Patriarchy is a theory about social organization that refers to a system of male authority that is seen to oppress women through its social, political, and economic institutions. In a patriarchal society, power rests in the hands of men, who have a greater access to, and control of, resources and rewards both in the domestic and non-domestic spheres. Wives and children depend on the men and inheritance is through the male line.
Patriarchy is to be distinguished from patrilineality, a system in which one belongs to the father’s lineage, and patrilocality, a social practice in which newlyweds live with or near the family of the husband. Many feminist writers view patriarchy as the root of the formation of most modern society.
Second Wave feminists (a stage in feminism which started in the late 1960s) were united by the theory of patriarchy. Patriarchal relations were assumed to be structural and operating at an institutional level. Different schools of feminist thought defined patriarchy in various ways. Perhaps the radical view is the one that has received the most publicity: patriarchy is a medium that oppresses women and has operated through the family across history. Society is based on a hierarchy that privileges masculinity and devalues femininity.
Matriarchy has often been presented as the “real answer” to patriarchy. The earliest study of matriarchy was published by Johann Jakob Bachofen in 1861 (Das Mutterrecht, The Mother Right), and he viewed matriarchy as an inferior form of societal organization. However, no matriarchies exist in the present, and primary sources recounting them are lacking, and thus the idea of female-dominated societies is generally discounted. In the same year that Das Mutterrecht was published, Henry Summer Maine published Ancient Law, which sought to show that originally all human groups were organized on the patriarchal model. Patriarchal societies exist in practice as well as in theory.
It should be noted that societies previously described as matriarchal (for example, the Iroquois) turned out to be matrilineal, even if Iroquois women wielded substantial power. There have been many attempts to label past societies as matriarchal, most notably work by Marija Gimbutas. She hypothesized that much of what she calls “Old Europe” was blissfully matriarchal until the arrival of patriarchal societies in the Bronze Age (the Kurgan hypothesis). Various archaeological investigations have not confirmed this hypothesis and available evidence has so far failed to support an ancient matriarchal society.
In contrast, archaeology has unearthed various examples of patriarchal societies, for example, the Romans. Evidence clearly shows that the pater familias, the head of the family, enjoyed absolute authority and had the power of life and death over children and slaves. Women passed on their dowry under the authority of the pater familias of the husband’s family.
Patriarchy is generally accompanied by notions of a strict binary gender system. However, the situation is often more fluid, for example, the Tuareg people, although patriarchal in structure, still practice descent through the female line, and females enjoy a certain degree of respect and freedom, although under the supervision of men.
- Bamberger, J. (1974). The myth of matriarchy: Why men rule in primitive society. In M. Z. Rosaldo & L. Lamphere (Eds.), Woman, culture and society. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Gimbutas, M. (1982). The goddesses and gods of Old Europe: 6500-3500 BC: Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Smith, A. (1992). Pastoralism in Africa: Origins and development ecology. London: Hurst and Company.