Patriarchal Society According to Feminism

By Olivia Guy-Evans, published Aug 19, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


What are Patriarchy and Sexism?

Patriarchal ideology is the idea that men have more power, dominance, and privilege than women. Patriarchy is a social system in which men hold primary power and predominate in roles of political authority. It occurs in both one's personal life and within the workplace.

Sexism, meanwhile, is prejudice or discrimination based on sex; typically directed against women and girls. It manifests in subtle ways, such as through jokes or comments, as well as more overt forms of discrimination, such as denying women equal opportunities in education or employment.

Combined, patriarchy and sexism create a system in which women are oppressed both socially and economically. Patriarchy reinforces sexist attitudes and beliefs, and provides men with the power to act on them. This can result in women being denied equal rights and opportunities, or experiencing violence and abuse.

Sexism, on its own, can also lead to discrimination and oppression. For example, women may be paid less than men for doing the same job, or be passed over for promotions because of their gender (Lerner, 1986).

What Is Patriarchy According To Feminism?

The word ‘patriarchy’ literally means the rule of the father and was originally used to describe a specific type of ‘male dominated family’ (Sultana, 2010).

In a modern sense and in feminism, patriarchy is a system of political, social, and economic relations and institutions structured around the gender inequality of socially defined men and women (Nash, 2009).

Feminists mainly use the term to describe the power relationship between men and women. Most forms of feminism characterize patriarchy as a present day unjust social system that subordinates, discriminates, or is oppressive to women.

In a patriarchal society, women are usually excluded from fully participating in political and economic life, instead restricted to the home where they raise their children.

Patriarchal relations structure both the private and public spheres, with men dominating both public life and their home (Nash, 2009).

In a patriarchy, women are often under-represented in key institutions, in decision-making positions, and in employment. They are often ignored or criticized if they try to regain some power.

Likewise, attributes that are seen as ‘feminine’ or relating to women are undervalued in comparison to ‘masculine’ attributes. Violence against women is also a big factor in a patriarchy.

If women are undervalued and oppressed, they are likely to experience more exploitation and abuse from men. Women can also face multiple types of oppression based on their race, social class, and sexuality, which intersects with sexism.

It is worth noting that in western societies, it is predominately white men who are benefited by the patriarchy since men from minority ethnic backgrounds face their own oppression.

When Did Patriarchal Societies Begin?

Traditionalists who are in support of the patriarchy believe that men are born to dominate, and women are born to be subordinate. They believe that a hierarchy of power has always existed and will always continue to exist since it is human nature. This view is shared with some historical figures. 

The philosopher, Aristotle, labeled men as ‘active’ and females as ‘passive’. For him, the female was a ‘mutilated male’, someone who does not have a soul. In his view, the biological inferiority of women makes her inferior also in her capacities, her ability to reason, and her ability to make decisions (in Lerner, 1986). 

In modern psychology, Sigmund Freud suggested that biology determines one’s psychology and therefore their ability and role. He stated that for women and girls, they envy men for their anatomy. In his view, normal human was male (Freud, 1977).

While the views may not be as extreme now, there still exists the belief by some that men, specifically white men, are the most dominant and important in society. Since men are considered as such, society is organized around their needs, their perspective is the only option, their attributes are most valuable, and they thus dominate politics and culture. 

In her book titled ‘The Creation of Patriarchy’, Gerda Lerner investigated the root of patriarchy. According to her, patriarchy was not one defining event, but a process developing over a period of almost 2500 years from approximately 3100 BC to 600 BC. Lerner argues that before this time in history, male dominance of human society was non-existent (Lerner, 1986). 

Lerner emphasized the importance of women’s history and their struggle against patriarchy and for equality. According to her, patriarchy paved the way for the formation of private property and class society (Lerner, 1986). 

By finding the root of patriarchy and establishing that it is not in human nature for men to be dominant and women to be submissive, this opens the door for change. If patriarchy was created by cultures, it can be overturned. 

What Are The Characteristics Of A Patriarchal Society?

Patriarchy is a complex system made up of many elements. It is a set of symbols and ideas that make up a culture, embodied by everything from the conversations that are had, to literature and film. 

A patriarchal society is concerned with:

  • Social life and how it is supposed to be

  • What is expected of people

  • Standards of feminine beauty that is expected

  • Masculine toughness that is expected

  • Images of feminine vulnerability and masculine protectiveness

  • Defining men and women as opposites

  • Valuing masculinity and devaluing femininity 

Patriarchy’s defining elements are that it is male dominated, male identified, and male centered.

Male dominance

Patriarchy describes the institutionalized system of male dominance. This means that there is a hierarchical system which puts men at the top in dominating roles, whereas women are in lower, subordinate roles. 

Perhaps the prevailing reason for patriarchy in any sort of society is that men see themselves as superior to women. The biological differences between men and women are exaggerated to make certain that men always have the dominant or masculine roles, and women always have the subordinate, feminine ones. 

