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.
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.