& Human Rights
& Gender Equality
In this article, we discuss patriarchy and feminism in the broader context of human hierarchies and human rights.
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word” (Emily Dickinson).
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” (George Orwell).
What’s in A Word?
Words and phrases have intrinsic power. In a world where communication is critical, in most cases, this is tremendously helpful.
In some cases, it isn’t. Some words and phrases are harmful, even blatantly hurtful. Others start well but over time take on a life and form of their own. Despite remaining correct and valid, the mere mention of them might provoke reaction, making constructive discussion untenable. This happens when opposing camps use such terms to either trumpet their agenda or beat their opponent.
Two such examples are the subject of this article: the patriarchal hierarchy1 and feminism2.
These two ideas require important discussion but in order to avoid knee-jerk reactions common to them, let’s look at both anchored in the broader context of human hierarchy and human rights.
Before we start, a request. A reasonable person contends for a more humane world. With this noble vision in mind, a reasonable person engages constructively and collaboratively with others on critical topics, acknowledging that comprehensive solutions need collective counsel. Let each of us strive to be a reasonable person.
Human Rights: For All
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the historic document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948, states that recognising “the inherent dignity” and “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”. It goes on to state that all humans are “born free and equal in dignity and rights” irrespective of “nationality, place of residence, gender, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status”.
Every human being is equal in value1 and is, in the words of The United States Declaration of Independence, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”.
These rights are granted by the Creator; they are inherent in every man and woman because we are all created in the image of God irrespective of race, sex, religion and the like.
These rights are universal in that they are applicable everywhere and at all times, and they are egalitarian in that they are the same for everyone. While these rights include the right to life, liberty, free speech, religion, privacy and the like, they may be summed up in the ethic of reciprocity: treat others as you would like others to treat you.
The Declaration of Independence offers another important nugget of wisdom in this discussion. It goes on to state that in order, “to secure these rights” governments are established by the populace (and the power of government is derived “from the consent of the governed”).
In other words, government does not give these rights and government cannot revoke these rights. Instead, government exists at the will and service of the people to protect the God-given rights of its people. This is so important. While government plays a critical role in a functioning society, it exists to serve and protect all its citizens and all their rights.
So, let’s now make three basic statements about a reasonable person in regard to human rights in general and the rights of women in particular.
- A reasonable person would agree that all human beings are equal in value and rights.
- A reasonable person would agree that women and men should be treated equally.
- A reasonable person would agree that our society still falls short in granting this equality to women.
Sadly, many reasonable people do not do what they can to address such inequality. The reasons are often indifference, ignorance, (a sense of) inability and the like2.
Due to this entrenched acceptance of the status quo, some shouldered the role of advocating for women, and a movement called feminism was born3. Someone had to say and do something, and we can only admire the courage of those who have.
Women had to largely advocate for themselves. Not only did this make it difficult for the aggrieved party to feel heard, it aggravated the us vs. them nature of the issue. This is not a statement condemning either men or women; it’s merely an observation of what happened. If we don’t feel heard, we tend to start shouting. The result? The “angry woman who hates men” is the picture that comes to mind for many at the mention of feminism.
Awakened (at last?) to the reality of this inequality, many more men are increasingly adopting our collective responsibility as a society in this regard.
To be clear, if we believe that women and men should be treated equally, then we are morally obliged to contend for changes in society that end injustice and promote equality. It’s not a luxury, but a responsibility.
What’s more, we ought to do so in a manner that shuns reverse discrimination: liberating one by exploiting another is one of the harsh lessons the twentieth century taught us. Humbled by that knowledge, we’re now wiser.
The Key Question
The question is how do we do this? How do we achieve this equality?
This is the rub of the matter and worthy of honest, robust discussion—one that is often hijacked before it starts. Thus, the reason for this article: a plea for reasonable people to engage in the conversation constructively.
For sure, this is a highly complex issue, yet we are beneficiaries of those who have gone before us. This question, and its many related enquiries, has been asked, probed and explored for decades now and we have much to work with, starting with the individual and then with society as a whole.
Why this individual then society premise?
Societal solutions are best achieved through individuals who have first confronted the ignorance and prejudice in their own lives. This is not to say that we must wait for perfect transformation on the individual level before we contend for societal transformation. If that was true, we’d do nothing. Worse, we’d die from chronic self-absorption. Personal transformation only becomes tangible when we actively engage with the world around us. However, the point is simple: if I don’t love myself, my neighbour is in for a rough time.
In a phrase we’ll visit again and again,
Personal integrity fosters public efficacy.
Factors Behind The Progress
Let’s first acknowledge (and celebrate) the factors that have contributed to the progress society has made in our quest for equality. Others have paid a price for us to enjoy where we are today. On their shoulders, we can take the conversation further, moving increasingly from theory to transformation.
