This post has been a long time coming! Patriarchy is one of the 5 sacred tenets Third Wavers frequently use to prove how persecuted women are in modern day America. But lets not jump on that boat right away. First, what exactly is “patriarchy”?
That depends on who you ask. As with any belief system, there are multiple interpretations.
I’ve covered definitions promoted by Everyday Feminism, a site which sports an impressive 4.5 million monthly visitors, and even offers courses in online feminism. They define patriarchy as “a system of domination by which the wealthy, white, male ruling class has authority over everyone else“.
I’ve covered another, slightly more sophisticated definition by youtube user “marinashutup”, where it’s simply defined as “a social system that values masculinity over femininity.”
Then of course there’s the very intelligently written Finally Feminism 101 definition, which states that patriarchy is “one form of social stratification via a power/dominance hierarchy – an ancient and ongoing social system based on traditions of elitism (a ranking of inferiorities) and its privileges”.
This definition immediately excludes all modern developed nations, as they are not at all stratified based on power or dominance of any sort. Business offices are populated based on qualifications, work ethic, and networking, not on sexist discrimination, and there now exists over 50 peer reviewed studies confirming that, some of which you can see explained step-by-step here (in fact, to date, there does not exist a single study anywhere in the world which demonstrates a link between sexism and the lack of female career advancement or pay scale as a demographic in first world countries). Political offices are populated based on vote (as that’s how all modern democracies operate), and studies show that women simply choose not to run (if they were kept out of office just for being women, how do you explain the women who are currently *IN* office now?) Finally, domestic violence has been shown again and again to happen equally between men and women – except that women have an entire branch of the justice department devoted just to them.
Finally Feminism goes on to say: “Historically, patriarchy operates through the disproportionate (sometimes exclusive) conferring of leadership status (and formal titles indicating that status) on men, a tradition characterised by casting all women as naturally unsuited to lead men, no matter what talents and expertise they might possess (unless there are exceptional circumstances resulting from intersections with other social hierarchies conferring high status that gives rare women political authority e.g. the royal lineage of Elizabeth I, or the divine claim to authority of Joan of Arc).”
Looks like they tried to cover their asses half way through there by pointing out exceptions and calling them “rare”. Like I said, it’s more intelligently written.
However, how exactly is leadership status among women “rare“? I mean seriously, I was able to hyperlink nearly every individual word in this paragraph with a unique female ruler or leader at some point in history. Rare? They make it sound like only two women in history were ever not oppressed.
Now, does social stratification based on male dominance exist at all? Well, as a matter of fact, it does! Look at modern day Afghanistan and how women are treated there. The fact that we can see clear examples of this type of environment helps us immediately recognize the lack of said environment in any developed nation. It’s also clear from the sheer number of women rulers and leaders throughout history (yep, every word hyperlinkd – I could list off a hundred more), that this “domination by men / oppression of women” narrative was not exactly ubiquitous, nor is it accurate.
I’ve been studying feminist archeology over the last several months. Incredibly boring interesting stuff. Two books in particular have been my guide: Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. These are both utterly fantastic books – Merlin Stone in particular gives an absolutely brutal, pain staking, point-by-point account of ancient societies and how they lived. Make sure you have plenty of coffee on standby, especially if you’re like me and are not particularly interested in archeology, but are determined to learn where this notion of “patriarchy” actually originated from.
I’m going to give you the fun, easy-to-read version of this research here, as opposed to the 257 page name-every-ancient-city-that-ever-existed-and-describe-in-detail-what-life-was-like-there version (seriously, finishing that book and the associated research was a major life accomplishment).
Once upon a time (circa 10,000 BCE), sex was celebrated, and women ruled the world. Women were viewed as sacred “bringers of life”, so they lived in temples and banged any guy they wanted for fun (the world wasn’t heavily populated, so making babies was generally a good thing). Now, to be clear, this “women ruled the world” part is somewhat disputed – but what’s clear is that there was no male domination, no “patriarchy” as it were, religion centered on goddess worship, properties were owned and managed by women, the leaders were women, and inheritance passed from mother to daughter (matrilineal society). So it’s not a huge leap then to consider that they might also have been matriarchal, and there are a considerable number of archeologist that think this was absolutely the case. Things remained this way until around 5,000 BCE, when certain regions became male dominated (we’ll discuss more on that in a bit).
Were men dominated in “matriarchy”? Were they oppressed and denied rights?
That’s not entirely clear, and probably varied a bit by region.
The Minoan civilization on Crete, among several others, appears to have been rather egalitarian. However, in Anatolia, there was this idea that if a man slept with a high priestess, he should never ever again sleep with another woman ever – even to the point of him castrating himself to make sure it doesn’t happen. Castration wasn’t particularly frowned upon, and was even romanticized. In ancient Babylon, they had a pretty strange New Year’s tradition, where they brought the king inside the temple, stripped him naked, humiliated him, and beat him up. In Egypt, the women would go out picking up men, and in some cases slipping them intoxicants to make them less resistant (When Bill Cosby was a Woman). While in the Sumerian region (Elam to be specific), the men who worked in temples were forced to strip in front of the women.
