Patriarchy: Origins, how to Think It, and Implications
Patriarchy means, in short, “men rule”; on this one thing, at least, any of the dictionaries or feminist sites you’ll find on a quick search can agree.
Feminists can further agree that men have some sort of systemic advantage that grants them economic and political – social – dominance. There are many different attempts to account for this advantage, such as the currently-in-vogue theory of privilege. Non-feminists who admit to this advantage have a similar variety of differing accounts, ranging from biology to religion or theories of cosmic balance.
Taking a look at the real origins of patriarchy will allow us to demystify the issue by isolating patriarchy at its most elementary. What I mean by “most elementary” here is the underlying logic that is at work in all examples of patriarchy. Examples of patriarchy are wildly different, from sexual intercourse to a smile to a photo, but each shares a common denominator, an underlying logical function. Put simply, following this line of thought lets us answer the question, “what is it that makes something an exercise in patriarchy?”
In discussing the origins of patriarchy, I rely on Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, a book by Maria Mies and by far the best historical analysis of patriarchy and feminism I know of. For reference, the historical, anthropological, and ethnological sources I make use of are all listed in chapter 2 of the book, which is free and available online. There’s a link below.
Origins of Patriarchy
We begin with the earliest stage of human social development: hunter-gatherer societies. Already there is a division of labor between women and men, which began with biological differences – in summary, some folks could squirt sperm but not milk, while others secreted milk and squeezed out kids. These anatomical differences, however, are significant only because they triggered the development of different social groupings, which related uniquely to themselves, each other, society as a whole, and the external world. Women were responsible for raising children and, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of food production through gathering plant life. Men were hunters, providing supplemental nutrition for the community.
The disparity in economic production only increased when women invented agriculture. We can dismiss the myth that men were more technologically advanced than women, though we should take note that men and women developed different technologies: as the primary economic produces, it makes sense that women invented agriculture, while men, as hunters, learned the making and use of weapons.
Around the time agriculture was invented, another kind of society came about: the pastoral nomads. It was here, with the pastoral nomads, that patriarchy emerged (though this is not to say that agricultural societies were necessarily completely non-patriarchal). This society was based on the domestication of animals, especially the aspect of breeding. Of particular importance was the fact that one male animal can impregnate dozens of females, with the same holding true of humans as well. Men learned that other people could be subjugated through force of arms, just as weapons were used to domesticate animals. Thus, women became chattel, and the first slavery came about.
But this kind of pastoralist society presupposes other, truly productive societies. Think about it: taken by itself, such a society must be in a constant state of civil war, with the men fighting amongst themselves for ownership of the women, until one group or individual emerges as the victor. Thus, along with the first slavery, the first form of warfare emerged: the nomads would attack other societies, especially the wealthy and populous agricultural communities, pillaging them and kidnapping the women. Even the poorest man of a pastoralist community had some hope of owning a woman in this way, thereby achieving wealth. A truly patriarchal mode of production was then possible: a “non-productive, predatory mode of appropriation”.
The emergence of patriarchy occurred, then, upon the coincidence of the following conditions:
- The sheer productivity of women’s labor after the invention of agriculture.
- Men’s monopoly of weaponry, which made slavery possible.
- The discovery of domestication, particularly breeding, where men learned that women could be made chattel.
It is the world’s greatest irony that patriarchy was possible only on the basis of women’s technological advancement and productive power – without immense productive power of agricultural society, invented and sustained by women’s work, patriarchy could never have been fully established.
Debunking the myth of Man-The-Hunter
Man-The-Hunter is really a single myth with a lot of variations, so many different ways of asserting that men gained dominance over women due to some innate advantage: men happened to be more economically productive, or were naturally stronger, smarter, and so on.
The first thing to take note of is that hunter-gatherer societies were not patriarchal, and that, further, men were economically and politically inferior to women.
