AskDefine | Define patriarchy

Dictionary Definition

patriarchy n : a form of social organization in which a male is the family head and title is traced through the male line [syn: patriarchate]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A social system in which the father is head of the household, having authority over women and children.
  2. A system of government by males

See also

Extensive Definition

Patriarchy is the structuring of society on the basis of family units, where fathers have primary responsibility for the welfare of, hence authority over, their families. The concept of patriarchy is often used, by extension (in anthropology and feminism, for example), to refer to the expectation that men take primary responsibility for the welfare of the community as a whole, acting as representatives via public office.
The feminine form of patriarchy is matriarchy, but there are no known examples of matriarchies from any point in history. Encyclopædia Britannica says it is a "hypothetical social system". The Britannica article goes on to note, "The view of matriarchy as constituting a stage of cultural development is now generally discredited. Furthermore, the consensus among modern anthropologists and sociologists is that a strictly matriarchal society never existed."
The anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "All the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed. ... men everywhere have been in charge of running the show. ... men have been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home." For moral comment on this see feminist criticism below; for a scientific explanation of why, see biology of gender below.


The word patriarchy comes from two Greek words —patēr (πατήρ, father) and archē (αρχή, rule). In Greek, the genitive form of patēr is patr-os, which shows the root form patr, explaining why the word is spelled patr-iarchy. The basic meaning of the Greek word archē is actually "beginning" (hence arche-ology or men-arche) — the first words of Genesis in Greek (see Septuagint) are En archē ("In the beginning"). However, archē is also used metaphorically to refer to ruling, because rulers are perceived to "start" things, for example hier-archy and an-archy.

Related words

A patriarch is a man who has great influence on his family or society. Many historical societies claimed descent from one great man. For example, the Romans believed they were descended from Romulus who founded Rome. The traditional founder of Athens is Erectheus, and of Sparta Lacedæmon. Similarly, the Jewish tradition in the Torah says Jews are descended from Abraham through Isaac. Both the Torah and Qur'an say Arabs are descended from Abraham through Ishmael,  Abraham's first son, Isaac's half-brother. Traditional founders are often called patriarchs. The feminine form of patriarch is matriarch, for example see Matriarchs (Bible). Patriarch is also a name for the most senior leaders of Eastern Christianity, roughly comparable to the western arch-bishop (archē as above).
The adjective for patriarchy is patriarchal; and patriarchalism, or more commonly paternalism, refer to the practice or defence of patriarchy. Patron is a related word used generically (that is, it is not gender or sex specific). Women and men who provide financial support to activities within a community can be termed patrons. The verb form patronize can be used positively, to describe the activity of patrons, or negatively, to describe adopting a superior attitude. If the superior attitude is adopted by a man, he can be called paternalistic.

Related customs

Patrimonalism uses the Greek word monos (μόνος, sole) to describe the view of a state as the extended household of a mon-arch (sole ruler, archē as above) or deity. There are records of patrimonalism almost as far back as the earliest writing itself (about 5000 years ago). This is probably because patrimonalism directly facilitated the invention of writing — the first hereditary monarchs gained so much wealth as to need to keep accounts, and enough to pay those accountants. The earliest records of patrimonalism come from Ancient Near Eastern legal documents, the best known being the Code of Hammurabi and the Torah. Some aspects of patrimonalism can still be found in the few remaining monarchies in the world today, for example, British law concerning real estate (see Crown lands), especially in Australia. For more detail regarding patrimonalism see Traditional authority.
Some social customs reflect what is termed patrilineality or patrilocality.
Patrilineal describes customs where family responsibilities and assets pass from father to son. By contrast, contemporary Judaism considers people to be Jewish if their mothers were Jewish, which makes this aspect of contemporary Judaism matrilineal. Biblical Judaism is, however, a classical example of a patrilineal society. Matrilineal is a particularly useful term in genetics, where some genetic features are more or less passed via the maternal line, notably mitochondrial DNA and severe X-linked genetic conditions. An X chromosome from the mother is always passed to offspring, male and female. However, daughters do not receive a Y chromosome, and sons do not receive an X chromosome from their fathers (see sex-determination system, heredity and genetic genealogy).
Patrilocal describes the custom of brides relocating to the geographic community of the husband and his father's family. In a matrilocal society, a husband will relocate to the home community of his wife and her mother (see also marriage). Matrilocality can substantially increase the social influence of women in a culture, however, given that tribal and family leaders are still men in all known matrilocal societies, matrilocality is not equivalent to matriarchy, see main entry patriarchy (anthropology).
By contrast with these other customs, patriarchy can be seen to be distinctly about gender and the nuclear family, gender and public office, and about female-male relationships in general.

