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The origins of patriarchy

[Here's an article I wrote earlier this year. (Actually, you might notice that I posted it a while ago and then deleted it, because I was worried it might offend people. But I've thought better of that fear. There is no ridicule or criticism of women or men in what follows, only a rational and empirical exploration of the question that consumes so much left-wing intellectual energy, "Why patriarchy?" There is so much academic irrationality around questions of gender that I sometimes feel driven to intervene, to suggest how simple the answers really are.)]


One of the many reasons that any Left that emerges from academia—as does much of today’s “Left,” with its disproportionate emphasis on issues of gender, race, and sexuality—is doomed to ineffectiveness is that academia tends to be a rather anti-intellectual place. Truth and justice are of less concern to it than careers, politics, and adherence to institutional norms. The result is that intellectuals can sometimes be blind to the most obvious facts of the world, preferring to “complicate” even the essential, albeit simple, insights that are much more far-reaching than the “problematizations” that are preferred. Turbid and pretentious thinking blocks the way to both truth and a rational politics.

Some aspects of contemporary feminism are a case in point. No reasonable person could deny that women, like men, have a right to economic and social well-being (with all the “radical” implications of that fact), but reasonable people can certainly object to some of the confusions and dishonest fixations of left-liberal feminism. These revolve around the concept of “patriarchy,” that nefarious thing that has existed for thousands of years across the world. So what is patriarchy?

In the most general sense, it just means male domination. It has many dimensions, from intimate relationships to the possession of power in political and economic institutions. Wherever it exists, there is said to be misogyny and oppression of women; thus, it is always rooted in “men behaving badly.” If men would simply respect women, and if patriarchal indoctrination were eradicated, male domination would wither away and the sexes would finally be treated as equal.

According to these notions, which have become feminist dogmas, male domination is as unjust and oppressive as, say, capitalist domination and exploitation of workers, or imperialist domination and exploitation of foreign countries. Men are the main problem, and they have to be educated, lectured, browbeaten, and ridiculed (as they often are in liberal and left spaces) into a deep awareness of their undeserved privilege, so that in the end they’ll be persuaded to give up their privilege for the greater good. This massive project of dismantling patriarchy will doubtless alienate much of the public, both men and women, pushing them away from the left and into the arms of the far-right, but that, supposedly, is the price of progress.

One of the latest sallies in this long-running feminist crusade is a book published this year entitled The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by science journalist Angela Saini. It’s a sprawling survey of the alleged origins of patriarchy, of myriad examples of it around the world, of its academic theorizations, and of resistance to it. While the book isn’t without merit, its chief interest is in its manifesting the intellectual shallowness and self-deception with which feminism itself is plagued. It presents an opportunity, therefore, to dispel some common confusions that have had baleful political consequences. Maybe if we can give more plausible answers to questions around “patriarchy,” this will discourage frivolous pseudo-political research and activism in favor of attention to more urgent issues such as the revival of the labor movement, the resurrection of social democracy, and mitigation of global warming.

As a social constructionist feminist, Saini premises her entire account on the obligatory, but false, denial that there is anything natural about male domination. She quotes primatologist Frans de Waal: “I think when people say that patriarchy is sort of natural for the human species,…that male dominance and male violence are natural, I think they are totally exaggerating.” Here we have a characteristic instance of sloppy thinking. Male physical dominance is of course entirely natural: on average, men are stronger, larger, and taller than women. So, this dimension of “patriarchy” is indeed dictated by nature.

Moreover, given that the anthropological consensus is that a strict matriarchy has never existed whereas social systems manifesting some degree of patriarchy have been overwhelmingly common in history (if not universal), in what sense is male dominance not “natural”? There is evidently something about human nature that causes patriarchy to keep reappearing again and again, countless times, in societies many of which have had no contact with each other, from at least the Neolithic era to the present. The Marxist anthropologist Maurice Godelier went so far as to argue that even in the most egalitarian societies, “in the last analysis” it is likely that men have “occupied the summit of the power hierarchy”—doubtless because, in the last analysis, questions of power are grounded in questions of physical force. In principle, if men wanted to, they could always band together and forcibly have their way with the women. Brute facts of physiology therefore mean that women and children are in some respects subject to male power, and that it is men’s good will that keeps their potential violent self-assertiveness in check.

