Patriarchy is most commonly understood as a form of social organization in which cultural and institutional beliefs and patterns accept, support, and reproduce the domination of women and younger men by older or more powerful men. Literally the ”rule of the fathers,” today sociologists view as patriarchal any system that contributes to the social, cultural, and economic superiority or hegemony of men. Consequently, sociologists study the manner in which societies have become and continue to be patriarchal by investigating both social institutions and commonly held cultural beliefs. At the same time, scholars investigate the consequences of patriarchy, i.e., differential access to scarce societal resources including power, authority, and opportunity by gender.
Although some scholars simply use the word patriarchy to describe what they consider to be a natural or inevitable form of social organization, more recently scholars, stimulated by the work of early feminist writers (Beauvoir 1972; Bernard 1972), have come to recognize patriarchy as a prevalent system of inequality similar in some ways to racism or classism (Hartsock 1983). Prior to the critical work of feminist scholars, many considered patriarchy to be the natural result of biological difference or rather a truly complementary system based upon differential inclinations that served to address society’s need for a division of labor (Durkheim 1933; Parsons 1956). A more critical analysis of the origins of patriarchy, however, looks to its cultural and social genesis as located within both beliefs and specific social institutions.
Scholars today explore the manner in which patriarchy, or male domination, has become institutionalized, that is, built into the major social systems including the family, religion, the economy, government, education, and the media. In so doing, the taken for grantedness of patriarchy is exposed and analyzed (Smith 1987). If indeed, as feminist and pro feminist scholars ask, patriarchy is a socially constructed system of inequality, how is it that despite being exposed patriarchy appears to be natural and continues to reproduce itself?
Many scholars have looked to the institution of the family in order to explain the origins and persistence of patriarchy. Engels (1970) described the patriarchal structure of the family but centered his analysis on its contribution to capitalist rather than primarily gender oppression. Levi Strauss (1967) observed and chronicled the cultural roots of patriarchy and highlighted a key implicit component, that of the objectification and devaluation of women by men. More recently, Bernard demonstrated the differential structure of marriage and family by gender that deterministically reproduces patriarchy. The family, including the house hold division of labor (Hochschild & Machung 1997), divorce, childrearing, as well as power and cultural perception (Smith 1993), have been and are continuing to be specific sites in which patriarchy is seen, analyzed, and in some cases resisted.
As Engels pointed out, the family as an institution is at all times interacting with the economy or public sphere. Despite functionalist assertions of complementarity and balance, the women’s movement and feminist scholars have continued to point to the multiple ways in which the economic sphere as well as the inter action between the family and the economy serve to reproduce and enforce patriarchy as a social system. Issues including, initially, access to economic opportunity, and more recently the gendering of occupations, the glass ceiling (Williams 1992), and sexual harassment, have concerned both activists and scholars. A Parsonsian expression of balance between the public (economic) sphere and the private (family) sphere argues in favor of men being primarily active in the public and women in the private. Currently, feminist scholars and most sociologists dismiss this characterization as patriarchal and focus on the manner in which the institutions that perpetuate this unequal system are structured.
Other scholars have demonstrated sociological insight by pointing to the manner in which other significant social institutions interact with both the economy and the family to reproduce patriarchy or to present themselves as sites in which patriarchy can be resisted. Since the beginnings of feminism as a social movement in the nineteenth century, activists have sought equal legal rights for women. Theoretically, this movement demonstrated the irony of a social contract that disenfranchised half of its inferred signers (Pateman 1988). In other words, a democracy that promised equal representation to every citizen only so long as they were men represented a patriarchal system. Needless to say, other marginalized groups were also left unrepresented. Although first wave feminists succeeded in obtaining women’s suffrage, and despite a lull in the social movement subsequent to that victory, the struggle for full and practical legal rights and representation remained a focus of the feminist struggle against patriarchy in the governmental institution. Second wave feminism rallied around abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) as core issues in both the exposition of and struggle against patriarchy. Today, activists are once again preparing for a dynamic public debate over abortion, while the ERA is no longer discussed. Still, patriarchy is demonstrated in the continuing disproportionate power of men over women in government, as noted in numbers of men and women in elected positions as well as in legal and judicial debates over issues like family leave, divorce, and sexual harassment. In fact, the interaction of the family, the economy, and the government as that interaction contributes to the persistence of patriarchy is demonstrated in issues or concepts like the ”mommy track” or welfare reform (Hays 2003).
