A brief history of patriarchy

A Brief History of Patriarchy

This article was originally a talk given in 2004 in North Carolina by historian Gerda Lerner, who was 84 years old at the time. Gerda describes the creation (social construction) of patriarchy based on hierarchy and enslavement. She describes how this system is antiquated and dangerous to men and women. 

HISTORY MATTERS: A ‘Brief’ History of Patriarchy

By Dr. Gerda Lerner

I’m doing something very difficult today and that is I’m going to talk about 2,500 years of history in 50 minutes. So, you will have to accept on faith that the facts I’m citing are amply proven by examples, but I can’t give you the examples. They are in the book, but I think in the discussion next week we will have a chance to go into more concrete examples. And what I was, what I’m trying to tell you also, is that studying the ancient near East, which is the area around in which all the trouble is going on now – the current day Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia between the Euphrates and the Tigris – which is where Western civilization started – it’s very interesting for a historian because the sources are very much more plentiful than our sources are for say 13th century Europe. And the reason is that the people there wrote on clay tablets and clay tablets don’t destruct as paper does – and as papyrus does – so we have tens of thousands of pieces of evidence for everything that I’m going to say.

It’s a very rich area for research. I was interested in this book in finding out whether there is a history of patriarchy possible. Whether it’s possible to do a history. Is it a historic construct? And the reason, of course, is that in everything we are taught, we are taught by traditional history that women are in some way essentially different from men and are designed to perform different functions. And when we question that, we are always told, “Well, it’s always been like that.” And depending on the religious affiliation – it’s either God given or Nature given.

I wanted to see whether that can be challenged with historical evidence. And so, I’m starting with the first division within human society which occurred as soon as human beings lived in groups and that is, of course, the division between men and women. The obvious differences between men and women are there; they are recognized by human beings and they were always incorporated in a sexual division of labor. Okay? Now, I just want to anticipate my final finding. Namely, what I’m trying to prove to you is that patriarchy is a historical system. It was created by human beings. It has a historical beginning. And it has an end. That may be news to you. *laughter from audience.*

Established over a period of nearly 2,500 years, and I roughly date that period from 3,100 before the common era to 600 BCE. Now 600 BCE is the period in which all the major monotheistic religions are already written down and established, in which Greek philosophy is developed, Greek science is developed, and that’s the period when, in other words, patriarchy is firmly established. Now, the sexual division of labor already occurred in the Neolithic tribal villages that arose in that area. And, we have some evidence on the lifespan of the people at that time. And it was a very, very short lifespan. For males it was 35 years, and for females 30 years. That’s rounded up a little bit.

Now if you remember that in 30 years, the age at which girls reached puberty was later than it is now. It always has been getting earlier since historic time. So even if we dated it to 14, a woman had 16 years in which she could bear children, alright? Infant mortality rates were about 80% at the time, so 20% of the children would survive from the first year of life, which meant that a woman had to have pregnancies practically every year or every year and a half in order to have two or three children survive into adulthood. Okay?

And, of course, what it means in practical terms, if those groups in which the social arrangements did not work for the survival of children, those are the groups that disappeared. Right? So the sexual division of labor made it absolutely essential for groups to develop a system by which women could raise children. And now generally when we are told about the subordination of women, and we are told why it happens, we are told that it has to do with the fact that women “bear” children. I find that this is not – that “child bearing” – is NOT the issue. The main issue is child “nurture.”

Human children need many years of care before they can survive – and in more primitive conditions, more years of care.

And so, the long nursing and the effective mothering are the key issues in the survival of tribes. And as a result, the essential division of labor that we find in most of the early societies is that women who are…women take care of the hunting and gathering around the area, which, in fact, supplies as much as 70 or 80% of the nutrition of the group, and men take care of the hunting and then later on that turns into warfare – defending against other tribes.

This – both of these functions – when needed for group survival – and the sexual division of labor were an effective means of assuring group survival under very harsh conditions and IT DID NOT CONNOTE INEQUALITY. And we know that from many evidences of graves of early settlements where male and female graves are of the same type, and so forth. The next thing that happens is that little groups of tribes in settlements begin to encroach upon each other and they need to find a way in which they can stop from constantly having warfare.

What develops is the exchange of women.

