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Patriarchy is a social system in which the father is head of the household, having authority over women and children. Patriarchy also refers to a system of government by males, and to the dominance of men in social or cultural systems. It may also include title being traced through the male line.

Etymology and related terms

The term patriarch means the father or chief of a clan. It is also used in Christianity as an official title, and derives from the Greek ‘patriarches;’ and from the Latin ‘patriarcha.’

"Names of Christian dignitaries were in early days taken sometimes from civil life (episkopos, diakonos), sometimes borrowed from the Jews (presbyteros). The name patriarch is one of the latter class. Bishops of special dignity were called patriarchs just as deacons were called levites, because their place corresponded by analogy to those in the Old Law. All such titles became official titles, only gradually. At first they were used loosely as names of honour without any strict connotation; but in all such cases the reality existed before any special name was used."

A patriarch is one of the scriptural fathers of the Hebrew people, a man who is father or founder, or a man who is head of a patriarchy. The official title of Patriarch refers to any of the ancient or Eastern Orthodox Sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, or of the ancient and Western Sees of Rome with authority over other bishops. It also refers to the head of any of various eastern churches or a Roman Catholic bishop. Finally, it could refer to a Mormon of the Melchizedek priesthood.

A patriarchate is the jurisdiction of a patriarch.

Within feminist theory, patriarchy refers to the structure of modern cultural and political systems, which are ruled by men. Such systems are said to be detrimental to the rights of women. However, it has been noted that patriarchal systems of government do not benefit all men of all classes.


In the 3rd Century BCE, Aristotle (384-322) taught that the city-state developed out of the patriarchal family, although he thought the two were different in kind as well as in scale. In this matter, he followed in the tradition of Socrates (470-399) who thought being born a woman was divine punishment, since a woman is halfway between a man and an animal. Socrates also denied that citizens had the basic virtue necessary to nurture a good society and equated virtue with knowledge unattainable by ordinary people. During Athens’ struggle with undemocratic Sparta, Socrates favored Sparta.

Plato never mentioned Socrates’ sedition against Athensmarker, but the cosmology of the Timaeus includes the idea that a man who lives well will live a happy and congenial life on his consort star. Failing this, his second birth will be as a woman.

In the Politics, Aristotle attempts to illustrate the nature of the hierarchies that exist in the political community and its subordinate communities. He argues for an origin of male rule. In Chapter Thirteen he states that men and women have different kinds of virtue, ‘just as those who are natural subjects differ (from those who rule by nature.')

Other ancient societies contemporary with Aristotle, as well as many Athenians, did not share these views of women, family organization, or political and economic structure. Egyptmarker left no philosophical record, but Herodotus left a record of his shock at the contrast between the roles of Egyptian women and the women of Athens. He observed that they attended market and were employed in trade. In ancient Egypt a middle-class woman might sit on a local tribunal, engage in real estate transactions, and inherit or bequeath property. Women engaged in real estate transactions, secured loans, and witnessed legal documents. Greek influence spread, however, with the conquests of Alexander the Great, who was educated by Aristotle. Eventually, when Alexander wanted to unite his two empires in equality, Aristotle was adamant that all non-Greeks should be enslaved.

About 200 B.C. the Jewish Philosopher Aristobulus of Paneas claimed that Jewish revelation and Aristotelian philosophy were identical. Before another 200 years had passed it was said that Aristotle derived his doctrine directly from Judaism. In the 12th Century, Aristotlianism was harmonized with Judaism by the Tallmudist, philosopher and astronomer, Maimonides. Subsequent rabbinical thought includes such pronouncements as "Eve was not created simultaneously with Adam because God foreknew that later she would be a source of complaint. (Gen. R. xvii), and "Nine curses together with death befell Eve in consequence of her disobedience" (Pirke R. El. Xiv.; Ab. R. N. ii. 42). While Maimonides dared to contradict Aristotle's ideas in matters of faith, it wasn't long before the Islamic philosopher Averroes, endorsed them without reserve.

For the last 1800 years Christian leaders have placed great emphasis on the creation of Eve, believing that the story was historical fact, rather than androcentric myth. Combined with the account of the Fall in Genesis, Chapter 3, it has been used as evidence of insurmountable character defects, not just for Eve but for all women. In the 2nd Century Tertullian, the son of a centurion, and a pagan until middle life, told women believers, "Do you not know that you are Eve?...Because of the death which you brought upon us, even the Son of God had to die" (De cultu feminarum, libri duo I, 1).

