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What Is Patriarchy?

A patriarchy is a social system where males are the central authority figures.
In patriarchal societies, men are head of the household.
Up until the 20th century, the United States was predominately a male-dominated society.
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  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2014
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Social systems throughout history have moved from predominately egalitarian, or equal, to patriarchal, with some moving — albeit slowly — back to egalitarian again. The term "patriarchy" refers to a social system where males are the central authority figures. The term patriarchy literally translated means "rule of the father." In a patriarchy, the males have all the power — socially, culturally, and legally.

Despite the common misconception that social systems have always been patriarchal throughout history, the first hunter-gatherer societies were thought to be predominantly egalitarian, meaning neither sex held a position or authority over the other. In a hunter-gatherer society, both the hunting and the gathering were crucial for survival, which may have contributed to the equality of the sexes. Although the precise reason for the introduction of patriarchy is unknown, male-dominated societies can be found from cultures dating back thousands of years.

In a system based on patriarchy, not only the social system is male dominated. As a rule, the government is male dominated as well. The practical impact of a patriarchal system is that women are frequently considered second-class citizens and often exploited. In a patriarchy, women are often not allowed to hold positions of power, vote, or own property.

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Not only is the male the figurative head of household in a patriarchy, he is often the legal and cultural ruler of the family as well. Most laws in a patriarchal culture favor the male figure in the family — often to the complete exclusion of the female. It is not uncommon for a female to have no legal rights to her children or to support if a marriage ends in a patriarchal system.

There are, of course, varying degrees of patriarchy. The United States, for example, has historically been considered a patriarchal society; however, the 20th century brought many changes to the once male-dominated society. Although experts may still debate whether the United States continues to be a patriarchal society, it has clearly made a number of legal and cultural changes that have brought it closer to an egalitarian society.

Societies that are matriarchal and to some degree egalitarian societies still exist in the world today. Matriarchy, the counterpart to patriarchy, is a society where women, particularly mothers, are the social and cultural heads of the society. Some indigenous tribes in Africa have been called matriarchal. Egalitarians societies are equally as rare as matriarchal societies. Some countries in Europe are considered more egalitarian than most other societies in the world, as are many traditional Native American tribes.

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Discuss this Article

anon306883
Post 16

I was thinking that, if we could interpret the bible in different way than the usual one, can we put emphasis on issues that talk about women positively in the bible? I was also wondering that which pronoun was used to refer God in the language that the original bible was written.

anon274956
Post 14

The Christian Bible clearly shows that God is neither male nor female (Gen 1:27), but it is equally clear that God’s nature has more in common with a person than with an impersonal thing. Wanting to express God’s personhood (and in deference to Jesus’ example in calling God “Father”), English translators have traditionally used the masculine pronoun “He” (capitalized to show reverence) instead of “She” or “It.”

Some modern writers are offended by this supposedly sexist language, which may, in fact, reveal the limitations of the English language more than a sinister mindset in the translators.

Interestingly, Chinese translators take advantage of a fourth choice, using a pronoun which uses a pictograph for “God” in place of the male or female pictographs in he/she (All the pronouns referring to God, he, she, it respectively -— all of which are pronounced “ta”).

nony
Post 13

@NathanG - We have Native American tribes in Oklahoma. They can be somewhat matriarchal but you have to qualify that. Women can own property but men are the hunters and the leaders. It really can vary from tribe to tribe and they have changed somewhat over the years, to the point that I think they’re less matriarchal than they used to be.

NathanG
Post 12

@Charred - Women eventually received the right to vote in the United States, partly because of the move towards an egalitarian society, but that move was not, in my opinion, a result of a fading away of the patriarchal system.

Rather, it was rooted in a belief in the Constitution – that “all men are created equal.” It’s hard to believe this and deprive women of the right to vote in my opinion.

My point is that it’s not the feminization of America that led to women’s suffrage. It’s the belief that America was meant to be a land of freedom and equal opportunity for all.

Charred
Post 11

@SkyWhisperer - That’s an excellent point. If you define patriarchy as an extension of nature then, you are left with some intriguing questions. What are its implications on theories of creation or evolution?

If you believe in creation, then the stronger, male physique was a result of special creation and therefore by design. If you believe in evolution, then the stronger, male physique was the result of natural selection.

Either way you can’t escape the obvious conclusions. Whether by design or by survival of the fittest, men emerged with the stronger builds and this may have led to the patriarchal society. Nature trumps nurture in that regard.

SkyWhisperer
Post 10

While patriarchy theory may posit that the male dominated society is a result of artificial social and religious traditions, I would argue that it goes deeper than that.

For example, no one can deny that men and women are built differently from a physical standpoint. Men tend to have a more muscular physique than women, although women can certainly work out as well, as we see in cases of women body builders.

