What Created Patriarchy? Many Possibilities

gender-equalityMost people think that the world has always been patriarchal.


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.

Viking god, Thor

Viking god, Thor

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.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 27, 2017, in feminism, sexism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 29 Comments.

  1. “However, sex differences in many aspects of personality, sexuality, and cognition are actually much LARGER in cultures with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity… This suggests it is UNLIKELY THAT LARGER PSYCHOLOGICAL SEX DIFFERENCES ARE DUE TO more traditional sex role socialization or PATRIARCHY.

    And there my friends, we see the entire edifice of feminism crumble before our eyes.


    We also see the premise of the vast majority of articles on this blog crumble as well. That idea that women aren’t promiscuous because of patriarchy? Fail:

    “This includes sex differences in enjoying casual sex”

    STEM employment and the gender pay gap? Fail:

    “This includes sex differences in occupational preferences, spatial location ability, spatial rotation ability”

    The idea that it is all cultural? Fail:

    “hese sex differences were shown to be universal across cultures, with not a single replication failure across 10 studies”

    An entire blog dismantled in one article.

    • I didn’t find his argument to be clear or persuasive. He wastes a bunch of time talking about stuff like “A d value of ‘x’ has been observed for sex differences in (whatever)…”

      And then suddenly says: “However, sex differences in many aspects of personality, sexuality, and cognition are actually much larger in cultures with more egalitarian sex role socialization and greater sociopolitical gender equity. This includes sex differences in extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, openness, Machiavellianism, Narcissism, psychopathy, social dominance orientation, dismissing attachment, intimate partner violence, spatial location ability, spatial rotation ability, crying behavior, depression, benevolence values, love, empathetic occupational preferences, enjoying casual sex, mate preferences for attractiveness, self-esteem, and subjective well-being”

      But with no real discussion or evidence! So who can argue against it? Probably that’s why he left out the details — then you can’t consider what the actual evidence is.

      From my knowledge what he says is not true. In cultures with high gender inequality women’s sex drive is much more repressed and women are much less interested in sex, and you see a lot of difference in how women and men behave because women are so much more greatly punished. But in gender-equal societies men and women behave quite similarly sexually.

      Turning to aggression, warrior societies are usually more gender-unequal and men are much more aggressive in those societies.

      On the other hand the United States is more gender-unequal than foraging societies yet there is a stronger division of labor in the latter (doing different things doesn’t make too people unequal). A stronger division of labor will create different sets of skills, personalities and abilities.

      • Almost immediately after writing this I saw this from conservative Ross Douthat at the New York Times:

        “In societies where both sexes have greater freedom — and women have more educational and professional opportunities relative to men than in the past — the sexes’ academic interests tend to diverge relative to more traditional societies. And not only their interests but their personalities as well”

        He’s talking about America today. But you can’t look at that without the larger context. We still have a patriarchy where men are judged by their professional success much more than women are. So in a wealthy society like ours men are more likely to pursue education in areas that we’ll give them professional success, and women are more likely — in the wealthy society that is still patriarchal — to do what they want and figure they’ll marry someone who will make the money.

        The different life experiences will then create different personalities.

        In a less wealthy and less gender-equal society Women won’t feel like they have that comfort. They’re more likely to do something that will make a good living.

        My husband went to the success route because that fits his role and that is how he is socially rewarded. I followed my bliss because my status doesn’t depend on making a lot of money. But when he thinks about retirement he wants to do a lot of angst that would be considered feminine: guitar lessons, art lessons, gardening, even cooking…

        If men’s status and self-esteem weren’t so dependent on making a lot of money in our society might they me more likely to choose endeavors that are much more similar to those women now choose?

  2. I have witnessed ‘patriarchy’ right at my home and was taught that is how things worked, however things have changed for better now. My grandmother would only eat after my grandfather and basically stayed home while my grandfather worked outdoors.
    The various possibility of how men took charge over women is quite interesting and equally sad. Exchange of women sounds harsh and specially when people consider you as their property, luckily things have changed a lot from what it used to be, now we can see independent single mothers who are doing well and capable as men. I can picture in my head how could these situations have created male dominance society. Early years women were considered weak, fragile and incapable of doing important works and I believe that is one of the reason that created patriarchy. Things does really look better for women now, since we are moving to equity.