Women are exchanged for two reasons: to foster inter-tribal relations and also later on to assure tribes that they have an efficient supply of women who can raise children. Now this exchange of women takes place in all known societies and it is very often marked by a shift from what we call matriliny to patriliny. Now matriliny is the way in which society is organized so that you reckoned the descent through the mother, and the couple lives in the location of the mother’s home. Very often the husband of the daughters will come occasionally as a visitor and not even live there. Matriliny was very, very widespread in all early settlements and then in the period I’m describing, we see a shift to patriliny – which is also patrilocality. The descent begins to be reckoned through the father. The bride, or the wife, leaves the home of her parents and goes to the location of the father.

Now, one example of the early arrangement we find in the Bible in the story of Jacob who goes to Laban’s house to live there for seven years to get his daughters. So that’s still matrilocality. And then he takes his wife and children, at the time that patrilocality is established, and he takes them to the house of his father. So there is a perfect example of proof of a shift. What is very interesting is as we study the evidence that while this process takes place everywhere, it never is reversed. We have no record of patriliny changing to matriliny. Okay? So you can say that this is sort of a historic development.

You might ask, why were women exchanged and not men?

Or why were not children exchanged? If you wanted to secure the friendship of another tribe and you gave your children – this was done for example in the middle ages among ruling families, they often exchanged the children of the rulers to secure a peace. Well the reason for that is essentially that (this is an assumption, an hypothesis) one could not be sure by exchanging men, that they would stay and that they would be peaceful. And they didn’t know how to control the men, but if you had women, you knew that by exchanging, that the moment they were pregnant and had children they stayed with their children. And so the ability of women, the biological ability, and the hardwired ability of women to nurture children made them predisposed to being cast in this role. So in that sense there is some biological basis. But that does NOT mean that that role had to be cast as an inferior role. And that’s just my point.

At a certain point, this becomes changed to an inferior role. Other explanations that have been given for the rise of patriarchy are that it had to do with the fact that men invented animal husbandry – out of the hunting role. They learned how to domesticate animals, and because they learned how to domesticate animals, the theory goes, man, the hunter, acquired some wealth in animals and then started controlling the world. This is ahistorical because animal husbandry was invented in the region we’re talking about about 8000 BC. And we have evidence, hard evidence through diggings, of relatively egalitarian societies in the region that practiced animal husbandry 2000-4000 years later. So, this could not be the reason. This is not what happened.

So, but it did happen that men learned to domesticate animals and that the sexual division of labor became reinforced by that, very strongly.

Now, at the time of about the period that I’m starting to talk about, 3000 BCE, there were city states being formed in this region, in Ur, in Lagash, in Kish, in Sumer, and we have very good records from those. And what we find when these city states are formed is that they already have developed a more elaborate division of labor. Namely, there are people who specialize in military functions, there are people who specialize in the arts and crafts, and there are people who specialize in taking care of the community and hunting and gathering.

What we find developing in these early settlements is a new role for women of the elite. And, I’m talking here about the wives of rulers. In these city states, you have the temple which is the big center for activity, and the reason for that is that in that region, you need to have large-scale watering systems in order to do agriculture. And these watering systems require a supply of labor and they are managed by the temple – by the temples. And so there’s a temple elite, and gradually you see some individuals that begin to function as rulers.

These rulers are – most of them are -usurpers.

That is their claim to fame – is that they won in some warfare against the neighboring tribe and that the king gave them land and so now they are the men of the king and to show their legitimacy, they usually claim that they are also related to the Goddess. I’ll talk about that later. But, one of the troubles that they have is that they are constantly engaged in warfare. And when they are away being usurpers, they could be easily replaced, you know. And so they’re very insecure, so they set up their wives as deputies. And that’s the role of the wife as deputy, or called the stand-in wife.

And I just want to point out to you, without being able to give you all the examples that I could easily give you, that that role is with us to this day. Alright? It’s the role of the woman of the elite, like you had in say the Gandhi family in India – if they are running out of boys, the women take over. Okay? These women have tremendous power. They conducted warfare. They collected taxes. They bought and sold slaves. They had tremendous power, but they also were very vulnerable because, at that same time, we already have documents from that time from the city of Ur and from others, that the men had already begun to keep harems.

