Patriarchy: Then and Now

Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 2 Michaelmas 2002

The magazine of

Women's Union

Partriarchy: then and now

Miranda Semple

Patriarchy is generally viewed as a social construction that is inevitably oppressive and yet,
contemporary western culture is still actively engaged in the reproduction of a patriarchal
society. Why this should be the case is something of a conundrum, given the development of
feminist thought in the past 30 years. Commonly described as developing in three “waves”,
feminist theory has progressed from situating women in history, to defining subjugation and
more recently to examine how sex and gender are culturally constructed. This brief review is
not comprehensive but rather a broad outline some of the significant issues in feminist
thought that drove academic research and social action.

It should be noted at the outset that there is overlap and intersection in many areas of
feminist studies throughout these waves suggesting that articulation of the primary areas of
concern are fluid and historically contingent. For example, Bahrani (Women of Babylon,
2001) discusses the first wave feminist scholarship as emerging from the politics of the 1960s
(actually a continuation of the suffragette movement) and concerned with finding women within
the historical record. The second wave is identified as beginning in late 1970s and expands
the question of women to encompass gender construction. The third wave takes hold in the
mid-1980s, continuing to theorize sex and gender within a framework of difference. By
focussing on the issues of equality and difference, biological sex and gender, all central in
feminist thought a certain unity is maintained.

The so-called first wave, initiated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (although A
Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft was published in 1792) actively
sought to establish women’s rights to citizenship. The establishment of equality for women, to
protection under the law, right to own property, right to divorce, and of course, the
mandatory right to vote drove activism. The question of rights was paramount in the early
stages and to legitimate women as actors was to demand legal status. It was argued that women
were rational, reasonable and able to make decisions. However, women were an undifferentiated
group (citizens) functioning within a social structure (patriarchy) that was essential and
timeless. Patriarchy then was universal, the normative construction within which people
organized their lives.


Patriarch Magazine – not a figment of our sleep-deprived brains, but a real
entitity. See

During the 1960s, an active re-assessment of women’s political rights expanded feminist
thought to consider the domestic sphere, sexuality and careers. Within the academy feminist
scholarship was to be legitimated by writing women’s history. Theoretically, the result was
to provide equal access for women in the public domain in the past and the present.
Women were everywhere historically present but perceived as passive and/or mute. The intent
was to make visible and give voices to women validating claims of women as historical actors
within a history previously written for and by men. Western-centric values and social norms
were evaluated in light of a history of patriarchy, linking the earliest societies to the
present. In this way women were established within a historical context that progressed and
merged seamlessly into contemporary western society. Works such as Lerner’s the Creation of
Patriarchy (1984) (begun within the second wave) historically located patriarchy in early
societies of the Near East and recorded how women were socially and legally segregated in the
domestic sphere. By emphasizing the divisions of public and private domains and the
male/female, nature/culture binaries, it is obvious how women were generally viewed as

Retrospectively, it seems incredible that historically women were universalised. While an
important first, the issue was problematic, as social construction was not being
revised. This was just a fitting in of women within the well-established androcentric
institutions, a piecemeal effort, grafted onto long established practices and
perceptions. After all, it continued to be self-evident that women were naturally situated
within domestic space. It was implicit that reproduction, household organization, and the
creation of a nurturing environment were really, essentially female activities. The
re-writing of history was to provide space for women that was previously
inaccessible. However, that space was marginal, masculine hegemony prevailed.

The second wave was to question why and how women were subordinated, leading to an
examination of the history of patriarchy. As patriarchy was viewed as universal and found in
many past societies it had been imposed upon history and, in retrospect, resulted in forcing
contemporary perceptions onto a distant past. In response to this overwhelming naturalized
construction matriarchy, a utopian pre-patriarchal society, was theorized producing another
binary opposition. Goddess figurines were the only evidence for this mythic society that
existed in harmony with nature. The patriarchal/matriarchal opposition was as unsatisfactory
as was biological sex to define gender. Perhaps more alarmingly, as noted by Bahrani (2001),
was a return to the early 19th century studies wherein, “matriarchy was defined as the most
primitive stage of cultural evolution to be replaced by the more enlightened and cultured rule
of men” (Bahrani 2001:17). Yet again, the development of feminist thought was being neatly
categorized within a patriarchal construction.

The resulting binary oppositions of a predetermined biological or natural behaviour of
male/female that emerged were to be the basis for a continuing critique. The perception of
what was natural was challenged allowing the separation of sex and gender. With this
separation, gender became the issue resulting in a new category of analysis. The notion that
sex and gender did not have to be examined from a series of standard oppositions of
male/female, mind/body or public/private etc. was to become a central issue in third wave

The term “third wave feminist” was coined in 1991 by Rebecca Walker (in Ms magazine) to
emphasize that there was no specific position, identity or set of behaviours, or beliefs that
defined feminism. Walker concluded that popular notions of what a feminist was did not fit
the lives of all the women who believed in political, economic, and social equality of the
sexes. Oppression, patriarchy, sexuality as employed by white, middle-class feminist were
challenged by a postmodernist approach informed by postructuralism and deconstruction
(Baharani,19). Third wave feminism was questioning the value of knowledge claims, and
acknowledging that knowledge itself was a social construction. Gender itself was
problematized. As a universal construction, it was broken down, opening the way for a
critique that examines power relations.

Even the “subject of feminism” was challenged, that subject being female, white and middle
class. The question was, what of the “other”? Being anything but white and middle class. It
is at this point that the monolithic construct of what was meant by “women”, rapidly
fragmented; the experience of women of colour, of the postcolonial experience, all the
“other” others were uncovered and recognized. Even though patriarchy was still being actively
constructed, it was no longer clear-cut and unproblematic, “it is not simply a power relation
between men and women, but between people and social orders involving the political, cultural
and religious, and … all other ideological apparatuses.” (Bahrani 1990:18).

The second key reformulation was of the sex/gender distinction as nature/culture
binaries. Just as gender was socially constructed so was sex, “there is no distinction to be
made between socially constructed gender and biological sex, since the morphology of sexual
distinction is in itself already a social construct (Bahrani 1990:20) . Judith Butler’s
Gender Trouble (1990) is the classic work on the collapse of the division of
gender/sex. Butler examines the reality of gender, that which has been understood as the
naturalized knowledge of gender, finding it to be a changeable and revisable reality. She
explores the performative aspects of gender arguing that it is a process that is continuously
repeated in day-to-day life. Both Bahrani and Butler explore the potential for variation in
gender and sex finding identity and meaning as contingent, unfixed. This paradigm shift in
feminist theory experienced early in the third wave continues to enlarge the inquiry examining
the physical and verbal that constructs sex, gender and difference.

To return to patriarchy, is it even an issue in contemporary third wave feminism? Certainly,
it was inextricably linked to oppression in the second wave, however, does the linkage and
subsequent association with the now discredited privileged identity of the white, middle-class
feminist relegate it to the status of a non-issue? This is unlikely. Patriarchy has simply
been problematized within a new set of relations – those of power. Patriarchy continues to be
the dominant voice structuring relations between people and social order; it is the process of
exercising power. As such, patriarchy informs all positions taken collectively or
individually, whether the debate centers on equality and difference or sex and gender.



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