Gender and Patriarchy in Historical Sociology

Pavla Miller. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003. 

My brief is to write about gender and patriarchy. There are two immediate problems. The first, how to compress a vast mountain of scholarship into a few pages, is compounded by a second: the closer you look, the more slippery the concepts become. The very strength of historical sociology helps undermine the apparent universality of its conceptual tools. Debates about the trans historical nature of patriarchy began soon after the concept was taken up by the women’s movements of the 1970s. But even gender, which avoids many of these problems and is often considered to have universal applicability, might well turn out to be a term circumscribed by the specific conditions of contemporary Western societies.

Gender is often taken to refer to the study of women. Certainly, such work provides a necessary supplement to ostensibly general histories which focus overwhelmingly on men. As with other ‘forgotten people,’ adding women to the historical picture not only greatly improves the precision of the description, but almost invariably it also challenges and eventually alters the theoretical tool-bag we use in understanding the past. The concept of gender is one of these improved theoretical tools. But while it draws extensively on work dealing with women, its focus is different. Gender refers not to women or men, but to socially constructed notions of femininity and masculinity. In English at least, it enables us to speak of gender relations, the gendering of concepts, institutions and social orders, and engendering new forms of association. Importantly, there is gender even where there are no women, as in the potency of different notions of manliness, and of intense homosocial (as opposed to homosexual) attachments between comrades in arms, members of monastic communities, guilds or bureaucracies. Almost invariably, theorizations of gender involve relations of power, not only between women and men but among more or less powerful females and males. In the long run, the gendering of history involves reordering the whole complex structure of historical explanation. Not only is the list of historical ‘turning points’ likely to look different as a result, but gender dynamics are likely to figure among the key driving forces of processes such as state formation, industrialization and wars.

Gender as a concept began to be employed in English with particular effect in the 1970s, when it was used by strengthening women’s movements to restate the point that biological traits do not necessarily lead to any form of personal dispositions. Strategically, if men and women in different times and different cultures possessed a range of different attributes, it is possible to argue that sex does not translate into invariant masculinity and femininity, and social relations here and now can be improved. Since then, the pivotal role of the sex-gender distinction, and later even of the concept of gender itself, has been weakened, not least as a result of research first inspired by it. In the first instance, the distinction between biology and social characteristics, which at first appeared self-evident, proved much more complex than early theorists allowed for. It is now generally acknowledged that there is no such thing as socially unmediated ‘biology’ or ‘nature’ which can form the basis of everyday interpretations of masculinity and femininity. At the same time, the sex-gender distinction is implicitly based on the existence of two exclusive, lifelong sexes and genders; it does not lend itself easily to systematic attention to the social construction of gender categories themselves, or to examination of the different ways gender attributes are allocated, achieved and given importance in different societies. In this sense, the issue is not so much the history of gender relations, but rather the constitution and development of gender orders, including systems of more-or-less-exclusive and more-or-less-universal gender categories (see Clover, 1993; Moore, 1994). Finally, many non-English-speaking feminists point out that the concept does not translate well into a number of languages, French and Italian among them; to adopt gender as a foundation concept might well amount to cultural imperialism.

Some of the problems with the sex-gender distinction, and the usefulness of gender itself as a concept, first became apparent in the work of gay and lesbian theoreticians. Most immediately, unexamined sexual dualism left no space for minority and marginalized sexualities. In time, attempts to write histories of lesbians or homosexuals raised more profound issues: who exactly is the constituency one writes about? Were lesbians only those few women whose behaviour attracted public attention and who were designated (or self-identified) as such at the time? Or were they a much larger group of women whose behaviour (such as intense attachment to other women) would today be identified as lesbian, even though they themselves and those around them saw them as perfectly ‘normal’? Were homosexuals men who engaged in what seemed to be the relatively widespread sin of sodomy, regardless of what other sexual relations they had, or only a much smaller group of men who self-identified as a distinct subculture? Or is it necessary to ask different and more complex questions altogether (see Duberman et al., 1991)?

