Patriarchy | What is it?

Basic Definitions

When I ask people what Patriarchy means, some basic definitions come up. Here are just a few of them:

  • Sexism towards women (Misogyny)
  • Wage gaps
  • Rape Culture
  • Expropriation of womens’ labor by men in the household
  • Segregation of the work force
  • Man of the house
  • Denial of right to own property for women

So with that in mind, let’s see if we can better define Patriarchy. The most general definition if we turn to Wikipedia is.

  1. a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.
  2. a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

Both of these form of Patriarchy exist today in society. Jewish families are not Patriarchal by the first definition when it comes to descent, they have a Matrilineal form of descent, but other than that they are still Patriarchal as are other religious, tribal and secular communities.

The most recent definition of Patriarchy in terms of Third Wave Feminism:

Quote:Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

Usage in social science prior to feminism

Max Weber in 1947 used it to refer to ‘a system of government in which men ruled societies through their position as heads of households’. This usage has a historical context and, the domination of younger men who were not household heads was as important as, if not more important than, the element of men’s domination over women via the household.

The definition has evolved since Weber as some radical feminists who developed the element of the domination of women by men and who paid less attention to the issue of how men dominated each other, and by dual-systems theorists (a mixture of Marxist and Radical Feminism) who have sought to develop a concept and theory of Patriarchy as a system which exists alongside capitalism (and sometimes racism too).

Incorporation of generational element

The practice of incorporating a generational element into the definition of Patriarchy is viewed by some to be a mistake. It implies a theory of gender inequality in which this aspect of men’s domination over each other is central to men’s domination over women. Heidi Hartmann, one of the proponents of this theory, uses a definition which incorporates generational hierarchy among men, this is not central to her theory of Patriarchy, which focuses upon men’s organisational ability to expropriate women’s labor in paid work, and hence in the household. Inclusion of generation in the definition is confusing. It is a contingent element and best omitted, according to Sylvia Walby.

Walby defines Patriarchy as :

Quote:A system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women.

The use of the term social structure is important here. It implies the rejection of both biological determinism and the notion that every individual man is in a dominant position and every woman in a subordinate one.


Patriarchy needs to be conceptualised at different levels of abstraction.

Most abstract Least abstract
System of social relations. Patriarchal Mode of Production.
Capitalism. Patriarchal Relations of paid work.
Racism. Patriarchal relation in the state.
Male violence.
Patriarchal Relations in sexuality.
Patriarchal Relations in cultural institutions.

More concretely, in relation to each of the structures, it is possible to identify sets of Patriarchal practices which are less deeply sedimented. Structures are emergent properties of practices. Any specific instance will embody the effects, not only of Patriarchal structures, but also of capitalism and racism as well.

The six structures have causal effects upon each other, both reinforcing and blocking, but are relatively autonomous. The specification of several rather than simply one base is necessary in order to avoid reductionism and essentialism.

Related posts:

Share this content:

Leave a Reply