“I keep hearing about the patriarchy, but what is it?”
For much of the time the present administration has been in power, the word “patriarchy” has been heard more frequently. It is seemingly being used almost interchangeably with “white male privilege.” What is patriarchy and why does it affect women so strongly? Following is an excerpt on this subject from my forthcoming book, Inviting the Queen. You will see for yourself how it has permeated our society for centuries and still curtails the freedoms of women and other disenfranchised groups.
A Brief History of the Patriarchy
The patriarchy is a worldwide culture of domination, maintained by both men and women. I would like to conjecture how it may have begun, and how it spread to become a major tenet of the law and culture, even the very fabric of life in most parts of the world, and how it continues to limit the power of women at all stages of life. Even with the rise of feminism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to the present day, the patriarchy is still woven, although somewhat less visibly, into our lives.
Patriarchy is a system that promotes male privilege by being male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves, as just one of its aspects, the oppression and control of women.
The real truth is that patriarchy oppresses some men, children, and nature as well. It is built on the concept that there is a privileged station in life. Those who would occupy this station can only do so at the expense of all others who would lay claim to it. Patriarchy sets itself up to value only those who are part of this ruling class, in this case, men. But not all men. Only the “right men.” Right Men may be defined as being this or that, or the other thing. There are any number of exclusions that may exist, but the first default setting is being male. Other qualities that admit or exclude men to the elite are race, money, family, accomplishment, age, religion, social standing, sexual orientation, and more. But because women don’t possess the requisite gender, we shouldn’t even think of applying.
Has patriarchy always been the underlying structure, and if not, what else existed in its place? How did it begin and how did it get to be nearly universal? These are some questions that come to mind. Mainstream history doesn’t address these questions, but when it is reported in our textbooks, history gives the impression that everything has always been this way. One of the few views I have found that differ from the assumption that the patriarchy always existed is articulated by cultural historian and systems scientist, Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade. Her book introduces the concepts of dominator and partnership cultures. Reading her work helped me begin to look at the feminine archetypes through the lens of power.
Archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, a specialist in Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures in the region of Europe, offers a complementary view in her seminal work, The Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Europe. In her book, Gimbutas proposes that a partnership culture was prominent in prehistoric Europe, lasting on up to the era of the Minoan culture in the Mediterranean (circa 2,500 b.c.e.). In this culture, a Great Mother goddess—let’s call her the Goddess—was worshipped and mortal women were revered as life-givers. Women were even often seen as having magical powers.
Eisler takes the possibility further. She asserts that a culture of peace and reverence for life existed for many centuries that emphasized love and respect for nature. In this culture which she postulates existed in our prehistory, men and women worked as partners with both making equally valued contributions to society.3
Eisler also posits that approximately 1,500 years before the advent of Christianity, the Goddess-centered life of the partnership society was overrun and supplanted by a male-dominated, warrior society through an invasion that may have come from Western Asia and India. The Goddess worshipers were defeated, and the Goddess was made to take a lesser position in relation to the gods of the warrior society.4
Goddess worship did not disappear completely but continued to exist in pockets of Europe and the Mediterranean for some time. By the time of classical Greece and the rise of the Roman Empire, male-dominated society was firmly in place, supported by its masculine deities. Patriarchy was the order of the day.
Perhaps Eisler’s most important contribution to contemporary women is to make the case that domination of women by men is not necessarily the only template for human society. Whether the ancient partnership model successfully existed or not, the idea is worthy of our attention because we are moving toward a successful partnership culture in our own society at present. It is a big step, which is causing us to change our sense of possibility at every stage of our lives as women.
Before we go there, let’s first look at how many scholars believe the patriarchal system evolved. When growing foods and tending animals (agriculture) replaced hunting and gathering as a means of survival for our prehistoric ancestors, human civilization was born. Staying in one place, rather than leading a nomadic life, allowed ongoing, cohesive communities to be established. Whether this agricultural life was female-centered, peaceful, and Goddess-worshiping, as envisioned by Gimbutas and Eisler, is still open to debate. But what is clear is that whether through an invasion of warrior-led, male deity-worshiping hordes who overthrew the matriarchy or through a more gradual shift of power, by 1,500 b.c.e. agricultural civilization was patriarchal. Men ran the political, social, and cultural life of the community.
