Patriarchy is often defined as a system of male dominance. This definition does not illuminate, but rather obscures, the complex set of factors that function together in the patriarchal system. We need more complex definition if we are to understand and challenge the patriarchal system in all of its aspects.
Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.*
Marx and Engels said that the patriarchal family, private property, and the state arose together. Though their understanding of the societies that preceded “patriarchy” was flawed, their intuition that patriarchy is connected to private property and to domination in the name of the state was correct. It has long seemed to me that patriarchy cannot be separated from war and the kings who take power in the wake of war. Many years ago I was stunned by Merlin Stone’s allegation that in matrilineal societies there are no illegitimate children, because all children have mothers. Lately, I have been trying to figure out why the Roman Catholic and other churches and the American Republican party are so strongly opposed to women’s right to control our own bodies and are trying to prevent access to birth control and abortion. In the above definition of patriarchy, I bring all of these lines of thought together in a definition which describes the origins of patriarchy and the interconnections between patriarchy, the control of female sexuality, private property, violence, war, conquest, rape in war, and slavery.
The system I am defining as patriarchy is a system of domination enforced through violence and the threat of violence. It is a system developed and controlled by powerful men, in which women, children, other men, and nature itself are dominated. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe that it is in the “nature” of “men” to dominate through violence. Patriarchy is a system that originated in history, which means that it is neither eternal nor inevitable. Some women and some men have resisted patriarchy throughout its history. We can join together to resist it today.
My definition of patriarchy is influenced by new research collected and analyzed by Heidi Goettner-Abendroth in Societies of Peace, who advances our understanding of prepatriarchal societies which she calls “matriarchal” “societies of peace.” Goettner-Abendroth identifies the deep structure of matriarchies using four markers: 1) economic: these societies usually practice small scale agriculture and achieve relative economic equality through gift-giving as a social custom: 2) social: these societies are egalitarian, matrilineal, and matrilocal with land being held in the maternal clan and both men and women remaining in their maternal clan; 3) political: these societies are egalitarian and have well-developed democratic systems of consensus; 4) culture, spirituality: these societies tend to view Earth as a Great and Giving Mother. Most importantly and permeating everything, these societies honor principles of care, love, and generosity which they associate with motherhood, and believe both women and men can and should practice.
The Masuo culture of the Himalayas which has been recently studied, even as it is disappearing, is a classic example. I first learned of it while watching Michael Palin discuss Masuo sexual customs with a Masuo woman in his documentary Himilaya. This woman explained to Palin that in her culture women and men define themselves through their connections to maternal clans. When a girl reaches the age of sexual maturity, her mother prepares a room where she can invite a man to dine with her. If she chooses, she invites him to spend the night with her. Children produced from such unions become part of the maternal clan. The “fathering” role is assumed by the uncles and brothers of the mother and the mothering role is shared among sisters. If either member of a couple tires of their sexual relationship, they end it and find other partners. Michael Palin obviously had a hard time believing his ears.
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Carol P. Christ spoke on a WATER Teleconference on January 16, 2013 which you can listen to now if you missed it. She is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. She teaches online courses in the Women’s Spirituality program at CIIS. Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. One of her great joys is leading Goddess Pilgrimages to Crete through Ariadne Institute.
This essay was first published in Feminism and Religion.