What is Patriarchy?

by Malise Rosbech

Part of our Patriarchy 2013 series: A brief encounter with the birth, life & death of patriarchy

First published: 30 September, 2013 | Category: Gender equality, History, Inequality, Philosophy and Theory

It is perhaps one of the most used terms in feminist discourse, but the concept of patriarchy has a history that we need to address. Not only has it got the potential of excluding and discriminating against other groups of people, it is also sometimes reactionary and anti-feminist. Feminism should abandon the concept of patriarchy and instead look towards the future of an intersectional feminism.

Patriarchy was taken up by Max Weber in order to describe a form of household organization in which the father dominated an extended network of kinship and controlled the production of the household. While patriarchy literally means ‘the rule of the father/-s’, its resonance for feminism is based on the theory put forward by early radical feminists to conceptualise an general category of male dominance. Kate Millett was in her work Sexual politics one of the first to provide a theoretical understanding of patriarchy as 'the rule of men'. That is, patriarchy should be understood as a universal power relationship that is all-pervasive, penetrating other forms of social divisions, different societies and different historical epochs. It is therefore the primary oppression: patriarchy is, for example, ‘more rigorous than class stratification, more uniform, certainly more enduring.’ That patriarchal structures might vary is less significant than the fact that it actually exists cross-culturally.

According to this understanding of patriarchy women are always, in some way or other, oppressed, exploited and/or dominated by men and the concept of class in relation to the oppression of women is transitory and illusory: ‘whatever the class of her birth and education, the female has fewer permanent class associations than does the male. Economic dependency renders her affiliations with any class a tangential, vicarious and temporary matter.’ This would seem to imply that the concept of class can only be applied to men. Millett puts forward a theory of a fundamental system of domination that is independent of the historical and any socio-economic relations.

Radical feminist Shulamith Firestone’s concept of patriarchy is perhaps not that far from the one put forward by Millett insofar as it gives patriarchy analytical independence and primacy. For Firestone, however, the hierarchical relation between the sexes is rooted in biological sex, hence her theoretical aim is ‘to take the class analysis one step further to its roots in the biological division of the sexes.’ Although Firestone argues for the need to revolutionise reproductive technology and thereby free women from childbearing, the account of how women are biological ‘burdened’ itself falls into biologistic assumptions.

In these early conceptions of patriarchy we find two main issues. Firstly, as they invoke a certain universal and trans-historical idea of male dominance over and above socio-historic context as a form of ‘truth’, it leaves us with little hope for change and further analytic study. As Michele Barrett points out, the concept of patriarchy ‘invoke[s] a generality of male domination without being able to specify historical limits, changes or differences' and even ‘without a case being made as to why and how men acquired this control’. Secondly, this universal dominance is often grounded in ‘biological facts’ thereby naturalising this form of oppression. This understanding of patriarchy is still dominant today or has at least paved the way for the modern uncritical use of the concept of patriarchy by which we acknowledge the oppression of women by men, but we fail to ask why or how men gained and maintain this control over women.

The biological argument can be challenged in many ways, but the broadest critique is that it is a philosophically illegitimate and illogical move to subsume and reduce various complex socially and historically constructed phenomena under one category of biological difference. This reductionism often assumes that behavioural differences are caused by the biological differences we can observe. Even if it happened to be true that women ‘generally’ were better at certain 'female tasks', we should not forget the intersection of culture and biology; that women and men generally are raised to excel at different tasks and less at others.

Although it is important to locate the question of biological difference in a feminist analysis, for example of childbearing, the fallback into biological reductionism is a dangerous one. The (in)-famous feminist distinction between sex as a biological given and gender as the imposed social construction upon it, has not only led to the emphasis of a causal role of procreative biology and gender attributes, and the reassertion of separate spheres for men and women, but also trans* exclusion in feminist discourse. Trans women are excluded because taking sex difference as a biological given means radical feminists think that only women born with the requisite female sexual reproductive organs can be classed as women. The radical feminist conception of patriarchy, then, can contribute to a feminism which excludes and discriminates.

Christine Delphy and others attempted to develop a materialist analysis of women’s oppression, that is, understanding the ‘woman question’ in relation to human production. Delphy argues that women are a class, which should be understood in relation to the institution of marriage. Marriage, according to Delphy, is a form of labour contract in which the husband appropriates the unpaid labour from his wife and this constitutes what Delphy calls ‘the domestic mode of production’. The problem is here that patriarchy gains analytic independence and we get the impression that patriarchal relations can be studied without historical and sociocultural context. Again, the concept of patriarchy is invoked as a trans-historical and universal and it not able to specify historical limits, differences or changes.

Patriarchy has more recently undergone a welcomed reconceptualisation. Rosemary Hennesy, for example, describes patriarchy as a system by which more social resources ‘accrue to men as a group at the expense of women as a group’ but that patriarchy is a ‘variable and historical social totality in that its particular forms for organizing social relations, such as work, citizenship, reproduction, ownership, pleasure, and identity, have had a persistent effect on heterogendered structures in dominance at the same time these structures vary and are sites of social struggle.’ She even differs between bourgeois, postmodern and public patriarchy.

Now, this conception allows more room for understanding the historical and cultural context. What is important to notice in this conceptualisation, is that patriarchy becomes differential. That is, when patriarchy is variable in a context, it can be theorised how it works in concert with for example a racial system of white supremacy or the class system. This could for example mean that we could understand how some men have more patriarchal powers than others, and that not all men equally benefit from patriarchy. In this way patriarchy is only one out of many forms of oppression and it should always be understood and theorised in conjunction with other oppressive structures.

