Patriarchy Reconsidered

Jack Stuart. Journal of Men’s Studies. Volume 2, Issue 4. May 31, 1994.

As men’s studies and the more neutral sounding gender studies continue to grow and become increasingly institutionalized, it is appropriate periodically to re-evaluate the rich legacy of theory that has been inherited from women’s studies. Although the use of the concept of patriarchy has been subject to some dispute within feminist theory itself, the concept is still widely used and is especially in need of review. The concept’s use in profoundly ahistorical ways, as an abstraction transcending actual human development, is of particular concern.

Furthermore, feminist theory has been closely linked to the socialist intellectual and political tradition, often even by feminists seeking to break free of it. The crisis of this tradition needs especially to be taken into account in any further development of gender theory.

Re-evaluation needs not to break with feminism but to identify which elements of feminist theory still seem viable. We need to have a well worked out line of resistance to the increasing pressure by men’s rights groups to see men as victims. (A particularly egregious example of this is the most recent pronouncement of Warren Farrell [1993] that male power is merely a myth.) Although some men may have been victimized by individual women and individual judges, generalizations that challenge the persistence of the systemic exercise of male power must be rejected.

A distinction needs to be made between the use of patriarchy as an agitational term aimed at quickly communicating patterns of sexist domination or discrimination, and its use as a serious characterization of an actual system of social relations. It is the latter that is critically examined below. It is examined without challenging the underlying assumption of a long, continuing pattern of male domination within human societies. After some of the literature of patriarchy theory is reviewed, some recent, gender-focused writing done by historians of the United States is examined to present a more nuanced and intellectually supportable approach to gender. While this recent writing is extremely valuable, it has not yet resulted in the creation of an alternative theoretical model. Nor is such a model offered by the present article, which is conceived of more as an intervention or provocation than a resolution of the need for an alternative way of theorizing gender and power.

It also needs to be said that even the agitational use of the word patriarchy has its problems. The insistence that even the most hapless and hopeless of men share in male power over women may be defensible on an abstract level, but it is often politically counter-productive. During the French Revolution a number of nobles renounced their feudal privileges, which had been legally institutionalized. This notion is conjured up by the title, Refusing to Be a Man, used by John Stoltenberg (1989) to renounce his own privileges. To use renunciation of privileges as a political tactic to induce guilt in men is highly questionable when many men, regardless of their class, race, or ethnic standing, are not doing well enough in American society to reasonably consider themselves as victimizers rather than victims. In this sense the agitational use of patriarchy suffers from the same problem of over-generalization and abstraction as its more serious use in social science analysis.

I wish to focus first on the crisis of socialism. We live in the post-Communist era. A fellow teacher of twentieth century Europe recently said that after many years of identifying the Russian Revolution as the dominant event of the twentieth century, he can no longer do that. But it is far from just a matter of the death of Communism, which was clearly announced by the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 (and is not contradicted by the lingering of the pastiche-Communism of Deng Xiaoping in China). There is clearly a profound crisis of socialism itself, even among those who had never supported or even acknowledged the “actually existing socialism” of the eastern bloc. From the mass European social democratic parties to the journals and small groups of socialist intellectuals, evidence of the crisis is abundant (Note 1). As one writer has aptly put it, we have seen “the eclipse of socialism as the privileged standpoint for measuring progress and regress” (Graff, 1989, p. 173; Note 2). Recently, L. A. Kauffman (1993) not only resigned as editor of the important socialist-feminist journal Socialist Review, but published an article in the Progressive articulating her abandonment of socialism itself in favor of an admission of being “confused about the world” (p. 29).

Evidence that socialism itself is in crisis is attested to by such a non-communist, socialist stalwart as Goren Therborn (1992), who has recently observed how “the light of socialist hopes and expectations fades” and has specifically suggested that

The defeat of Eastern European socialism—including its dissenting currents—combined with the lacklustre, often anti-socialist, performance of Western social democracy after 1975, seems to have destroyed any potentiality for a regeneration of socialism. (pp. 21-22)

Once again this suggests that any feminist theory that is still tied to a socialist perspective is increasingly vulnerable.