To kings it was a sign of status and legitimacy that the bigger your harem, the more powerful you were. And these women could be replaced at any time by a second wife or a concubine if they no longer sexually pleased their husbands. And there are many cases where we have letters where these women are set aside – these powerful women.

So what you have here is a prototype of a patriarchal role for elite women.

They give up their sexual freedom, but in exchange they get a lot of power – but only so long as they sexually serve and reproductively serve their husband. If they don’t have boys, for example, if they don’t give birth to sons, they can be set aside. Out. Out of nowhere. And they can be, there are cases where they are imprisoned, they are set aside. Okay? So this is with us to this day. This elite wife role.

Now, we come to the big change in the Bronze Age. And it is, of course, again, there are many, many things that change, and I have to simplify it very greatly and I’m sorry for that. But the main outstanding thing about the Bronze Age is that due to the fact that you now have bronze tools and weapons, warfare intensifies and becomes much more effective. And more and more people are killed in warfare, on the one hand. On the other hand, you now have bronze tools for tilling the soil and plowing, agriculture comes in. And it is much more efficient – and all of a sudden there is enough food supply so that these small communities can feed other people that they bring in – which before was impossible.

Because of that, and because there’s now a constant need for labor, they develop a system of acquiring that labor.

And the labor that they acquire are slaves. And, but before that, I just need to say that this whole agricultural revolution brings with it a much greater specialization of the economy. It brings with it the development of kingships, so that instead of small city states and tiny tribes, you get sizable kingdoms now, right? And it brings a rivalry between the temple bureaucratic elite, which controls the irrigation system, and the kings. Okay? And that has a great impact also on what develops.

So, for example, at that time there’s one of the rulers, Sargon of Akkad, and he rules over Sumer, Assyria, Elam, and the Euphrates Valley. This is in the middle of the second millennium. And I’m mentioning him because he had a daughter named Enkheduanna, who’s the first known woman poet in the history of the world. She was a great poet, and her work is available to this day. And he set her up as the High Priestess, that was another stand in role for women. If you made her High Priestess, then she could penetrate power in the temple elite. And so the women of the elite were used as pawns.

Of course, the males too. Males didn’t have free choice either.

Now, in this same period, warriors were rewarded with, in other words, successful warriors of the usurper king, in order to consolidate his power, he gave them conquered land and he gave them conquered women. Before that time, whenever there was warfare, and we have very accurate descriptions, they described how they piled up the corpses and they killed everybody. Piles and piles of corpses: men, women, and children were killed.

But after the agricultural revolution, we come to the development of, what I call, the invention of slavery. Alright? This is VERY crucial. And the point here is that because men had already learned that if you exchange women and you either rape them, or you marry them and they have children, they will stay in the family of the conqueror. Because they had learned that, they could transfer that to the conquered enemy. And what is very interesting is that in every society in the world that developed slavery, THE FIRST ENSLAVED PEOPLE WERE WOMEN AND CHILDREN. And what’s really interesting about this, when I first started researching this – I found it almost impossible to believe – I looked at dozens and dozens of sources on the origin of slavery, and they all had that sentence in it. And nobody, NOBODY asked WHY or WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS!  THAT’S ALL I DID. I asked WHY? And WHAT’S THE MEANING OF IT? OKAY?

So we have the record that for several hundred years in this area, while they enslaved women and children, they did not enslave the conquered men.

They either killed them, or they mutilated them. They cut their Achilles tendons, they blinded them, they mocked them and branded them. They didn’t know what to do with them, because if a man had been fighting you with a bronze cudgel, right? And you conquered him, and now you brought him home, and you put a tool in his hand that was a stick with a bronze hoe on it and said, “Now work for me for free,” he might very well at night use it for a weapon. And they didn’t know what to do then.

So you had to invent a way in which you could make people enslaved. This was NOT a natural thing, okay? And men learned that you could do that by making the slave a MARKED human being that was denigrated so that he was not considered, he or she was not considered, quite human. You turn him into an “Other.” And this was done by a variety of ways. Very often the people conquered actually looked different, very different race – so racism starts. You know, racism is one of the very bases on which slavery is built.