Some of the debates about ‘who is a woman’ were similarly inspired by feminist political concerns (Riley, 1988). Most feminist activists and theoreticians in the early 1970s assumed that there was a unified category of ‘women’; that women had privileged access to the ‘real’ and to ‘truth,’ and could elicit trust from other women purely on the basis of their being not-male; that a common programme of action aiming at improving ‘women’s’ position in society was possible and desirable, and that the women’s movement did, could and should speak for all women. Within a decade, all these assumptions were challenged. Women from ethnic minority groups and former colonies were particularly insistent that they did not recognize themselves in general portrayals of women’s oppression; that there was not one but many women’s movements. As the anthropologist Maila Stivens put it,

Women, in a sense, are feminism’s greatest problem. The assumption of a potential identity between women, rather than solving the problem, became a condition of increasing tensions. Of these tensions, not the least important is the intellectual tension generated by a crisis of the concept ‘woman’ within feminist thought. As a concept ‘woman’ is too fragile to bear the weight of all the contents and meanings ascribed to it. The end of much research by feminists has been to show the tremendous diversity of the meaning of womanhood across cultures and over time…. The concept ‘woman’ cannot stand as an analytical category in anthropological enquiry, and consequently there can be no analytical meaning in such concepts as the position of women, the subordination of women, and male dominance when they are applied universally. (1994: 138)

While notions of gender and woman were challenged on a number of theoretical and political grounds, their intrinsic usefulness, coupled with a lack of sensible alternatives, means that they continue to be used (albeit often with more care). Conceptualizations of patriarchy proved much less resilient. In much of the early second-wave feminist writing, patriarchy was both a descriptive and an analytical concept which designated a comprehensive system of male dominance over women, children and nature. Knowledge was power, and to characterize a range of historical and contemporary social arrangements as patriarchal promised to expose and therefore weaken hitherto concealed layers of oppression. At the same time, patriarchy did (and in student essays, often still does): it oppressed women, provided a model for the exploitation of nature, denied women the vote and removed them from the paid workforce. Combined with capitalism, it shaped institutions such as the family and the state; on its own, it provided a universal focus of women’s struggles and activism.

Whatever the historical and theoretical shortcomings of such formulations, they played a key role in campaigns and research generated by a range of self-identified feminists of the 1970s and 1980s. In subsequent debates, perhaps the greatest distance was between those who argued that patriarchy was an ahistorical (later essentialist) concept with little analytical purchase and those who maintained that cross-cultural and transhistorical continuities in male domination were so significant that they warranted the use of a common term. One influential attempt to arrive at a compromise formulation was developed in a series of contributions by the English sociologist Sylvia Walby. Different forms of patriarchy, she argues, arise from different combinations of more or less intense male domination of women through six key patriarchal structures: the patriarchal (domestic) mode of production; patriarchal relations in paid work; patriarchal relations in the state; male violence; patriarchal relations in sexuality; and patriarchal relations in cultural institutions, including religions, media and education. In recent Western history, Walby (1990) argues, these structures combine into two basic types of patriarchy. Private patriarchy, which peaked in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, is based upon the household, with a patriarch controlling women individually and directly in the relatively private sphere of the home. More recently, public patriarchy became dominant. While the household may still be a significant patriarchal site, it is institutions conventionally regarded as part of the public domain which are central in the maintenance of public patriarchy. In order to distinguish between different industrialized countries, Walby further divides public patriarchy into two: one where the market and the other where the state plays the major role in bringing women into the public sphere.

Walby’s solution inspired much useful work. When all is said and done, however, it compounds the problem it set out to solve by multiplying ahistorical categories. Walby classifies societies according to the way they allocate women to public or private spheres. Some of the most exciting work in historical sociology, in contrast, concerns the engendering and remaking of the distinction itself (Benn and Gaus, 1983; Calhoun, 1992; Thornton, 1995). The household is seen as private—neglecting historical periods where it was conceptualized as a an integral part of social governance, not least because it was a key unit of production. Even in the modern era, work for pay and work in the household are not as clearly distinguished as the model implies. Churches, which in historical Europe were at times the largest landowners and military powers, are categorized as cultural institutions. Using evidence on the middle class, women in nineteenth-century Britain are seen as under the firm familial control of individual patriarchs, in spite of extensive evidence of crisis of male authority in those labouring households where all had to work for pay—not least since few men earned enough to keep wives and children at home.

Does this mean that the concept of patriarchy cannot be used to enhance, rather than muddy, the explanatory rigour of historical sociology? Today, feminist analysis has become fragmented, debate between those who use contrasting characterizations of gendered social orders abated, and in any case grand theories have gone out of fashion. On the other hand, several decades of diverse and wide-ranging scholarship have produced a robust field of shared understandings and overlapping problematics. The significance of such work for historical sociology—and more precise theorizations of patriarchy—can be glimpsed if we juxtapose writings on family forms, welfare state regimes and state formation.