Oftentimes, scholars as well as other social critics look to the educational institution as a potential avenue of either conservative social reproduction or social change. Relative to patriarchy, education is discussed in both ways. Many now cite the successes of women in education in terms of the number of women obtaining college or postgraduate degrees. Today over 50 percent of college graduates are women. This fact supports the lessening of patriarchy as women receive equal education and credentials. Still, critics note the gendering of credentials, i.e., women obtaining degrees in less highly valued fields (Kimmel 2000) as well as the ”hidden curriculum” of education (Coleman 1961) in which the structure and beliefs of patriarchy are taught regardless of the gender of the student. Additionally, scholars continue to observe and report the differential treatment of students by gender by teachers (Sadker & Sadker 1994) that begins in some cases in either elementary school (Thorne 1993) or even kindergarten (Jordan & Cowan 2001).
Patriarchy continues to be observed, reproduced, and resisted in other social institutions including the military, religion, and the media. Despite increasing participation in the military by women, the structure and culture of the institution remain patriarchal (Cohn 1993). Religion has long been seen by scholars, of course with extreme variation between traditions, as providing justification for patriarchy. Still, today many traditions are beginning to question and change their theologically man dated patriarchal structure while others remain virtually unchanged. The media, although more inclusive than either the military or religion, remain a domain in which examples of male domination often go unquestioned. One need only consider the centrality of male dominated sport to see the manner in which the media participate in the perpetuation of patriarchy. Still, recent manifestations of popular culture sponsored by various media sources are beginning to place women in positions of power and centrality, both of which may serve to lessen the seeming naturalness of patriarchy.
Given the ubiquity of patriarchy within individual societal institutions as well as the manner in which these institutions interact, it is no wonder that patriarchy continues to appear natural and necessary, that is, hegemonic (Gramsci 1971). Still, as feminist theory has pointed out, patriarchy is a political issue, for both groups and individuals. The ”personal” is indeed ”political.” As such, patriarchy as a system of social organization, although deeply ingrained in both social institutions and consequently in the individuals that find themselves living within those institutions, is subject to both contestation and resistance. Gender relations as currently constituted in a patriarchal system are subject to change.
Organizations including the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, and many others continue to publicize the manner in which patriarchy is built into various social institutions and this serves to perpetuate the social power of men over women. Feminist scholars today continue to struggle against patriarchy but have now broadened their focus to include multiple forms of privilege that serve to oppress not only women, but also other marginalized groups (Collins 1986; Johnson 2001). They are joined today by smaller but active organizations of men as well as scholars of men’s studies including the National Organization of Men Against Sexism (NOMAS). At the same time, scholars have begun not only to demonstrate how patriarchy is embedded in social institutions and ingrained in the manner in which we do gender (West & Zimmerman 1987) but also to call for undoing gender, that is, to remove gender and consequently patriarchy as a central organizing principle of social relations (Butler 2004; Lorber 2005).
Patriarchy is a system of social organization that recognizes, encourages, and reproduces the seemingly natural and necessary domination of men over women. Despite the legal and social changes fought for and achieved by activists supported by scholars over the last 150 years, patriarchy is indeed quite persistent. This persistence is due to the manner in which patriarchy has become deeply ingrained in each and every aspect of each and every significant societal institution, and consequently in the manner in which individuals learn to practice gender. The deconstruction of patriarchy is therefore both an individual and an institutional quest dependent on scholarly insight and exposition, as well as individual courage, good will, and commitment to justice.
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