But even if it was a next door neighbor that looked just exactly like your own tribe – they started cutting their hair differently, or they marked their ears, or they cut off their noses. They did very brutal things. The point was to mark them – as “different”. And then, to construct an idea that because they are different that they are inferior. And they’re not quite human. And once you have done that, then you can – then they found that you could use “difference” and turn it into “dominance”. And,


AND I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW IMPORTANT IT IS TO UNDERSTAND THAT THE KEY TO PATRIARCHY COMBINES ALL THE DISCRIMINATIONS IN ONE: You’re different if you’re female, you’re different if you are from a different race, you’re different if you are from a different ethnicity, you’re different, later, if you’re a different religion, and, finally, YOU ARE DIFFERENT IF WE SAY SO.

You know, we create. Welfare mothers? All of a sudden, they are different? They’re not our neighbors? They’re not exactly like us, only they are poor? No, you see. THIS is the essence of the moral principle on which patriarchy is built. And so, the intertwining of the forms of discrimination that are involved in slavery and sexism are so connected from the beginning that you cannot separate them out, and the mistake we have been making in the past 40 years is that everybody’s fighting their own little thing. You cannot abolish this that way. From the beginning it’s been interlocked, alright? And I think that’s the importance of this research.

What this also means, is that once slavery is invented, class is formed in a new way.

I call it in a phrase, class is formed “genderic-ly”. Namely, class is never the same for men and women. The enslaved people, the enslaved men and women and children are used as the exploited labor. That’s – they share that. But for women, slavery from the beginning means sexual services and reproductive services to the conquered males. And it does not mean that for males. For some periods, there are examples where males are used that way – in the Roman Empire and so forth. But those are the exceptions. And that’s the second principle. For woman subordination and oppression always involves the control of their sexual and reproductive functions by males or male dominated institutions. And this has not changed in 3,000 years. Okay?

Now, that means also that class – if class is defined as the access to resources, or the access of what the Marxists used to call “the means of production” – but I prefer “resources”, as there are all kinds of resources, then males have direct access to resources. Males of the dominant group have direct access to resources. But women have access to resources only THROUGH the men on whom they depend which is either the men in their family of origin or the men they marry. And this is a very, very BIG difference. So class is NOT the same for men and women and slavery is NOT the same for men and women. Now from here I’m going to a – I feel like I’m on a racetrack – from here I’m going to go to a period at the end of the second millennium and mostly the first millennium BCE when you already have kingships and states and the archaic states are formed.

At that time you have the big major law codes that are available and almost everything I’m saying here is based on the study of the four major law codes.

Mainly the code of Hammurabi, which is put down about 752 BCE, the Hittite and Assyrian law which was created and written down between the 15th and 11th century (you remember that it goes backwards before) and the Hebrew, and I’m mostly basing this on Genesis, which was completely written down in the 7th century BCE. So I’m going to give a quick overview, of how now, after we have – after human beings invented a way to turn difference into dominance and to organize the societies accordingly, that didn’t mean yet that they could get away with a lot of excess or with a lot of rights. That took a long time to develop. It was not a sudden overthrow. It was something that developed over a thousand years in this case.

So, first of all, in the law codes, what we see is before the laws are passed, kinship was the way in which the law took its order. In other words, if there was a crime committed, the head of the kin group – or the males in the kin group would take care of settling it. Usually with some kind of bloodbath, you know – an eye for an eye, or something like that. Gradually, that shifts.

The laws are written, and the laws are written so that the king suddenly starts intervening.

So for example, adultery. Adultery is a crime that only women can commit in these societies. There is no adultery for males, they can sleep around as much as they want. Women’s adultery is usually punishable by death. A very brutal death. But we see the difference between, at first, used to be the males in the family would kill their sister, daughter, whoever, to avenge a breach of law that shamed the family. But now in these law codes, it’s put down exactly what is to happen, and they have to go to the court, and the court puts in the punishment. So the state takes over the enforcement of the patriarchal arrangements of marriage.

Now these marriage arrangements vary by class. They are always considered “contracts” between two male heads of families. Nobody has any choice in marriage. Okay? And their – for the upper class group, the father of the bride receives a bride prize from the father of the groom. And that bride prize is, becomes the property of the husband and he has all the rights over it. And, however, he has a big constraint. He cannot sell it or use it for himself because he is obliged to keep that bride prize in case of his death. That is the support for his widow, alright? So the bride prize is a way in which the families assured a common interest for both husband and wife in the marriage, a financial interest, and they give some sort of protection to the widow. But what happens when the widow dies? That money, she can’t dispose of it. It goes to her sons.