In a patriarchy, men hold every position of power or authority as possible, claiming the higher positions in jobs. They are usually the leaders in the public as well as private sphere – in their household. The woman is expected to do what the man says, and their only contribution is to serve in the home and bear children. 

Male centeredness 

Male centeredness in a patriarchy refers to the fact that everything in a society is focused on men. Most of human history talks about the successes of (primarily white) men. They are known as the heroes, developers, inventors, and leaders, whereas women’s history is mostly ignored or thought to be non-existent. 

Most TV shows and movies focus almost entirely on male protagonists, with women having minor parts, mostly acting as the love interest or there as a means to serve the male characters. 

Girls are socialized from a young age that they must be pretty and accommodating so that they can attract a husband. They are socialized to get married and bear children as their ultimate end goal. They are thus taught that their lives will revolve around the man they marry. 

Male identification

In a patriarchy, core cultural ideas about what is considered good, desirable, and normal are male identified. This means that traits typically associated with being ‘masculine’ or ‘pertaining to men’ are regarded as preferable, whereas ‘feminine’ or ‘pertaining to women’ traits are not preferable.

Qualities typically associated with masculinity are being aggressive, forceful, strong, self-controlled, and competitive. Men will therefore become fixated on only displaying these traits to society. 

Not every male is born with these traits – many are naturally caring, kind, and sensitive, traits that are not desirable as they are associated with being feminine. If boys and men allow their true personalities to show, they may be ridiculed into returning to those desirable masculine traits. 

For example, a boy that is showing sensitive emotions, his father (who subscribes to the patriarchy) may tell him that he needs to ‘man up’ and encourages him to push down his feelings so that he is behaving in a way which is deemed more appropriate for a boy. 

Control of family systems

In a patriarchal society, men often believe they must always be in control. This means they are in control of all family and social situations; they make all decisions regarding the family’s education and finances. 

In many instances, the woman must ask permission from her husband before making a decision. Traditionally, women must have permission from their father to get married, who must approve the prospective son-in-law as a good fit. Thus, women are always under the control of the men in her life and treated as if she cannot make her own informed decisions. 

Some men may even go a step further by oppressing the women in their family as a means to gain more control over them. A woman who tries to reclaim some power or control for herself may be at a risk of being oppressed, exploited, or even abused by men in the family, as a way to bring her back down to a submissive level.

What Are ‘Patriarchal Institutions’? 

‘Patriarchal institutions’ is defined as ‘a set of mechanisms, practices, beliefs, myths, and relationships organizing relatively stable patterns of human activity with respect to the distribution of resources, the reproduction of individuals, and the type of societal structures within a given patriarchy’ (Facio, 2013). 

Patriarchal institutions are believed to be closely linked with one another, so maintaining the inequality between men and women from generation to generation. Men are usually able to maintain oppression over women through institutions such as education, religion, and the family. Each of these institutions justifies and reinforces women’s subordination to men (Millet, 1977) and often have men in positions of power in these institutions. 

Patriarchal institutions and social relations are responsible for the inferior or secondary status of women, often creating obstacles for women to progress in society. The society gives absolute priority to men and to some extent, limits women’s human rights (Sultana, 2010). 

Women’s role in patriarchal society

For a patriarchal society to function, women have their own role to play. The role of the woman is to be subservient and submissive to men, catering to all their hopes and desires without complaint. 

In a patriarchal society, women are expected to stay in the household as a mother and homemaker, usually completing hours of unpaid labor maintaining these tasks. Marxist feminists suggest that a woman’s unpaid labor benefits both capital and her husband (Hartmann, 1981). 

It is arguably harder to be oneself as a woman. ‘Real women’ are seen as dependent, vulnerable, weak, supportive, nurturing, emotional, and empathetic. Women will often be criticized when they go against what is seen as ‘pertaining to woman’. Men, on the other hand, are defined as men to the extent that they are not women. 

Women can be seen as a trophy, symbolizing a man’s success against other men. Women are expected to be physically attractive, but not too attractive to the point where they are shamed or blamed for any sexual harassment and abuse they receive. 

Living in a patriarchy does not mean that women cannot succeed in a society since there are many who do. However, it is suggested that many of the women who do succeed are more likely to be those who are male centered, and male identified. They may have traits of typical masculinity such as being assertive and competitive, and do not threaten the patriarchal order (Becker, 1999). 

The Problems With A Patriarchal Society

Gender inequality

The main issue with patriarchy is that, if half of the population are thought to have dominance over the other, this results in inequalities. Patriarchy also justifies these inequalities and injustices between the genders. 

In a patriarchal society, men may benefit from more opportunities such as being more likely to be promoted to top positions in their career. Women on the other hand have less opportunities and may need to work harder than men to be afforded equal opportunities. 