Man-The-Hunter did not rule over the women of the community by virtue of economic superiority: men contributed significantly less than women to the overall production of the community. Furthermore, hunter-gatherer societies were in fact matristic – “matristic”, not “matriarchal”, since while women tended to hold political authority and families were matrilineal, there is no evidence of women ever exploiting or enslaving the men of their communities. In point of fact, it was the women, responsible for the daily sustenance, who decided whether to grant the men the provisions necessary for hunting expeditions.
As we’ve seen, men couldn’t have taken power without the monopoly of weaponry. Men overpowered women not due to innate strength or intelligence, but through force of arms – men possessed all the weapons and all the knowledge of making and using them. This is how men gained dominance from a lower economic and political position. Men did not secure social dominance from natural advantage – they learned to properly leverage a social advantage.
Patriarchy at its most fundamental
Violence, norms, and institutions like slavery are all certainly a part of patriarchy. But the underlying function that determines whether a given instance of violence is an exercise of patriarchy, for example, is what Maria Mies calls “naturalization”: making a free person a natural resource to be exploited.
Consider the three conditions under which patriarchy emerged: together, they constitute both the means to reduce women to a natural resource and a social context in which there is incentive to do so (wealth, power). The most crucial implication of all of this concerns the close link between patriarchy and production – after all, the most elementary function of patriarchy is the reduction of women to a natural resource to be exploited.
We should be very careful here, however. Following this line of thought, we are obviously in contradiction with those sexists who claim that patriarchy, if acknowledged at all, is solely a political or cultural matter. At the same time, however, we should avoid the trap of misreading naturalization as a purely or primarily economic matter – it concerns “production”, yes, but both economic and cultural production. The emergence of patriarchy required depriving women of their freedom and autonomy, something every bit as cultural and political as economic.
Furthermore, while we can agree with the trend among proponents of social justice that patriarchy is both economic and cultural, it must be stressed that this analysis doesn’t go far enough. The naturalization of women transformed all of society, right down to the most basic division of labor. Patriarchy is therefore not only a matter of “economy” or “culture”, it is the very foundation on which both stand, the dividing line that defines culture and economy.
Armed with knowledge of naturalization, the elementary mechanism of patriarchy, we can draw a few important conclusions.
First, we should recognize the true scope of patriarchy and feminism. Patriarchy, with its basic division of labor, is the cornerstone of all society. In a very real sense, in patriarchy, women must economically and culturally produce men. This means the obvious things, like cooking, laundry, and raising children, but it also means producing masculine identity – at the dawn of patriarchy, for example, a ‘real’ man was someone who owned women. This of course necessitates a radical conclusion against the prevailing notion that patriarchy is a relic of feudalism, a bygone era: on the contrary, our modern society is just the latest form taken by patriarchy. For the pastoral nomads, women were valued primarily for their ability to breed heirs; in feudalism, women were made to be extensions of the land and the chief means of ruling it (obtaining and maintaining ownership and title of land through marriage); and with the rise of capitalism, women are again breeders, this time primarily of new sources of consumption and labor (people) rather than heirs. Feminism threatens this foundation, the very bedrock of an ancient social constant that has lasted multiple historical epochs – hence the desperate attempts to water it down and the extreme violence of anti-feminist resistance.
The most important implication is perhaps also the most difficult to think. If feminism and patriarchy deserve discussion of what they are beyond a purely cultural affair, the same goes for the concepts of “queer” and “transgender”. Anything LGBTQ is typically thought of as a matter of identity – or, put another way, as a matter of culture. And, just as previously discussed apropos of feminism, it isn’t enough to give consideration to the economic implications of living as a queer or trans person, since these concepts also concern the fundamental social division that grounds all of society. Being queer, for example, isn’t only a matter of economy and culture, it’s not just who you are and what you do: it’s a reconfiguration of the very approach according to which we define the concepts of culture and economy, of who we are and what we do.
