What Created Patriarchy? Many Possibilities
Women’s past status and power are evidenced by a variety of things.
Around 7000 BCE women’s graves were central and richly decorated in some parts of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, while men might be buried in mass graves.
More recent gender-equal cultures include American Indians and the peoples of Oceana (e.g., Tahiti) before European contact, along with the Arapesh and the !Kung, today.
All forager societies — the lifestyle that marked 95% of the human experience — are strongly pro-equality, be it gender or otherwise.
So what caused patriarchy? No one was around to watch the transition and record it, and patriarchy may have arisen via more than one path. Interestingly, none of the paths came about because men simply disliked and wanted to control women.
Here are a few theories:
Exchange of women
The words sound sexist: Exchange of women. But the exchange seems to have created sexism, rather than sexism creating the exchange.
At some point ancient people seemed to realize that children were healthier when they were not inbred. And so women began to be exchanged, bought and sold.
But then women’s power and status declined as they were increasingly seen as property. In particular, property to be controlled.
Why were women exchanged and not men? Possible reasons:
- Adding women to a tribe increases the size and strength of the tribe
- Men were more likely to hunt, trade and war — taking them further afield and making it easier to escape and find their way home, since they were more likely to know the terrain
- On average men are bigger and stronger, making it easier for them to escape
- On average men are bigger and stronger, making them less easy to control
In hunting societies men must be flattered
In most early societies men did the hunting. Partly, that’s because men are on average bigger and stronger. And, because they don’t give birth they are more expendable.
Some guess that flattery, status and power were used to encourage men to take on dangerous hunting work, where men fought with handheld spears.
In warring societies men must be rewarded
Another guess involves warrior societies. Peoples in harsh terrain are not self-sustaining and may raid to survive. They may then come to celebrate qualities of superior warriors, like height and muscles, which men have more of due to testosterone. And since men are typically bigger, stronger, and more expendable, they were more likely to be the celebrated warriors.
And maybe men were rewarded for the dangerous work of war. What gain would be great enough to risk life and limb for? Why women, of course, who would provide sex, children and labor. Once again, women become property.
To meet this expectation, girls were trained from birth to submit to male demands.
These societies conquered more peaceful peoples and forced male dominance on them.
Since societies are complex we can certainly find warrior-peoples who were not strongly male dominant. Among the Vikings, women who were called shield maidens might also fight. And the warband leader’s wife, according to the Roman historian Tacitus, held the title of Veleda. She used divination to foretell the outcome of a suggested plan and worked to influence the outcome by magic — and maybe strategy — to favorably influence the outcome. She also served a magical liquor at ritual feasts. So Viking women retained much status and power.
Agriculture leads to patriarchy — because men are disconnected?
Some have noticed that the beginnings of agriculture correlate with the beginning of patriarchy. Why is that?
Agriculture creates surpluses, which creates notions of inequality and control.
But why would men have status over women, and control women, and not vice versa?
Allan Johnson suggests that men are more “disconnected” compared with women.
Men are less connected to creation because their bodies do not give birth. And they do not menstruate, creating a natural rhythm of birth, renewal and death, he suggests.
Of course, if men were taught to be hunters and warriors they would need to be less connected, less emotional and less vulnerable, in order to kill.
Agriculture leads to patriarchy — because men keep doing what they were doing?
In early societies women focused on child raising and food gathering. Men hunted, traded, and were the warriors, for reasons already discussed.
That division of labor didn’t seem to create inequality until after agriculture.
Maybe because agriculture creates wealth and complex societies. So:
- Simple treaties of the warrior evolve into elaborate international relations
- Simple trade turns into complex business contracts
Maybe men just kept doing what they had always done, becoming the leaders of business and politics. After a while people think that women simply aren’t capable of doing these things.
Also, in simpler egalitarian communities the entire village would raise the children. But as wealth created more complex societies children were increasingly raised in nuclear families, which kept women in the home and out of power.
Agriculture doesn’t necessarily lead to patriarchy, invasions do
On the other hand, maybe as agriculture created wealth, patriarchal warrior societies had more reason to invade, conquer, and institute their male dominating ways.
A return to equality?
Patriarchy is not inevitable. It hasn’t “always been.” It needn’t always be. And today we are moving toward greater equality.
Posted on January 27, 2017, in feminism, sexism and tagged gender-equal societies, How did patriarchy come to be, matriarchy, patriarchy, sexism, theories of patriarchy. Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.