ExploitationFeminismGenderHistoryMythsPatriarchyQueerSexismSociologyTransgender

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[1] 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,[2] 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.[3] Women were responsible for raising children[4] and, contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of food production through gathering plant life.[5][6] Men were hunters, providing supplemental nutrition for the community.[7]

The disparity in economic production only increased when women invented agriculture.[8] 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:[9] 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.[10] Men learned that other people could be subjugated through force of arms, just as weapons were used to domesticate animals.[11] Thus, women became chattel, and the first slavery came about.

But this kind of pastoralist society presupposes other, truly productive societies.[12] 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”.[13]

The emergence of patriarchy occurred, then, upon the coincidence of the following conditions:

  1. The sheer productivity of women’s labor after the invention of agriculture.
  2. Men’s monopoly of weaponry, which made slavery possible.[14]
  3. 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17]

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.[18]

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.

Implications

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.


References:

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.
19.
20.
Re ‘matristic’: page 72, footnote 4, cite Bornemann, 1975

Bibliography:

For a complete bibliography of the works cited by Mies, see the bibliography section, which begins on page 236.

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Ren

Ren

Ren is a trans woman who loves philosophy, science-fiction, fantasy, good TV, and video games. When provoked, she is prone to rambling about feminism, sex theory, and psychoanalysis.

7 Comments

  1. June 17, 2016 at 12:51 am —

    I haven’t had the chance to read Mies’ full book, but from what I’ve heard about it and based on your summary here, it seems super problematic to me–at least the portions that try to construct a history back into prehistory (I haven’t read her Marxist critiques). There is absolutely no way to obtain evidence to support this narrative–it is an untestable claim and thus one we should be highly skeptical of.

    Further, trying to come up with a universal theory of the origin of patriarchy, particularly by drawing on notions of man-the-hunter and woman-the-gatherer which even in the late 1980s were being challenged by feminist anthropologists as overly simplistic understandings of social relations in foraging societies, seems to me to ignore all the local variation in social organization and structure. This argument also seems to buy into the belief in a clear distinction between the natural and the sociocultural, which is another thing anthropologists have been challenging for many years now. Basically, the anthropological/ethnological work she’s drawing on is outdated.

    I would argue, following a typical Foucaultian approach to these kinds of things, that there is no single origin of patriarchy as such because there is not just “patriarchy” but instead there are many patriarchies that have different histories and are wrapped up in different kinds of power relations that change in different political economic contexts. Patriarchy in a pastoralist society will not look the same as patriarchy in an industrialized capitalist society.

    • June 17, 2016 at 8:41 pm —

      I’m axiomatically against the Foucauldian approach, but since that’s basically a philosophical debate I won’t go into it here.

      I can see how my summary might appear to make too-sweeping generalizations, so I will try to defend Mies here.

      Sticking to the text at hand, Mies in fact goes to great lengths in chapters 3 and 4 to describe the vast changes in patriarchy through history. She in no way claims that patriarchy has always been basically the same, only that its underlying logical function has remained constant: the reduction of autonomous human agents to a natural resource. The way this logic unfolds is vastly different today than it was in 100 AD China or even a century ago, in the same way gravity can entail anything from a pen clattering to the floor to tidal forces depending on the context. To really put a fine point on it, the book has entire chapters devoted to analyzing patriarchy in different contexts, including a section on pastoral society (chapter 2) and two chapters on industrial capitalist society (chapters 4 and 5).

      Mies also goes to great lengths to avoid dismissing particular local variations in order to construct some universal totalizing theory. From page 66:

      “… Patriarchy was not developed universally all over the globe but by distinctive patriarchal societies. They include the Jews, the Arians (Indians and Europeans), the Arabs, the Chinese, and their respective great religions. The rise and the universalization of all these civilizations, but particularly the Judeo-European one, is based on conquest and war. This also means that a concept of a unilinear, universal process of history that evolves in successive stages everywhere … may have to be given up in our analysis of patriarchy.”