Family Forms

There is now a wealth of studies which identify a variety of family forms, cultures of contraception and maternities in different regions and historical periods, and among different social groups. In historicizing concepts such as family, childhood and motherhood, such work forms the bedrock of historical sociology. Since familial imagery is often used to think through alternative social arrangements, it also enables us to situate the discursive potency of such concepts within the dynamic of historically specific family forms. In English-language feminist theory, many of these issues were formulated with increasing clarity in the debates inspired by the publication of Barrett and McIntosh’s The Anti-social Family (1982). This influential text argued that women are oppressed through the complex structures of state-sponsored nuclear male breadwinner families. The self-identified black and ethnic women who criticized the book argued, in contrast, that domestic relations in their communities were structured along different lines (see Amos and Parmar, 1984; Bhavnanai and Coulson, 1986). For many immigrant women, family life was a luxury which had to be wrested from hostile authorities; for others, it represented a source of strength in a racist society. Far from being excluded from waged work, many of these women worked as servants in white households, or else as cleaners and carers in public institutions. Rather than men, their immediate superiors and oppressors were often white women.

Historical and anthropological work on families is usually motivated by different concerns, but often arrives at parallel conclusions. Levine (1987) and Seccombe (1992), for example, are among those who argue, in opposition to the Cambridge school of historical demography, that the same nominal composition of households in northwestern Europe between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries does not imply one unchanging family form. Thus peasant, protoindustrial, proletarian and male breadwinner households might contain identical numbers of adults and children, but revolve around markedly different gender and age relations. Peasant households approximated most closely the image of domestic patriarchy, with masters using property ownership and control and a lengthy process of inheritance transfer to discipline their dependants. In protoindustrial (cottage industry) regions, in contrast, fathers continued to control domestic production but depended more closely on their wives and the labour of their sons and daughters, who in turn could form independent households on the strength of their own skill. In fully proletarian households, all family members worked for wages; in male breadwinner families, wives and smaller children depended on the husband’s income.

Using similar forms of evidence, Barbagli (1991) notes that there were three distinct patterns of family formation in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Italy. The first, found mainly in the rural regions of northern and central Italy, combined patrilocal residence with late marriage. Here, most of the population lived in multiple households. Those with the most land tended to have the largest and most complex households; among the poorer peasants and share-croppers, many of the younger sons and daughters never married. The second model consisted of simple conjugal households and early marriage (for women at least, but often also for men), and this was typical in the south; in a number of localities, the proportion of complex households was among the lowest in Europe. The third model was characterized by single-family households and late marriage ages for both men and women, and this was common throughout the cities of northern and central Italy, as well as in Sardinia. In urban Italy, both neo-local residence after marriage and the simple conjugal household had been widespread since the fourteenth century, except among the elites, who lived in patrilocal households and spent the greater part of their lives in either extended or multiple households. By the end of the eighteenth century, they too began to adopt neo-local residence after marriage and simple conjugal household structures. In Sardinia, where the pattern of landholding resembled that of Sicily but the age at marriage for both women and men was among the highest in Italy, it is likely that distinct, more equitable customs of inheritance and marital property played a part.

In these diverse societies, some people achieved social maturity by becoming masters and mistresses of substantial households, others never attained full social manhood or womanhood and grew old as ‘lads’ and ‘maids’ in service. In some regions, young people could establish families without their parents’ approval; at times, women’s tangible contribution to household income gave them considerable power in courtship and domestic management. Family structure was affected not only by economies, ecologies and legal codes, but also by customary differences in the most intimate encounters between husbands and wives, mothers and babies. Conversely, these factors had a tangible effect on people’s chances of death or survival at every stage of life (Skinner, 1997).

In writing on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, for example, Kriedte et al. (1993) and Maynes and Taylor (1991) demonstrate that the same number of children could be produced by a ‘regime of conservation’ or a ‘regime of wastefulness.’ Thus in southern Germany, higher fertility and mortality rates and shorter birth intervals prevailed. Mothers were particularly exhausted, babies were rarely breast-fed (and this in turn shortened intervals between births), and the indifferent nurture of infants and young children amounted to what could be described as a disguised form of infanticide. In northern Germany, in contrast, lower birth and death rates, longer intervals between births, and the breast-feeding of infants were more common. Both regimes produced roughly stable populations, but arguably had different sources in and implications for gender and age relations, not least with regard to the meaning and preservation of life, patterns of investment in childcare and the impacts on personality of early childhood experiences. Inspired by a similar awareness of regional and occupational differences in family dynamics, Szreter (1996a, 1996b) argues not only that there were many different ‘demographic transitions’ in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century England, but that the same (low) fertility rate can result from quite different regimes of sexuality and contraception (such as sexual sophistication in France and fumbling abstinence in England).

