Characteristics of a Patriarchal Society

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  • 0:03 Patriarchy
  • 1:38 The Power of Men
  • 2:37 Subjugation
  • 4:24 The Constructed Society
  • 5:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Patriarchies are common around the world and throughout history, but how much do we really know about them? In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of patriarchy and look at its major characteristics.

Patriarchy

Have you ever wondered why it is standard in many cultures for a wife to take her husband's last name rather than the other way around? Even in the United States, this tradition has only recently been challenged. Where did this come from? Within human societies, there is a tendency to divide power between various members. Some people are more powerful, while others are less powerful. This hierarchy of power manifests itself in countless visible and subconscious ways, like defining whose family name is carried on. A society that gives more social, political, and economic power to men is called a patriarchy.

Patriarchies come in various sizes and shapes, from those that are completely patriarchal to those that are minimally patriarchal, but all have institutions that naturally privilege males over females. Patriarchy is a system of power that divides society along ideas about gender, so before we can go any further, we need to define this term. When we talk about a person's sex, we're referring to their biology. Biologically, humans are divided into the sexes of man and woman. Gender is different.

Gender refers to the cultural rules assigned to each sex. There's nothing biological or universal about gender, and in fact, various societies have ranged in believing that there are over a dozen genders to cultures who recognize one or even zero genders. So, when talking about delineations of power, we're talking about gender and the way that gender is understood. That being said, let's take a closer look at patriarchies and identify the characteristics that define them.

The Power of Men

The most obvious aspect of a patriarchal society is the fact that the institutions of that society privilege men. What this means is that the social interactions between people are structured in such a way that constantly and ubiquitously upholds male superiority. From values, rituals, and traditions to laws and formal institutions like governments, power within a society is focused on uplifting men under a patriarchy.

Let's look at some real-world examples of this. Historically, many European societies established legal systems where women could not vote or own property. Only their husband, father, or brothers had the right to do these things. Those are some concretely institutional examples of patriarchy. Others can be cultural. For example, many legends from cultures around the world focus exclusively on men as heroes, from Gilgamesh in Mesopotamia to Beowulf in Europe to China's mythological Five Emperors.

Subjugation

Patriarchy, as with all systems of power, cannot exist simply on the elevation of one group. It is equally defined by the subjugation of others. In a patriarchal society, this most directly means women. Women in a patriarchal society are told from birth that they are inferior or controllable through infinite social and cultural cues.

Even in societies that are only minimally patriarchal, the same values that support male power tend to specifically exclude female power. History books may focus more on male figures than female figures, men may dominate the highest levels of most professions thanks to better educational opportunities, and toys for female children may emphasize different values and roles within society, such as mother or housekeeper rather than educated professional. Social and governmental laws that place control of a woman's reproductive system in the hands of male relatives or policymakers subjugate women by removing autonomy over their own bodies.

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