible for the success of the organization and the well-being of its members. A measure of patriarchy is how frequently we use images of parenting to describe how bosses should manage employees in organizations. To create workplaces that provide meaning and are economically sound and strong in the marketplace, we need to face the implications of having chosen patriarchy for the governance system inside our organizations.
The governance system we have inherited and continue to sustain is based on sovereignty and a form of intimate colonialism. These are strong terms, but they are essentially accurate. We govern our organizations by valuing, above all else, consistency, control, and predictability. These become the means of dominance by which colonialism and sovereignty are enacted. It is not that we directly seek dominance, but our beliefs about getting work done have that effect. We pay a price for our top-driven, parenting, patriarchal governance system.
Block, Peter. Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest (p. 17). Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Patriarchy is a dominance-based hierarchy (other types of hierarchy exist, so the choices are not just between patriarchy and anarchy). Because of this, even on the level of the family, there is a leader and then followers who are subject to his unquestioned authority. Overwhelmingly, in America, in a heterosexual two-parent household, the man is still considered the leader of the family. More than 50% of Americans believe this explicitly and many more believe it subconsciously. This is in contrast to considering that both parents have an equal responsibility to care for and guide their children, and equal say in how that takes place, or that the children themselves are allowed some input.
This belief comes out of the folk theory of the natural order, which is often used to determine authority in a might makes right context. Examples of the natural order are as follows:
- God is naturally more powerful than people.
- People are naturally more powerful than animals and plants and natural objects.
- Adults are naturally more powerful than children.
- Men are naturally more powerful than women.
This legitimizes the patriarchal dominance hierarchy as being natural and therefore moral. It makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order. It legitimatizes the view of nature as a resource for human use and, correspondingly, man as steward over nature. It also stimulates theories of so-called natural superiority as discussed in books like The Bell Curve, which purports connections between race and intelligence. Homosexuality also violates this natural order.
In other words, to prove that we live in a patriarchy in the US, I don’t even need to go into the myriad ways that women are still too often treated as second-class citizens, as if they were here on earth for the pleasure and enjoyment of men, and to make their lives more comfortable.
I don’t need to talk about the fact that there are more Fortune 500 CEOs named John than there are female CEOs in that category.
I don’t need to talk about how we live in a rape culture where women are still vilified, shamed, and disbelieved for being attacked by men.
I don’t need to talk about how women still do the vast majority of home care, child care, and eldercare work, no matter whether they work outside the home or not.
I don’t need to talk about how pretty much no organized religion treats women equal to men.
I don’t need to talk about how many men believe that by having personal standards about who they would like to be intimate with, women are unfairly withholding sex from men. And I don’t need to talk about how men still feel completely entitled to hold those same standards for themselves.
I don’t need to talk about how women are continually told to “watch your tone” or to otherwise censor their speech in order to be deemed acceptable in ways that men never are.
I don’t need to talk about the orgasm gap that affects women who have sex with men, but not those who have sex with women.
All of these are just a few indicators of patriarchy, but they are still only one facet of that form of the social system. Beyond the male/female dynamic is the power structure element.
A willingness to overthrow the government because you want to maintain a stratified system where certain people are considered normative and others must accept staying in their less empowered, less equal status is an indicator of patriarchy.
A culture that vilifies homosexuals, particularly gay men, for not adhering to the norms of their gender is a patriarchy.
A society that elects a malignant sociopath to be President because those traits read to so many as strength and leadership is a patriarchy.
A culture that is worried about men becoming emasculated if they care too much about the feelings of other people is a patriarchy.
Any policing of strict gender roles, particularly with violence or the threat of violence is a patriarchy.
A society where the very rich still make most of the decisions for everyone else is a patriarchy.
In many measurable ways, we’ve moved toward a more equal, less stratified society, particularly in the past 50 years, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go. Sexual harassment and assault are still rampant — both of them vehicles for exerting dominance over women, and racism and homophobia are still widespread, in some places, getting worse as a backlash to the perceived flattening of the hierarchy. A certain percentage is implicit and subconscious rather than overt, but there’s still plenty of the in-your-face kind to go around, and both kinds are harmful.
Bullying is considered to be just a fact of life in many places, and we are all encouraged to constantly rank ourselves against the other people around us to determine who is dominant in that particular instance. It’s one of the main things that drives our economic system.
When men are in groups, sexual harassment tends to escalate as each man in the pack tries to out-dominate the woman in order to keep a place in the male pecking order, sometimes known as “the man box,” an element of patriarchy that harms men and boys.
But the men who compete to win in our dominant culture of manhood are collectively doomed to fail, because the game itself is rigged against us. We’re wasting our lives chasing a fake rabbit around a track, all the while convinced there’s meat to be had. There is no meat. We are the meat.
The suppression of boys’ and men’s empathy is no accident. It is the suppression of empathy that makes a culture of ruthless competition, bullying and codified inequality possible. It is in the absence of empathy that men fail to see women’s equality and many other social issues for what they are: simple and easily enacted moral imperatives. Instead, our sons buy into bullying and abuse as central mechanisms for forming and expressing male status and identity.
When we teach our sons “You are better then girls,” instead of teaching them, “Don’t put others down to make yourself feel better,” we prime their vulnerability to all forms of bigotry.
You are better than gays,
You are better than Blacks,
You are better than Jews,
You are better than immigrants,
You are better than the poor, and so on.
This is what patriarchy is and what it means at its core level. There is no question that we still live in a patriarchal system, because not only is the gender inequity still so stark, despite laws to the contrary, but the dominance hierarchy aspect is in near full effect. Our culture is largely centered around elevating ourselves at the expense of other people and on maintaining social stratification based not on merit, but on superficial metrics, such as race, gender, and sexuality. Patriarchy is about maintaining traditional power through bullying, coercion, and artificial barriers to true competition.
A dominance-based hierarchy like patriarchy reinforces social stratification and keeps people “in their place” by preventing them from competing with those with more traditional power. This helps to bolster the illusion that those at the top have earned their place there through their own hard work and diligence, even though this is quite often not the case.
There is no question whatsoever that we are still living in a patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t continue to improve and become a more socially egalitarian society. Efforts towards this end in the corporate world are a great first step. Understanding what patriarchy is actually comprised of is another.
© Copyright Elle Beau 2021
Elle Beau writes on Medium about sex, life, relationships, society, anthropology, spirituality, and love. If this story is appearing anywhere other than Medium.com, it appears without my consent and has been stolen.