So what we see here is the first development of something we are seeing all through historical time, and that is property passes from man to man, but it passes THROUGH women.

That’s the second principle of the patriarchy. So if you want to know what woman’s status actually is, there’s no use just looking at what some woman do – you have to look at the property relations. And you have to look at widowed women. That’s a very crucial way of finding out the actual status of women in a society.

Now the middle class of the ancient near Eastern societies, they don’t have that much property, and they don’t have that much property usually to be able to pay a bride prize for their sons, so what they do is they try and get a marriage for the daughter and the bride prize for their daughter is used to pay for the marriage of the son. So again, the property goes through women, but it’s used for the males in the family.

The lower class, the totally lower class, impoverished people, have, if they need to bury… First of all, they have one loophole that exists in patriarchy, is that if they have a very beautiful daughter, they can perhaps marry her to someone in the upper class. It’s possible for women to change their class status by marriage, but generally, the arrangements are all such that the property of the group, the class as a whole, stays in the class. They encourage people to marry within their class. But the very poor then, what they can do is to sell a daughter into prostitution or slavery and use the money to buy a bride for the son. Or, to go get out of debt, as the debt-slavery develops as an institution. There are many laws about it. If a man is in debt, he can take his wife and children and make them debt-slaves, and with money he can get from them, he can pay his debt.

So property in women and children is legalized as part of the legal institution of the patriarchal state.

Of course you can understand, when you, by the way, any time you open the newspapers and you read about some women in Afghan societies whose fathers are killing them, or whose brothers are killing them because they’ve been raped or disgraced – I mean, that’s the old system still working fine. It’s incredibly…it has an incredible longevity. The virginity of brides and the chastity of wives become a commodity for the family. And that’s how patriarchy starts. Okay? Rape is considered a crime by the rapist against the father of the raped woman or against the husband. And very often the punishment is that the raped woman gets married – has to get married – to the rapist.

So women have an – you can easily confuse that and think that it means women have become enslaved – they have NOT become enslaved. These very same middle and upper class women that I have described to you, in all these law codes, we have a picture of a society in which women are very active commercially. They have many occupations. They have a much higher economic status than 18th century American women, for example. They can buy and sell slaves. They can oppress other people. They can manage businesses – and they do. But yet, everything depends upon their marital and sexual arrangement.

Essentially, to establish patriarchy as a functioning system, men have to guarantee, and the state guarantees, that the sexuality and reproductive power of women is controlled by men and male dominated institutions.

Of course, we could spend a long time, and maybe next week we will, discussing how that still today plays out. And that of course informs feminist attitudes about such questions as abortion and rape. Because what’s involved is a very ancient and very, very important principle that’s the mainstay of this oppressive system.  Now, to zoom right through. *laughter* Zooming right along, even in this whole period when all these institutions developed, women still have power. And one of the big powers that women still have in the ancient near Eastern societies is that they served the gods. They serve as priestesses, they serve in the temple, they rule over temples, and in a certain important way – you know, in ethical culture we understand religion as a human construct, and the human construct in religion has always been based on who creates life, who controls death, and who brings sin into the world.

And in the period that I’m talking about, all these societies have a pantheon of gods and goddesses who act very much like human beings, who have all the failings of human beings. In one of the oldest epics, the epic of Gilgamesh, it opens up with the gods bringing Gilgamesh who’s half god and half human to trial because he goes around raping women and it’s creating a disturbance. So you see what I mean. The gods and goddesses have human qualities and they’re equally obnoxious to each other. They conduct warfare, they conduct intrique.  So if a person had something wrong with them, and they wanted help, they were as likely to go the the temple of the goddess where the priestess was in charge as to a temple of a god. This all changes. And it changes in the latter part of the first millennium, but it changes in different places at different times depending on the condition. It always changes in one direction only.

The gods and goddesses are replaced by a powerful male god.

It is the storm god, the god of the wind. It’s very interesting. That’s the most powerful god. And all of a sudden, or gradually, the goddess is dethroned and all of a sudden becomes his consort or his wife. That, of course, is the preliminary to, finally, to the development of monotheism, right? And as this development takes place, more and more, you find the creation stories changing so that it is no longer the mother goddess that creates life, and I didn’t have a chance to talk about the mother goddess cult in the Neolithic that’s pervasive. And, those mother goddesses were always also in charge of death.

