Back To CourseGeography Study Guide
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Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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 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.
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.
While the subjugation of women is an obvious part of a patriarchal society, women actually are not the only people being subordinated. In the most traditional sense, a patriarchy assigns power to adult men (specifically a father figure) over not only women but also children and other men who do not directly align with that society's definition of male gender.
Young boys may aspire to reach this level of power and control and are often given the resources to do so, but these same boys are also carefully taught not to deviate from traditional gender norms. Young girls are often subconsciously instructed on becoming submissive adult females. Through the relationship between the dominance of adult men and subjugation of others, patriarchy becomes a contained and self-reinforcing system from generation to generation.
There's one last characteristic of patriarchies that we have to discuss, and it may be the most important of all. Patriarchies are constructed. Patriarchies are common across not only the Western world but all human societies, leading many to argue that they are biologically natural. This is no longer widely believed to be true.
In 1986, famed feminist scholar Gerda Lerner published a study on the history of gender hierarchies entitled The Creation of Patriarchy. In this, she traced the history of patriarchal power back to the advent of agriculture, which segregated labor within society. This segregation placed more value on physical labor completed by men than the domestic duties of women, introducing a hierarchy of power.
Lerner's study only explores patriarchy in Western history, but it does illustrate the fact that patriarchies are social constructs. They are not a matter of biology, are not universal, and are not unimpeachable. Since then, many societies (including the United States) have tried harder to identify the unspoken and institutionalized parts of our everyday lives that create and reinforce unequal systems of power. Changing a power structure is never easy, but it's a lot more manageable when we're at least aware that one exists.
A patriarchy is a society in which social, political, and economic institutions privilege adult males over females, children, and nontraditionally gendered people. It is a hierarchy of power that can be both explicit and subconscious, and ranges in scale and extremity between different societies.
Patriarchies are defined by institutions that benefit men but are equally characterized by those that reinforce the subordination of others. Women are the largest target of subordination, but children and people who do not fit into that society's definition of the male gender are also subjected. While this system is very common around the world, it is not universal or biological. It is a socially constructed system of power, and one which, as we've seen, can be taken apart if we're willing to try.
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Back To CourseGeography Study Guide
8 chapters | 64 lessons