Book review: Misreading patriarchy

Angela Saini’s recent book is really a misnomer. While its title – The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule – seems to promise an explanation of how women came to be treated as unequal, second-class citizens, it never actually delivers. A better title would be ‘How women’s oppression is constantly changing’.

In the middle of the nineteenth and latter part of the twentieth century, Saini says, intellectuals were “exercised by what patriarchy was and how it came about. Was it the overarching domination of all men over all women, or was it something more specific? Was it about sex, or was it about work? Was it underpinned by capitalism, or did it stand independently of it? Did it have a history at all, or was it a universal pattern determined by our natures?”

“The word we use now to describe women’s oppression – ‘patriarchy’ – has become devastatingly monolithic”, she writes, “drawing in all the ways in which women and girls around the world are abused and treated unfairly, from domestic violence and rape to the gender pay gap and moral double standards”. “Gendered oppression begins to look like one vast conspiracy stretching all the way back into deep time”.

This is undoubtedly true. One of the major criticisms of radical feminism in the 1970s was its ahistoric, universalist understanding of patriarchy, which failed to take account of how women’s status and oppression has changed throughout history.

In the first part of her book Saini refers to the various theories put forward to explain the origins of women’s oppression. She takes issue with theories that root it in biology, a ‘natural’ division of labour between the sexes, or a male instinct to control female sexuality. If it was part of our nature, she argues, you would expect everyone all over the world and throughout history to share similar living and working patterns. And that clearly isn’t the case – as many of the examples in her book show.

She writes about matrilineal societies, where descent is traced through the woman, “dotted across Asia, parts of North and South America, and a wide ‘matrilineal belt’ stretching through the middle of Africa”. Although matrilineality “doesn’t guarantee that women are better treated, or that men won’t be in positions of power and authority… it is just one part of the picture of how a society thinks about gender”.

The ‘gender binary’ has not always been a rigid one. “There remain cultural differences in how societies think about what makes a person a man or a woman”. She gives the example of the Yoruba language in Nigeria where there were no separate personal pronouns for men and women because gender was not an organising principle in society. “Until the British Empire stretched to Nigeria, age and seniority were seen to matter most to a person’s status”.

Interestingly, in certain cities in Mesopotamia, where private property already formed the economic basis of society, men could designate their daughters or wives as ‘men’ so they could give them inheritance rights. Creation stories in many cultures recognise a ‘third gender’, some even more.

In ancient class-based societies women’s status and role could vary considerably. While Greek authors considered it shameful for a husband to beat his wife, in ancient Rome, where woman actually had more rights and freedom, ‘wife-beating’ was deemed socially acceptable. In some societies women were involved in trading and activities generally associated with men. Some, like Boudica and the seventh century Chinese princess Pinyang, were warriors. In Spartan society, particularly focused on warfare, “women were expected to manage property while men were away fighting”.

How women experience oppression was, and continues to be, mediated by class. Saini refers to the aristocratic wife in Athens, excluded from public power but exercising significant power in running her household, while the experience of slave women was clearly very different. Also, as she points out, not all men exercised all power over all women at once.

Dismissing Engels

As well as criticising biology-based explanations of women’s oppression she also takes issue with the idea of “matriarchal utopias”. Evidence of goddess worship in societies is not necessarily “a reflection of social relations among real, everyday people”. “Just because a society has female deities or produces scores of female figurines doesn’t mean that it was ever run by women, or that women were even treated as fairly as men were”.

“Patriarchy”, writes Saini as she is concluding her book, “as a single phenomenon doesn’t really exist… There are instead, more accurately, multiple patriarchies, formed by threads subtly woven through different cultures in their own way, working with local power structures and existing systems of inequality”.

A major problem with her book, however, is that she wrongly conflates attempting to explain the historical processes which gave rise to women’s oppression with a universal theory of patriarchy that locates its emergence in “a single catastrophic event”. In this respect she is particularly dismissive of the ideas of Friedrich Engels. Engels is lumped in with the matriarchy theorists even though this is just one interpretation of his use of the words ‘mother right’ – which could refer to ‘matrilineality’ rather than ‘matriarchy’.

