Patriarchy is the term used to describe the society which is characterised by current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed. This takes place across almost every sphere of life but is particularly noticeable in women’s under-representation in key state institutions, in decision-making positions and in employment and industry. Male violence against women is also a key feature of patriarchy. Women in minority groups face multiple oppressions in this society, as race, class and sexuality intersect with sexism

'Rule by men'

Patriarchy means ‘rule by the father’ (pater meaning father in Latin), and can refer narrowly to the supremacy of the husband–father within the family, and therefore to the subordination of his wife and his children. Men and women have gender roles in society, but women have their role imposed on them by men. Consciously and unconsciously, in virtually all cultures and all times, women have been oppressed and imprisoned within this imposed world. This patriarchy (‘rule by men’) permeates all aspects of society, public and private, as well as language and intellectual discourse. It thus remains the most profound of all tyrannies, the most ancient of all hierarchies. Therefore, feminists use the concept of ‘patriarchy’ to describe the oppressive power relationship between men and women. Patriarchy is therefore, a social construct, not a natural condition. Women’s movements therefore seek liberation from patriarchy by various means ranging from specific political campaigns, such as demand for liberal abortion laws, to ‘consciousness-raising’ by debate, discussion and publications, or simply ‘living the future’ – adopting a ‘liberated’ lifestyle and related values and sharing these with the ‘sisterhood’.

Patriarchy is therefore commonly used in a broader sense to mean quite simply ‘rule by men’, both within the family and outside. Millett (1970) for instance, described ‘patriarchal government’ as an institution whereby ‘that half of the populace which is female is controlled by that half which is male’. She suggested that patriarchy contains two principles: ‘male shall dominate female, elder male shall dominate younger’. A patriarchy is therefore an hierarchic society, characterized by both sexual and generational oppression. The concept of patriarchy is nevertheless broad. Feminists may believe that men have dominated women in all societies, but accept that the form and degree of oppression has varied considerably in different cultures and at different times. At least in western countries, the social position of women significantly improved during the twentieth century as a result of the achievement of greater political and social equality for example, the vote and broader access to education, changes in marriage and divorce law, the legalization of abortion.

As an ideology, feminism seeks to highlight the disastrous impact of patriarchy upon women’s lives. They claim that the exploitation and subjugation of women occurs both within the private sphere and the public realm. The socialist feminist Simone de Beauvoir argued that only man has the freedom to choose and set himself up as essential and subject. In contrast, women are both inessential and object. To address the problem, she advocated a family structure centred upon a balanced couple that displayed “equality in difference, and difference in equality.” Eco-feminists such as Carolyn Merchant extend this critique of patriarchy towards the damage done by men to the environment, advocating a more maternal relationship with Mother Earth.

CBS Report 1969 on Radical Feminism

Liberal and Radical views of Patriarchy

For many radical feminists, patriarchy rather than capitalism is the key characteristic of modern society and it is women who are the exploited class rather than workers in general. Therefore, the aim of radical feminism must be the destruction of patriarchy in all its forms just as extreme socialists see the destruction of capitalism as the solution to workers’ exploitation, so radical feminists see the removal of patriarchy as vital to the emancipation of women. This means revolutionary change of every aspect of society — politics, economy, culture, media, religion, education, sport, etc. rather than mere piecemeal reforms, it has to be combatted in one of two ways. The first is a revolutionary attack on cultural values in society, possibly involving violent resistance to male dominance. The other is through the creation of a female counter-culture, separate altogether from patriarchal society. In particular, this involves women leading completely separate lives from men.

The root of oppression rests in men’s superior strength and greater brutality, together with the female terror of being raped and the patriarchal ideologies that enslave minds. One of the most important ideological props of patriarchy is religion. Most religions allot a predominant role to male gods. Most known societies are matriarchal (‘ruled by women’) in neither their social structures nor their theology. Nevertheless, Judaism, Christianity and Islam are particularly singled out for criticism by feminists as being religions that place women in a role subordinate to men in both theology and society.

Shulamith "Shulie" Firestone was considered a radical feminist because she believed that the oppression of women is directly related to patriarchal western society. She was also heavily influenced by socialism and the work of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. In The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution she states, "Feminists have to question, not just all of Western culture, but the organization of culture itself, and further, even the organization of nature." One of her radical beliefs was that she believed that women's oppression was acted out through control over women's bodies. In The Dialectic of Sex, she argues that we should invest in advanced technology in order to free women from childbirth.