In the 4th Century, the basic attitude was one of puzzlement over the seemingly incongruous fact of woman's existence. Augustine of Hippo said he could not see how a woman could be any help for a man if the work of childbearing is excluded. However, it was only with Thomas Acquinas in the 13th Century that Aristotle's teachings emerged in the official teachings of Roman Catholicism. Aristotle's assertion that women are misbegotten males can be found in the Summa Theologica, I, 92 I ad 1. The influence of combining Aristotle's theory with biblical interpretations can't be overestimated.

In about 1404 Christine de Pizan wrote "Le livre de la cite des dames", a systematic feminist treatise arguing against the misogyny in classical works and the Christian Canon. After the advent of printing the discourse became known as "the querelle des femmes" and continued for the next 400 years.

From the time of Martin Luther, Protestantism regularly used the commandment in Exodus 20:12 to justify the duties owed to all superiors. ‘Honor thy father,’ became a euphemism for the duty to obey the king. But it was primarily as a secular doctrine that Aristotle’s appeal took on political meaning. Although many 16th and 17th Century theorists agreed with Aristotle’s views concerning the place of women in society, none of them tried to prove political obligation on the basis of the patriarchal family until sometime after 1680. The patriarchal political theory is associated primarily with Sir Robert Filmer. Sometime before 1653, Filmer completed a work entitled Patriarcha. However, it was not published until after his death. In it, he defended the divine right of kings as having title inherited from Adam, the first man of the human race, according to Judeo-Christian tradition.

In 1688 John Locke, called Filmer’s all-powerful prince “…this strange kind of domineering phantom called the ‘fatherhood’ which, whoever could catch, presently got empire and unlimited, absolute power.” Locke asserted that if ‘honor thy father’, places everyone in subjection to political authority, then it couldn’t mean the duty owed to natural fathers, since they are subjects. By Filmer’s doctrine, fathers have no power since power belongs solely to the prince. Locke also observed that those who propose political rights based on this commandment invariably omit the word ‘mother’. (His editor, however, made a note of Locke’s inconsistency in attributing natural law to the governance of relations between a father and his children, while stating that the law governing relations between a man and his wife is based on legality, or on Eve’s punishment after the Fall).

Aristotle’s view, by Locke’s time elevated to an anthropological doctrine, was not weakened by this argument, and subsequent writers continued to give credence to Filmer’s views.

In the 19th Century, Sarah Grimke dared to question the divine origin of the scriptures. Later, Elizabeth Cady Stanton used Grimke’s criticism of biblical sources to establish a basis for feminist thought. She published the Woman’s Bible, which proposed a feminist reading of the Old and New Testament. This tendency was enlarged by Feminist theory, which denounced the patriarchal Judeo-Christian tradition..

In Europe, from about 1770, the rationalist Enlightenment and the desire for mystery had brought about a resurgence of a synthesis of Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism and Cabbalistic theosophy.(see, Hermetic Qabalah) This particular version arose first in the utilitarian and industrial countries of America and England, with the theosophy of Madame Helena Blavatsky. This had a profound impact in Germanymarker where it fit into the Libensreform movement. It is likely that Adolf Hitler was influenced by Blavatsky through the writings of Guido von List and Lanz von Liebenfels.

List sought a chauvinist mystique for the defense of Germandom against the liberal, socialist and Jewish political forces in the late Wilhelmian Era. His blueprint involved ruthless subjection of non-Aryans in a hierarchical state; qualification of candidates for education or positions in public service, as well as in professions and commerce, based on racial purity. All non-Aryans were to be slaves. His political principles included racial and marital laws, and a patriarchal society where only male heads had full majority and where only Ario-Germans had freedom and citizenship. Each family was to have a genealogical record, proving Aryan lineage. He proposed a new feudalism where only the first-born inherits. These ideas were published as early as 1911 and were similar to the Nuremberg laws of 1935.

Darwinist writers, who wrote of blond, blue-eyed Aryans, were influential in the writings of von Liebenfels. Von Liebenfels had illiberal, pan-German and monarchical sentiments. He believed the lower classes were inferior races and must be exterminated along with the weak. Socialism, democracy and feminism were his most important targets. Women were a special problem, in his view because they were more prone to bestial lust. He advocated brood mothers in eugenic convents, sterilization and other practices that later influenced the Third Reich, apparent in Himmler’s anticipation of polygamy for his Schutzstaffelmarker (SS), care of unmarried mothers in SS homes, and musings on the education and marriage of chosen women.

By 1673, François Poullain de la Barre, "On the Equality of the Two Sexes", had turned feminism into a systematic Enlightenment philosophy (as opposed to the previous Renaissance feminism). However, in 1861, Johann Jakob Bachofen, a German romantic and writer of the counter-Enlightenment said that matriarchy preceded patriarchy, and is superior to patriarchy on moral grounds. Bachofen influenced Karl Marx and Frederick Engles. Marxist analysis has been a basis for subsequent feminist thought. From the beginning, socialist feminists in France, for example, were challenged by the republic, which "oppressed them as workers and women; by Marxism, which ignores gender; and by the misogyny of their socialist brothers. This struggle continues within all parties of the left."