On the other side, R. W. Connell (1987) previously had insisted that

The historic association between socialism and feminism, however tense and ragged it has been, expresses a basic truth about the global structure of inequality and what social forces might dismantle it. (p. 292)

At this point the most likely objection to be made is that feminist theory is autonomous of socialism, especially the theories of radical feminists or cultural feminists. But feminist theory has never fully escaped the legacy of its birth. Whether repudiating Marxism, as in the case of radical feminists, or finding a marriage between Marxism and feminism to be happy or even possible, as in the case of socialist feminists, the Marxist “hand” has weighed upon the feminist theoretical mind (Marx, 1959b). To the degree that patriarchy was adopted as the dominant articulation of male power over women, it was used to refer to a system in the same way that Marxists referred to capitalism as an economic system. Thus whether the focus was on the dual systems of patriarchy and capitalism or on patriarchy alone, all these theorists had accepted the idea of a system, and moreover a system that had to be overthrown. Even radical feminists who had rejected Marxism on the basis of theory and/or practice had taken over the identity of revolutionaries inherited from Marxism.

Whereas Marxists could point to the seizure of state power by the working class as the decisive moment in the overthrow of capitalism—while disagreeing as to whether this had successfully occurred in the Soviet Union or elsewhere—radical feminists lacked even this degree of concreteness as to the mechanics of the overthrow of patriarchy. While socialist-minded workers could look forward to the abolition of the capitalist class and the disappearance of individual capitalists, only small fringe elements among radical feminists looked toward a world without men (Solanis, 1968). Whereas the overthrow of the bourgeoisie may not have been easy—especially in the advanced industrial societies in which it has never happened—it was always conceptually clear that a class of private capitalists could be done away with in one way or another. Once again, not so with patriarchy.

The dilemma is compounded by the use of the concept of patriarchy. Gerda Lerner (1986), engaged in the most ambitious attempt to write a history of patriarchy, defines patriarchy as

the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power. It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence, and resources. (p. 239)

She finds that patriarchy was long ago installed within western civilization “as an actuality and as an ideology” (p. 10). More succinctly, and even more sweepingly, Zillah Eisenstein (1988) has defined patriarchy as “the process of differentiating women from men while privileging men” (p. 20).

Such definitions sweep across cultures, races, and classes. They lack the discrete character of patriarchy as theorized by Maine and Weber, who focus on pre-state societies where the family was both the political and economic unit and there was fusion between public and domestic spheres (Waters, 1989). As Malcolm Waters puts it,

Power is distributed on the basis of age and gender … The authority of the patriarch extends over junior siblings, adult males of junior generations, all women, all children, and all slaves. (p. 196, emphasis added)

Clearly Maine, Weber, and Waters have focused on a historically specific form of social order that precedes the development of the state as well as capitalism, while Lerner, Eisenstein, and many other theorists use definitions that sweep together virtually all male-dominated societies (Note 3).

In an influential article Heidi Hartmann (1981) defines 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. Though patriarchy is hierarchical and men of different classes, races, or ethnic groups have different places in the patriarchy, they also are united in their shared relationship of dominance over their 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. (pp. 14-15)

She explains that

The material base of patriarchy is men’s control over women’s labor power. That control is maintained by excluding women from access to necessary economically productive resources and by restricting women’s sexuality. (p. 18)

Although there have been tensions between patriarchy and capitalism, the two have largely managed to support each other.

Hartmann’s argument that all men benefit from patriarchy is reminiscent of the New Left refrain that members of the white working class all benefited from white skin privileges. Even if literally true, the argument served to divide social forces that otherwise might have been able to seek solutions to shared social problems. In other words, all-inclusiveness is an argument that induces guilt and often generates hostility.

Shulamith Firestone (1970) argues,

Unlike economic class, sex class sprang directly from a biological reality: men and women were created different, and not equally privileged. Although … this difference of itself did not necessitate the development of a class system—the domination of one group by another—the reproductive functions of these differences did. The biological family is an inherently unequal power distribution. (p. 8)

By “biological family,” she means “the basic reproductive unit of male/female/infant,” which she believes has transcended the various forms of social organization. She finds that this family has been characterized by women being at the mercy of their biology (even more so prior to the advent of birth control), by the long period of infant helplessness, by “a basic mother/child interdependency,” and that this led directly to the first division of labor based on sex.