      Mies definitely isn’t constructing a teleology; she’s not saying that arriving at where we are today was inevitable, nor is she saying that all societies basically developed in the same way. If patriarchy today appears universal, it is because of millennia of conquest and war on the part of a vast minority of cultures. See the end of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2 for Mies’ own description of her theoretical approach.

      As to the questions regarding the validity of the sources Mies relies on – I’m unconvinced. First, one of the central themes of the book is the radical questioning of the “nature vs culture” dichotomy; the end chapter 1 and the first half of chapter 2 is where she spends the most type specifically on this topic. In this respect, Mies and her sources are hardly outdated. Since the book was published in 1986, it’s of course possible that new research could show her sources have factual inaccuracies – I’m very interested on this point.

      I don’t agree that her claims are unsupportable; quite the opposite, she does an excellent job on this count. It’s meaningless to argue this point in general; if you’re not convinced by the sources presented in chapter 2, maybe you could bring up specific examples?

      • June 20, 2016 at 4:02 pm —

        She in no way claims that patriarchy has always been basically the same, only that its underlying logical function has remained constant: the reduction of autonomous human agents to a natural resource.

        I would argue (a) that sounds like Marxist logic, which has a particular historical and cultural origin, and (b) the phrase “the underlying logic” is universalizing, as if there is only one underlying logic to patriarchy. That is a claim that I do not think is supportable with empirical evidence because it’s an anachronistic value judgment. It assumes everywhere in all societies people conceive of this thing called “natural resources” in such a manner.

        First, one of the central themes of the book is the radical questioning of the “nature vs culture” dichotomy

        Good to hear. For the record, this is what you wrote that gave me the impression of a clear division between biology and culture: “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.” The assumption that it “began with biological differences” implies that nature came before culture, making them separate things rather than them being co-productive.

        Since the book was published in 1986, it’s of course possible that new research could show her sources have factual inaccuracies – I’m very interested on this point.

        Again, I have not read Mies’ text (and unfortunately I don’t really have time to do so any time soon), so I cannot point to specific claims she makes as being outdated or accurate. I am speaking from having read reviews of the text (such as the one by Elizabeth Schmidt from Gender and Society in 1987) but also as an anthropologist reading your summary of  the text. A lot has changed in anthropology since the 1980s, and I would say that the majority of the ideas people had about gender and social organization back then are no longer present or are at the very least strongly challenged by feminist anthropologists. Most ethnological texts from back then, before or right around the time of the reflexive turn in anthropology, are riddled with all kinds of biases and factual errors.

        I also find it interesting that in the quote you provide in your comment she (rightly) argues that a teleological conceptualization of history is untenable, but when I read your summary in the original post, it comes across to me as very similar to the unilineal evolutionist arguments of the late 19th century, i.e., that all “human social development” moves through the same stages over time, and it also reminds me of Levi-Strauss’ alliance theory of kinship, which today is considered quite sexist not to mention empirically unfalsifiable.

        I don’t agree that her claims are unsupportable; quite the opposite, she does an excellent job on this count.

        How do you support claims about prehistorical foraging societies’ varying organizations empirically? Archaeological evidence is notoriously scarce for such groups, they left no written records, and you cannot treat contemporary foragers as living fossils as if their forms of social organization are the same as 15,000 years ago.

        • June 21, 2016 at 1:15 am —

           

          It assumes everywhere in all societies people conceive of this thing called “natural resources” in such a manner.

           
          Not true. It only means that men politically and economically benefited from their systematized dominance of women. Whether this system was thought of the same way then as it is now is irrelevant to the accuracy of Mies’ description.
           