As agricultural societies grew and prospered, becoming more complex, women’s power positions within them declined. Agricultural society was based on ownership and the primary ownership was of the land. For the most part, men owned the land. But if a woman owned property (in many societies, that was not allowed), then the woman’s land usually passed to her husband when she married. Arranged marriages ensured that the wife’s property was what made her desirable as a wife. That property was her dowry and it afforded her some marital leverage, but society was not a level playing field for men and women.5
It was also usual that the wife would move into the orbit of her husband’s family at marriage, where she had little personal or social support. So, with her property no longer under her control and no easy connection to her family of origin, a wife was easily relegated to a “one down” position.
Women’s positions in society and within the family differed in many ancient cultures. Early Sumerians (circa 5,500–4000 b.c.e.) may have given women more power than they did later. Their religion attributed considerable power to female sexuality and women were accorded rights under the law so that they couldn’t be considered property outright, but the archeological record shows that the law was not equitable in many ways. For instance, the punishment for marital infidelity was far harsher for women than men.
Mesopotamian society succeeded the Sumerian era with its emphasis on the woman’s virginity upon marriage and dictated that respectable women wear veils in public as a symbol of their modesty. Eventually, women’s social positions and their abilities to participate fully in the life of the community eroded more completely. Finally, the law began to dictate more of what women could do and could not do until a good part of Mesopotamian law was mostly comprised of limitations and restrictions for women, as well as assuring some basic protections to them.
There, of course, were other women who rose to high places in particular times under particular circumstances, but it seems safe to say that by the time of the Roman Empire, with its network of roads and imperial connections linking the known world, which were able to carry not only goods and government, but also ideas, philosophies, and religions far and wide, that the patriarchy was well entrenched throughout the entire Western world.
The early Christian Church, still an underground movement, was part of this world and wealthy widows often hosted meetings of early disciples and their followers in their homes. They also often preached and officiated at these clandestine gatherings, but this seeming equality would not last. When Christianity was finally recognized and became the official religion of the Roman Empire through the conversion of Constantine in 312 c.e. it became more accepted and institutionalized, taking on the misogynistic ideas that pervaded Roman society. The Church began to systematically reduce the importance of women to conform to the prevailing attitudes.
Among other symbolic losses was the loss of Eve. Eve began to be seen as the cause of Adam’s downfall and subsequently as the primary cause of Christ’s death and humanity’s need for salvation. Mary Magdalene was mistaken for a prostitute by a pope, who confused her with another biblical woman, and she then carried that designation until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945. The Church formally admitted its mistake finally in 1956, but many Catholics still believe she was a whore to this day even so.
Third-century Christians decided menstruation was unclean, and thereafter menstruating women could not approach the altar. Women had never been given the title of priestess by Christians, only that of deaconess. But even so, they could not fulfill their deacons’ duties if they were bleeding. Because of this separation from men and the judging of them to be inferior, the treatment of women became harsher and crueler, until after centuries of denigration women were considered subhuman and a danger to men.
This antipathy culminated in the “Burning Times “of the late medieval era, when it is now believed that perhaps as many as 100,000 people (mostly women) were tortured and killed over the 400 years of the Inquisition.
Many historical elements converged to form this “perfect storm.” The beginnings of a medical profession found the herbalist/midwife a threat to the stature of physicians as healers. The emerging law profession needed an arena in which to practice and seizing the property of those accused of witchcraft was highly lucrative. Combine this with the fact that women were now universally considered inferior and, if unattached and not under the protection of a man, they could be preyed upon with impunity, and you’re in business. Also, the Church was feeling threatened by the unstoppable move towards reformation. Demonizing women and offering up a scapegoat was a way to bind their believers to the faith more closely.
Until very recently, women did not have the right to vote for their own representation in democracies, they could not get a bank loan or open a checking account in their own names and had to rely on their husband’s sponsorship in the financial arena. Women are still fighting in the courts for their reproductive rights, equal pay, and opportunities in the Western nations. We’ve come a long way, but parity and partnership between the genders has not arrived yet.