Fundamentally rejecting anthropologically based arguments about variations in the organization of human child rearing, she pungently asserts, “Anyone observing animals mating, reproducing, and caring for their young will have a hard time accepting the `cultural relativity’ line” (Firestone, pp. 8-9). For the present it will be necessary to omit any discussion about possibilities for the amelioration of the female role and quickly move on to her proposed solution. Just as Marx’s proletariat needed to seize the means of production through a temporary revolutionary dictatorship,

so to assure the elimination of sexual classes requires the revolt of the underclass (women) and the seizure of control of reproduction: the restoration to women of ownership of their own bodies, as well as feminine control of human fertility, including both the new technology and all the social institutions of childbearing and childrearing. (p. 11)

This would mean that the “reproduction of the species by one species for the benefit of both would be replaced by (at least the option of) artificial reproduction….” Consequently, the “division of labor would be ended by the elimination of labor altogether (cybernation)” (p. 12). But if only some women opted out of biological reproduction, it is hard to see how women as a (subordinated) class would cease to exist. Instead, only some women could become assimilated into the class of men, but that is arguably already as possible as it would be under Firestone’s future society. A female professional can often achieve a considerable measure of success while simultaneously rejecting substantially or totally any role in the reproductive process, but as long as many women continue to participate in traditional forms of reproduction women in general may continue to be defined as subordinate. Firestone must have realized this, because even though she appears to present the use of artificial reproduction only as an option, she makes clear enough her desire to abolish the biological family altogether, which implies the need for a centralized force capable of so doing. Perhaps then there is ultimately a merger between Firestone’s utopia and Huxley’s Brave New World; but Huxley’s society was male dominated anyway, either by plan or by accident. Additionally, Firestone herself recognizes that use of new technologies for reproduction does not by itself ensure the abolition of women as a subordinate class; the issue of control would still remain.

While many feminists today would be likely to back off considerably from Firestone’s prescriptions, especially insofar as she appears committed to making women more like men, her book should not be lightly dismissed. Even if her concept of a feminist revolutionary overthrow of the patriarchy seems questionable, her key proposal for change still resounds:

The freeing of women from the tyranny of their reproductive biology by every means available, and the diffusion of the childbearing and childrearing role to the society as a whole, men as well as women. (p. 233)

A meliorist version of this, coupled with her demands for the economic independence and the full integration of women into society, could greatly reduce male domination based on the social organization of reproduction, but might hesitate to undermine the family as an institution.

Wendy Brown (1992) has made a more recent attempt to concretize the institutionalization of male power in her article “Finding the Man in the State.” Brown finds masculinist domination of bureaucratic power exercised by the modern welfare state. This crucially affects the reproductive work and domestic labor performed by women:

The social transformation we are currently witnessing is one in which, on the one hand, for increasing numbers of women, … dependence is on the state rather than individual men; and, on the other, the state and economy, rather than individual men, are accorded the service work of women. (p. 21)

Other writers have discussed the increased role of the welfare state (e.g., Holter, 1984), but Brown challenges such writers as Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven, believing they harbor illusions about the ready availability of state power to women pursuing a progressive feminist agenda. She argues that male dominance of the state is a systemic obstacle that can be overcome, but presumably only through some radical transformation. In rejecting what we might characterize as social democratic gradualism, she does not make her alternative clear.

It is the very search for an ultimate theory that has been undermined by postmodernists in their attack on what some refer to as the search for a “master narrative” or “totalizing discourse.” It is common today for a wide variety of social critics and reformers to go through the now-classic litany of class, race, and gender, and often add ethnicity, religion, or sexual preference, etc., and this appears to create a preference for a multi-causal explanation of social relations or even a commitment to a “politics of identity.” But lurking behind the litany is often some version of the classical Marxist belief that in “the last analysis” economic relations have the highest or ultimate explanatory power (Engels, 1959; Marx, 1959a). Alternatively, there are more than enough writers who see gender or specifically patriarchy as the ultimate truth-yielding analysis of society and its evolution. The problem is not solved by trying to combine Marxism and feminism, and attempting to favor a socialist-feminist discourse. The most immediate objection could likely come from those who regard race as central, or at least equal, in the ostensible pantheon of social theory. Insofar as postmodernism has revived a skepticism toward all systems of ultimate truth, it has done us a service, so long as it is not carried to the extreme of abandoning any attempt whatsoever to analyze the social institutionalization of power.