          I’m trying to avoid going into philosophy, but it’s worth noting something about universalization: conceptually, it’s unavoidable. When we are speaking about a concrete totality like the actual, living people who make up a social system, any kind of universalization is of course going to be in some way factually inaccurate. But abstractly, it’s the opposite. For example, by naming something “patriarchy” (or any other term), you are making a universal value judgment regarding everything that falls under those categories: all things patriarchal belong in the same category. Notice the emptiness of universal claims: it’s purely abstract, having nothing directly to do with actuality. This is the kind of universality Mies deals in. Again, the laws of physics are a useful parallel. To say that all blocks of wood are subject to the law of gravity does not also entail a positive claim about their actual properties (they they’re red, or made of birch, etc). The blocks of wood can be vastly different and have nothing to do with each other, but gravity will universally affect them all – and what determines the actual way gravity makes them behave are their actual properties and the context in which they exist (one might be floating its way out of the Milky Way, another being tossed about by a toddler). In the same way, making universal claims about patriarchy does not necessarily entail making value judgments regarding actual examples of it. Furthermore, the fact that all actual examples of patriarchy are different, if for no other reason than that they involve different people in different places at different times, does not preclude universal conceptualization. After all, if they were all the same, there would be no point in universal theory.
           
          Mies makes use of abstract universalization, which Marx also does, as do many thinkers, from Heidegger to Einstein and Niels Bohr. Beyond that, Marx and Mies are different not just in their theory but in how they formulate their basic premises. See the beginning of chapter 2, if you’re interested.
           

          The assumption that it “began with biological differences” implies that nature came before culture, making them separate things rather than them being co-productive.

           
          I disagree that they are co-productive, but I also didn’t mean to imply that nature came before culture. In the first place, “biological difference” is a social concept, so even if we say society divided itself according to biological differences, we are talking about social functions rather than animal behavior or whatever.
           

          I also find it interesting that in the quote you provide in your comment she (rightly) argues that a teleological conceptualization of history is untenable, but when I read your summary in the original post, it comes across to me as very similar to the unilineal evolutionist arguments of the late 19th century, i.e., that all “human social development” moves through the same stages over time, and it also reminds me of Levi-Strauss’ alliance theory of kinship, which today is considered quite sexist not to mention empirically unfalsifiable.

           
          The reason for this is difference in perspective. Mies was working to undermine the specifically patriarchal bias of anthropology and ethnology. This means that rather than taking already-established fact as her starting point, she questioned its veracity and opened her own line of investigation. I, on the other hand, am using Mies’ work as an established truth in order to describe how the world got where it is today. To an extent, this makes what I wrote appear an exercise in teleology – but I don’t claim that our present situation was predestined or inevitable, like Marx does.

          It’s important to note that teleology is necessary in understanding patriarchy. One of the basic mechanisms of its propagation is its self-presentation as natural, normal, and inevitable. In this sense, it really does appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, insofar as patriarchy is victorious in conflict and successfully reproduces itself.
           
          Regarding your questioning of Mies anthropological sources, I really can’t give you a satisfying answer. I’m not an anthropologist, so I don’t know enough to make the case myself – that’s why I’m relying on a book rather than doing my own work from primary sources. You’ll have to read the book for yourself sometime and come to your own conclusion. I’m not just running away, though, since this is an incredibly important subject to me. I am actually doing my homework, but it will be some time before I can come to a definitive conclusion and put it into writing.
           

  2. June 18, 2016 at 12:40 pm —

    The quality of these recent queereka articles seem to have dipped. There’s a lot of places in this article begging for references and evidence.

    There’s also quite a few sentences that beg for more description in order for someone not already an expert on feminism theory to get into it. For example someone might ask, innocently, how smiling is an example of patriarchy?

    • June 19, 2016 at 5:40 am —

      When I posted the article, I thought I’d lump all the references together to make the text look cleaner. Instead, as you say, it ended up looking lazy and low-quality. So, in addition to indicating that I’m working from the second chapter of a book, I went through and added references to page numbers, as well as the works cited on those pages.

      I don’t really get your other objection, though. It hardly takes expertise to understand how smiling can be an example of patriarchy in action. Basic familiarity suffices: is someone smiling at some innocent slapstick, or are they laughing at a rape joke, or shrugging off a complaint about sexual harassment at work?

      • June 20, 2016 at 2:02 am —

        Thanks for adding the references, also thanks for explaining what you meant by ‘smiling’ being an example of patriarchy. I had a feeling it was something along those lines, but to me as an outsider it wasn’t clear.

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