origin of patriarchy

Theoretical perspectives on the origin of patriarchy

Now one may wonder, how can we define patriarchy. It is a rather tricky question, as with other kinds of definitions related with social phenomenon and concepts, defining patriarchy in its entirety is not always possible. It is therefore better to understand the concept rather than getting into some watertight definition.

However, patriarchy can be defined as “a system of social structure and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Walby, 1990). This definition clearly outlines the nature of patriarchy which is engrained in our social structure that gives it a very fundamental character. Based on this social structure, men dominate and exploit women and their action gets legitimised by the existing structure through institutions like family, kinship, marriage, religion, class, caste, race, etc. Patriarchy envisages within itself a form of power relation between men and women. In this relationship a hierarchy exists that places men in an advantageous position and this makes a complete recipe for female exploitation. In a more literal sense patriarchy (pitrasatta in Hindi) denotes rule of father in a male-dominated family. This rule emerges from an unequal resource distribution like land which is invariably inherited by the male line of descent.

This control over the resources later gets translated into control over the production and reproduction of women. However later in this unit we will also see that how matrilineal and bilateral kinship structures alter this power relation in family and outside.

Feminism as an ideology has always tried to deal with the question and conception of patriarchy. There are different philosophical traditions in feminism that conceptualise patriarchy differently. Prominent among them are: Liberal Feminism, Marxist Feminism and Radical Feminism. Liberal Feminism is based on the philosophy of individual rights. The birth of Liberal Feminism dates back to the 18th century when it was realised that women should no longer be subjugated to the authority of males. It was in this context that liberal feminists challenged the customary and legal framework that reflected a biased understanding of women based on their inferior physical and intellectual capabilities which were used as instruments to subjugate and subordinate women. It is with the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft that one traces the birth of Liberal Feminism as a separate feminist movement. In her magna carta- “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”, Wollstonecraft advocates for equal opportunity for both men and women. She emphasises that it is imperative that women are educated and made aware of their political and social rights in order to claim equal status at par with men.

In the 19th century John Stuart Mill emerged as the leading scholar of Liberal Feminism and advocated that women are required to participate equally and pro-actively in various societal affairs and hence strive for equality. Liberal feminists advocated that women should not only be confined to the domestic domain and there should be equal opportunity for them to participate in the public and political spheres of life.

According to them patriarchy has confined women to the four walls of the house and therefore they need to get liberated in order to come out of the clutches of patriarchy. Liberals attacked the myth that women, because of their feminine behaviour are not suited for outside world and therefore they seek refuge and security within the domestic sphere of life. However, Liberal Feminism is being criticised on the issue of being very individualistic and therefore totally overlooking the structural, societal and familial basis for male dominance and patriarchy. Liberal feminists do not take a critical view of family and are focused solely on capturing space and rights for individual women in the public domain. They are also being criticised for being elitists since most of the rights gathered in this manner will be availed by the so-called upper class/caste women. Therefore this stream of feminism did not voice the concern of other differentially suppressed women on the basis either of class, caste, race etc. Again, on the issue of origin of male dominance and patriarchy liberal feminists are found wanting. They do not provide with a theory that can explain the circumstances that led to patriarchal set-up and male dominance in society.

This gap was however filled by Marxist Feminism that deals with the issue of origin of patriarchy and male dominance. Marxist feminists are of the view that patriarchy originated with the origin of private property (Engels, 1948). It is with the emergence of private ownership of property and its transfer through the male line of descent that patriarchy as a social structure was born. They also relate the concept of patriarchy with the capitalist mode of production. However they have been criticised for just adding the issue of gender to their already existing framework of class oppression. They are also silent on the issue of women oppression before the advent of private property. There are empirical evidences that point to the fact that women oppression and male dominance was present even before the advent of private property. Claude Levi-Strauss observed that the exchange of women is the basic form of exchange and it took place because of some taboo on incestuous relationships (sexual relations between close relatives like father and daughter, brother and sister, mother and son etc.) in each and every society. This kind of taboo required that women be acquired from a group outside one’s own and thus clan, lineage, village exogamy originated. This gave rise to the manipulation of female sexuality and hence the emergence of male dominance.

Another group of feminist scholars known as radical and revolutionary feminists tried to understand and explain the origin of patriarchy and male dominance through the notion of female sexuality and its manipulation by the male. They are of the view that biologically women are different from men. This is the basic fact recognised by this brand of feminism. This biological difference defines the role of women as child bearers. This biological role is however translated and interpreted as related to the notion of “motherhood” which defines the role of mother in terms of both child bearing and child rearing. They are of the view that biology alone is not responsible for such skewed power relations between male and female but their cultural interpretation is responsible for the same. ‘Gendering of sex’ takes place in the socio-cultural context. In other words the control of male over the reproductive capacity of female is the root cause of patriarchy.

Sheila Jeffrey, one of the revolutionary feminist puts her point on the origin of patriarchy by saying that there are basically two systems of class that operate in a society-

i) the class based on and originating from the relations of production and

ii) the class that is based on and originates from the relation of reproduction.

It is the second system of class that is responsible for women subordination and patriarchy. Similarly, Finella McKenzie argued that the first kind of division of  labour was between men and women and it originated from women’s reproductive capacity and men’s greater strength. This made women dependent on men and thus gave rise to unequal power distribution. However she also writes that it is not only because of this differential reproductive capacity that subordinates women but this biological differentiation is turned into psychological dependency by men and the social structure as a whole. This stream of feminism is however criticised for being biological determinist and reductionist. It also does not provide any alternative to end patriarchy or improve the condition of women. They advocate that women should be made aware of this kind of subordination which in turn can help in improving their condition.