January 18, 2017
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Many people assume the patriarchy has always been there, but how did it really originate? History shows us that there can be another way.
The patriarchy, having been somewhat in retreat in parts of the world, is back in our faces. In Afghanistan, the Taliban once again prowl the streets more concerned with keeping women at home and in strict dress code than with the impending collapse of the country into famine.
And on another continent, parts of the U.S. are legislating to ensure that women can no longer have a legal abortion. In both cases, lurking patriarchal beliefs were allowed to reemerge when political leadership failed. We have an eerie feeling of travelling back through time. But how long has patriarchy dominated our societies?
The status of women has been a long-standing point of interest in anthropology. Contrary to common belief, research shows that the patriarchy isn’t some kind of “natural order of things” – it hasn’t always been prevalent and may in fact disappear eventually. Hunter-gatherer communities may have been relatively egalitarian, at least compared to some of the regimes that followed. And female leaders and matriarchal societies have always existed.
Reproduction is the currency of evolution. But it is not only our bodies and brains that evolve – our behaviours and our cultures are also products of natural selection. To maximise their own reproductive success, for example, men have often tried to control women, and their sexuality.
In nomadic societies where there is little or no material wealth, as was the case with most hunter gatherers, a woman cannot easily be forced to stay in a partnership. She and her partner may move around together with her relatives, his relatives, or other people entirely. If unhappy, she can walk away.
That could be at a cost if she has children, as paternal care helps children’s development and even survival, but she can go and live with relatives elsewhere or find a new partner without necessarily being worse off.
The origin of agriculture, as early as 12,000 years ago in some areas, changed the game. Even relatively simple horticulture necessitated defending crops, and thus staying put. Settlement increased conflict within and between groups. For example, the Yanomamo horticulturalists in Venezuela lived in heavily fortified group households, with violent raids on neighbouring groups and “bride capture” being part of life.
Where cattle-keeping evolved, the local population had to defend herds of livestock from raiding, leading to high levels of warfare. As women weren’t as successful as men in combat, being physically weaker, this role fell increasingly to men, helping them gain power and leaving them in charge of the resources they were defending.
As population sizes grew and settled, there were coordination problems. Social inequality sometimes emerged if leaders (usually male) provided some benefits to the population, perhaps in warfare or serving the public good in some other way. The general population, both male and female, therefore often tolerated these elites in return for help hanging on to what they had.
As farming and herding became more intensive, material wealth, now mainly controlled by men, became ever more important. Rules of kinship and descent systems became more formalised to prevent conflict within families over wealth, and marriages became more contractual. The transmission of land or livestock down the generations allowed some families to gain substantial wealth.
FEMEN activist prepares to crucify herself in front of Sofia Kievska Church to protest against anti-ukrainian politics of Moscow Patriarchy
Wealth generated by farming and herding enabled polygyny (men having multiple wives). In contrast, women having many husbands (polyandry) was rare. In most systems, young women were the resource in demand, because they had a shorter window of being able to produce children and usually did more parental care.
Men used their wealth to attract young women to the resources on offer. Men competed by paying “bridewealth” to the family of the bride, with the result that rich men could end up with many wives while some poor men ended up single.
So, it was males who needed that wealth to compete for marriage partners (whereas females acquired resources needed to reproduce through their husband). If parents wanted to maximise their number of grandchildren, it made sense for them to give their wealth to their sons rather than their daughters.
This led to wealth and property being formally passed down the male line. It also meant women often ended up living far away from home with their husband’s family after marriage.
Women began to lose agency. If land, livestock and children are the property of the men, then divorce is almost impossible for women. A daughter returning to mum and dad would be unwelcome as the brideprice would need to be returned. The patriarchy was now getting a firm grip.
When individuals disperse away from their natal home and live with their new husband’s family, they do not have as much bargaining power within their new household than if they had stayed in their natal home. Some mathematical models suggest that female dispersal combined with a history of warfare favored men being treated better than women.
Men had the opportunity to compete for resources with unrelated men through warfare, whereas women only competed with other women in the household. For these two reasons, both men and women reaped greater evolutionary benefits by being more altruistic towards men than towards women, leading to the emergence of “boys’ clubs”. Essentially, women were playing along with the gender bias against themselves.
In some farming systems, women may have had more autonomy. Where there were limits on the availability of farmland, this may have put the brakes on polygyny, as men couldn’t afford multiple families. If farming was hard and productivity was determined more by the work put in than by how much land was owned, then women’s labour became a key requirement and couples worked together in monogamous unions.
Under monogamy, if a woman marries a rich man, all his wealth goes to her offspring. So, women then compete with other women for the best husbands. This is not true of polygyny, where the family wealth is shared between numerous other wives' offspring, so the advantages to women of marrying a rich man are marginal.
Thus, marriage payment under monogamy is in the opposite direction than it is under polygyny and takes the form of “dowry”. The parents of the bride give money to the parents of the groom, or to the couple themselves.
Dowry, which is still important in much of Asia today, is the parents’ way of helping their daughters compete with other women on the marriage market. Dowry can sometimes give women more agency and control over at least part of their family wealth.