Benefits of patriarchy

Patriarchy is advanced as being advantageous for human evolution and social organization on many grounds, crossing several disciplines. Although biology may explain its existence (see below), arguments for its social utility have been made since ancient times. 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.

Feminist criticism

Most forms of feminism have challenged patriarchy as a social system that is adopted uncritically, due to millennia of human experience where male physical strength was the ultimate way of settling social conflicts – from war to disciplining children. John Stuart Mill wrote, "In early times, the great majority of the male sex were slaves, as well as the whole of the female. And many ages elapsed ... before any thinker was bold enough to question the rightfulness, and the absolute necessity, either of the one slavery or of the other."
In feminist theory, the opposite of feminism is not masculism but patriarchy. It is not surprising, therefore, that the word patriarchy has a range of additional, negative associations when used in the context of feminist theory, where it is sometimes capitalized and used with the definite article (the Patriarchy), likely best understood as a form of collective personification (compare "blame it on the Government" to "blame it on the Patriarchy"). The use of the word patriarchy in feminist literature has become so loaded with emotive associations that some writers prefer to use an approximate synonym, the more objective and technical androcentric (also from Greek – anēr, genitive andros, meaning man).
Fredrika Scarth (a feminist) reads Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to be saying, "Neither men nor women live their bodies authentically under patriarchy." Mary Daly wrote, "Males and males only are the originators, planners, controllers, and legitimators of patriarchy." Carole Pateman, another feminist, writes, "The patriarchal construction of the difference between masculinity and femininity is the political difference between freedom and subjection."
Most feminists do not propose to replace patriarchy with matriarchy, rather they argue for equality (though some have argued for separation). However, Ronald Dworkin has argued that equality is a difficult idea. It is particularly hard to work out what equality means when it comes to gender, because there are real differences between men and women (see Sexual dimorphism and Gender differences). Recent feminist writers speak of "feminisms of diversity", that seek to reconcile older debates between equality feminisms and difference feminisms. For instance, Judith Squires writes, "The whole conceptual force of 'equality' rests on the assumption of differences, which should in some respect be valued equally."
For a leading feminist who writes against patriarchy see Marilyn French; and for one who is more sympathetic see Christina Hoff Sommers.
In summary, recent feminist writers have shown a tendency to admit misandry among some members of the movement, and acknowledge real differences in men and women that make diversity a more meaningful aim than reductionistic equality (for example Judith Squires above).
Decades of legislation and affirmative action have not yet changed the fact that western culture is male dominated, and that it remains patriarchal, although women can vote in most countries of the world, and they outnumber men in higher education in many countries .
However, heads of state, cabinet ministers and the top executives of major companies are still mostly men (see glass ceiling). Also, women's average income is still significantly lower than men's average income. Sally Haslanger claims women are still marginalized within academic philosophy departments.

