Patriarchy is a system of social organization that institutionalizes male power over women and puts male interests and values at the center of social life. Rather than a single factor, patriarchy is made up of a number of interrelated institutions and ideologies that have a pervasive effect at multiple levels of social organization. Since patriarchy is a social system, all men do not participate in or experience patriarchy in the same way. Although patriarchy is one of the most fundamental realities of contemporary social life, it is so pervasive that it is naturalized and often invisible. The concept of patriarchy has three primary meanings. First, patriarchy is a form of social organization in which the father is the head of the family. Second, patriarchy describes the cultures and social institutions that are organized around male leadership. Third, patriarchy also refers to the principles and philosophies upon which male power is based.
Patriarchy is relevant to interpersonal violence because it influences a variety of factors from the motives for violence to cultural and individual responses to it. Patriarchy is a multilayered, multifac-eted social structure that extends across all levels of the social ecology, from personal beliefs and behavior to interpersonal relationships, family organization, community norms, and cultural ideals. Patriarchy takes different forms over time and in different locations. These changes have implications for shifting patterns of violence within individual relationships and communities.
Familial patriarchy is perhaps the most well known. Patriarchal families are organized around a male head of household. In patriarchal families, men have more power and authority than women. Their influence may include control over decisions made within the family, the allocation of resources, household duties, and marriage and childrearing practices. Although patriarchy refers literally to the rule of the father, patriarchal authority extends to other males in the household.
Patriarchal families are often patrilineal, meaning that the family line descends through the man’s side. In patrilineal families, money, class status, property, and wives and children may be passed from male relative to male relative, with women and girls excluded from inheritance rights or allowed to inherit only in the absence of male heirs. Patrilinearity is also visible in the custom of women taking their husband’s name upon marriage. The family name descends through the men, while the women are incorporated under the husband’s family identity. Even when women retain their own names upon marriage, the children often assume the father’s last name.
The multiple forms of social organization linked to patriarchy institutionalize male power over women and contribute to women’s oppression. Familial patriarchy has been linked to men’s abuse of women in research on violence in married, unmarried, divorced, and separated couples. Patriarchy in the family is also related to violence by male relatives against female relatives, such as in acid attacks, dowry related violence, and so-called honor killings. These forms of violence use women to negotiate men’s status relative to one another. In this sense, women are instrumental to men’s relationships with one another rather than valued as distinct entities with the same rights and freedoms as men.
Familial patriarchy both provides a model for and reflects broader patriarchal structures. In societies organized around patriarchal families, it may seem natural that social institutions and organizations are also headed by men. Likewise, in a culture where social institutions such as religion, education, government, and business are run by men, it may seem natural for men to run the household. The pervasiveness of patriarchy contributes to the appearance of its immutability and naturalness.
Social institutions like the law, courts, government, and media are dominated by men in most places throughout the world. This domination has multiple implications for interpersonal violence. Some forms of violence are not considered illegal because of the presumption of men’s patriarchal authority over women in the family. For example, wife battering and marital rape have not always been illegal in the United States and are still condoned in many countries. Even where these forms of violence are considered crimes, they are often not as aggressively prosecuted as other crimes. Men’s crimes against women they know may be subject to higher standards of proof and scrutiny compared with other offenses. The male prerogative to control what happens in the family often extends to child sexual and physical abuse as well. Historically, violence by men in the family was considered a private issue that was not subject to outside intervention due to the man’s position as guardian of the wife and children. Therefore, men’s violence against family members was seen as appropriate or necessary to his role as leader and disciplinarian of the family. In that context, a man’s violence against his own family was not considered a crime or even violence.
The patriarchal organization of society exists on the most abstract levels of culture as well as in the most intimate and internalized aspects of individual behavior and identity. Patriarchy is linked to polarized gender roles that mandate very different and distinct behavior for women and men. Rigid gender roles are enforced in a number of ways in patriarchal cultures, including by the use of violence and the threat of violence. Women are not the only ones at risk for this violence. Patriarchal gender norms contribute to hate crimes such as gay bashing and violence against men by males who feel that their masculinity has been called into question, just as they contribute to rape and femicide. Men perform their gender to demonstrate their place in patriarchal hierarchies that rank men relative to one another as well as in relation to women.
Not all men experience patriarchy in the same way. Racism, class discrimination, and homophobia all shape men’s status and experiences within particular patriarchal cultures. These intersecting oppressions affect the privileges men are able to gain from patriarchy in a particular time and place. Expectations for the performance of gender vary over time as well as from culture to culture. However, research has identified men’s desire to perform masculinity and defend it against threats of inadequacy as a significant factor contributing to male violence in a variety of contexts. Patriarchy can create conflict among men as well as between men and women. As men jockey for position at the top of patriarchal hierarchies, some men use violence to offset the shame they feel at not being in a dominant position. Although patriarchy literally refers to the rule of the father, it also applies to men’s interactions with other men who are not family members.
Theories of patriarchy explain why and how families and other social institutions are organized around male supremacy. There are theories that justify this arrangement, theories that challenge it, and theories that attempt to clarify how patriarchy came to exist. Each of these theories applies to multiple layers of social interaction: personal beliefs and ways of understanding the world, expectations for interactions with others, ways of behaving in interpersonal relationships, and ways of thinking about these things in relation to the larger society.
Patriarchy has both psychological and material components. For example, patriarchy shapes the distribution of resources through concepts like the family wage that guarantees men higher wages for work than women, since it is presumed that they are supporting a family. Patriarchy also shapes the way we think about ourselves and others through factors such as conventions of language use, observation of the media, and our personal experiences. The combination of psychological and material aspects of patriarchy contributes to its tenacity. Changes in material culture and social institutions may be resisted because patriarchal values and beliefs are internalized by women and men. At the same time, material concerns may outweigh psychological factors when it comes to people’s individual decisions about how to act.
As an organizing principle behind gendered identity and institutions, patriarchy is a key concept for thinking about human behavior. An understanding of the concept of patriarchy is essential to the study of interpersonal violence because, along with other factors, it shapes human behavior, including violence at all levels of the social ecology. This understanding should include awareness that patriarchy is not a single factor; rather, it is a principle of social organization that has a pervasive influence on human violence over time and in multiple geographic locations. This influence is present in the most personal internalized identities and gender performance to the most impersonal and structured institutions that organize social life.
Battered Women’s Movement; Feminist Movements to End Violence Against Women; Misogyny; Sex Discrimination
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