    • Well, our earliest societies don’t seem to think of women as weak. But Women do give birth which made them very valuable. So women did not Holland or make war because you don’t want to lose their children that they could bear. Plus, men do have more muscles due to testosterone. It creates a certain type of physical superiority, if you will. But women are more likely to survive, Which creates a type of female physical superiority. Women’s fat stores help them survive famine. Being shorter helps them survive famine. Their double X gene combination gives them a back up gene that men are missing, Which also helps them to survive and have fewer genetic problems like colorblindness.

  3. This was such a fascinating read! I had never known the female trading was an issue that might affect a patriarchal system. I had always assumed that men were more like to be traded and sold because of their strength, but I had never considered that women might be traded for their ability to reproduce and expand a tribe. And I assume that because these were traded women were considered outsiders, that also promoted poor treatment of women because they were likely abused.
    One of the other things that I’ve always considered to encourage a patriarchal society was The Bible. Before the creation of The Bible, there were many women goddesses all over the world in many different cultures. And this makes sense because women create life, so why wouldn’t our creator be a woman as well? But with the popularization of The Bible comes a male god and that male god condemns Eve, the mother of all men, as weak and sinful in the very first book.

    • It’s ironic that Women were bought because they were more valuable, producing children. But then been bought caused them to lose value as they became property. And the Bible fits a couple of the theories of how we got patriarchy 1) we know that the ancient Semites bought and sold women so that could be one reason they became patriarchal and 2) they were also a warrior nation. And then Christianity and Islam both grew out of that tradition. (Islam because Abraham was the father of both the Jews and the Arabs.)

  4. Here is something to consider for thought. In those modern nations with the greatest gender equality (Nordic nations like Norway, Denmark, Sweden) we see the State playing a massive role. Essentially the State is playing the role of provider. Almost a substitute for the male role.

    Here in America, when we look at Black America we see the closest thing to matriarchy. We can observe two things. Chaos and heavy dependence on the State. Black women do not value Black men. Man elect to have children with thugs and low life type of men.This creates a cycle of behavior that leads to dysfunction. It leads to all kinds of chaos within the Black community. However, the State is force to step in to provide resources to this community which is simply validating dysfunctional conduct.

    Today, we see similar patterns emerging with White women and their increasing war on White men and patriarchy.

    Once White men have been shunned from the lives of White women, I am convinced the State will have to play an increasing role as provider. Why? First, fewer White men are electing to marry because of all the liabilities associated with it. Second, too many White men are opting out of the labor force. So, there are fewer men available to provide resources for women. Lastly, since men pay most of the income taxes (rarely mentioned) with fewer men entering the workforce and women duration in the workforce being shorter than men it means tax collection will drop. So, who is going to pay? Immigrants?

    The very sad reality is women and feminist preach equality ad nauseam but practice very little of it. I have no problem with equality before the law. But, this “toxic masculinity” stuff you can stuff it. The bottom line in this country today is this: women are not responsible and have zero accountability. That what happens when you are entitled and are deemed a “protected” class. It is what happened to White men. They thought they do anything they damn well pleased. They thought they could get away with anything they damn well pleased. This is why a Madonna can say the things she uttered or a Lena Dunham….

    If we want genuine equality, it is time to get rid of all these damn protected classes. Just who are they being protected from. Like they are an endangered species. We are all Americans and we should ALL live by the same damn rules. We should ALL be held to the same damn standards.

    Such is now the case with women. Female high school teachers can have sex with under age boys and get a slap on the wrist. But you feminist cry at the top of your lungs about rape culture and equality. Where is your outrage over a 35 year high school teacher having sex with a 14 year boy?

    As Black people in this country we wanted equality before the law. We wanted the same rights as Whites. The same rights afforded by the Constitution as citizens of this Republic. We never went on rants about hating White people. We never said Thomas Jefferson was an evil man. Martin Luther King even referenced the “sons of slaves and slave holders” in his famous speech. Today, it just seems all we hear is hate for men, especially White men. Where is this coming from/ Why?

    I digress…

    Do you really think we can have Nordic type gender equality in America without the State stepping in the become the provider for women?

