Patriarchal Society

Feminist Theories of Patriarchy
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Man vs. woman and children on a balance scale - Malte Mueller / Getty Images
Malte Mueller / Getty Images
Updated March 30, 2016.

Definition: Patriarchal (adj.) describes a general structure in which men have power over women. Society (n.) is the entirety of relations of a community. A patriarchal society consists of a male-dominated power structure throughout organized society and in individual relationships.

The concept of patriarchy has been central to many feminist theories.

A patriarchy, from the ancient Greek patriarches, was a society where power was held by and passed down through the elder males.

When modern historians and sociologists describe a “patriarchal society,” they mean that men hold the positions of power: head of the family unit, leaders of social groups, boss in the workplace and heads of government.

Feminist Analysis

Feminist theorists have expanded the definition of patriarchal society to describe a systemic bias against women.

As second-wave feminists examined society during the 1960s, they did observe households headed by women and female leaders. They were of course concerned with whether this was uncommon. More significant, however, was the way society perceived women in power as an exception to a collectively held view of women’s “role” in society. Rather than saying that individual men oppressed women, most feminists saw that oppression of women came from the underlying bias of a patriarchal society.

Gerda Lerner’s Analysis of Patriarchy

Gerda Lerner‘s 1986 history classic, The Creation of Patriarchy, traces the development of the patriarchy to the second millennium B.C.E. in the middle east, putting gender relations at the center of the story of civilization’s history.

 She argues that before this development, male dominance was not a feature of human society in general.  Women were key to the maintenance of human society and community, but with a few exceptions, social and legal power was wielded by men. Women could gain some status and privilege in patriarchy by limiting her child-bearing capacity to just one man, so that he could depend on her children being his children.

By rooting patriarchy — a social organization where men rule over women — in historical developments, rather than in nature, human nature or biology, she also opens the door for change.  If patriarchy was created by culture, it can be overturned by a new culture.  

Part of her theory, carried through into another volume, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness, is that women were not conscious that they were subordinate (and it might be otherwise) until this consciousness began slowly to emerge, starting with medieval Europe.

In an interview with Jeffrey Mishlove on “Thinking Aloud,” Lerner described her work on the subject of patriarchy: “Other groups that were subordinated in history — peasants, slaves, colonials, any kind of group, ethnic minorities — all of those groups knew very quickly that they were subordinated, and they developed theories about their liberation, about their rights as human beings, about what kind of struggle to conduct in order to emancipate themselves. But wom

en did not, and so that was the question that I really wanted to explore. And in order to understand it I had to understand really whether patriarchy was, as most of us have been taught, a natural, almost God-given condition, or whether it was a human invention coming out of a specific historic period. Well, in Creation of Patriarchy I think I show that it was indeed a human invention; it was created by human beings, it was created by men and women, at a certain given point in the historical development of the human race. It was probably appropriate as a solution for the problems of that time, which was the Bronze Age, but it’s no longer appropriate, all right? And the reason we find it so hard, and we have found it so hard, to understand it and to combat it, is that it was institutionalized before Western civilization really, as we know it, was, so to speak, invented, and the process of creating patriarchy was really well completed by the time that the idea systems of Western civilization were formed.”

Some Quotes About Feminism and Patriarchy

From bell hooks: “Visionary feminism is a wise and loving politics. It is rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and preactice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.”

Also from bell hooks: “We have to constantly critique imperialist white supremacist patriarchal culture because it is normalized by mass media and rendered unproblematic.”

From Mary Daly: “The word ‘sin’ is derived from the Indo-European root ‘es-,’ meaning ‘to be.’ When I discovered this etymology, I intuitively understood that for a [person] trapped in patriarchy, which is the religion of the entire planet, ‘to be’ in the fullest sense is ‘to sin’.”

From Andrea Dworkin: “Being female in this world means having been robbed of the potential for human choice by men who love to hate us. One does does not make choices in freedom. Instead, one conforms in body type and behavior and values to become an object of male sexual desire, which requires an abandonment of a wide-ranging capacity for choice…”

From Maria Mies, author of Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, linking the division of labor under capitalism to the division of the sexes: “Peace in patriarchy is war against women.”

From Yvonne Aburrow: “The patriarchal/kyriarchal/hegemonic culture seeks to regulate and control the body – especially women’s bodies, and especially black women’s bodies – because women, especially black women, are constructed as the Other, the site of resistance to the kyriarchy. Because our existence provokes fear of the Other, fear of wildness, fear of sexuality, fear of letting go – our bodies and our hair (traditionally hair is a source of magical power) must be controlled, groomed, reduced, covered, suppressed.”

From Ursula Le Guin: “Civilized Man says: I am Self, I am Master, all the rest is other–outside, below, underneath, subservient. I own, I use, I explore, I exploit, I control. What I do is what matters. What I want is what matter is for. I am that I am, and the rest is women & wilderness, to be used as I see fit.”

From Kate Millett: “Patriarchy, reformed or unreformed, is patriarchy still: its worst abuses purged or foresworn, it might actually be more stable and secure than before.”

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