After decades of struggle, why are women worldwide still so under-represented in the higher echelons of business and politics? Why do women still struggle for equal pay, even when they are just as qualified and experienced as men? For many feminists, the way in which society itself is structured means that women are often excluded; this structure is the patriarchy. Let's find out more! 

Patriarchy Patriarchy

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Table of contents

    Patriarchy meaning

    Patriarchy comes from a Greek word meaning "rule by fathers" and describes a system of social organisation in which the most influential societal roles are reserved for men, whilst women are excluded from achieving parity with men. This exclusion is achieved by restricting women's social, educational, medical or other rights and imposing restrictive social or moral norms.

    Many feminist theorists believe that patriarchy is maintained through institutional structures and that current economic, political and social structures are inherently patriarchal. Some theorists suggest that patriarchy is so deeply ingrained within human societies and institutions that it is self-replicating.

    History of patriarchy

    Though the history of patriarchy is not completely clear, evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists generally agree that human society was characterised by relative gender equality in prehistory. Some suggest that patriarchal social structures came about after the development of agriculture but aren't sure what specific factors catalysed its development.

    The sociobiological view, which was influenced by the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin, proposes that male dominance is a natural feature of human life. This view often refers back to a time when all humans were hunter-gatherers. The physically stronger men would work together and hunt animals for food. As women were "weaker" and the ones who bore children, they would tend to the home and gather resources such as fruits, seeds, nuts and firewood.

    After the agricultural revolution, which is thought to have been discovered thanks to women's observations of their environment, more complex civilisations began to form. Humans no longer had to relocate to find food and could produce food by planting crops and domesticating animals. Naturally, wars followed in which groups of male fighters would clash to protect their tribes or steal resources. Victorious warriors were celebrated and worshipped by their societies, who would honour them and their male offspring. Male dominance and patriarchal societies developed as a result of this historical trajectory.

    Patriarchy, History of Patriarchy, Aristotle, StudySmarterStatue of Aristotle, at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece

    The works of Ancient Greek politicians and philosophers such as Aristotle often depict women as inferior to men in all regards. They suggest that it is the world's natural order for women to hold less power than men. Such sentiments were likely circulated by Alexander the Great, a student of Aristotle.

    Alexander the GreatPatriarchy, History of Patriarchy, StudySmarterAlexander the Great killing Mithridates, son-in-law to the King of Persia, 220 BC, Theophilos Hatzimihail, Public Domain

    Alexander III of Macedonia was an ancient Greek king, who carried out multiple conquests against the Persian and Egyptian Empires, and as far East as the State of Punjab in Northwest India. These conquests lasted from 336 BC until Alexander died in 323 BC. After conquering empires and overthrowing governments, Alexander would install Greek governments that would often answer directly to him. Alexander's conquests led to the spread of Greek culture and ideals in societies, including patriarchal beliefs.

    In 1884, Frederic Engels, a friend and colleague of Karl Marx, published a treatise based on communist ideals titled The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. It suggested that patriarchy was established because of private property ownership and inheritance, which men dominated. However, some studies have discovered records of patriarchal societies that predate the system of property ownership.

    Modern feminists have different views on how patriarchy came about. However, the prevailing view is that patriarchy is an artificial development, not a natural, biological inevitability. Gender roles are social constructs created by humans (mostly men), which have gradually become ingrained in patriarchal structures and institutions.

    Characteristics of patriarchy

    As seen above, the concept of patriarchy is closely associated with male figureheads in public and private spheres, or 'the rule of the father'. As a result, there is also a hierarchy among men within the patriarchy. In the past, older males ranked above younger males, but patriarchy also allows younger men to rank above older men if they possess authority. Authority can be obtained through experience or knowledge of a specific field or simply from physical strength and intelligence, depending on context. Authority then generates privilege. In a patriarchal system, women are excluded from the upper reaches of this hierarchy. Some men are also excluded because of social class, culture, and sexuality.

    Many feminists often emphasise that they aim for equality, not dominance over, men. Patriarchy has negative consequences for men and women in the modern world. The difference is, that men have an advantage in improving their status in society, whilst patriarchal structures actively prevent women from catching up.

    Patriarchal Society

    Sociologist Sylvia Walby has identified six structures she believes ensure tPatriarchy, Patriarchal society, StudySmarter

    Sociologist Sylvia Walby, 27/08/2018, Anass Sedrati, CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

    he male dominance by restricting female progression. Walby believes that men and women shape these structures whilst acknowledging that not all women encounter them in the same way. Their effect on women depends on race, social class, culture, and sexuality. The six structures can be summarised as follows:

    Patriarchal states: Walby holds that all states are patriarchal structures in which women are restricted from occupying significant power and decision-making roles, including the resources of the State. Therefore, women face extreme inequalities in representation and involvement in governance and judicial structures. Thus, the structures mentioned above are also patriarchal and continue to exclude women within state institutions. The state is the most significant structure that breeds and maintains patriarchy in all other institutions.

    Household Production: This structure refers to women's work in households and could involve cooking, ironing, cleaning and child-rearing. The main focus is not the nature of the work, but rather the grounds on which the labour is performed. Female labour benefits everyone in the household, yet women are not compensated for it financially, and men are not expected to help either. It is simply an expectation, which, Walby claims,

    is part of the marriage relations between a husband and wife. The product of the wife's labour is labour power: that of herself, her husband and her children. The Husband is able to expropriate the wife's labour because he has possession of the labour power which she had produced.1

    Paid Work: This structure ostracises women from specific fields of work or restricts their advancement within it, meaning women can sometimes be as qualified as men but be less likely to be promoted or be paid less than a man to do the same job. The latter is referred to as the pay gap. This structure also manifests itself in poor job opportunities for women compared to men. The main feature of this structure is known as the glass ceiling.