    • Sometimes you seem really sweet, Huggy and sometimes… not so much. This one’s kind of grumpy, or even angry.

      I don’t agree because these are the societies where women are most likely to beagle to support themselves, whether you are talking about Nordic societies, blue states or black women. And by the way, blue states give more to the government than we get back. So it’s not a matter of women depending on the government.

      And what sort of toxic feminist things that I said?

      Keep in mind that men and patriarchy are two different things. And I know plenty of men who don’t like patriarchy. Just like being against racism doesn’t mean you hate whites, and a lot of whites are against racism.

      In fact, feminists tend to like men more than non-feminists do. I think that’s because feminists, with their concern that everyone be treated equally regardless of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc., there is a general feeling of love instead of hatred. But people who hate feminists tend to hate pretty much everyone else too.

      Feminists Like Men More Than Non-Feminists Do. https://broadblogs.com/2015/05/22/feminists-like-men-more-than-non-feminists-do/

  5. I have always wondered what put men “in charge” in the world. Apparently there is no real reason, but multiple possibilities. Reading this post, it is easier to see how men were able to be in charge for so long. But since the world is changing and growing with new perspectives and opinions, I hope equality is in my lifetime. We all hear of feminists around the world, but the day of the women’s march, we saw a small portion of them. I attended the women’s march in Los Angeles, and it was breathe taking. I’ve never seen so many people come together, peacefully and laugh, smile, and fight for the same cause. This occurred around the world, and I hope this moment will not die down, and will be heard. It is the 21st century, and it is time we all grow up, move on, and become equals.

  6. Also women had a lot more on their plates due to pregnancies, breastfeeding, childbearing, etc, so men had more time and energy to do things to oppress people

  7. Are we moving towards equality? We need a mindset! And despite all the education and the so called emancipation, girl foetuses are aborted in many parts of the globe and even those who are born are deprived of basic human rights. It is estimated that 60 percent of chronically hungry people are women and girls. (Source: WFP Gender Policy and Strategy.) – See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/commission-on-the-status-of-women-2012/facts-and-figures#sthash.vuA4phNo.dpuf

  8. If part was from exchanging women, then that would mean that the equal stance on women wasn’t going to stay that way. You’ve made it seem like it was equal and would have stayed that way or to be that way, but migration and having to attain resources and be war like mode, brought on the warrior/hunter divide of men and women, where women would bear the children and duties like that. But well, people were not going to stay inbreeding which is obviously a good thing, but if that’s what caused that move, then it was going to happen regardless of a change of mindset.

  9. Forgive me for not reading every word here but I read enough and wanted to say that it reminded me of Ryan Isler’s The Chalice and the Blade. Have a good day. 🙂

  10. It may also be significant that when it was realised what part men played in procreation their ‘father’ status rose. The magic of women to have babies disappeared as they were seen as containers to grow the seed of men until it was discovered that women had eggs, in the seventeenth century.

    • Yeah, I wrote about the theories that make the most sense to me. Realizing that fathers played a role in creating life could help with equality — making men more equal — but that doesn’t have to create patriarchy. All gender-equal societies that Europeans first encountered, and societies that still exist today, recognize that men and women both create life. Yet they maintain their gender equality.

      Once you have patriarchy the male role in creating life grew more important in some places. I’ve written about that in another post: when gods were mothers https://broadblogs.com/2015/05/07/when-gods-were-mothers/

      Thanks for chiming in so I could share that other post 🙂

      • It’s just that I noticed the focus of new religions (Judaism, Christianity etc) was centred around a father figure as opposed to the mothers of the older faiths around the same time the biological role of the male was discovered. A coincidence maybe but a factor too, I think. All interesting theories you mention. Always look forward to your posts and glad when you link others!

      • These are societies that were warrior-oriented though. They attacked more peaceful goddess/god-worshipping societies. They also sold women. Christianity came out of Judaism. And Judaism is the “father” religion of Islam in a way with Abraham being the father of both the Arabs and Jews. But Judaism was a clear precursor since Islam didn’t arise until the 7th Century. And Islam considers both Jewish and Christian scriptures holy. And the Quran contains many of the same stories.

  11. Hasn’t always been, needn’t always be, and we’re moving towards greater equality. Yes! I love it! Thank you, that’s a good note to end the day on.

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