Engels wrote his seminal work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – and its ideas concerning the beginnings of women’s oppression – at the end of the nineteenth century, a period in which there was scant scientific evidence relating to early societies. As Saini mentions, Engels based his work primarily on the work of amateur anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and his study of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (Iroquois), whose society, as Saini points out, was based on horticulture, and control over food production gave women “economic agency and, with it, social freedom”.

Obviously, masses of anthropological and other evidence has emerged since Engels’ time, invalidating some of the details of his book, but not the general premise: that relatively egalitarian societies have existed, where women were not systematically oppressed, and that the basis for their oppression was created with a change in the economic organisation of society – away from hunting and gathering to cultivation and domestication of animals. It was this, wrote Engels, that led to the “the world historical defeat of the female sex”.

Saini, a science journalist, wrongly chooses, like other critics of Engels, to interpret this quote as signifying that women’s relative equality (or dominance) was overthrown “in one fatal swoop” rather than as a process. Her own thoughts on the origins of women’s oppression are quite circumspect. She says that her account, based on years of research and travel, is imperfect and incomplete, but that she has “come as close as I could to identifying the earliest signs of male domination, of the social and ideological shoots of gendered oppression”. She sees the first evidence for this oppression occurring “in the historical record around the same time that the earliest states and empires began to grow, as they tried to expand their populations and maintain armies to defend themselves”. “The elites that ran these societies needed young women to have as many children as possible, and for the young men they raised to be willing warriors”. It was then, she argues, that gendered rules appeared curbing behaviour and freedom: “the first shoots of overarching male authority, is with the rise of the first states”.

Marxist approach

As Marxists, basing ourselves on the general ideas espoused by Engels, we would place the emphasis more on the relationship between the development of class exploitation, private property and inheritance. But we would totally agree, as Saini writes, that patriarchy “wasn’t introduced overnight. It was one battle after another, stretching out over centuries”, and that “the emergence of patriarchy could never have been a single catastrophic event at a point in time so long ago that we have no record of it anymore”. But if the emergence and consolidation of patriarchy was a process, spanning thousands of years, why does Saini dismiss so readily the idea that changes in the economic mode of production paved the way for its rise?

She quotes archaeologist Ian Hodder saying: “I think the old idea that as soon as you get farming, you get property, and therefore you get control of women as property, I think that idea… is wrong, clearly wrong”. Saini adds: “It’s difficult, then, to pin gender inequality firmly to the emergence of agriculture or property ownership”. But why? The idea is not that women’s oppression arose “in one fatal swoop” but that economic changes in the way that societies met their needs unleashed – in some of them, and with their own dynamic – processes that gave rise to inequalities, exploitation, private property, elites and class differentiation, as well as the city states, empires and warfare that Saini refers to.

Saini criticises Engels’ “ladder of progress, reaching ever upward”. The historical schema he outlines in The Origin of the Family – which should be seen as a product of its time – could be interpreted in that linear way, but that would totally contradict the dialectical materialist method that he and his closest collaborator Karl Marx employed all of their political lives. As Marxists we are in total agreement with Saini when she writes that “civilisational progress didn’t follow a single universal pattern… human societies did not slot into neat models of progress from primitive to advanced. Instead, civilisations could be seen rising and falling over millennia, becoming technological powerhouses and then slipping into dark ages, or surviving with simpler, more sustainable ways for tens of thousands of years”.