Liberals take a similar view of patriarchy but see the solution in terms of reform rather than revolution. For liberals, patriarchy is a characteristic of society, but is not necessarily fundamental. It therefore follows that society can be made less patriarchal gradually, through peaceful political and cultural action. Liberal feminists employ patriarchy only in this specific and limited sense, to describe the structure of the family and the dominance of the father within it, preferring to use broader terms such as ‘male supremacy’ or ‘male dominance’ to describe gender relations in society at large. However, feminists believe that the dominance of the father within the family symbolizes male supremacy in all other institutions. Many would argue, moreover, that the patriarchal family lies at the heart of a systematic process of male domination, in that it reproduces male dominance in all other walks of life: in education, at work and in politics. Radical feminists, on the other hand, place considerable stress upon patriarchy. They see it as a systematic, institutionalized and pervasive form of male power that is rooted in the family. Patriarchy thus expresses the belief that the pattern of male domination and female subordination that characterizes society at large is, essentially, a reflection of the power structures that operate within domestic life.

Socialist feminists tend to emphasise the economic aspects of patriarchy. In their view, patriarchy operates in tandem with capitalism, gender subordination and class inequality being interlinked systems of oppression. Some socialist feminists, indeed, reject the term altogether, on the grounds that gender inequality is merely a consequence of the class system: capitalism, not patriarchy, is the issue. Some socialist feminists, indeed, reject the term altogether, on the grounds that gender inequality is merely a consequence of the class system: capitalism not patriarchy is the issue.

However, in parts of the developing world patriarchy still assumes a cruel, even gruesome form: 80 million women, mainly in Africa, are subject to the practice of circumcision; bride murders still occur in India, and the persistence of the dowry system ensures that female children are often unwanted and sometimes allowed to die. Feminists do not therefore have a single or simple analysis of patriarchy, however. Liberal feminists, to the extent that they use the term, use it to draw attention to the unequal distribution to rights and entitlements in society at large. The face of patriarchy they highlight is therefore the under-representation of women in senior positions in politics, business, the professions and public life. Socialist feminists tend to emphasize the economic aspects of patriarchy. In their view, patriarchy operates in tandem with capitalism, gender subordination and class inequality being interlinked systems of oppression.

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.

In Theorizing Patriarchy (1990), Sylvia Walby identified patriarchy’s pervasive and systematic nature as ‘a system of interrelated social structures which allow men to exploit women’. She argued that the six overlapping structures take different forms in different cultures and different times.

Despite the sexual liberation of the 1960s, there is still a ‘sexual double standard’ in society – males condemn women who are sexually active as slags and those who are not as drags, which males with many sexual conquests are admired.

Walby’s six structures.

State: Throughout history, women have been denied representation as well as being under-represented in the formal positions of power in the state. Even when they could take up these positions, they found the working hours to be anti-family, or the culture to be so sexist that they gave up these positions ‘voluntarily’.

• Household: Women have been conditioned into believing that domesticity is destiny, and have been discouraged from pursuing occupations that take them out of the home. Many feminists agree with Kate Millett’s view that ‘the family is patriarchy’s chief institution’.

• Violence: For many women, there is a ‘dark side’ to family life. Domestic abuse has only recently been taken seriously in society; in the past, it was not unheard of for police to consider it a private family matter and not for them to ‘interfere’. According to statistics, two women are killed every week in England and Wales by a current or former partner (Office for National Statistics, 2015), one in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes and 8 per cent of women will suffer domestic violence in any given year (Crime Survey of England and Wales, 2013/14).

Paid work: When women were allowed to take up jobs, they were pushed towards lower-paid or part-time roles, or jobs that put them in an assistant position to men – nurses to support doctors, secretaries to support bosses – or ones that focused their attention on nurturing children, such as in the education sector.

• Sexuality: As Germaine Greer argued so forcefully in The Female Eunuch (1970), society forces women to repress their natural sexual desires and consider them dirty and ‘unladylike’. Women spend years feeling deviant and abnormal for having normal sexual feelings, then try desperately to curb and repress their natural desires. At the same time society allows and encourages men to explore the full extent of their sexuality, as a symbol of masculine virility.

• Culture: Society has sought to reinforce its message to women through culture. Adverts in the 1950s emphasised the view that a woman’s primary role was to be a good wife to her husband by excelling in all things domestic. Increasingly, unreasonable expectations of the way ‘normal’ women should look were imposed through media usage of size-0 models on catwalks and in advertising, as well as the proliferation of ‘lad culture’ magazines.