Yet, the issue here is that it never loses its universality of oppression; although it is a variable, the bottomline is that men dominate women. According to this understanding of patriarchy we would only be able to theorise how some men are ‘lesser patriarchs’ than other men, but never how a woman can inhabit the role of the patriarchal oppressor. In reality this understanding of patriarchy doesn’t take us much further than the Radical Feminist sex/gender distinction inasmuch as it does not fully theorise how cis-women (women whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth) can and do participate in the oppression of other women and minorities. The latest example is the exclusion of trans*-women from the Radical Feminist meetings.

There are, of course, other approaches to the understanding of patriarchy, some which work to view the oppression and domination of women within a larger social structural framework. Marxist feminists, for example argue that both the subordination of women and the division of classes developed historically at the same time as private property. Friedrich Engels argued that with the emergence of private property, woman's work sank to insignificance compared to the man’s ‘productive’ labour and women’s social position subjugated: ‘The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex’. Bourgeois families which owned private property, emerged as patriarchal families as men ensured their property was passed on to their sons only. Both the bourgeois family and private property were by-products of capitalism which subordinated and oppressed women.

Unlike the radical feminists, marxist feminists argue that class exploitation is the base of sexual oppression, and that women’s emancipation requires a social revolution overthrowing capitalism. Marxist feminists tend to argue that it is not women’s biology but private property, monogamy, marriage, political and economic domination by men and their control over sexuality, which has led to patriarchy. The oppression of women is here situated within a broader context, and we can perhaps through the inherent intersection of class and female domination, theorise how women can participate in structural oppression. For instance, upper- and middle-class women can oppress working-class women through class domination. It is clear here that patriarchy intersects with other forms of oppression, however, it still fails to fully incorporate an even more complex international form of structural and hierarchical oppression. Moreover, marxist feminism has tended to be sex/gender-blind and ‘race’-blind, focusing on the overthrow of capitalism, and thus can be oppressive in itself.

‘Kyriarchy’ is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza to denote interconnected oppressing systems in which a person or a group of people might be dominated or oppressed in some relationships but privileged in others. Kyriarchy is the intersectional extension of the concept of patriarchy, but one that does not rely on the inherent dualism of the sex/gender distinction. Kyriarchy encompasses sexism, racism, homophobia, trans*phobia, classism, ableism, cissexism and other forms of hierarchical structures that has been institutionalised or/and internalised. The currently very popular term ‘intersectionality’ is the study of these intersections of oppression and domination.

There are at least two very important contributions the concept of intersectionality brings to the feminist discourse and struggle. Firstly, that all forms of oppression should be challenged and fought against. This is of course a much more inclusive concept than patriarchy, recognising the wider struggle against all domination. Secondly, that experiences of domination differ and overlaps. That is to say that one form of oppression cannot be separated from another, for example, sexism can be racialized and racism sexualised. You can therefore not say that a black woman experiences racism as something separate from sexism. The sexism that black women face is often shaped by their gender. Although both black and white women, abled and disabled women, middle class and working class women experience sexism, it is significantly different in form. The concept of patriarchy can be conflated to ‘sexism’, however feminism is not just about sexism; women as a group are not solely oppressed on the axis of sex.

This of course is where the three words 'check your privilege' come into the picture. While intersectionality is the study of intersections, ‘check your privilege’ is an everyday statement that can remind individuals of any structural social advantages they might have by position, birth or other, such as being a man, white, cis or wealthy. ‘Check your privilege’ is just a reminder of how privilege might have affected what you have said or done. The purpose and measure of kyriarchy and intersectional studies is to understand the power and tendencies to silence, oppress and minimize others.

An example of the way in which the intersectional nature of kyriarchy is often ignored in feminist circles can be found in the struggle for abortion and contraception in the 1960s. As these campaigns were mostly led by white middle-class women, they ignored the fact that many black and working-class women were subject to forced sterilization programmes all over the world. This is still a major problem particularly in developing countries, with women in, for example, India or Sri Lanka forced either by bribery or threats to have hormonal contraception inserted or to be sterilised, often with fatal consequences due to unhygienic or unprofessional surroundings.

Intersectionality has its pitfalls too, about which we should be aware. Centered around the category of identity, kyriarchy has the potential of fragmenting more than including, if it is held with the belief that only each identity category of oppressed people themselves are the only effective organisers against their oppression. However, there is no inherent theoretical connection between intersectionality and separatism. It is one form it can take out of many. It could also be confused with the idea that more privileged people should ‘just be nicer’ to the not-so-privileged people. We need to be clear that this is a wider struggle against institutionalised structures that keep these different forms of oppression in place.

The ‘woman’s struggle’ is not a separate issue from these other struggles and it cannot be fought solely on its own grounds. Individual ‘liberation’ is often pursued at the expense of others, and this has happened too many times in feminism and its struggle against ‘patriarchy’. In contrast to an analysis of patriarchy, an intersectional analysis does not centralise one form of oppression at the expense of another. In fact, it takes as its standpoint that these institutions and structures operate to produce and reproduce each other. In fact, they are one and the same thing. At best, social relations can be picked apart for the purposes of philosophical analysis, however one form of oppressive structure cannot be declared more central than the others. Feminism needs to declare patriarchy dead, and move on to an inclusive and broader struggle against all forms of oppression and domination; we need to call for unity. After all, what is ‘liberation’ good for if some are left behind?


Malise Rosbech is a feminist philosophy-postgrad, freelance writer and campaigner specialising in materialist feminism.



Barrett, Michele. Women’s Oppression Today: Problems in Marxist Feminist Analysis, London: Verso, 1986

Delphy, Christine & Leonard, Diana. Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992,

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State. London: Penguin, 2010

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex, London, The Women’s Press, 1972.

Hennessy, Rosemary. Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. New York/London: Routledge.

Millet, Kate. Sexual Politics, London: Shere, 1971.


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