So the mother goddess, who was in charge of life and death, is now the wife of the storm god. And all of a sudden you learn that it’s the storm god that gives life. And the next thing that you will be told in the Hebrew Bible is that it is God who creates life. God opens the womb of Sarah. God decides who is fertile and not. It’s no longer the Goddess, alright? So the dethroning of the Goddess takes place everywhere, and if you look at it historically, as I did, it takes place when a particular state becomes IMPERIALIST. It’s very interesting. It doesn’t take place in any other time. When the state begins to make claims that it has the right to conquer its neighbors and to rule – as one ruler said, “I rule the four corners of the Earth. God has given me this right.” There we are.

To conclude this sad story.

*laughter from audience* By the time that monotheism develops, by the time you have empires in this region, you have powerful military states that control the lives of their citizens, you see the development of science, Greek science, Greek philosophy, and women by that time have been fairly well removed from contact with the Divine. That also is a process that takes many hundreds of years, but it takes place always in the same directions. So the founders of Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle, are very explicit about their view of women: Women are crippled human beings. They are incomplete. They are not quite human. And therefore, you can compare them to slaves. And the comparison is made.

So what we are seeing is, that – now if we talk about two kinds of things that give power – one is the region of actual power – which is militarism and the distribution of land. That’s one source of power for human beings. But there’s another source of power. And that’s the symbol system. What you put into people’s heads. How you explain the world and the relationship to the universe and the meaning of life. Okay?  So by the time that men, and IT WAS MEN IN THIS CASE, create the first meaningful symbol system of Western civilization, the subordination of women has been accomplished “in fact” – every place they live. And so it isn’t questioned. It isn’t an issue. They discuss slavery.

They discuss whether it’s right to enslave people, but they do NOT discuss whether women are EQUAL human beings. That comes later.

And so because of that antiquity, by that time then, when the very values of Western civilization are created, the men who create this mental construct, assume the subordination of women as either “Natural” or “God given”. They assume as a verity that God does not speak to women. And that a “male” god creates life and that “sin” was brought into the world by women. Well, by the time you have that mental construct firmly established and men and women believe in it and teach it to their children, nobody can question patriarchy.

And we now add, which I don’t have time to do unfortunately for you, 2000 further years of systematically depriving women of education. Okay? Systematically and in EVERY place in the world. Okay? And then you ask, why aren’t women better off? Why didn’t they start for their struggle for rights sooner? So, in conclusion, patriarchy was established by men and women, I believe. And when it was first established, it served a purpose. I call it the patriarchal bargain that women made. And the bargain was: I give up my sexual freedom. I give up the idea of any, you know, and my reproductive freedom, and in exchange one man or the state will protect me and my children from warfare and will allocate resources to me.

Okay? That’s the bargain. So it was once a good bargain, IN THE NEOLITHIC. *laughter from the audience* We’re no longer living the Neolithic. And what we have is an idea system that’s based on a perfectly wonderful arrangement FOR THE NEOLITHIC. And which is TOTALLY dysfunctional now, OKAY?


My point is that to further existence of patriarchy as it is based on hierarchy, militarism, enslavement, and the constant pitting against each other of one group for the benefit of another, ENDANGERS NOT ONLY WOMEN AND CHILDREN, BUT THE WORLD. IT’S DYSFUNCTIONAL. IT’S OUTDATED. IT CAN BE ABOLISHED.”

Dr. Gerda Lerner (April 30, 1920 – January 2, 2013) was an Austrian-born American historian and woman’s history author. In addition to her numerous scholarly publications, she wrote poetry, fiction, theater pieces, screenplays, and an autobiography. She served as president of the Organization of American Historians from 1980 to 1981. In 1980, she was appointed Robinson Edwards Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she taught until retiring in 1991.

Lerner was one of the founders of the academic field of women’s history. In 1963, while still an undergraduate at the New School for Social Research, she taught “Great Women in American History”, which is considered to be the first regular college course on women’s history offered anywhere.