Now just imagine if we reversed the genders, and it was men doing all this to women. We’d hear no end about how women were oppressed by that mean ol’ patriarchy. Kinda putting a dent in that whole “women oppressed for thousands of years” jive, ain’t it?
So now on to that 5,000 BCE bit mentioned earlier, where things started to change. As tribal societies settled down, and city-states formed, these different cultures began competing for resources. You might have thought it was only men who go out and conquer, but women can get jealous of what other women got, and they want men to go out and get it for them. Women put men in charge of the fighting, since they were stronger and are generally considered far more expendable. Women, after all, were the “bringers of life” (a notion found repeatedly throughout the ancient world), and were thus far more valued. Need a war? Let men fight it out.
Giving men more power of agency meant they could build better armies, and win more wars. In this way, women helped lay the groundwork for what would later be “patriarchy”. Female goddess worship turned to male god worship. Greeks went from worshiping Rhea to worshiping Zeus (we don’t even see Zeus as the king-father guy until 3,000 BC or there abouts, when northern invaders began battling their way across southern Europe).
As men started to gain power and religion gradually came to focus on male god worship, the groundwork for the clusterfuck of “sexual morality” had been laid. Now here’s where that tricky intersection between Matriarchy and Patriarchy show up, so pay close attention to this next part.
In matriarchal societies, property was passed from mother to daughter. This was the established line of power – a mother always knows who her daughter is, and no one cared who the father was. HOWEVER! If men could make it so we KNEW who the father was, we could start a PATRILINEAL line of succession! Men had been gaining power militarily for centuries, thanks to circumstances previously mentioned, so naturally they wanted a patrilineal line of inheritance so men would have even more agency. The only way to do this was to convince women it was bad to have sex with more than 1 guy. If she had sex with only the ONE GUY, we always know who the father is. If she messes around, we can’t know for sure, as DNA testing wasn’t around yet.
Trying to “convince” women not to sleep around didn’t work. Lots of records exist of women as late as 500 AD still up in the temples having men line up for them, so they could bang them one after the other and have kids out of wedlock. This is where we get quite a number of bible passages condemning “The Great Whore” and “Harlots” and “temple prostitutes” and so on. However, calling them names wasn’t effective, so men began straight up slaughtering the women who wouldn’t stay “moral”, using the power of agency granted to them through centuries of fighting.
The need for patrilineal inheritance is reflected in how the laws were set up. You’re probably familiar with some of these from the bible. If a woman cheated on her husband with another man, then both the woman AND THE OTHER MAN were put to death. However, if the woman was raped, she was married to the man who raped her. Why kill the man in the first example? It’s about father-son lineage, that’s why. That’s also why it’s okay to sell your daughters into sex slavery – hey, the only thing that counts is whether or not the man knows which kid is his.
The next step was to finalize this process by making it legal through the institution of marriage. And thus, “patriarchy” became a system where men and masculinity were definitely more valued than women and femininity. It’s a system where women can be raped and beaten, and everyone’s totally okay with it. It’s a system that ensures patrilineal succession by shaming and punishing all female sexuality outside of marriage.
It’s a system where men make the rules in favor of men, *not* a system where women have so much power that they can ruin a man’s life with just a simple accusation and nothing more. It’s a system where men are valued because they are men, *not* because they went to college for 4 years, studied real hard, earned a degree, then gradually worked their way up to a 6 figure income. It is a system where men are in charge only because they are men, *not* a system where men are voted into elected offices – by women – through democracy.
(And should AronRa ever see this: hopefully this answers your question. Women being “slut shamed” is not clear evidence of a modern day patriarchy; it’s an artifact of an earlier Judaeo-Christian effort to suppress female sexuality, and is why this mindset still exist mostly in religious circles and almost nowhere else. It survives on in the same way many linguistic artifacts from Greek mythology continue in the English language. Men being called sexist pigs for everything they do is a backlash against this, starting with the rad-fems during the second wave movement, and being adopted by the Third Wave in the current movement, which abandoned the focus on women’s rights almost entirely in favor of villainizing men.)
So yes, the fact is that patriarchy actually did exist, and still does exist, in some regions of the world. The desire to establish such a system was spearheaded by the Levites at around the beginning of the first century, and between 300 and 500 AD, a number of pagan and goddess worshiping sacred sites were shut down and either outlawed or converted into churches by the then Christian emperors, including Constantine.
The severity of the treatment of women varied from place to place, and of course changed over time. Much the same way not all men were horribly oppressed in every ancient society before then, nor to the same extent.
By the time the middle ages and the feudal system had come to Europe, women could once again be found in nearly every social strata of society. A peasant was a peasant, whether man or woman. Both had limited options. Lords of course had power over them – but so did Ladies. And while King Henry the VIII was ill-tempered and had 6 wives, Queen Marry of Scots was even more ill-tempered and had 3 times as many people burned alive.
Masculinity was more valued than femininity, but only in certain places, and for certain times. Femininity was more valued than masculinity, but only in certain places, and for certain times. Both Patriarchy and Matriarchy have existed, but neither exist in the present day US, or in any other modern, developed nation.