Anthropological work dealing with the recent past of non-Western societies reveals a similar diversity of embodied experiences of femininity. Using a wide range of ethnographic and historical research on Asia and the Pacific, contributors to a collection of studies on maternities and modernities, for example, show that the experience of birthing and mothering can vary dramatically in different parts of the world and over time (Ram and Jolly, 1998). Birth can be understood and experienced as a shameful and polluting event attended by outcast women, or else as an awesome and empowering ritual assisted by the most powerful women and men in the village. In different and often unanticipated ways, both the local discourses of maternity and the embodied experience of motherhood have been influenced by missionaries, by colonial policies and by the introduction of Western medicine and biomedical birthing methods. In part such patterns have been imposed on women and mothers; in part they have been forged through their own social creativity. While these studies do not pretend to have discovered the determining coordinates of individual experience, together they provide evidence of systematic differences in the meaning and experience of embodied gender relations, both between and within social groups. By extension, they can be used to theorize systematic differences in forms of patriarchy.

Engendering States

The family forms and gender regimes depicted in these studies do not follow national boundaries, even though they are systematically affected by the laws and edicts of local jurisdictions. Over time, overlaps between such jurisdictions have been reduced, and the geographical area they cover has been expanded. Today, it is state or national legislatures which pass laws regarding inheritance, marriage, employment, education, abortion and contraception; which extend and restrict the franchise, and allow some but not other people access to pensions or higher education. Here again, the original feminist assumption that modern Western states are uniformly patriarchal has given way to more sophisticated analyses. A particularly important approach revolves around comparative literature on welfare state regimes. Some countries, this work shows, have strong traditions of collective provision for mothers, the young, the old and the unemployed; elsewhere, the market or the family plays a more important role. People’s social rights are defined in different ways in different nation-states. In turn, the structure of welfare states affects various dimensions of social stratification. When grouped along these axes, nations fall into one of several distinct categories. Recent feminist contributions to these debates have expanded and to some extent disorganized the categories originally established by writers such as Korpi and Esping-Andersen. The distribution of caring work between men and women, the family, state and private providers; the extent of mothers’ or of married women’s involvement in full-and part-time employment; the strength of the male breadwinner model in framing social policy; the related issue of whether women’s welfare entitlements stem from their status as mothers, wives or workers; women’s ability to form independent households—these are just some of the criteria used to show that there are more than three welfare state regimes (see O’Connor et al., 1999). Approaching similar issues from a slightly different perspective, some scholars have identified different forms of maternalism.

National states did not spring, fully formed, out of the mists of the distant past. While some work on welfare state regimes includes consideration of the historical genesis of different sets of social policies and cultural norms, there is little which links this research to the extensive (and substantially gender-blind) literature on the process on state formation. According to Charles Tilly’s (1992) useful typology, three different viable paths of European state formation had markedly different consequences for local technologies of rule. In ‘capital-intensive’ regions (areas of many cities and commercial predominance, where markets, exchange and market-oriented production prevailed), such as Genoa or the Dutch Republic, rulers relied on compacts with capitalists to rent or purchase military force, and made war without building vast permanent state structures or conscript armies. The presence of capitalists, commercial exchange and substantial municipal organizations set serious limits on the state’s direct exertion of control over individuals and households, but facilitated the use of relatively efficient and painless taxes on commerce as sources of state revenue. In ‘coercion-intensive’ regions (areas of few cities and agricultural predominance where direct coercion played a major part in production) such as Brandenburg, Russia, Poland and Hungary, customs and excise yielded small returns in relatively uncommercialized economies, and rulers typically created ponderous fiscal machines to extract the means of war out of local populations. In these conditions, extensive power accumulated in the hands of armed landlords, nobility, gentry, village heads and others who exercised intermediate control over essential resources. Not least because wage labour was scarce, peasants found it difficult to escape patriarchal authority. Finally, in regions of ‘capitalized coercion,’ holders of coercion and capital nobles and financiers interacted on terms of relative equality. Rulers both built bureaucracies and depended on commercial taxes, but spent more effort on integrating capitalists and sources of capital directly into the structures of their states. Here, encroaching capitalism tended to undermine the patriarchal structures of peasant families from below; bureaucracy eroded them from the above. Tilly argues that it was this path, pursued by countries such as France, England and Spain, which produced national states earliest, and which eventually proved to be most successful in waging war. By about the eighteenth century, other previously viable territorial units were under increasing pressure to adopt a similar form of state governance or suffer military defeat.