    Glass ceiling: an invisible boundary set on female progression in the workplace, which prevents them from reaching senior positions or earning equal pay.

    Violence: Men often use physical violence as a form of control to influence a woman's actions or coerce her into obedience. This form of control is perhaps the most 'natural' as physically, men tend to be stronger than women, so it would seem the most natural and instinctual way to overpower them. The term violence encompasses multiple forms of abuse; sexual harassment, rape, intimidation in private and public, or beatings. Although not all men are violent towards women, this structure is well-attested in women's experiences. . As Walby explains,

    It has a regular social form ... and has consequences for women's actions.2

    Sexuality: Men, who have numerous sexual encounters with different women, are regularly encouraged and admired and are considered attractive and desirable. However, women are often degraded and considered tainted if they are as sexually active as men. Women are encouraged to be sexually attractive to men but not be too sexually active to put men off being sexually attracted to them. Men actively objectify women as sexual objects, but typically a woman who sexualises herself or expresses her sexuality will lose respectability in the eyes of men.

    Culture: Walby focuses on Western cultures and holds that they are intrinsically patriarchal. Therefore, Western cultures have unequal expectations of men and women. Walby believes these are

    A set of discourses which are institutionally rooted, rather than as ideology which is either free-floating, or economically determined.3

    There are multiple discourses on masculinity and femininity and how men and women should behave, ranging from religious, moral and educational rhetorics. These patriarchal discourses create identities that men and women try to fulfil, reinforcing and further ingraining patriarchy in societies.

    The effects of patriarchy are visible in all modern societies. The six structures highlighted by Walby were developed whilst observing Western societies but can also be applied to non-western societies.

    Patriarchy Examples

    There are many examples of patriarchy that we can look to in societies across the world. The example we will discuss here is the case of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a traditionally patriarchal society. There is absolute inequality between genders in every aspect of society, with men being family decision-makers. Since the recent Taliban takeover, young girls are no longer allowed to attend secondary education, and women have been banned from sports and government representation. They aren't allowed to go out in public without male supervision.

    Even before this, patriarchal beliefs such as 'honour' were still prominent in Afghan society. Women are under immense pressure to adhere to traditional gender norms and roles, such as taking care of the family, cleaning and cooking. If they do something 'dishonourable', it may affect the whole family's reputation, with men expected to "restore" this honour. Punishments can range from beatings to 'honour killings, in which women are killed to protect the family's honour.

    Patriarchy all around us:

    A different expression of patriarchy also exists in Western societies, such as the United Kingdom. Some examples of this are:

    • Women in western societies are encouraged to look feminine and attractive by wearing makeup, watching their weight and shaving their body hair, with television ads, magazines and tabloids constantly advertising these as norms. In the case of body hair, not doing these things is often equated with being lazy or even dirty. Although some men choose to, it is normal for men not to do any of these things

    • Family names are automatically inherited through men, with children usually inheriting the father's last name. Furthermore, it is the cultural norm for women who get married to take their husband's family name, whilst there are no historical records of men ever doing so.

    • Patriarchy also presents itself in the form of perceptions. When we say the word 'nurse', we automatically think of a woman, as we perceive nursing to be feminine. When we say 'doctor', we often think of a man as being a doctor is associated with being a decision-maker, influential and intelligent.

    • Religious organisations, such as the Catholic Church, are also highly patriarchal. Positions of spiritual or teaching authority - such as the episcopate and priesthood - are often reserved for men alone, and women's participation in public worship is limited.

    Patriarchy - Key takeaways

    • Patriarchy is the inequality of power relations between men and women, in which men dominate and subjugate women in the public and private spheres.
    • Structures in societies are patriarchal, and they also sustain and reproduce patriarchy.
    • Feminists have different views on how patriarchy was established. However, they all agree that patriarchy is man-made, not a natural trajectory.
    • The three main characteristics of patriarchy are closely related and are; hierarchy, authority, and privilege.
    • Sylvia Walby's six structures of patriarchy within society are patriarchal states, household , paid work, violence, sexuality, and culture.


    1. Walby, S. (1989). THEORISING PATRIARCHY. Sociology, 23(2), p 221
    2. Walby, S. (1989). THEORISING PATRIARCHY. Sociology, 23(2), p 224
    3. Walby, S. (1989). THEORISING PATRIARCHY. Sociology, 23(2), p 227
    Frequently Asked Questions about Patriarchy

    How does patriarchy affect our society?

    Female exclusion from political, economic and social positions of power has resulted in prejudiced and inefficient structures which have toxic impacts on men and women. 

    What is the difference between patriarchy and feminism? 

    The term 'Patriarchy' is used to describe the inequality of power relations between men and women in which men dominate women in public and private spheres. Feminism is the socio-political theory and movement which aims to achieve equality between men and women in society, as such the existence of the patriarchy is a key concept in Feminism.

    What are examples of patriarchy?

    Some examples of patriarchy in western societies are family names traditionally being passed down through men and women being less likely to be promoted in the workplace.

    What is the concept of patriarchy?

    The concept is that men dominate and subjugate women politically, economically, and socially in the private and public spheres. 

    What is the history of patriarchy?

    The origin of patriarchy is not entirely clear or well-known. Some believe it came about when human beings first engaged in agriculture. Engels suggests it was developed as a result of private property ownership. 

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