Firstly, advocates of women’s rights have achieved much over the past fifty years6. Admittedly, the battle was bloody and brutal at times, but the courage it took to challenge deeply entrenched societal norms was remarkable. Were some issues pushed too far? No doubt (although, which issues were pushed too far will always be a subject of debate). However, sometimes it takes those on the edge to pull us all into a more balanced, humane society.
Secondly, along with the courage and achievements of feminist advocates, the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s proved a game changer7. For the first time in human history, birth control gave women control over the reproductive process. The dramatic increase in women’s education and participation in the work force and global market since the 1960s can be, in part, attributed to birth control innovations.
Thirdly, and more recently, changes in the nature of business itself, aided by technological advances, means that more and more people are able to enter the market remotely8. The ability to work from home is rapidly on the rise. It has allowed more women to flex their entrepreneurial muscles while enabling more men to share the domestic duties too.
There may well be other factors involved but the above three are surely among the biggest factors.
Now, as every reasonable person knows, before contending for solutions, the problem needs to be adequately diagnosed. And it is here that we come up against the second of our incendiary phrases, the patriarchal hierarchy.
Human Hierarchy: Helpful or Harmful?
To the degree two or more people want to achieve a shared goal, to this degree a measure of organisation is required. Organising ourselves requires an efficient and effective structure with related systems of operation to accomplish our shared mission, values and plans.
As our organising efforts become more complex, leadership is required, and this leadership is best achieved when offered by those in their areas of competence. This concept of structure (and its related systems) allied with competent-based leadership is called a hierarchy. Indeed, without a hierarchy of values, we cannot even agree on the shared goal.
Even as individuals, we need a degree of structure in our lives to operate in an organised manner. Without systems of operation, we’d oversleep, eat terribly and turn up late for work. Again, without a personal hierarchy of values, we would struggle to prioritise what’s important in our lives.
Even the human body itself is a hierarchy of structure and systems. It has a skeletal structure and various systems—the nervous system, the digestive system, and so on. If the body’s structure or systems are exposed, it faces critical danger; yet without the structure and systems, the body would be utterly incapable of function.
Thus, hierarchies, structures and systems are not inherently corrupt in themselves. Of course, they can be. Those born on racial ideologies, for example, are corrupt from the start.
In contrast to those spawned on dubious or unethical foundations, many hierarchies (structures and systems) are merely neutral and functional. They are helpful, not harmful.
In terms of two or more individuals organising themselves around a shared goal, the hierarchy exists to serve their coordinated efforts in line with the agreed objective. However, the moment the organisation starts to serve the hierarchy itself, the group should endeavour to make the changes necessary to correct it. Typically, a hierarchy serves its function well to the degree it remains based on competency9 rather than power.
Hierarchies are not inherently corrupt. When based on competency, they are neutral and functional.
Over time, hierarchies skew towards autocracy as power-seeking individuals either exploit weaknesses in the structure and systems or co-opt it through the sheer force of their personality. Corrupt people corrupt hierarchies—sometimes consciously; often unconsciously. Even in healthy, value-based organisations, hierarchies tilt towards dysfunction if the organisation ignores this phenomenon or remains unwilling to confront it when it arises.
The result? Others are disposed by the now corrupt or dysfunctional hierarchy and are often exploited by the resultant systemic bias. A once helpful hierarchy can become harmful.
Over time, hierarchies skew towards autocracy if co-opted, or tilt towards dysfunction if neglected.
Before we pre-judge who these villainous people who lord it over others are likely to be, we’d do well to face the villain in the mirror. We are all subject to the temptation to abuse an otherwise neutral structure or system for self-gain. Unchecked self-interest morphs into power-seeking with disturbing ease. In contrast, being honest about our own bent towards self-advancement is an important start, as personal integrity fosters public efficacy. Candid about human nature, we’ll then ensure our structure and systems enjoy the necessary checks and balances to keep them neutral and free from misuse and exploitation.
Generally speaking, inequality is the result of two things: individual prejudice or systemic bias.
Individual Prejudice & Systemic Bias
Acting on personal prejudice, an individual might oppress or exploit another person. To regularly abuse this second person, the oppressor would need some tacit sense of power to continue doing so. Or otherwise, the oppressed person could withstand them in some way.
While the oppressor might enjoy this power due to some personal advantage, such as physical strength for instance, in many (most?) cases, exploitation is possible because the oppressor feels entitled to do so—because the hierarchy in which the two exist permits it in some way.
Now, the word ‘prejudice’ means to make a pre-judgement. Technically, it refers to, “a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience”.