Chris Weedon (1987), an enthusiast of poststructuralism, argues against seeking “a definitive feminist theory—a total theory of patriarchy” on the grounds that this would require an appeal to some guarantee of truth, such as an essentialist and ahistorical concept of femininity (pp. 10-11). She offers a clear statement of what constitutes a postmodern concept of our sense of ourselves or subjectivity:

Unlike humanism, which implies a conscious, knowing, unified, rational subject, poststructuralism theorizes subjectivity as a site of disunity and conflict, central to the process of political change and to preserving the status quo. (p. 21)

While I have no wish to stand in the way of those who insist on continuing to search for a master theory that will explain and presumably set the stage for the abolition of all human oppression, I am more interested in focusing on one kind of oppression at a time, analyzing how it works and how it could be undermined. Theorization remains necessary because without it practical activity can prove ineffectual or even mis-directed. This has been the vital core of women’s studies, and it should be for us.

A Material Basis?

A focus on apparently achievable reform may suggest that male dominance is merely based on ideology. Many theorists, however, insist that patriarchy also has a material base. Defining this material base has been an overwhelming problem in feminist theory. One obvious possibility is to find it in biology; most of those who do can be found in the non-feminist camp arguing for the inevitability of patriarchy (Goldberg, 1973). Although Firestone, as we saw earlier, argues for technologically freeing women from reproduction, other feminists have been quick to argue that the patriarchy would control new forms of reproduction and would still control women. If one takes a more incremental approach, Linda Gordon’s (1976) pioneering work on how reproductive freedom was limited through the suppression of access to birth control would suggest a significant reduction in patriarchal power over the last century.

The search for a material base for patriarchy, or whatever else we might want to call the institutionalized relations of gender and power, is not by any means misguided because it asks why male dominance is so imbedded in our culture and why it continues to the degree that it does. Although patriarchy is always seen as pre-dating capitalism, many writers have seen some kind of symbiosis between the two, often arguing that patriarchy is essential to capitalism (Eisenstein, 1979). Others, without entirely repudiating symbiosis, have pointed to basic contradictions between capitalism and patriarchy (Brenner & Ramas, 1984). Ruth Bloch (1993) has recently suggested a “culturist” alternative to materialist explanations of gender. Implicit in this approach, which seeks to escape from the base/superstructure version of Marxist and feminist theories, is a rejection of the concept of a relatively fixed patriarchy. She has observed that “For all the differences between patriarchy and Marxist theories, they come together in asserting the primacy of material categories—respectively, the biological fact of sex and the economic one of capitalism” (p. 85). Rejecting the model of patriarchy, Bloch suggests, “A cultural analysis of the meanings of gender would address the social problem of gender inequality without reducing it to either individual psychodynamicism, political struggle, or class relations” (p. 97). For her, culture has an autonomy, is not mere superstructure; she points out that feminists have at least implicitly sought to change culture as well as politics and economics. Thus the social construction of gender must be seen beyond the assumed material base of patriarchy. Bloch’s theory of cultural autonomy has been effectively criticized by Barbara Laslett (1993), but Bloch has still made a contribution to the undermining of simplistic models of patriarchy even if she has failed to develop a viable alternative.

Historians of Early America

An examination of the work of some recent historians of gender, many influenced by feminism and/or Marxism, is a good antidote to the overly schematized models that we have been examining. Those focusing on early United States history have attempted to investigate “the extent to which the politics and culture of the era were infused by specifically gendered relationships” (Kerber, 1989, p. 566). Some have focused on the American Revolution, often in the context of what has been called “the age of the democratic revolutions,” both in terms of the actual participation by women as well as men in the revolutionary struggles and in terms of how the rising republican ideology of the new nation has been gendered.