As feminist scholars have done with initial work on welfare state regimes, Tilly’s scheme can be interrogated regarding the gendered dimensions of different paths of state formation. Most immediately, each of the three models suggests different state reliance on (patriarchal) households and estates. In a useful early overview which suggests the possible direction of more detailed work along these lines, Connell (1990) notes that contemporary state, gender and sexual politics are linked in five distinct ways. First, the state is constituted within gender relations as the central institutionalization of gendered power. Conversely, gender dynamics are a major force constructing the state, both in the historical creation of state structures and in contemporary politics. Second, as a result of this history, the state is the bearer of gender. Each definable state has a definable ‘gender regime’ that is the precipitate of social struggles and is linked to—though not a simple reflection of the wider gender order of the society. A gender regime includes a gender division of labour, a structure of power and a structure of cathexis, the gendered patterning of emotional attachments. The way the state embodies gender, in turn, gives it cause and capacity to ‘do’ gender. As the central institutionalization of power, the state has a considerable, though not unlimited, capacity to regulate gender relations in the society as a whole. Fourth, the state’s power to regulate reacts on the categories that make up the structure being regulated. Thus the state becomes involved in the historical process generating and transforming the basic components of the gender order. Finally, because of its power to regulate and its power to create, the state is a major stake in gender politics; and the exercise of that power is a constant incitement to claim the stake. Thus the state becomes the focus of interest-group formation and mobilization in sexual politics.

Transformations of Patriarchy

My own book, Transformation of Patriarchy in the West, 1500-1900 (1998), is an example of an attempt to use these diverse literatures in order to historicize the concept of patriarchy and explore the gendered nature of the key categories of current historical and sociological thought. Critics of ahistorical notions of patriarchy tend to argue that the term is best confined to describing a particular form of early modern male-dominated social order which literally involved the rule of fathers. Agreeing with much of their criticism (and without strong attachment to any particular words), I decided to use a technical term, ‘patriarchalism,’ to describe the social order(s) in question, to select other words to designate significantly different types of male-dominated societies, and to use ‘patriarchy’ (somewhat in the way the term ‘class society’ is employed), as a collective designation of male-dominated social orders. This provisional scheme allows for the existence of sexually egalitarian societies, and puts the onus of specifying the precise dimensions of gender relations on to the researcher. By drawing attention to its role as a motive source of power, I tried to give patriarchalism analytical as well as descriptive content. By highlighting the double-edged effects of this power, I attempted to account for historical change: the rise and demise of one patriarchal order and its eventual displacement by another.

A key argument of the book is that the dynamics of patriarchal governance provide a powerful conceptual link between two dominant perspectives guiding the study of early modern Western societies. One perspective centres on populations, agrarian cycles and economies, the other concentrates on war and the process of state formation. Both forms of explanation contain a persuasive depiction of the motive forces of historical change. The consolidation of patriarchalism in early modern Europe, particularly as played out in the religious conflicts associated with the Reformation, was arguably fuelled by both of these processes. On the one hand, it was perceived to constitute the most effective way of safeguarding economic resources in a precarious balance between land and population. On the other, it was inseparably linked with the efforts of territorial rulers to extend and to consolidate their power.

The complexities of early modern European history, with its regional diversity and uneven development, cannot be reduced to general patterns. Nevertheless, according to many historians, it is possible to discern, for a time at least, some common threads over the vast diversity of Western and Central Europe. In the sixteenth century, they joined regions which supported the Reformation and territories which maintained or reverted to an allegiance to Rome. They linked countryside and cities, large and powerful kingdoms and petty princedoms. Some of the most significant of these common threads concerned efforts to bolster the authority and social significance of patriarchal family households and to tighten legislative and other controls over marriage, while simultaneously restricting the sway of older forms of patriarchal governance.

