What is Patriarchy?

Working definition

The systematic domination of women by men in some or all of society’s spheres and institutions

Origins of the Concept 

Ideas of male dominance have a very long history, with many religions presenting it as natural and necessary.

The first theoretical account of patriarchy is found in Engels theory of women’s subservience under capitalism. He argued that capitalism resulted in power being concentrated in the hands of fewer people which intensified the oppression of women as men passed on their wealth to their male heirs. (I’ve outline this theory in more detail in this post: the Marxist perspective on the family).

The main source of patriarchal theory stems from Feminism, which developed the concept in the 1960s, highlighting how the public-private divide and the norm of women being confined to the domestic sphere was the main source of male dominance and female oppression, highlighted by the famous Feminist slogan ‘the personal is the political’.

Subsequent Feminist theory and research explored how

Today, there is much disagreement over the concepts usefulness within the various different Feminist traditions (for the purposes of A-level sociology, typically divided up into Liberal, Marxist, Radical).

Meaning and Interpretation

The concept of Patriarchy forms the basis for radical forms of Feminism which has focused on how Patriarchy is reproduced in many different ways such as male violence against women, stereotypical representations in the media and even everyday sexism.

Sylvia Walby re-conceptualized Patriarchy in the 1990s, arguing that the concept failed to take account of increasing gender equality, but that it should still remain central to Feminist analysis, suggesting that there are six structures of patriarchy: Paid Work, Household Production, Culture, Sexuality, Violence and the State.

Walby also argued that analysis should distinguish between public and private forms of patriarchy.

Critical Points

The concept of patriarchy has been criticized from both outside and within Feminism.

The concept itself has been criticized as being too abstract: it is difficult to pin it down and find specific mechanisms through which it operates.

Many Feminists argue that Patriarchy exists in all cultures, and thus the concept itself is too general to be useful, as it fails to take account of how other factors such as class and ethnicity combine to oppress different women in different ways.

Black Feminists have criticized the (mainly) white radical Feminist critique of the family as patriarchal as many black women see the family as a bulwark against white racism in society.

Postmodern Feminism criticizes the concept as it rests on the binary distinction between men and women, the existence of which is open to question today.

Continued Relevance 

Much contemporary research focuses on discourse and how language can reproduce patriarchy. For example Case and Lippard (2009) analysed jokes, arguing they can perpetuate patriarchal relations, although Feminists have developed their own ‘counter-jokes’ to combat these – they conclude that humor can act as a powerful ideological weapon.

 

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