The History of Patriarchy

It’s not about men; it’s a social system that is only 10K years old

Elle Beau ❇︎
Nov 11, 2018 · 10 min read
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“brown wheat field” by Raphael Rychetsky on Unsplash

Patriarchy is a social system that came into being approximately 10–12 thousand years ago. It is largely recognized to have coincided with the advent of agriculture (see the note at the bottom for an edit). It’s far from being the only system we’ve ever had or an inevitable one. In fact, for most of human history, we’ve lived very differently.

Today, most anthropologists would agree, regardless of their stance on issues such as the universality of male dominance, that an entirely different order of male dominance became associated with the rise of the large and populous agricultural states organized in terms of classes. The patriarchal systems that emerged brought women for the first time under the direct control of fathers and husbands with few cross-cutting sources of support. Women as wives under this system were not social adults, and women’s lives were defined in terms of being a wife. Women’s mothering and women’s sexuality came to be seen as requiring protection by fathers and husbands. Protecting unmarried women’s virginity appears to go along with the idea of the domestication of women and an emphasis on a radical dichtomy between the public and the private sphere.

For most of human history, people lived together in small bands, subsisting as hunter-gatherers, sharing nearly everything as part of their survival strategy. “Mark Dyble, an anthropologist who led the study at University College London, said: “There is still this wider perception that hunter-gatherers are more macho or male-dominated. We’d argue it was only with the emergence of agriculture when people could start to accumulate resources, that inequality emerged.”

Although there is a substantial element in patriarchal systems of males having power and primacy over females, it is fundamentally a dominance hierarchy, one which detrimentally affects men also, particularly those who are not at the pinnacle of the hierarchy.

One of the things that make it difficult to speak about patriarchy, or any other system, to a mostly North American audience, is that the capacity to see systems as distinct from the individuals that live within and are affected by them has been systematically rooted out of most people’s awareness. Instead, everything is seen as an individual issue with only individual solutions.

In other words, although it is difficult for many people to readily grasp this, patriarchy is not about men as individuals, per se. In fact, women may play a significant role in maintaining the social system of patriarchy as well, in part by helping to enforce the rules of the so-called “man box.”

According to Glickman and others, the Man Box is a set of rigid expectations that define what a “real man” is. A real man is strong and stoic. He doesn’t show emotions other than anger and excitement. He is a breadwinner. He is heterosexual. He is able-bodied. He plays or watches sports. He is the dominant participant in every exchange. He is a firefighter, a lawyer, a CEO. He is a man’s man. And whether or not we’d actually want to spend any time with him, we all know who he is.

This “real man,” as defined by the Man Box, represents what is supposedly normative and acceptable within the tightly controlled performance of American male masculinity. He dominates our movies and television. He defines what we expect from our political leaders. He is the archetypal sports star. He is our symbol for what is admirable and honorable in American men. And if he happens to get aggressive, belligerent and violent some times, well, that’s just the price of real masculinity.

And to be clear, although the Man Box defines and enforces what is considered to be “real manhood” women are as culpable as men in the policing and the enforcing of its harsh rules. When American men attempt to express masculinity in more diverse ways, it can often be the women in their lives who force them back into the Box. This can be due to fears of economic and social isolation or out of a refusal by those women to engage in the kind of self-reflective emotional discourses that exiting the Man Box can trigger.

“Why patriarchy and not some other word? Because, at least in the European historical lineage, which later affected many other cultures through colonial contact, the shift to separation and control coincided with making paternity central. How paternity came to be central after it wasn’t for 97% of the existence of Homo Sapiens is way beyond what a blog post can address. (emphasis mine) What is important to note, though, is that once paternity becomes important, controlling women is inevitable, because only by controlling women can it be reliably known who the father is. There is an irreducible distance between the biological father and the offspring that can only be eliminated fully by imprisoning a woman and preventing any other man from having access to her. This is why patriarchal societies by necessity become societies of control and separation. We have become so habituated to this state of affairs that most of us don’t even see that it is our own creation.”

In other words, it’s not necessary for individual men to be harboring some secret evil plan to hold women down, for us to be continuing to live in a patriarchal system. However, the fact of the matter is, we are not that far removed from overt laws and customs which did blatantly disadvantage women and the cultural resonance of those which we still feel today. Marital rape was not recognized as a crime in all US states until 1993. Prior to that, sexual access to a wife’s body, with or without her consent, was considered a husband’s prerogative. Well into the 1970s women could not own a business or hold a credit card in their own name. Women could be struck from juries simply for being female and could be fired for becoming pregnant. Ivy League colleges did not accept women and law firms declined to even interview female applicants.