It is because the transition from kinship-based, communal, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies to societies divided into different economic classes based on private control of the means of production and gender oppression took place over such a long historical period, and because it took place independently in different parts of the world, or was ‘exported’ to others, that we can see so many variations and ‘transitional’ societies. Saini gives the example of the settlement at Çatalhöyük, in southern Anatolia, where the “lack of gendered patterns in diet, health, and burial” meant it is likely that it “wasn’t rigidly patriarchal. But neither was it noticeably matriarchal”. “There’s no single pattern that appears to define social relations in the Neolithic. Neither male domination nor female domination seem to have been the rule”. (See the discussion on the Çatalhöyük example in Neolithic Communism?, in Socialism Today No.125, February 2009)

Economic and social context

Saini’s dismissal of the relevance of economic and class relations also informs the rest of her book – where she looks at the different ways in which patriarchy/women’s oppression has been expressed and resisted in more recent times – and her, very brief, conclusion about how oppression could be ended.

This is especially evident in the section on the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries. Saini writes that after the 1917 Bolshevik-led Russian revolution, which overthrew capitalism and feudalism, gender relations in the Soviet Union did change, and she lists the achievements for women: the right to vote; civil marriage; divorce made easy; the first country in the world to legalise abortion. However, she adds, “gains in women’s equality were precarious”. In 1936, for example, Stalin made abortion illegal again. “Despite the stereotype of the strong, dominant Soviet woman, widespread misogyny persisted. Conservative attitudes held that women were still responsible for childcare and housework”.

Why was that the case? Saini sees the problem primarily as an ideological and psychological one, divorced from the economic and social context: “What could never be accounted for was that humans don’t start from scratch: we start with what we know, with legacies of tradition, honour, expectation, guilt, belief and bias. There’s only so much we are able to accept in a short space of time”. But the gains that women won from the Russian revolution – not just the right to abortion but state provided communal nurseries, dining rooms, and laundries – were consciously and deliberately rolled back as part of the Stalinist counter-revolution that maintained state control of the economy but destroyed workers’ democracy in the interests of the ruling bureaucratic clique that Stalin represented: a counter-revolution that was rooted in the economic underdevelopment of Russian society and the isolation of the revolution internationally.

Economic and demographic factors played a part in the undermining of the reforms that benefited women, but the patriarchal family inherited from capitalism and feudalism, with its gender inequality and hierarchical structure, also served the interests of the bureaucracy as an instrument of social control, and was consequently reinforced as an economic and social unit.

Of course, ideology is a powerful tool, and ideas can persist long after the material basis for them has disappeared. So even in a genuine, democratic socialist system – in which the family no longer played an economic and social role, in which state institutions, capitalist companies and the media no longer promoted and reinforced gender stereotypes, and in which the profit motive was eliminated and the economic basis for gender equality created – campaigns to change social attitudes on gender, as well as race, sexuality etc, would still be needed initially in order to challenge ideas that had been shaped by the inequality and oppression of capitalist society. But a socialist society would generate the economic and social conditions in which gender oppression could be eliminated, just as the cooperative economic relations in hunter-gatherer societies had their reflection in how people organised their lives and related to each.

Saini is dismissive of “salvation through a classless society”, of Engels’ “promise of return to egalitarianism through revolution”. Her alternative? “If we are ever going to build a truly fair world, everything will need to be unpicked”. “If we are ever to repair the damage caused by centuries of embedded patriarchal power, we can do it only by nurturing our shared humanity – this part of us that manages to love even when there are those seeking to divide and rule”. But it is precisely because ‘patriarchal power’ is so embedded in the structures of capitalist class society that it is completely utopian to believe that this power could be ‘unpicked’ without a revolutionary transformation of society that took economic power out of the hands of the capitalist class and placed it under the democratic control of working-class people.

Saini herself says that in the Soviet Union, “the patriarchy could have been smashed. Instead it was just dented”. Absolutely. Which is why helping to prepare the forces for a revolutionary transformation of crisis-ridden capitalism on a global scale is a central task for anyone serious about ending women’s oppression.

The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule

By Angela Saini

Published by Fourth Estate, 2023, £20

Further reading:

Engels’ Origin of Family Revisited, Socialism Today, September 2014, issue No.181

The Roots of Women’s Oppression, Socialism Today, November 2022, issue No.262

Introducing Marxism: How Can Women’s Oppression Be Ended, Socialism Today, December-January 2022-2023, issue No.263

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October 2023