Where these reforms were successful, they often became part of a patriarchalist combination of familial and political power, typically exercised by married men but occasionally delegated to women. In such regimes, economic, political and judicial power over wife, children, servants and apprentices living in households was held by the paterfamilias, who represented the family to the wider community. In the case of the master’s extended absence, exile or death, this power was delegated to his surrogate, often his wife or widow. In many regions, political power in larger administrative units was said to be organized in an analogous way to the governance of households: the lord, the priest and the magistrate held paternal power over their subjects; much more controversially, the monarch exercised similar fatherly power over the nobility-and was himself answerable to God the father. By definition, each level of patriarchal authority was limited by the one above it. All this was usually strengthened but sometimes undermined by what could be termed viri-archy: the categorical superiority of men over women, inscribed in scriptural and ‘natural law’ doctrines which posited man as the head of the woman. Even though some contemporary political thinkers attempted to theorize more impersonal forms of political authority, their royal patrons continued to practise and rely on patriarchalist powers.

In her work on early modern Germany, Roper (1987) illustrates the contradictory gendering of such social orders. She notes that one of the most powerful terms designating social belonging was Gemeinde something between a church congregation, communal unit and group of subjects—which had a powerful mobilizing force in the Peasants’ War. Like many other forms of collective identity, however, the term excluded women: Gemeinde Mann, the common man, was the embodiment of communal worth and pride; Gemeinde Frau, the common woman, was a prostitute. While the common woman stood for all that was papist and ungodly, the common man embodied what was decent, upright and populist in the early Reformation movement’ (Roper, 1987: 20). For many key ceremonial purposes, community was an assembly of such men, with women required to stay indoors. Yet Roper goes on to say that there was also current another vision of the common man as the head of a house, a social father figure under whose governorship servants, wife, children, apprentices and journeymen lived. He could thus be seen as the representative of his house in the wider household of the commune. Yet, in the early sixteenth-century town, this was an obviously contradictory political principle: widows, who headed households, were not politically common men; and sons, servants and apprentices, who swore the communal oath, were not governors of households (Roper, 1987: 20).

Another layer of complexity is revealed by historians of the various courts charged with maintaining the peace in local communities (Roper, 1989, 1994; Underdown, 1985). The endless stream of cases brought before them depicted patriarchs who shirked work, failed to catechize their dependants, drank, gambled, would not share their earnings and beat wives and servants; women scolding and brawling with their neighbours, single women refusing to enter service and wives insulting, dominating or even beating their husbands. As Roper noted, such courts’ daily experience contradicted—and, worse, the punishments they meted out actually undermined—the vision of natural patriarchal authority and female subservience they held so dear (1994: 46).

By the mid-eighteenth century, such crisis tendencies came to a head. Peasant and craft households, which provided the bedrock of everyday patriarchalist governance, found their livelihoods undercut by commercial farming and new forms of industrial production. In the changed circumstances, a decreasing proportion of men could hope to become masters of a productive holding; the gap between maleness and mastery widened. More abundant resources resulted in significant expansion of bureaucratic and military capacity and lessened rulers’ and states’ reliance on households as bases of social order. In political theory, liberalism replaced patriarchalism as the dominant model of good governance. In armies, states and enterprises, bureaucracies began to replace masters’ personal control over subordinates. The American and French revolutions inaugurated an era where notions of the ‘brotherhood of man,’ rather than the God-ordained privileges and responsibilities of fathers, helped inspire far-reaching social struggles. In philosophy, law and the emerging social sciences, categorical differences between the sexes, races, those who were infant and adult, ‘normal’ and sexually transgressive, were invented, reasserted and put on a new footing.

With the advantage of hindsight, each of these highly contested processes can be seen as contributing to the engendering of differently patriarchal (fraternalist?) social orders. In turn, the depiction of familiar ‘turning points’ of modern history from this perspective helps reconfigure hitherto gender-blind bases of social theory. More ambitiously, it enhances the analytical power of the conceptual tools used to describe gendered regimes. Two examples must suffice to illustrate these points. The first, more familiar one, concerns the defeat of patriarchalism by proponents of new doctrines of social contract in the late seventeenth and the early eighteenth century. Radical critics of these debates have long pointed out that most of the ‘fathers of liberalism’ saw the brotherhood of man in distinctly class terms. Influenced by contemporary laws and practices relating to masters and servants, seventeenth-century English Levellers saw the suffrage as the birthright of all English men (not women), but considered that servants (including wage labourers) and beggars, through their dependence on others, had forfeited their birthright to a voice in elections. Politically, servants, apprentices, women and children had no ‘civil personality’ and were simply ‘included in their masters’ (C. Hill, 1964: 478; Macpherson, 1962: 124). Similarly, Locke insisted on the contractual nature and limitations of the relation between master and servant, yet assumed that while in his employ, the servant would be placed ‘into the Family of his Master and under the ordinary Discipline thereof’ (1966 [1690]: 69-70). Indeed, Locke assumed that while the labouring class was a necessary part of the nation, its members were not in fact full members of the body politic and had no claims to be so, not least because, not having property, they could not live a fully rational life (Macpherson, 1962: 221-2). In turn, the man who had not shown the ability to accumulate property was not a full man, and could therefore hardly be expected to govern his family. Not all males, in other words, could assume mastery and become men and citizens.