But there is a sting in the tail. Dowry inflation can make girls expensive for parents, sometimes with dire consequences, such as families which already have daughters killing or neglecting female babies (or now female-selective abortion).
There were other consequences of monogamy too. As wealth was still passed down the male line to children of one wife, males did all they could to ensure that those children were theirs. They did not want to unwittingly invest their wealth in the offspring of another man. So, women’s sexuality became strongly policed as a result.
Keeping women away from men (purdah) or placing them in religious “cloisters” such as monasteries (claustration) in India, or 2,000 years of binding women’s feet to keep them small in China, may all be the results of this. And in the current context, banning abortion makes sexual relationships potentially costly, trapping people in marriages and hindering women’s career prospects.
It is relatively rare for wealth to be passed down the female line, but such societies do exist. These female-centred systems tend to be in somewhat marginal environments where there is little wealth to physically compete over.
For example, there are areas in Africa known as the “matrilineal belt” where the tetse fly made it impossible to keep cattle. In some of these matrilineal systems in Africa, men remain a powerful force in households, but it is older brothers and uncles who try to control women rather than husbands or fathers. But in general, women do have more power.
Societies with an absence of males for much of the time, due to long distance travel or high mortality risks, for example due to dangerous ocean fishing in Polynesia, or warfare in some Native American communities, have also been associated with matriliny.
Women in matriarchal system often draw on the support of their mothers and siblings, rather than their husbands, to help raise children. Such “communal breeding” by women, as seen for example in some matrilineal groups in China, makes men less interested (in an evolutionary sense) in investing in the household, as the households include not only their wife’s children, but many other women’s children to whom they aren’t related.
This weakens marriage bonds and makes it easier to pass down wealth between female relatives. Women are also less controlled sexually in such societies as paternity certainty is less of a concern if women control the wealth and pass it to their daughters.
In matrilineal societies, both men and women can mate polygamously. The matrilineal Himba of southern Africa have some of the highest rates of babies produced in this way.
Even in urban settings today, high male unemployment often sets up more female-centred living arrangements, with mothers helping daughters to raise their children and grandchildren, but frequently in relative poverty.
But the introduction of material wealth, which can be controlled by men, has often pushed matrilineal systems to change to patrilineal ones.
Himba's tribe women in ceremony, Namibe, Angola
The view of patriarchy I have outlined here may appear to downplay the role of religion. Religions are frequently prescriptive about sex and the family. For example, polygynous marriage is accepted in Islam and not in Christianity. But the origins of diverse cultural systems around the world cannot simply be explained by religion.
Islam arose in the year AD610 in a part of the world (the Arabian peninsula) then inhabited by nomadic pastoralist groups where polygamous marriage was common, whereas Christianity emerged within the Roman empire where monogamous marriage was already the norm. So while religious institutions definitely help to enforce such rules, it is hard to make the case that religions were the original cause.
Ultimately, the cultural inheritance of religious norms, or indeed of any norms, can maintain harsh social prejudices long after their original cause is gone.
What is clear is that norms, attitudes and culture have a huge effect on behavior. They can and do change over time, especially if the underlying ecology or economy changes. But some norms become entrenched over time and are therefore slow to change.
As recently as the 1970s, children of unmarried mothers in the UK were taken from them and shipped to Australia (where they were placed in religious institutions or put up for adoption). Recent research also shows how disrespect for women’s authority is still rampant in European and American societies that pride themselves in gender equality.
That said, it is clear that gender norms are becoming much more flexible, and the patriarchy is unpopular with many men and women in much of the world. Many are questioning the very institution of marriage.
The patriarchy isn’t inevitable.
Birth control and reproductive rights for women give women, and also men, more freedom. While polygamous marriage is now rare, polygamous mating is of course quite common, and is perceived as a threat by incels and social conservatives alike.
What’s more, men increasingly want to be part of their children’s lives and appreciate not having to do the lion’s share of providing for their families. Many are therefore sharing or even taking on the full weight of child-rearing and housework. Simultaneously we see more women confidently gaining positions of power in the world of work.
As men and women both increasingly generate their own wealth, the old patriarchy is finding it harder to control women. The logic of male-biased investment by parents is gravely injured if girls benefit equally from formal education and job opportunities are open to all.
The future is hard to predict. Anthropology and history do not progress in predictable, linear ways. Wars, famines, epidemics or innovations are always lurking and have predictable and unpredictable consequences for our lives.
The patriarchy isn’t inevitable. We do need institutions to help us solve the world’s problems. But if the wrong people come to power, the patriarchy can regenerate.
*Ruth Mace is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at UCL, and has a visiting position at Institute of Advanced Study in Toulouse (IAST). This article appeared in The Conversation and is republished here under Creative Commons licensing.
Many people assume the patriarchy has always been there, but how did it really originate? History shows us that there can be another way.
Society sees friendships as far less important than love and life partnerships. But psychologists warn that the end of a close friendship can leave the "grieving" side in need of therapy.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.