Understanding Patriarchy

By Julia Stonehouse

We will never defeat patriarchy until we understand where it came from. Much feminist theory derives from the ideas of Frederick Engels who in 1884 attributed patriarchy to the growth of city states and development of private property. But that’s pure speculation. Biological theories include the notion that men are thugs and bullies (which is sexist) and women were nincompoops to put up with them (which is also sexist). Now, the focus is on evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, and primatology – the study of monkeys with whom we last had a common ancestor 5-13 million years ago.

I think they’re all clutching at straws.   

Meanwhile, feminist theory overlooks what men actually said, repeatedly, for thousands of years to justify their superiority: there is no ‘mother.’ Obviously women carry children within them, as ovens cook buns, but where did the buns come from in the first place? And the answer, according to patriarchy, is they come exclusively from the testicles of men – making men the sole parents, the patriarchs.

It was entirely logical to think in terms of a single human seed. Nobody squishes two plant seeds together before putting them in the ground. Just one single seed, put in the soil, grows into a plant laden with the seeds of future generations. Nobody was looking for 2 human seeds.

The idea that men are the source of life not only led directly and inevitably to the characteristic features of patriarchy, it became the mortar that held the tower of patriarchy in place:

Homunculus. Nicolaus Hartsoeker 1694.jpg
  1. Men are superior because they alone are the source of life.

  2. Men must have sons to continue their ancestral seed line; girls are an evolutionary dead-end.

  3. Property inheritance goes the same way as biological inheritance – along the male line.

  4. Women have no sexual rights because they do not reproduce.

  5. Female chastity is paramount because a baby is either 100% one man’s or 100% some other man’s; it’s 0% the woman’s.

  6. Men, the source of human seed, must control their means of reproduction – women.

  7. Because men are the source of the creative seed, men are creative; women are not.

  8. Because men have been chosen by “nature” (i.e. God) to carry the seed of human life – a small reflection of the infinite creativity of God – men are aligned with spirituality; women are not.

  9. Because children are the grown seed of men, men have authority and control over them.

It took 19th century embryologists 76 years to establish the facts of two seeds and fusion, arriving at a solid theory in 1900. But they’d experimented on frogs, sea urchins, etc., and in 1900 there were plenty of men who refused to believe they had anything in common with slimy pond life. Plus men enjoyed the superiority the incorrect male-seed ‘facts’ of life gave them. And they kept so quiet about the new discoveries that even today few people can name the heroes who liberated women from incubator status.

While we’re ignorant about having been denied parentage, less educated people are still living in the past as far as the facts of life are concerned. In vast areas of the world people think in terms of “seed and soil” – the man plants his seed in the female soil. Even when people know about sperm, that scientific knowledge can blend seamlessly into older, traditional, notions of conception as Marcia C. Inhorn describes:

“If men’s sperm, or ‘worms’, ‘carry the kids,’ as Egyptians are apt to put it, then women’s wombs are viewed as mere receptacles, or vessels, for men’s omnipotent substantive input” … “men’s patriarchal power, on both a general societal and familial level, is viewed by most members of the Egyptian urban underclass as only ‘natural,’ given that men – not women – are seen as procreators, the makers of foetuses.” (Infertility and Patriarchy, 1996, p.242 and 22)

Although ignorance about the facts of life is widespread, not all of it is patriarchal. In the Trobriand Islands they don’t think men have anything whatever to do with conception or reproduction, and female sexuality is admired and not controlled. And the point is this: the facts of life were extremely difficult to establish, and there have been many theories – which nobody could prove, and over which there have been many battles.

In our global village, we need to understand where people are coming from in terms of their ‘facts’ of life. To them, patriarchy may be logical, even if to us it’s not. Education about the facts of life is the key to unlocking deep seated patriarchal attitudes.

We ourselves need to look back over our shoulders and see patriarchy for what it was – the biggest mistake of our collective lives. Of course, the legacy is still with us and we must fight it all the way, but the mortar that held the tower of patriarchy in place is crumbling. The logic of patriarchy has gone so the tower will fall eventually, but it will fall a lot quicker if we recognize the ignorance that held the whole vile edifice in place.