Linda K. Kerber (1980, p. 7) concludes that “republican ideology primarily concerned a single sex rather than an American community of both sexes.” Nevertheless she finds an anti-patriarchal element in the ideology, particularly as reflected in Tom Paine’s notion of adult men being freed from the domination of male governors whose rule was based on their claim to be the political “fathers” established within the British monarchical system.

But republican ideology did not eliminate the political father immediately and completely; rather it held a liberal ideology of individualism in ambivalent tension with the old ideology of patriarchy. (Kerber, 1990, p. 250)

Thus many men, specifically whites and especially those with the right to vote, began to be freed from patriarchal domination as a result of the revolutionary changes. The patriarchal domination of women and of men of color was considerably less affected. The establishment of a white male republican elite was clearly announced by its enshrinement as the “Founding Fathers.”

Alfred F. Young (1990) finds, however, that based on their actual participation in the Revolution, in roles that ranged from the genteel and private to the militant and public, women “developed a consciousness of themselves as female patriots” (p. 217). Young sees Abigail Adams as a harbinger of things to come in her entreaty to her husband John that he should seek to avoid having the Continental Congress “put such unlimited power in the hand of the Husband” and in her at least half-serious threat to “foment a rebellion” among women. Adams focused her enmity upon the figure of Blackstone, the great English legal theorist and proponent of patriarchy (Young, 1990). As Kerber (1990) points out, however, women participated in the Revolution as individuals, not as a “collective body”; thus, they were not in a strong position to make group demands. To seek autonomy for themselves within a republican ideology, women would need “to destabilize and then renegotiate their relationships with men” through changes in courtship and marriage—which they did in fact seek in the post-revolutionary era (pp. 250-251).

In regard to these changes, Michael Grossberg (1985) concludes,

Republican family law began to rest on the assumption that the family was a self-regulating, autonomous institution composed of distinct members, each with his or her own legal rights and identity. (p.26)

Grossberg sees a persistence of patriarchy in the governance of the home in the early republic coinciding with patriarchy’s erosion in public life. Even in the home “the husband/father [became] more of an appellate judge than a colonial patriarch” as women made some progress in being recognized by the law as persons in their own right (p. 27). As the evolving domestic relations law became increasingly important in structuring gender relations, the judges who shaped and applied this law established it as their “patriarchal domain” (p. 290).

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, reform legislation began to provide for the right of married women to own and control property. The doctrine of coverture, under which husbands controlled their wives’ property, one of the most patriarchal of all common law traditions, was moving slowly toward extinction. This constituted a belated extension of the republican ideology (Kanowitz, 1969; Kerber, 1980).

Carl Degler (1980) observes considerable attenuation in the patriarchal character of the middle-class family in the nineteenth century, in both relations between husbands and wives and between fathers and children. Another scholar has found fathers of that period engaging in more “affectionate and equalitarian relations with children” with the objective of preparing them for “a life of rational independence and moral self-sufficiency.” Fliegelman (1982, p. 1) sees this as part of an American revolt against patriarchal authority, part of an international eighteenth-century struggle. The point is that at least some change was taking place. If it could be said of the revolutionary era that “Faith in a patriarchal elite had its counterpart in the patriarchy of the home” (Leverenz, 1989, p. 81), it was clearly less true a few decades later (Fischer, 1977; Greven, 1970; Henretta, 1973; Smith, 1980).

Labor History

Let us shift our attention now to the whole new area of labor history that has been opened up by recent historians who have been focusing on the gendered character of work. As Ava Baron (1991), one of these practitioners, argues, “Gender is continually reconstructed as various groups politically contest multiple notions of masculinity and femininity” (p. 1). Rather than class being a unifying experience, as is assumed by many men’s labor historians influenced by E. P. Thompson, men and women have had work experiences that have diverged or even been in conflict. Rather than viewing women workers as passive victims of capitalism or patriarchy, researchers now see them “as active agents shaping their work lives” (p. 12). Rather than accepting the existence of a coherent system of male domination, they have explored “layers of internal inconsistencies and the coexistence of multiple gender meanings within a society” (p. 21).