Biology v. social construct debate

Starting from a foundation in the theories of biological evolution developed by Charles Darwin, many 19th-century scholars formulated a linear theory of cultural evolution. One hypothesis suggested that human social organization "evolved" through a series of stages: animalistic sexual promiscuity was followed by matriarchy, which was in turn followed by patriarchy. This description was later refuted by most experts studying the subject.

However the biological justification for patriarchy did not begin with Charles Darwin, and work is currently being done on biological theories of human behavior. Today these theories have proponents in the field of sociobiology. Sociobiology regards the genetic structure as the prime motivator of social behavior. It follows that natural selection favors individuals who maximize their genetic fitness. A key factor in maximizing genetic fitness is the parental investment in the offspring. Since females have a greater investment than males they behave differently than males. Also, this investment in offspring leads to mutual exploitation between men and women. Conflict arises when both partners try to persuade the other to invest more time. According to R. A. Sydie, a professor of sociology, sociobiologists believe that these theories explain female coyness and male philandering and aggressiveness. David P. Barash thought they illustrated the biological necessity of women being relegated to the nursery and men deriving satisfaction from their jobs.

The most fundamental critique of sociobiology has to do with its tendency to continue the partiality that plagued the discipline of sociology at its inception, when only the male viewpoint was represented. Biology was used to explain women's social roles by Emile Durkheim, Sigmund Freud, Max Weber, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels.

Originally, it was the feminists who called attention to this partiality. Sydie argued that as long as female reproductive capacity is seen as an essential difference, affected very little by social relations, then even Marx's theoretical equality of 'true love' is mythical. (Marx and Engels thought that when private property was abolished, patriarchy would be abolished also. But monogamy would not necessarily disappear; it would be transformed into "true sex love".) Speaking of sociobiology in particular, Sydie said that its theories challenge the subject matter of sociology, because they propose a biological determination of behavior, the source of which is individual genotypes. In its claim that anatomy is destiny sociobiology is also seen as a challenge to feminist theory.

Most sociologists reject predominantly biological explanations of patriarchy and contend that social and cultural conditioning is primarily responsible for establishing male and female gender roles. According to standard sociological theory, patriarchy is the result of sociological constructions that are passed down from generation to generation. These constructions are most pronounced in societies with traditional cultures and less economic development. Even in modern developed societies, however, gender messages conveyed by family, mass media, and other institutions largely favor males having a dominant status.

Alleged benefits of patriarchy

Arguments for the biological and social utility of patriarchy have been made since ancient times. These include elements of Greek Stoic Philosophy and the Roman social structure based on the pater familias, but are also found in Akkadian records of Babylonian and Assyrian laws. George Lakoff proposes an ancient dichotomy of "Strict Father" as opposed to "Nurturing Parent" models of ethical theory (SFM and NPM). In general, the main lines of argument are either pragmatic—namely, the reproductive advantages of male-as-provider— or ethical—that any perceived male authority is contingent upon underlying perceptions of duty of care.

See also

Notes and references

  7. Two Treatises of Government, with a supplement Patriarcha by Robert Filmer, edited with an introduction by Thomas I. Cook, New York: Hafner Press, 1947.
  12. del Giorgio, J.F."The Oldest Europeans", Gaudeamus, Caracas, Venezuela, 2003.
  13. Bristow, John Temple. What Paul Really Said About Women: an Apostle's liberating views on equality in marriage, leadership, and love, HarperCollins, New York, 1991.
  21. Castro, Ginette. American Feminism: a contemporary history, New York University Press, 1990.
  22. The Occult Roots of Nazism: secret Aryan cults and their influence on Nazi ideology: the Ariosophists of Austria and Germany, 1890-1935, New York University Press, 1992.
  23. Mestrovic, Stjepan Gabriel. Durkheim and postmodern culture, A. de Gruyter, New York, 1992.
  24. Encyclopedia Britanica
  25. Natural Women Cultured Men, New York University Press, 1987.
  26. Sociobiology and Behaviour,New York: Elsevier, 1977.
  27. "Research into the nature of marriage in the Greco-Roman world ... shows ... [that] in Stoic traditions marriage promoted the full responsibility of a husband as a householder, father, and citizen and stability in society." Anthony C. Thiselton, First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), p. 102.
  28. George Lakoff, Moral Politics, (Univ of Chicago Press, 1996) and Philosophy in the Flesh, (UCP, 1999).
  29. Phillip Longman, ' The Return of Patriarchy', Foreign Policy, 2006.

Additional Reading

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