Feminists have sometimes denied the salience of male physical strength, size, and aggressiveness, but their arguments have been unconvincing. Consider one example: in her overrated classic Sexual Politics, Kate Millett remarked that “male supremacy…does not finally reside in physical strength but in the acceptance of a value system which is not biological.” But value systems can certainly be grounded in biology, so this statement isn’t quite true. (For instance, the value placed on sex and procreation is clearly biological in origin, as is the value placed on strength.) Similarly, Millett averred that “superior physical strength is not a factor in political relations—vide those of race and class.” This seems true enough, until one reflects that if some race of people were discovered who happened to be physically weak, we would hardly be surprised to find that they were, e.g., frequently enslaved by others. That is to say, contrary to social constructionist orthodoxy, “nature” (as opposed to nurture) is very relevant to social relations.

The postmodern feminist insistence that “culture” is everything and “nature” is nothing does not withstand a moment’s scrutiny. It is still regularly denied, for example, that sex hormones have anything to do with gendered behavior, but this is a ludicrous anti-scientific idealism (culturalism) that has been refuted countless times. Even apart from male physicality, there are natural tendencies toward masculine dominance. The ubiquitous identification of masculinity with such qualities as relative autonomy, detachment, strength, self-control, and self-possession, all of which are valorized as manifesting a kind of dominance, does not come out of thin air. It results from the average behaviors and psychologies of the sexes, not from some malevolent conspiracy of misogynists to oppress women and spread groundless stereotypes.

One doesn’t need acute observational skill to notice that, cross-culturally, women tend to laugh and cry much more often than men, to have more intense emotions, and to be more excitable than the somewhat “detached” male. To take a flippant example: the female tendency to scream and run at the sight of a mouse or a cockroach or some other critter, and to appeal to a nearby man to deal with it, doesn’t exactly exude dominance or self-control.[1] Neither do tendencies to cry or “giggle” far more easily than the opposite sex. The experiences of a trans woman like Julia Serano are of interest here: in Whipping Girl, Serano writes about how her emotions became more intense after her hormone therapy, as did her senses of touch and smell, and her sexual sensitivity and pleasure. Susceptibility to emotions—things that happen to you, that you can’t really control—and sensitivity to physiological sensations are, again, antithetical to the valorized concept of self-control.

Given all these biological facts, and the fact that it’s natural for the sexes to define themselves in relation to each other, it is perfectly rational for women, on average, to embrace their comparative advantage in attributes such as “nurturing,” feminine physical beauty, attractive anti-masculine behavior like “giggling,” and empathetic receptiveness. It happens that these traits don’t lend themselves to asserting dominance. But they’re attractive to men, just as masculine confidence, strength, height, financial prosperity, and charisma are attractive to women. It isn’t “misogyny” that draws the sexes to each other in this way, with contrasts being drawn such that the relative dominance of one sex is valued by both. It is just the natural dialectic of sexual attraction.

Indeed, in light of women’s valorization of relative male dominance in romantic and sexual contexts, it can rankle that feminists denounce this same dominance as being terrible and misogynistic. On one hand, women will not rarely want a man to protect them, which is to say have a slightly higher status than them (for one’s protection of a “weaker” person indicates one’s higher status). In the realm of dating, they will often say they want a man who can “make them laugh,” a desire and phrase that indicates a self-conception of relative passivity. Or, perhaps, they’ll want a man to take them to dinner or a movie, to buy them flowers or jewelry, or more generally to provide for them, all desires that place women in a position of passivity in relation to the man.

On the other hand, the very notion of male dominance is supposed to be morally odious. It’s no wonder that a lot of young men today are confused about what’s expected of them. But if you take seriously the implications of feminist dogma, you should consider female desire itself morally odious! A large proportion of women, for instance, enjoy rough sex, which is to say overt male dominance. Sex in general is a pretty “patriarchal” affair: one party is being penetrated, acted on (acted in), ejaculated into, ecstatically subjected to the perceived muscular strength of the other. Sex is rather important to human life, so one suspects that its mechanics of male assertiveness and female receptiveness might condition general patterns of human psychology.