She taught at Long Island University from 1965 to 1967. She played a key role in the development of women’s history curricula and was involved in the development of degree programs in women’s history at Sarah Lawrence College (where she taught from 1968 to 1979 and established the nation’s first master’s degree program in women’s history) and at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she launched the first Ph.D. program in women’s history. She also worked at Duke University and Columbia University, where she was a co-founder of the Seminar on Women.

One thought on “A Brief History of Patriarchy”

  1. The critical factor that seems to be missing from Lerner’s discussion is original intent. While she shows men taking and institutionalizing power, the implication is that they did it for self-aggrandizing reasons, when the record shows that patriarchy arose out of necessity, and was then institutionalized the way anyone (male or female) would institutionalize inherited power — just as we see today, with Putin and Xi creating laws to make them “president for life,” in Russia and China.

    As for why I see this emerging out of necessity, rather than design: Prior to the 20th century, the entire adult lives of women, from late puberty to menopause, were taken up by pregnancy, nursing, and burying babies. This not only took an immense physical and emotional toll on women, but also left them no time to do anything else with their lives, whether men imposed subordination on them or not.

    There is one key element Lerner leaves out of this discussion. While she mentions infant mortality making constant pregnancies a necessity for saving the tribe from extinction, she doesn’t mention maternal mortality, and the fact that women routinely died before they could pass power down to sons or daughters. In other words, it appears that patriarchy arose because there simply was no stability in matriarchy, due to maternal mortality.

    I observed the key elements of this in visiting the old family cemetery in North Carolina, where my maternal grandfather’s family was established since the 1740s. Around the tombstones of each of the patriarchs, one typically finds the smaller stones of two or three wives — all but the last of whom died young.

    My initial reaction to this was the same as Lerner’s — that the men had big headstones, while the women’s were little more than the grave markers of slaves; and that this indicated the brutal domination of society by men, as the virtual dictators of their families, and the only ones allowed to own property or vote.

    On reflection, however, it appears that men acquired this power out of necessity, simply because they were too often the only parent who lived long enough to pass ownership on to the next generation. In other words, they got the power by default, and then rationalized it by creating myths of superior intelligence, emotional stability, etc., when their only real superiority in society was longevity.

    For all the ills blamed on “white men,” it is nonetheless a fact that women generally have far more freedom and equality today in European societies (which cultually includes Australia, New Zealand, and most countries of the Americas) than in most of Asia and Africa — where “honor killings,” arranged marriages, female genital mutilation, polygamy, unpunished rape, etc., are still too often the norm.

    I had an eye-opening education in the late ’60s in Okinawa, as a member of an occupying military. And while our treatment of the Okinawans was bad enough, their subordination of women was nothing less than criminal. Daughters were routinely sold into domestic servitude to pay off a father’s debts — which included teenage girls being sold into prostitution.

    When a friend and I were invited to an Okinawan man’s home for dinner one night, his hospitality included offering us his mentally retarded daughter for sex. This was so far from any reality we were aware of that we literally couldn’t comprehend what was going on, until the girl was dragged into the room, with her mother screaming and futilely pleading with her husband. We immediately excused ourselves and left — a breach of social etiquette that assured we would not be invited back.

    On another occasion, a friend and I encountered a beautiful girl in her late teens, who was workinf at a small, out-of-the-way bar. Her job was to serve patrons, provide conversation, and keep the place clean. Only on our second visit did we learn that she was a year into a 6-year “sentence” as an indentured servant, sold by her father to work off a home improvement loan.

    She described it as a tradition she was obliged to honor. And when I pointed out that there was no honor in selling a child to a bar, she lowered her head and admitted, “Honor is not always honorable. But tradition must be respected.”

    Fortunately for her, the bar owner still had a shadow of honor. Unlike most of his competitors, he didn’t require her to give him or his customers sexual favors.

    Asian patriarchy may have caught up with itself, though. I recently read that South Korea now faces a crisis of severe population decline. It has fully opened its economy and career sector to women. But because men still expect female subservience in the home, less than half of South Korean women now marry, and have either chosen female partners, or to remain celibate.

    Not that Western society is anywhere near shaking off the chains of patriarchy. I have lost count of the women I’ve either known or known of who were once practicing heterosexuals, but are now in same sex relationships. It isn’t that they suddenly discovered they were sexually attracted to women. They just realized they could have satisfying relationships with women, and with a reduced risk of a controlling, domineering, or even violent partner.

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