Some conflicts between male and female workers have involved attempts by male workers to maintain an economic monopoly over specific areas of employment and have also thus involved profound issues of gender, as both women and men express themselves concerning their fitness for particular occupations. Such conflicts have often appeared in the food service industry. In the campaign to exclude women from bartending that men waged after World War II, their motives were primarily economic but also reflected deep-seated beliefs about gender. One union argued that bartending should remain “a cloister for men,” which it related to its concept of the neighborhood tavern as the poor man’s private social club (Cobble, 1991, pp. 233-234). Waitresses who sought economic advancement and equality were found to have been “circumscribed by their loyalty to craft traditions and their notions of gender separatism” and found themselves seeking equality through separation. As recently as the 1970s waitresses often argued from the point of view of difference and defended separate union locals and protective legislation (Cobble, 1991, pp. 241-242).

On another front, Alice Kessler-Harris (1990) finds the struggle for a “family wage” in the nineteenth century to have been

simultaneously a fight for a social order in which men could support their families and receive the services of women; and women, dependent on men, could stay out of the labor force. (p. 9) This strategy had widespread support among working class men and women at the end of the century (Kessler-Harris, 1990) and reflected an ideal of family life prevalent at that time. There were specific occasions when women joined in supporting men’s demands for a family wage instead of supporting the demands of female factory workers for higher wages for women. Moreover, some working women supported socialism in the hope that they could return to the home, rather than seek independence through wage-earning (Baron, 1991; Note 4). Only later would concerns for “gender justice” fully negate the possibility of setting and maintaining a family standard of living (Kessler-Harris, 1990).

Baron (1991) finds the use of the model of patriarchy particularly unhelpful because it “assumes a material advantage for all men in oppressing women—advantage that conflicts with their class interests” (pp. 28-29); she contends that working class agency is a reality as well. Thus men too need to be understood in their multi-dimensionality rather than to be assumed to know what they want and be able to obtain it. The task for the gendered study of labor history is to replace “ahistorical and universal categories with historically and culturally specific ones,” and see how in the history of work “gender becomes a property of activities and institutions as well as individuals” (Baron, 1991, pp. 34, 37).


We have seen how recent writers have examined the actual construction and reconstruction of gender in capitalist America and may now return to the rather basic question of whether the abolition of gender inequality is dependent upon the abolition of capitalism (acknowledging that the abolition of capitalism is not sufficient to end gender inequality). Has not the same question been asked historically about racism? The basic question leads to the kind of over-theorization that seems most objectionable. It creates “the system” as thing, impenetrable, unyielding, inevitably overwhelming. Theory at its best helps us to evaluate the prospects for altering our conditions as humans, or as Marx (1959c) definitively put it, the point is not merely to interpret the world but to change it. We do not need theory that leads only to the Scylla of overwrought fantasy or the Charybdis of passive defeatism. The need for theory is highlighted by Chris Weedon (1987) who argues that patriarchal relations are structural in the sense that “they exist in institutions and social practices of our society and cannot be explained by the intentions, good or bad, of individual women or men” (p. 3).

A critic of the patriarchy model argues that all such structural ways of theorization

tend to identify people with the categories they use, fragmenting them and reducing them to passivity. In a way the concept of patriarchy by its very nature lends itself to this tendency. (Atkinson, 1991, p. 77)

Even R. W. Connell (1987) argues that “the state is not inherently patriarchal, but is historically constituted as patriarchal in a political process whose outcome is open” (p. 129). He has found that actual states are inconsistent in processing gender issues, their incoherence allowing them to even fund or support feminist projects. Thus there is room for feminist activism within the confines of what he would still describe as a patriarchal state. I would argue, with tentative optimism, that there is more room now for the subversion of the masculinist state, or even the heterosexist state. Connell’s analysis, while using a model of patriarchy, does not lead to passivity or to waiting for some revolutionary moment to overthrow the system. His relatively fluid concept of the patriarchal state is that it is not some fixed “thing in itself” out there but rather “the centre of a reverberating set of power relations and political processes in which patriarchy is being constructed and contested” (p. 130). Although we may reject the model of patriarchy, we should not neglect the realities of male dominance that persist in our own culture as we continue to investigate and theorize gender and hope to change the world.