Still nature has kind of built men and women in markedly different ways and it is this, in my opinion, that gives rise to patriarchal societies.

While I accept the article’s premise that hunter-gatherer societies may have been egalitarian to some extent, I believe that even in these societies men rose to the forefront more often than not, because they had the strongest body build and needed that strength to hunt and build.

starrynight
Post 9

@JessicaLynn - I've heard of the men's rights movement too. I have to admit, I kind of understand where they're coming from. The United States is definitely not a patriarchy by any definition. Patriarchy really favors men, and I can understand how some men are upset they don't have the same dominance they used to. After all, gender roles in this country were quite different even 20 or 30 years ago!

However, I think these men are just going to have to get used to it! I just don't see women giving up all the things we've gained in the last century or so.

JessicaLynn
Post 8
@KaBoom - I know exactly which Christian sects you're talking about! I saw a television show about evangelical Christians that practice "full quiver" marriages a while back. Basically, they just have child after child and don't believe in birth control. The women seem very oppressed, especially the daughters that are produced from such a marriage.

I also feel like in recent years, there's been kind of a backlash against all the progress women have made here in the United States. I was reading awhile ago about a kind of patriarchy movement that calls itself the Men's Rights movement (because men are so darned oppressed in this country.) The things they had to say were quite interesting, but (I think) not altogether true.

KaBoom
Post 7

I think the rise of patriarchy had a lot to do with the rise of Christianity as a religion. There are many verses in the Bible that support patriarchy, and specifically say that a woman should submit to her husband. I suppose that's not such a leap if you believe God is a man, and the male (Adam) was created first.

Religion doesn't have as much influence in the public sector as it used to, and I think this is a major reason why we are moving towards a more egalitarian society.

However, there are definitely still fundamentalist and evangelical Christian groups that still practice Christian patriarchy.

andee
Post 6

@John57 - I am with you on that last comment. I don't think I would have done very well back in the days when a patriarch had so much control.

I do think there can be a difference between having a patriarch or matriarch, but still have some of your own independence.

As far as biblical patriarchy, there are examples where women had more independence than we envisioned them having. They had ways of making an income and buying land.

In my reading of patriarch and matriarch societies, a matriarch had just as much respect as an authority figure as a patriarch. Even though they were rarer, their power and authority was just as strong.

John57
Post 5

I was surprised to read that many Native American tribes have an egalitarian society. In my mind, I pictured the Indian Chief as a patriarchy example.

I didn't realize the women of the tribe were looked at as equals to the men. I do understand how hunter-gatherers tasks would be considered equally important, but never associated an egalitarian society with the Native Americans.

I believe a balance always works best. I think it is important to have a strong figure who is in an authority role, but that there should be teamwork whenever possible.

It is never good when one person is completely dependent on another for everything from social and cultural issues to legal and financial issues. I have too strong of an opinion and mindset to let someone else make all those decisions for me.

julies
Post 4

There are many examples of Biblical patriarchy in the Old Testament. This also carried over into the New Testament with the husband is to be the head of the home.

Many, many years ago, the female was completely dependent on the male - whether it be her father or her husband. If her husband died, she often became the wife of her husband's brother. This ensured she had a way of taking care of herself and her children.

There have been tremendous changes not only in family structures through the years, but our government as well. You see more women involved in politics all the time.

I really don't think it will be much longer before we have a female President of the United States.

golf07
Post 3

I can't help but wonder if the slow changing patriarchy in America is somehow related to the decline of male figures in the home.

There are many single parent homes where there is no father figure at all. Out of necessity, the female is then the one who is completely responsible for their family unit.

I think being a female single parent would be one of the hardest jobs there is. With so many homes not having a male to be the central authority figure, the power has gone to the women.

Whether this has anything to do with the change in patriarchy or not, there has certainly been a lot of changes in the traditional family structure.

jennythelib
Post 2

@EdRick - That is a nice point, that sometimes the consequences are exactly what opponents of social change say they will be - and yet things turn out OK.

I think it's important to realize, too, that patriarchy was limiting for men as well as women. What options did they have besides setting up a household and being its breadwinner? Today, a man might have a stay-at-home wife, he and his wife might both work and share juggling the chores at home, or he himself might be a stay-at-home parent. I know a guy who does this and he absolutely loves it. He's so proud of his ability to run their household on a very tight budget.

All those options might be confusing, but seems to me they make it a lot more likely that a given person will find a lifestyle that makes them happy.

EdRick
Post 1
It's interesting how the slow death of patriarchy seems to have brought about all the bad things people said it would - and yet society keeps chugging along.

They said that if women were able to own property, work, etc., it would enable them to leave their marriages. Well, it does! The divorce rate has certainly gone up, and divorce certainly has consequences for children. Yet kids today are smarter and healthier than ever before and mothers are better able to protect themselves and their children from abusive fathers.

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