The significance of the Concept of Patriarchy

… for explaining the position of women worldwide

"Women as a group are treated oppressively and differently from men. Society is (still) organized in such a way that it the benefit of men rather than is patriarchal." Sara Mills, 1995

In many societies, traditional assumptions about women and their roles still predominate, even for the ones who have made a name for themselves in the 'man's world'. In this connection, I fully agree with Mill's statement above. Rather, the point is that a patriarchal society does imply that there is a difference in the way women are treated from men, and this social difference between them is not neutral but ideological. In other words, women are put in a subordinate position compared to men in the social hierarchical relationship. However, it is not my claim that all men benefit equally from a patriarchal society, or that all of them participate in the maintenance of the system. 

Although women as a group are heterogeneous, and are differentiated along social, racial, religious lines and so on, what is shared is that "all women live in a patriarchal world" (Patricia Smith, 1996). Hence, the subordinate position that women occupy in patriarchal societies holds true, regardless of these other differences amongst them, because patriarchy is a "systematic social organization that still conforms (patriarchy) everywhere" (Patricia Smith, 1996). 

The term 'patriarch' is an old one used to describe a relationship as 'the father', ruler of a family or tribe, or indeed church. Feminism has made 'patriarchy' its own. In many respects patriarchy is a confused and confusing concept - but what is clear is that questions of power and domination are central.

Within the diverse strands of feminist theory, the notion of patriarchy is variedly understood (Valerie Bryson, 1992). Feminists, such as Juliet Mitchell (1974) have argued that the term should be reserved for the rule of the father over his wife, immature children, and any other household dependents. More than a decade later, the philosopher Carol Pateman (1988) argues that the term remains relevant, because the rule of the father is succeeded by fraternal patriarchy, whereby the brotherhood of men - as men rather than as fathers - entered the notorious social contract in which they gained rights as citizens which women and others were denied. In this contract, women were deemed implicitly at least to have placed themselves under the authority of their husbands on entering the prior sexual contract - which according to Pateman is founded on rape or its threat.

Originally, the source of patriarchy was attributed to the realm of ideology and the symbolic. Kate Millett (1970) broadened its scope to reference an over-arching system of male dominance. She defines patriarchy thus: "Our society, like all other historical civilizations, is a patriarchy. The fact is evident at once if one recalls that the military, industry, technology, universities, science, political office, and finance - in short, every avenue of power within society, including the coercive force of police, is entirely in male hands" (Kate Millett, 1970).

This definition underscores power and the coercive dimension of patriarchy. Others emphasize more subtle dimensions - power relations may not even be recognized and may be willingly entered into. According to Adrienne Rich patriarchy allows men " force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law and language, customs, etiquette, education and the division of labor, to determine what part women shall or shall not play..." (Adrienne Rich, 1976)

Some theorists such as Heidi Hartmann, though recognized as a Marxist feminist, tie patriarchy to capitalism. In The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism (1979) she notes: "Capitalist development creates the places for a hierarchy of workers, but traditional Marxist categories cannot tell us who will fill which places. Gender and racial hierarchies determine who fill the empty places."

Other feminists, while conceding that there may be features of capitalism which reinforce and encourage patriarchy (e.g. dependency, exploitation), suggest that power relationships between men and women cut across every aspect of social existence and time.

Writing in 1988, Michèle Barrett objects to the extension of the term 'patriarchy' to include all forms of male dominance over women, because she sees it as universalizing western experience, and fueling ideas that male power is rooted in biological differences (or essentialism).

The feminist sociologist Sylvia Walby (1990) defends the broader definition, although she sees it as being most relevant to western societies. For Walby:

"Patriarchy is a system of social structures, and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women" (Sylvia Walby, 1990). She hopes to avoid the charges of universalism and essentialism by breaking patriarchy down into six component interacting structures:

  • The patriarchal mode of production - in the household, e.g. the expropriation of women's household labor by their male partners.
  • patriarchal relations in paid work - the exclusion of women from better jobs;
  • patriarchal relations in the state - a systematic bias to patriarchal interests in the policies and actions of the state.
  • male violence - its practice and legitimation by the state;
  • patriarchal relations in sexuality - e.g. heterosexuality and the sexual double-standard.
  • Patriarchal cultural institutions - the representation of women in a variety of arenas, e.g. religion, education and the media.


1. It can be seen as conflating sex and gender - by implicitly or explicitly treating differences as universal and innate.

2. It encourages the tendency to generalize. We need to be mindful that what is deemed 'natural' may be socially constructed and vary across time and space.

To sum up, patriarchy is universal. As Patricia Smith has said: "Patriarchy is much more complex ... it is an entire worldview, with a million implications and effects, which has structured reality" (Patricia Smith, 1996).

Essential Reading:

  • Barrett, Michèle. 1988. Women's Oppression Today. London: Verso, Chapter 7.
  • Bryson, Valerie. 1992. Feminist Political TheoryAn Introduction. London: Macmillan.
  • Hartmann, Heidi. 1979. 'The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union' in The Journal of Class and Capitalism 8: 1-34.
  • Millett, Kate. 1970. Sexual Politics. New York: Doubleday.
  • Mills, Sara. 1995. Feminist Stylistics. London: Routledge.
  • Mitchell, Juliet. 1974. Psychoanalysis and Feminism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
  • Pateman, Carol. 1988. Sexual Contract. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press.
  • Pateman, Carol. 1989. 'The Patriarchal Welfare State' in The Disorder of Women. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press, pp. 179-209.
  • Rich, Adrienne. 1976. Of Woman BornMotherhood as Experience and Institution. Norton.
  • Smith, Patricia. 1996. Feminist JurisprudenceA Companion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory, ed by Patterson, Dennis. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 302-310.
  • Walby, Sylvia. 1990. Theorizing Patriarchy. Basil Blackwell.


More by :  Attreyee Roy Chowdhury

Top | Society

Views: 3524      Comments: 0

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.