For females, the debates between patriarchalist and social contract theorists were more significant still. The contract theorists rejected most—though not all—of the premises of their predecessors. Paternal and political rule, they claimed, were distinct; the family and the polity were fundamentally different; sons were born free and equal and, as adults, were free as their fathers before them; political authority and obligation were conventional rather than natural; and political subjects were civil equals. While most later commentators omitted to mention this fact, proponents of patriarchalism themselves noted a fundamental flaw in the expositions of social contract. The logic of the argument seemed to apply to all people, yet theorists like Locke and Rousseau agreed with their opponents that women, as future wives, were born and remained naturally subject to men and husbands. Equality, liberty and fraternity, the feminist scholar Carole Pateman (1988) concluded, should be understood literally; in the realm of political theory at least, a contract between free and equal sons replaced the law of the father with public rules which bound all men equally(?) as brothers. Women remain subject to men, but under a different set of rules—a different patriarchal order.

Similar insights have been used to recast related areas of social science. Not all fathers of social science went as far as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who confidently asserted that ‘women in general … have no civil personality, and their existence is, so to speak, purely inherent’ (quoted in Pateman, 1988: 169), or the Frenchman Auguste Comte, who wrote that ‘the study of anatomy and physiology demonstrates that radical differences, at once physical and moral,… profoundly separate the one [sex] from the other’ (quoted in Schiebinger, 1987: 69). Yet the systematic exclusion of women from public institutions by reference to their anatomical, even species, differences from men had profound social consequences. In the age of revolutions, the century when public sphere(s) of reasoned exchange were born, associations established, bureaucracies built, legislatures reformed and companies multiplied, women could not draw up contracts, vote, sue or be sued, join learned societies or attend universities; even for those with considerable wealth, it was considered unseemly to direct enterprises or even to engage in rational calculation of private interest or to speak in public (Calhoun, 1992; Davidoff and Hall, 1987). Commenting on similar issues, Barbara Taylor asked:

What does it mean when [feminists] engage with a theory of the subject in which the reasoning speaker that is the person who displays possession of natural rights and a place in the civic sphere through … speech—is actually constituted on the male side of the sexual axis? And where does it take us with egalitarianism? (quoted in Scott, 1989: 6, original emphasis)

And if ‘self-possession’ is one of the ‘natural’ underpinnings of a citizens’s rational intellect, what were the implications of married women’s inability to refuse husbands access to their bodies, or of the chronic pain caused by hunger of the poor, and among mothers aggravated by the injuries and privations associated with childbirth?

The second, less familiar, example concerns remaking of the contested boundary between marriage and private enterprise, paid and unpaid work in Anglo-American jurisdictions. Under English common law, all of a woman’s property was transferred to her husband on marriage. From the seventeenth century on, however, equity courts began allowing wealthy women to hold property separate from their husbands through the medium of trustees. A minority of these agreements gave married women property separate from that of their husbands, free from their debts, and subject to the women’s control as if they were unmarried. From the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth century, such innovations were greeted with misgivings, but accepted as legal by the courts. In the decades following the French Revolution, judges began to overturn precedents and declare such contracts invalid. Fearful of social disorder and alarmed by what they saw as unwarranted expansion of commercial principles into the domestic sphere, the judges decreed that allowing wives and husbands to contract out of the responsibilities of marriage and giving married women excessive economic rights was against ‘public policy’ because it produced socially intolerable results. By the mid-nineteenth century, just as it became impolite for ladies to wield economic power, judicial prohibitions on contractual innovation within propertied marriages eased again; but only if they conformed to reinvented notions of wifely subordination (Davidoff and Hall, 1987: 315; Shammas, 1994; Staves, 1990).