In this sense, queer and transgender as concepts are the necessary result of the feminist break. Consider how the gay movement took off as an explicitly political movement only after the wave of women’s suffrage rocked the globe in the early 20th century. And consider that “transgender” as a political concept and definite social category emerged together with the explosion of the gay movement in the latter half of the 20th century, gradually coming into its own as it sort of splintered off. If feminism, the assertion that women are real people and free agents, represents the first crack in the patriarchal edifice, then the explosion of queer and transgender expressions represent new cracks and the widening of old gaps – new methods of articulating that freedom. After all, it isn’t enough to say that women should be free from exploitation: having a stable masculine identity shouldn’t require the exploitation of women. Social division doesn’t have to be naturalizing.
What consequences ensue in the wake of the ever-widening cracks in patriarchy, it’s too early to know. But we do know the scope of feminism and the LGBTQ movement is beyond identity, beyond culture – and it’s breathtaking.
1. Mies, M. (1968). Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd. PDF (backup). All following references come from this source unless otherwise stated. Other things in the book you might be interested in: chapter 1, history of global feminism; chapters 2 and 6, critique of marxism and 20th century Communism; chapter 3, witch burning and colonialism; chapters 4 and 5, neo-colonialism and critique of 20th century capitalism.
2. p. 44-73.
3. p. 49-53. These pages are in large part a critique of Marx and Engels’ works, against which Mies develops her own methodology. Regarding biology, note the following passages:
“…human nature is not a given fact. It evolved in history and cannot be reduced to its biological aspects, but the physiological dimension of this nature is always linked to its social dimension … Men’s/Women’s human nature does not evolve out of biology in a linear, monocausal process, but is the result of the history of women’s/men’s interaction with nature and with each other.” [p. 49]
“The historically developed qualitative difference in the appropriation of the male and female bodily nature has also led to ‘two qualitatively different forms of appropriation of external nature’, that is to qualitatively distinct forms of relations to the objects of appropriation, the objects of sensuous bodily activity (Leukert, 1976: 41).” [p.53]
4. p. 55-56. Works cited: Briffault, 1952; Reed, 1975; Thomson, 1965.
5. p. 55: evidence of women as gatherers. Works cited: Childe, 1976; Reed, 1975; Bornemann, 1975; Thomson, 1965; Chattopadhyaya, 1973; Ehrenfels, 1941; Briffault, 1952; Sohn-Rethel, 1970.
6. p. 58-59: comparison women’s and men’s food production. Note here that Mies is far from attempting to assign men and women rigid roles, as she explicitly acknowledges that in many cases, both men and women participated in both hunting and gathering. Works cited: Lee and de Vore, 1976, quoted by Fisher, 1979: 48; Martin and Voorhies, 1975: 181; Goodale, 1971: 169; Leacock, 1978; Brown, 1970.
7. p56-58. Works cited: Karve, 1963; Mies, 1980; Dube, 1978.
8. p. 55. Works cited: Childe, 1976; Fisher, 1979; Sohn-Rethel, 1970.
9. p. 61.
10. p.63. Works cited: Fisher, 1979; Sohn-Rethel, 1970.
11. p 63-66. Works cited: Boserup, 1970; Meillassoux, 1974, 1975. See also p. 61-62 – works cited: Meillassoux 1975; Bornemann, 1975; Turnbuil, 1961; Fisher, 1979: 53.
12. p. 63.
13. p. 66. See also p. 65: “… the predatory mode of production of men, based on the monopoly of arms, could become ‘productive’ only when some other, mostly female, production economies existed, which could be raided. It can be characterised as non-productive production.”
14. p. 64-65.
15. p. 58. See the section titled “Female Productivity as the Precondition of Male Productivity”.
16. p. 72. See footnote 4. Works cited: Bornemann, 1975.
17. p. 59.
18. p. 66. Mies defines the term “naturalization” on this page without explicitly stating the word, which she begins using in the next section and continues to use throughout the rest of the book.
Re ‘matristic’: page 72, footnote 4, cite Bornemann, 1975
For a complete bibliography of the works cited by Mies, see the bibliography section, which begins on page 236.