Protest organised by Million Women Rise against male violence in London, 2022. (Picture: Garry Knight)

“When violence against women is widespread, when hard-won rights look so precarious, when the grip of male power seems intractable, it may well feel as though it has been this way forever. Political leaders routinely invoke ‘tradition’ and ‘nature’ when clamping down on women’s rights—this is how it’s always been, they claim, so this is how it should stay. But history tells a different story.”

That’s the central contention of The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, a fascinating new read from science journalist Angela Saini. Here, Saini contests the often-repeated myth that women have always been oppressed, throughout societies and across epochs.

Instead, she explains, “As far back as we can see, humans have landed on rainbows of different ways of organising themselves, always negotiating the rules around gender and its meaning. Nothing has ever been static. Over millennia, we’ve been pushed gradually into believing that there are just a few ways in which we can live.”

Understanding history in this way opens up a world of possibility for imagining how different societies might be in the future. Patriarchy theory is one way of understanding women’s oppression. It looks at our society as one dominated by a social system where men exclusively occupy positions of privilege and control.

It means different things to different people. Some people use it almost interchangeably when describing the sexist injustices of modern-day capitalism. And some use it as a philosophical approach to explaining gender differences.

But 20th and 21st century archaeological and scientific developments have unveiled that the past was not one exclusively shaped by patriarchal societies. In fact, some were matrilineal societies, where women held high-status positions.

Some, such as the ­path-breaking Neolithic-era Catahoyuk archaeological excavation, indicate “aggressively egalitarian” communities not dominated by either men or women. Even further still, some were organised with complex social norms and customs still not fully understood by ­researchers today.

But, to Saini these ­“rainbows of different ways” didn’t simply vanish one day—they were replaced by societies with norms and customs that elevated men. Women’s rights and ­freedoms weren’t missing in deep time. Just like in the ­present, they had to have been destroyed.”

And how were they destroyed?

Theorists have claimed causes as diverse as huge migrations across the planet, climatic changes, the ­development of religion, or man’s naturally dominant nature. But Saini argues that there was no “single turning point for gender inequality”.

Instead, she says, “It’s far more plausible that there was a slow diffusion of habits and practices over time”. For revolutionary ­socialists, women’s oppression is not maintained because of the cruelty of individual men, or even the social norms that underpin a society. It is maintained—then, as now—by the material conditions in an unequal, class-based society.

Saini explains the analysis provided by ­revolutionary Frederick Engels from a distance. Engels’s analysis, interrogated in The Patriarchs, provides much of the foundation for how Marxists ­understand the basis for women’s oppression.

Engels argued that, far from men’s dominance being the realisation of some sort of “natural order”, it was a direct result of changes within these societies that saw the development of a ruling class. Women were pushed out of high-status roles in society because agricultural developments made it harder for them to work the land, and more important that they produce children to do so.

Resources began to be ­concentrated in the hands of the few, rather than collectively. And it became important to trace heredity through the male line, so subsequent generations could inherit power and resources.

Engels called this the “world ­historic defeat of the female sex”. But it’s ­reductionist to imply that Engels assumed this was a quick, or smooth transformation across centuries or continents.

His analysis was more all-encompassing, than “a moment when everything changed,” as Saini puts it. Saini argues that male dominance likely rose as the result of several different factors.

The development of an elite group of people—a ruling class—to keep tight control of both the surplus and the people producing it, is where you see the genesis of class society. Throughout the Patriarchs, Saini powerfully scrutinises the biases that have shaped historians’ assumptions about the types of lives people lived.

“Female subordination and male dominance were taken as biological rules, which meant the sexism of antiquity was accepted as universal,” she explains.

As recently as 2018, a human skeleton was excavated in the Peruvian Andes. It was buried with objects which indicated they were hunters. When the skeleton was analysed to be a woman, there was “undiagnosed surprise.”

In National Geographic magazine, anthropologist Kim Kill wrote, “You can’t just stop in the middle of stalking a deer in order to nurse a crying baby.”

To square this circle, Hill suggested that the hunting kit they were buried with was symbolic or religious. So there it is in black and white. Modern day academics reducing women to their child-rearing abilities, in a way a society some 9,000 years ago clearly didn’t.

Women’s oppression can feel so pervasive that adopting a historical analysis that rejects patriarchy theory wholesale can feel counterintuitive. But The Patriarchs largely supports the work of Marxists like Engels, and later anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock, in their theoretical understanding.

Understanding the development of women’s oppression as a direct result from the ­founding of class society has implications for how we ­understand the world today. Believing that women are destined to suffer, socially, politically, economically and personally at the hands of men leaves no space for how or why human behaviour changes.

Seeing the world as ordered in this way—with the central tension between genders, and not classes, has organisational conclusions.

Marxists think that challenging human behaviour is part of changing society. But it is only through a revolutionary break with a society that rests on women’s oppression as a central economical role within class society that we have the best chance of changing human behaviour for the better.

There is always a connection between the economical basis of a society and the ideas which arise within that society. This sense of resistance takes centre stage in the latter half of The Patriarchs, where Saini looks at workers’ uprisings.

“There’s no single moment when patriarchal values decisively ‘won’. Instead, what we see all the way through history is resistance,” she says.

Ultimately for Saini, she doesn’t seem to see the solution in acting together, but rather in challenging cultural practice and individual identity within that. She uses cases of women supporting the practice of female genital mutilation as an ­example of how the two ­interweave in a way that can seem confounding at first glance.

“Women’s politics don’t exist purely along gender lines, any more than they do for men”. Saini says that women are forced to navigate an unequal world, making decisions that “have the effect of aligning with the patriarchal systems around us”. 

She alludes to these ­tensions when she points out how slowly change is enacted. “Gradual shifts in the law and in public attitudes may feel like progress. They may even feel inevitable in hindsight. But if they’re inevitable, why don’t we reach them sooner? And why do we sometimes even roll backwards?”

The truth is that this happens because it’s not just about law, or religionIt can’t simply be reduced to questions about culture, or ideas, or personal identity. It’s because there is a group of people at the top of society—men and women—who deliberately bolster both women’s oppression and the unequal society that produces it.

Happily, Saini sees hope in her research about the patriarchy—and revolutionary ­socialists have something to offer about how to undermine the sexist system.

“We cooked it up, almost all of it, and we can invent something else,” she writes. “There are no natural limits to how we make the future; only our imaginations and our courage.”

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