Steven Goldberg

To date, feminists have failed to achieve many of their goals (for example, those related to executive positions and average income, see above). This was predicted in 1973 (the early days of second wave feminist activism) by Steven Goldberg (born 1941). Goldberg was chairman of the department of sociology at City College of New York, and has written two books on patriarchy. In the second he wrote: In Goldberg's first book, he seeks an explanation for three specific aspects of male dominance behaviour in human societies. Patriarchy is the first of these. He also considers the phenomenon of male status seeking, which he calls "male attainment". He is influenced by Margaret Mead in identifying this phenomenon. She says, "Men may cook, or weave or dress dolls or hunt hummingbirds, but if such activities are appropriate behavior for men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important." Finally, he considers the way men seem to dominate in one-to-one relationships with women. Marriage is just one example of such relationships. Goldberg comments, "A woman’s feeling that she must get around a man is the hallmark of male dominance."
Goldberg proposes the hypothesis that the statistical averages of all these forms of behaviour are partly explained by the necessary (but not sufficient) condition of neuroendocrinological effects – namely, testosterone. The title of his first book makes his hypothesis very clear, it was called The Inevitability of Patriarchy: Why the Biological Difference between Men and Women always Produces Male Domination. At the time he wrote (1973), there were only very limited results from biological researchers to support his hypothesis. The situation has changed a lot since then.
For other writers who make similar points to Goldberg see Steven Pinker and Donald Brown in the literature below.
For current feminists and writers with considerably more biological knowledge than Goldberg, who accept his hypothesis, but consider issues beyond the biological, see Helena Cronin and Louann Brizendine.

Biology of gender

The biology of gender is scientific analysis of the physical basis for behavioural differences between men and women. It is more specific than sexual dimorphism, which covers physical and behavioural differences between males and females of any sexually reproducing species, or sexual differentiation, where physical and behavioural differences between men and women are described. Biological research of gender has explored such areas as: intersex physicalities, gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation.
Research in this area is generally motivated by the search for causes of diseases in human beings, and ways of treating or preventing those diseases; it is thought that men and women might require different kinds of treatment for certain diseases. The results are relevant to gender issues, but that is not their direct concern.
It has long been known that there are correlations between the biological sex of animals and their behaviour.  
The late twentieth century saw an explosion in technology capable of aiding sex research. John Money and Milton Diamond made great progress towards understanding the formation of gender identity in humans. Extensive advances were also made in understanding sexual dimorphism in other animals. For example, there were studies on the effects of sex hormones on rats. In the early twenty first century, discoveries were made concerning genetically programmed sexual dimorphism in rat brains, prior even to the influence of hormones on development.
Some specific relevant results are as follows. The brains of many animals are significantly different for females and males of the species. Both genes and hormones affect the formation of many animal brains before "birth" (or hatching), and also behaviour of adult individuals. Hormones significantly affect human brain formation, and also brain development at puberty. Both kinds of brain difference affect male and female behaviour.
Alexandra M. Lopes and others recently published that:


The table shows most societies that have been claimed at one time or another to be matriarchal. In every case the ethnographers report that the societies were patriarchal not matriarchal, even before changes brought by contact with western culture. However, some of the societies are matrilineal or matrilocal.
Note: separate in the marriage column, refers to the practice of husbands and wives living in separate locations, often informally called walking marriages. See the articles for the specific cultures that practice this for further description.


patriarchy in Czech: Patriarchát
patriarchy in Danish: Patriarkat
patriarchy in German: Patriarchat (Soziologie)
patriarchy in Estonian: Patriarhaalsus
patriarchy in Modern Greek (1453-): Πατριαρχία
patriarchy in Spanish: Patriarcado
patriarchy in Persian: مردسالاری
patriarchy in French: Patriarcat (sociologie)
patriarchy in Korean: 가부장제
patriarchy in Hebrew: משפחה פטריארכלית
patriarchy in Dutch: Patriarchaat (sociologie)
patriarchy in Japanese: 家父長制
patriarchy in Norwegian: Patriarki
patriarchy in Polish: Patriarchat (ustrój)
patriarchy in Russian: Патриархат
patriarchy in Serbian: Патријархат
patriarchy in Finnish: Patriarkaatti (yhteiskuntatieteet)
patriarchy in Swedish: Patriarkat
patriarchy in Chinese: 父權
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