Being a doctrinaire social constructionist, Saini mentions none of this. In fact, she never really answers the question of how male domination began or why it is so universal, perhaps because doing so would necessitate acknowledgment of these unsayable facts. Instead, in an attempt to sum up her discussion, she says, “States institutionalized human categorization and gendered laws; slavery influenced patrilocal marriage; empires exported gendered oppression to nearly every corner of the globe; capitalism exacerbated gender disparities; and religions and traditions are still being manipulated to give psychological force to the notion of male domination.” All this is doubtless true, and one can agree that many forms of patriarchy can and ought to be dismantled. But it is wrong to deny obvious facts just because they conflict with feminist ideologies.

If no aspect of male dominance is grounded in biology, does that mean male dominance in sports and athletics has nothing to do with biology? Men are primarily responsible for building the material infrastructure of civilization (which elevates their status): is this unrelated to their greater physical strength, or their typically greater visual-spatial abilities and interest in mechanical problems?

Men’s sexual arousal is stimulated in large part through the visual sense. Since the sexes want to attract each other, it is, therefore, rational for women to beautify and objectify themselves, even if this also causes them sometimes to be treated more as objects than subjects. The infamous “male gaze” that can, indeed, be dehumanizing isn’t merely a social artifact but is partly an expression of male biology. To demonize the male sex for its “objectification of women,” as if that’s always misogynistic, is thus to demonize how the male brain works.

Relative male dominance is so deeply embedded in society and the human mind that it can never be wholly extirpated. It is everywhere. Every chivalrous gesture expresses masculine authority. When couples marry, the woman often wants to adopt her husband’s last name. In ballroom dancing, men are the customary “leaders,” which is apparently a form of patriarchy (because it’s male domination). Men are expected to refrain from hurting women’s feelings, in fact to treat them, in some measure, with greater respect and kindness than they treat other men—evidently because women are perceived as more emotionally fragile than men. Implicit in a man’s romantic attraction to a woman is a kind of condescension, a protective urge, not radically different from his urge to protect his children.

None of this means men are “superior.” On average, women are superior in many ways, men in others. (And there are always exceptions.) Value-judgments are not the point, and only an immature or damaged person would care about them. The point is to understand, not make cheap judgments.

One wishes, in short, that feminists would show a little more understanding of women and men. The habit of demonizing the latter, the treatment of them as little more than oppressors, is intellectually, morally, and politically unjustifiable. Some kinds of “patriarchy” are both natural and good, and are appreciated by women (even if not all will admit that to themselves). Some kinds of sexism, such as protecting women and being kinder to them than men, are good and are widely valued. It may be unfair that masculinity tends to be respected more than femininity, but this is hardly the only instance of unfairness in life. It’s also unfair that, ceteris paribus, tall men are valued over short and strong over weak, and that physically attractive people are preferred to the unattractive, and the charismatic to the uncharismatic. Nature itself is unfair: the emotional and cognitive structures of the human brain did not evolve to primarily heed the moral quality of “fairness.”

Not all feminism, however, is trivial or deluded or consists of barely concealed misandry. Materialist feminism, in particular, is essential: all women should have the right to free childcare, extended maternity leave, pay for household work, strong unions, generous wages, high-quality education, and a rewarding job. It should be widely accepted for women to have positions of dominance in political, economic, and cultural institutions. Even foreign policy ought to be considered a feminist issue: militaristic policy is hardly in the interests of women and children abroad and domestically. (It is telling, then, that feminists rarely have much to say about it and do even less to organize against it.) Addressing all these injustices, in fact, would be the most effective way of raising the “cultural” status of women with which academic feminists are so concerned.

If the feminist movement were to prioritize issues of economic security, it could become a major asset to the left. It could help draw people away from a Republican Party that ridiculously claims to speak for the working class; it would help revive a labor movement that is crucial to elevating women’s conditions. But in order to rise to this level, it first has to shed its academic influences and theoretical pretensions. It has to treat its culturalist preoccupations with theorizing gender, sexuality, and some monolithic thing called patriarchy as being second-order concerns. Whether in the coming years feminists will be able to shift their priorities remains to be seen, but few political projects can be more urgent.


[1] NB: This sentence might sound like mockery, but it isn't. It's a true statement of how people, both men and women, perceive certain kinds of "feminine" behavior in relation to "masculine" behavior. These simple, daily behavioral tendencies, which in the cae of this example are hardly a product solely of "socialization" or "culture," influence how people think of women and men in relation to each other (e.g., less-dominant vs. more-dominant, on average). It is puzzling that most gender theorists and feminists are blind to the significance of these behaviors.

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