During the same period, a series of laws relating to earnings and marital property gradually extended to all women some of the protection afforded by equity law to the rich: they gave wives a qualified right to their own wages, protected their separate property against the claims of husbands and their creditors, and enabled them to make wills. The feminist scholars who examined these acts agree that they fell far short of giving married women the same rights as single women or their husbands had, particularly since men retained the right both to the person of their wife and to her domestic labour (Backhouse, 1988; Stanley, 1988). Nevertheless, they too helped inspire a piecemeal process of contractual innovation: small but increasing numbers of ordinary wives and husbands began to contract with each other for the performance of various forms of domestic work. When something went wrong and one of the parties sought legal remedy, the courts improvised again to declare all such contracts null and void. Their reasoning was based on two principles which were, strictly speaking, logically incompatible. In conformity with laws of contract, they held marital agreements for the performance of domestic work to be without consideration, or monetary value, and therefore invalid. Since husbands already owned their wives’ labour (having exchanged it for the promise of support), they could not subsequently buy it. Simultaneously, courts held that the agreements were unenforceable precisely because they constituted a contract, and marriage was by definition deemed to be defiled by the imposition of contractual arrangements (Siegel, 1994a, 1984b: 2195, 2189).

Siegel (1984b) concludes that in construing the earning statutes to prohibit market relations in the family setting, and thus acting to differentiate the family and the market in law, courts acted to ensure that wives’ work was to be performed subject to a different (altruistic as opposed to interested) mode of exchange than their husbands’ and so created the legal infrastructure of the separate-spheres tradition—and, incidentally, of the expressive and instrumental roles described by structural-functionalist theorists such as Talcott Parsons. Such legally enforced ‘altruism,’ she notes, contributed to the fiction that housework has no economic value. At the same time,

the law of marital status bounded the development of the modern labor market and helped to define the social meaning of market in labor itself … The doctrine of marital service, as reformed by the earning statutes enacted during the nineteenth century, is thus properly understood as an integral part of an industrial capitalist economy, not an archaic remnant of ancient feudal society. (Siegel, 1994b: 2131, 2140)

In other words, public policy, as interpreted by the courts, helped to define and to fortify the boundary between the two forms of contemporary private spheres: the home and private enterprise. Although couples now had greater scope to negotiate the distribution of capital within marriage, it was imperative that the home remain free of labour bargaining.

Important as the courts—and statisticians were in drawing the line between home and wage labour, the crucial struggles which resulted in the ascendance of male breadwinner families took place elsewhere. As historians like Taylor (1984) demonstrated for many Western countries, competing strategies designed to deal with a perceived crisis of domestic relations formed an explosive core of nineteenth-century labour struggles. Utopian socialists and other minority radical groups attempted, unsuccessfully, to win the whole labour movement to a feminist solution: the unionization of women workers, the introduction of equal pay, the socialization of housework and universal franchise. Most craft unions, in contrast, excluded their remaining female members, and advocated the payment of a living wage to male breadwinners and the exclusion of women and children from the paid workforce. Single and married women, skilled and unskilled workers and their families, large and small employers in different industries, members of different congregations and people in textile and mining regions tended to have different opinions regarding the proper roles of men, women and children. The struggles they engaged in, the complex alliances they formed, the sacrifices they made and the compromises they struck or were forced to live with eventually resulted in adoption of the male breadwinner family as one of the bases of a newly patriarchal social order. Today, many argue, these social relations are themselves in crisis.


Women and men reconstruct the gendered social orders within which they live, but they do not do it just as they please. They are constrained by the historical, material and ecological circumstances of their lives; their discursive and institutional creativity constantly comes up against the innovations, cultural certainties and political interests of others. In some historical periods and for some social groups, such conflicts are attenuated; at other times, they flare up with, spectacular violence. Perhaps more frequently, social orders are re-gendered at a glacial pace, even though individuals might experience such changes, for good or ill, as profound upheavals. As the various examples in this chapter have shown, such engendering processes are not confined to ‘women’s history,’ but are part of careful historical analyses of employment relations; political movements, struggles and ideologies; wars and states, churches and economies. They form the historically changing referents of social theory. Whatever misgivings they might have about each other, historians and sociologists alike benefit from the shared understandings of historical sociology. For all, historically specific notions of gender and patriarchy provide relatively painless cures for gender blindness.