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Patriarchy is a social system in which men have most of the power and women are subordinate. Typically, in a patriarchy, men predominate in leadership, control of resources (property), and status. Also typically in a patriarchy, fathers hold authority in the family over women and children. According to social theorist Riane Eisler, the characteristic social relations in patriarchies are relations of domination, such as authoritarian control; inequality between people in terms of wealth, power, and status; violence; and militarism.

A social system in which women have most of the power and men are subordinate is a matriarchy. Significantly, there is no word in the English language for a system in which men and women have equal power. Eisler suggests that this is because our culture is of the dominator type and we more-or-less unconsciously assume that there must be domination in social relations. She suggests the term gylany to describe sexually egalitarian social systems. She derives it from the Greek gyne, woman, and andros, man, linked by the letter l for lyen, to resolve, or lyo, to set free.[1]

Definition and usage

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Patriarchy literally means "the rule of the father"[2] and comes from the Greek πατριάρχης (patriarkhēs), "father of a race" or "chief of a race, patriarch",[3] which is a compound of πατριά (patria), " lineage, descent" (from πατήρ - patēr, "father") and ἄρχω (arxō), "I rule".[4]

Historically, the term patriarchy was used to refer to autocratic rule by the male head of a family. However, in modern times, it more generally refers to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men.[5]

Development of the concept over time

The internet essay, `What is Patriarchy?', by Malise Rosebach of the New Left Project traces the development of the idea of patriarchy from its uptake by Max Weber a century ago, through its use by Kate Millet in Sexual Politics in the 1960s, and by more recent theorists including Rosemary Hennesy and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. The latter woman has coined the term kyriarchy to denote a system of mutually reinforcing domination relations in which patriarchal relations are a major component. In Rosebach's words, `Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, trans*phobia, classism, ableism, cissexism and other forms of hierarchical structures that has been institutionalised or/and internalised.'[6] The study of the intersections between these various domination relations, their possible mutual reinforcement and co-causation, is called intersectionality. Intersectionality is also a key concern of Eisler's although I have not seen her use that exact term.

Origins of male social domination

Anthropological evidence suggests that most prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies were relatively egalitarian, and that patriarchal social structures did not develop until many years after the end of the Pleistocene era.[7][8] Some scholars point to about six thousand years ago (4000 BCE), when the concept of fatherhood took root, as the beginning of the spread of patriarchy.[9] James DeMeo argues that one specific initiating event was climate change around 4000 BCE which led to famines in the Sahara, Arabian peninsula and what are now the Central Asian deserts. This resulted in the adoption of warlike, patriarchal structures as a survival stategy in order to obtain scarce food and to secure food sources:

"Famine, starvation and mass-migrations related to land-abandonment severely traumatised the originally peaceful and sex-positive inhabitants of those lands, inducing a distinct turning away from original matrism towards patristic forms of behaviour."[10]

Heidi Hartmann

Heidi Hartmann has described patriarchy as:

a set of social relations between men which have a material base, and which, though hierarchical, establish or create interdependence and solidarity among men that enable them to dominate women .... In the hierarchy of patriarchy, all men, whatever their rank in the patriarchy, are bought off by being able to control at least some women. — The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Toward a More Progressive Union, quoted in Wendy Faulkner and Erik Arnold, Smothered by Invention (1985).


  1. Stefano Mercanti, `Understanding the Language of Partnership: A Glossary'
  2. Ferguson, Kathy E. (1999). "Patriarchy". in Tierney, Helen. Women's studies encyclopedia, Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing. p. 1048. 
    Green, Fiona Joy (2010). "Patriarchal Ideology of Motherhood". in O'Reilly, Andrea. Encyclopedia of Motherhood, Volume 1. SAGE. p. 969. 
  3. πατριάρχης, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
    patriarchy, on Oxford Dictionaries
  4. ἄρχω, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, on Perseus
  5. Meagher, Michelle (2011). "patriarchy". in Ritzer, George & Ryan, J. Michael. The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 441–442. 
    Giddens, Anthony & Griffiths, Simon (2006). Sociology (5th ed.). Polity. p. 473. 
    Gordon, April A. (1996). Transforming capitalism and patriarchy: gender and development in Africa. Lynne Reiner. p. 18. 
    Boynton, Victoria & Malin, Jo, ed (2005). "Patriarchy". Encyclopedia of Women's Autobiography: K-Z. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 453. 
  6. `What is patriaarchy?'
  7. Hughes, Sarah Shaver & Hughes Brady (2001). "Women in Ancient Civilizations". in Adas, Michael. Agricultural and pastoral societies in ancient and classical history. Temple University Press. pp. 118–119. 
  8. Eagly, Alice H. & Wood, Wendy (June 1999). "The Origins of Sex Differences in Human Behavior: Evolved Dispositions Versus Social Roles". American Psychologist 54 (6): 408–423. 
  9. Kraemer, Sebastian (1991). "The Origins of Fatherhood: An Ancient Family Process". Family Process 30 (4): 377–392. . . 
    Ehrenberg, 1989; Harris, M. (1993) The Evolution of Human Gender Hierarchies; Leibowitz, 1983; Lerner, 1986; Sanday, 1981
  10. DeMeo, James (1998) Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World

Further reading

  • Riane Eisler,
    • The Chalice and the Blade
    • The Real Wealth of Nations
  • `FAQ: Isn't "the patriarchy" just some conspiracy theory....', Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog [1]   A good short theory essay, covers kyriarchy and intersectionality. The long `comments' section afterward is of more mixed quality.
  • Stefano Mercanti, `Understanding the Language of Partnership: A Glossary' (.pdf)
  • Pippa Norris, `Culture, Islam, and Oil', or `Perhaps petroleum perpetuates patriarchy?' Looks at linkages between patriarchy and some other features of societies. (.pdf)

See also