Even now when we are 50 years removed from most of these laws and customs, we still feel the effects of a social system that regards men as more competent, intelligent, and worthy of holding power. Until the recent 2018 mid-term election women held only a relatively small number of the seats in congress, and we have never had a female president of the United States. By contrast, Rwanda has 49 women in its 80-seat lower house of parliament and 10 women in its 26-seat Upper house of parliament. Several Muslim countries have had women leaders, and although they are also patriarchies, the United States remains one of the most deeply patriarchal countries in the world.

In 2016 The New York Times published an article about why the wage gap remains stubbornly at 20%. “Consider the discrepancies in jobs requiring similar education and responsibility, or similar skills, but divided by gender. The median earnings of information technology managers (mostly men) are 27 percent higher than human resources managers (mostly women), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. At the other end of the wage spectrum, janitors (usually men) earn 22 percent more than maids and housecleaners (usually women).”

As women take on more jobs in areas previously dominated by men, the pay in those fields drops.

A striking example is to be found in the field of recreation — working in parks or leading camps — which went from predominantly male to female from 1950 to 2000. Median hourly wages in this field declined 57 percentage points, accounting for the change in the value of the dollar, according to a complex formula used by Professor Levanon. The job of ticket agent also went from mainly male to female during this period, and wages dropped 43 percentage points.

The same thing happened when women in large numbers became designers (wages fell 34 percentage points), housekeepers (wages fell 21 percentage points) and biologists (wages fell 18 percentage points). The reverse was true when a job attracted more men. Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.

Homo erectus emerged about 2 million years ago, and so within that context, 10 thousand years becomes a small drop in the bucket of human evolution. Far from being the inevitable social system that we’ve always had as a species, patriarchy is actually a brand new experiment. It is one that allowed human civilization to grow and expand exponentially, but it also came at a high price. Rigid gender-based rules prevent humans from expressing who they actually are if they should happen to not naturally fit within those gendered norms. Punishment for straying from the norms is often severe, as we still see in countries where homosexuality is regarded as aberrant or a crime and where bullying and policing of anyone not conforming to traditional gender binaries still takes place. Even those who do conform pay a high price, particularly so for males.

“As bell hooks says, “Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.” (bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love)

In the end, patriarchy gives only a few men access to power in society, and most men some small access to power in relation to women, robbing all men of core aspects of their humanity. This is a raw deal of monumental proportions. I see this as the core source of violence: the physical, emotional, and spiritual brutalization of boys and men.”

The good news is, this system of enforced brutalization and constant vying for dominance at the expense of those around us is not inevitable. We can move towards a society that is much more fully based in partnership and gender equality, and although progress is somewhat slow, we are making some progress in that direction. Internationally known systems scientist, Riane Eisler has written several books on this topic, and she continues to teach and speak worldwide in front of audiences, such as the UN.

Her most well-known book, “The Chalice and the Blade tells a new story of our cultural origins. It shows that warfare and the war of the sexes are neither divinely nor biologically ordained. It provides verification that a better future is possible — and is in fact firmly rooted in the haunting dramas of what happened in our past.”

Interestingly, we also have several contemporary societies that do not practice patriarchy, once again proving that it is hardly a default societal construct.

Two US anthropologists, Katherine Starkweather and Raymond Hames, have recently shown that polyandry, the practice of women taking multiple husbands, is much more common than people in their discipline previously recognised. And Stephen Beckerman at Pennsylvania State University has drawn attention to what he calls ‘partible paternity’, where a woman has sex with more than one man in order to get pregnant, with these multiple partners jointly recognised as fathers of the offspring. This practice is common throughout the lowlands of South America, and other examples can be found around the world. And some cultures, such as the Na (or Mosuo) people in southwest China, don’t seem to have any stable pair bonds at all. Among the Na, monogamy is frowned upon, everyone is free to have as much casual sex as he or she wants, and jealousy is apparently unheard of.

Societies that have matriarchal leanings emphasize equal footing for men and women. They are not reverse patriarchies, built upon performative domination of men by women. Some still have specific gender roles, but the overall constructs are much more partnership-oriented and egalitarian and they provide hope for a more cooperative, less combative world — a better world for all!

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Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

Elle Beau ❇︎

Written by

Dispelling cultural myths with research-driven stories. My favorite word is “specious.” Not fragile like a flower; fragile like a bomb! Twitter @ElleBeau

Inside of Elle Beau

The collected works

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