What is Patriarchy? An Essay in Definition and Historical Comparison
The term patriarchy has been circulating in the social sciences for several decades; however, in the plain English it is relatively new. The search of the term in the English language digital sources collected by Google Books with Google Ngram Viewer shows a rising curve, indicating the increase of the usage of this terms in English language books since the 1960s (see: Figure 1). “Within feminist theorizing, the concept of patriarchy surfaced in 1960s socialist and Marxist feminism theorizing the linkages between patriarchy and capitalism in advanced industrial societies” (Nash, 102-103). However, as early as in 1979, S. Rowbotham expressed certain dissatisfaction with the way the concept has been used. She described its origins as the attempt to disentangle the gender inequality from class inequalities created by capitalism, which, however, led to an ahistorical conception of the oppressed “woman”, blurring historical differences, and confronted researchers and activists with a familiar but nevertheless unsatisfying choice between a research agenda looking for the eternal “base” structure of patriarchy as a system of power relations, and the quest for finding the “origins” of patriarchy in the distant past (Rowbotham, 970). Instead, Rowbotham called for a more historically oriented approach to patriarchy that would take into account the changing character of “sex-gender” relationships, the possibility of gender equality, and the dynamics of oppression and resistance to it.
This paper is about patriarchy in its historical and comparative dimensions. It attempts to clarify the definition of the concept as it is currently used in the social sciences, and to interpret is in historical-comparative terms. The argument is presented as follows. First, the paper discusses a case for the existence of patriarchy in capitalism, as evidenced by feminization of poverty. Then it shows how patriarchy was different in the early modern era, in patrimonial governance where politics and familial life were not separate, but entangled. Power and class relations have been mediated through familial relations. The transition to capitalism changed this configuration, creating the situation when class is mediated by family for women, but not for men. Thus, under different regimes of patriarchy, specific for early modern Europe and contemporary capitalism, create possibilities for paternalism with and without patrimonialism.
In general, patriarchy is said to have two basic dimensions: “the rule of the father and the rule of the husband, in that order” (Therborn, 13). It refers to “generational and conjugal family relations or, more clearly, to generational and gender relations. Thus, the term also encompasses the domination of men over each other based on the seniority principle followed in many patrilineal and patrilocal societies” (Gruber and Szołtysek, 136). More generally, patriarchy is understood as any social order where socially defined men dominate socially defined women, embedded in the division of private and public spheres and wider institutional landscape. While individual women can attain high statuses, as a distinctive social group they are systematically disadvantaged and excluded from positions of power across the social, economic, political, and …