Less individuality

If everyone in a society is socialized to subscribe to the gender norms enforced by the patriarchy, there is little room to express individuality. Women may feel more pressured into looking a certain way, get married, and have children because if they don’t, they are likely to face criticism for not following societies ‘rules’. 

Likewise, men who are adhering to patriarchal ideals of masculinity are not only hurting the people in their life, but they are hurting themselves. If they are being told to always be strong, aggressive, and not to show ‘feminine’ emotions, they are restricting their emotional range. They may also feel as though they cannot truly explore themselves and not understand that there is more to life than keeping up with the status quo of gender. 

Toxicity 

Men in a patriarchal society who are fixated on sticking to traditionally masculine traits may in fact become quite toxic. Toxic masculinity is a set of attitudes and ways of behaving which is associated with or expected of men. 

For instance, if men are expected to be aggressive, toxic masculinity can lead to men feeling entitled to engage in violence against others, as a way to prove that they are aggressive. Thus, men are hurt by their own dedication to toxic, patriarchal masculinity by allowing themselves to hurt others. 

Violence against women

Since women in a patriarchal society are seen as subservient to men, if they display any ‘disobedience’, men may be forgiven for acting violent towards them. Because women are designated and desirable objects of male control in a society organized around power, force and violence often works to keep women under men’s command (Johnson, 2004). 

There is a disproportionate number of women who are a victim of male violence, that it becomes a thing which is expected to happen to them. In a patriarchy, women are conditioned by society to ignore, explain away, and belittle their own experiences of sexism, discrimination, and abuse (Bates, 2022). They are taught that they are to blame for any violence they experience and so men are likely to get away with this violence. 

What are some examples of a patriarchy in daily life?

A common example of observable patriarchy is when women are expected to complete most household tasks and spend more time raising their children.

Women are thought to do significantly more unpaid labor in comparison to men. Even today, where most women can work, they are often expected to juggle working at their paid job as well as fitting in all the unpaid labor they do in the household, whereas men are less expected to do this.

Another instance is that it is common for children to be given their father’s last names instead of their mother’s. Then, when a woman gets married, she is often expected to take her husband’s last name, giving up her family name. Women are also known to be ‘given away’ by their father to their husband on their wedding day, almost as if this is an exchange of property.

Prospective husbands are also traditionally expected to ask the woman’s father for permission to marry her, as if she is the property of another man and also cannot make a decision for herself as to whether to marry. It is important to note that these instances may not be as common today but are still often prevalent.

Can men be negatively affected by patriarchy?

Men, as well as women, are negatively affected by a patriarchal society. Men are often expected to be strong, tough, aggressive, and assertive.

However, this can leave little room for vulnerability and denies their need for connection and intimacy. It may not be natural for some men to act in a traditionally masculine way, but if they go against what is expected, such as showing raw emotion (e.g., crying) they may be ridiculed, bullied, or shamed.

Thus, many men may repress a lot of their emotions which can affect their mental health as a result. Likewise, since women are expected to spend more time raising children, in cases of divorce, a judge may rule that mothers get full custody of their children, with the fathers having less access to their children than they may want.

How can patriarchy be tackled?

Patriarchy is a very complicated and interwoven concept that is thought to play a part in many aspects of society. It is therefore difficult to tackle patriarchy in one clear-cut way. 

There are some small things that both men and women can do everyday to help dismantle harmful patriarchal ideas and attitudes:

  • Men can be more aware of how much housework and childcare hours are split between them and their partner, ensuring that they are doing their fair share. 

  • Men can refuse to participate in talk with other men that is degrading to women. For instance, if they hear their male friend using misogynistic language, they can explain that this language is not acceptable and is harmful to women. 

  • Encouraging men to not be afraid of their traits and emotions which are considered traditionally ‘feminine’. 

  • Not criticizing someone for going against their gender norms, and instead celebrating differences. 

  • Taking time to listen to women. For instance, if in a work meeting a woman’s point has been ignored or interrupted, insist that their point is made and that it is valuable to the team.  

About the Author

Olivia Guy-Evans obtained her undergraduate degree in Educational Psychology at Edge Hill University in 2015. She then received her master’s degree in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in 2019. Olivia has been working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in Bristol for the last four years.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Guy-Evans, O. (2022, Aug 19). Patriarchal Society According to Feminism. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/patriarchal-society-feminism-definition.html

References

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Hartmann, H. I. (1981). Women and revolution: A discussion of the unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism (No. 2). South End Press. 

Johnson, A. G. (2004). Patriarchy, the system. Women’s lives: Multicultural perspectives, 3, 25-32.

Lerner, G. (1989). The Creation of Patriarchy. Oxford University Press: New York.

Millett, K. (1977). Sexual Politics. London: Virago.

Nash, C. J. (2009). Patriarchy.

Sultana, A. (2010). Patriarchy and women’s subordination: a theoretical analysis. Arts Faculty Journal, 1-18.