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An analysis of patriarchal social formations is at the heart of feminist scholarship and informs scholarly discussions of gender in a variety of fields, including sociology. Sociologists and feminists alike have noted the presence of sex differentiation and attendant patterns of social stratification in virtually every known society. Patriarchy is a theory that attempts to explain this widespread gender stratification as an effect of social organization rather than the result of some natural or biological fact.
Originally used to describe autocratic rule by a male head of a family, patriarchy has been extended to describe a more general system in which power is secured in the hands of adult men. Canadian sociologist Dorothy E. Smith (1983) describes patriarchy as ”the totality of male domination and its pervasiveness in women’s lives.” Others further point to the ways in which patriarchy secures economic and social privileges in the hands of men. Despite significant political, legal, and cultural gains, there remains a near total domination of women by men at both the micro level of intimate relationships and the macro level of government, law, and religion. Patriarchy offers a structural analysis of such sex-based inequality and offers a systemic explanation for the ongoing distribution of power and privilege according to gender lines.
Debate concerning the concept of patriarchy has taken two central forms. One, most pressing for second wave feminist scholars (those active in the period from the mid 1960s to early 1990s), concerns the roots of patriarchy and its relationship to other forms of oppression. Centrally, feminists were concerned to ascertain whether patriarchy was the primary form of oppression or simply derivative of some other form of domination. For some, it was understood to be a universal and trans-historical phenomenon that could only be overcome by way of radical and revolutionary means. Shulamith Firestone (1971), for instance, describes patriarchy as a primary form of oppression from which all other forms of domination are derived. For those feminists more closely inspired by Marxist and socialist projects, patriarchy is seen as an effect of a particular mode of production, an effect, in specific terms, of capitalism’s class structure.
Contemporary debate on the usefulness of patriarchy as an analytic term turn on its ability to make sense of difference. From a poststructuralist perspective, the presumed universality of patriarchy falls into the trap of a grand narrative. Poststructural feminism calls for a nuanced theory of patriarchy, one that can explain the ways that patriarchal social formations work to construct gendered subject positions and attend to the ways in which power inequities are discursively produced and reproduced in historically specific contexts. Third wave feminist scholars (those active in the period post-1990 and typically associated with activism and youth movements) are similarly concerned with the theory’s totalizing tendencies, with a specific critique laid toward its inability to adequately take account of the ways in which patriarchy is related to the intersecting axes of privilege, domination, and oppression. Unlike earlier debates over the question of which sort of oppression is prior to which, contemporary feminists point to the ways in which patriarchal oppression — oppression resulting from the distribution of power according to sex — is always linked into other systems of inequality and privilege, including but certainly not limited to age, ability, education, race, sexual orientation, class, and color. African American feminist activist and thinker, bell hooks, has described patriarchy as white supremacist and capitalist, insisting that attention be paid to the ways that patriarchy is associated with – and gains speed from – other unjust systems of power distribution.
Certainly, contemporary scholars are quick to view patriarchy as a system that impacts both women and men. In this context, patriarchy is understood to be a system in which economic, political, and ideological power is secured in the hands of some men (specifically: white, educated, heterosexual, financially secure, able-bodied adult men) and denied to others. In this way, an understanding of patriarchy contributes not just to an understanding of women’s lives but to the ways in which power is distributed to all members of a family, group, organization, or society.
- Firestone, S. (1971) The Dialectic of Sex. Bantam, London.
- Smith, D. (1983) Women, the family and the productive process. In: Grayson, J. P. (ed.), Introduction to Sociology. Gage, Toronto, pp. 312—44.
- hooks, b. (2000) Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, South End Press, Cambridge, MA.
- Millett, K. (1969) Sexual Politics. Avon Books, New York.
- De Beauvoir, S. (1952) The Second Sex. Alfred A Knopf, New York.
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