So, while the oppressor may not only be supported by the corrupt hierarchy in which both parties exist (for example, the workplace or society at large), their individual prejudices might also be a product of the corrupt hierarchy itself, or perhaps another dysfunctional hierarchy (their home environment or their culture, for instance) in which they learnt their preconceived notions.
Thus, individual prejudice is not necessarily independent of systemic bias. It might be, of course, but often it’s not. That said, and to be crystal clear, whether an individual is supported by a corrupt hierarchy or not, every individual is responsible for their own actions.
The Big Question
The big question raised by many advocates of women’s rights is: to what degree are the inequalities women experience a result of the prevailing hierarchy of our society? In other words, to what degree is our society predisposed against women and thus, by extension, shaped to favour men? Or said another way, is our overarching societal hierarchy corrupt or, at the very least, dysfunctional?
These are good questions. Important questions. If one person in our society feels marginalised, we owe it to them to listen. If 50% of our society feels marginalised10, we owe it to them to slam on the brakes and to hear them out.
This is where the phrase, “the patriarchal hierarchy” has been used by some to describe society’s systemic bias against women. The phrase does not sit well with others who feel that it’s an oversimplification of the matter, a careless epithet that tends to lay the blame solely on men (as well as incorrectly implying that all hierarchies are intrinsically wrong).
So, is this phrase valid and helpful? And if so, how does it help us contend for human rights for all? In other words, does it help us find constructive solutions for a more just, humane society?
What is Patriarchy?
The word ‘patriarchy’ refers to the “rule of the father” just as ‘matriarchy’ would mean, “rule of the mother”. It comes from the Greek word patriarkhēs, “father or chief of a race”, which stems from patria, “lineage, descent” and arkho, “rule, govern”.
Historically, the term referred to autocratic rule by the male head of a family. Since the late twentieth century, it was used by advocates of women’s rights to speak of social systems where power was held predominantly by men11. Today, patriarchy refers to a social system wherein men hold primary positions of power and therefore predominate in roles of moral authority, social privilege, political and corporate leadership, and in the control of property.
Importantly, the concept of patriarchy was developed in order to explain male dominance as a social construct as opposed to a biological phenomenon.
However, the use of the concept of patriarchy among advocates of women’s rights peaked in the late 1990s before falling out of favour12.
In her 1989 article entitled, The Problem with Patriarchy, Joan Acker, a sociologist and feminist, argued that there were “serious difficulties” with the concept of patriarchy as a feminist argument. She said that viewing patriarchy “as a universal, trans-historical and trans-cultural phenomenon; women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways,” meant the notion “tended toward a biological essentialism that provided no basis for theorising the vast historical and contemporary variations in women’s situations”13.
In other words, she was concerned that an over-emphasis on the concept of patriarchy would muddy the waters of the conversation and not help the feminist’s social construction claim. Her argument was influential in the decreasing use of the term. In Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender, the authors write:
“Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.”14
Because the concept of patriarchy was considered too simplistic, even too monolithic, to capture the nuances of oppression and because it might call into question the social construction argument15, it fell out of fashion in feminism circles … until more recently. Over the last few years, it has returned with force, becoming a rallying cry for feminism today16.
Rallying cries are modern-day war cries and war cries force people to take sides. Hence, the volatile nature of the term.
That said, as reasonable people, contending for women’s rights, determined to confront systemic injustice where it surfaces, let’s attempt to answer the important questions:
Has the patriarchy—defined as a social system where power is held predominantly by men—always existed? If so, is it a biological phenomenon? If not, when did it emerge? And how?
Patriarchy & History
According to archaeological, anthropological and evolutionary psychological evidence, prehistoric societies were relatively egalitarian. In hunter-gather communities, men largely did the hunting and women the gathering, leaving both to share and participate in domestic responsibilities. Patriarchal social structures only emerged many years after the Pleistocene era (often called the Ice Age, ending about 11,700 years ago) in response to social and technological developments such as the domestication of animals and agriculture17.
According to Robert Manning Strozier, “historical research into the origin of patriarchy has not yet revealed an initiating event”18. Gerda Lerner, in her award-winning book, The Creation of Patriarchy, confirmed that the “‘establishment of patriarchy’ was not one ‘event’.” She was more specific in terms of timing, explaining that it was a process that developed over “nearly 2500 years, from app. 3100 to 600 BC. It occurred, even within the Ancient Near East, at a different pace and at different times in several distinct societies”19.
In other words, from around 3100 BC, the patriarchy emerged in response to developments such as domestication and agriculture. Thus, from the historical record, it appears that patriarchy was more a social construct than a biological phenomenon.
But does biology come into it at all?
Patriarchy & Biology
Looking at the animal kingdom, on the one hand, we can only conclude one thing: most living creatures organise themselves in hierarchies, affirming again that hierarchies are not inherently unnatural or corrupt but helpful and useful. However, while some species are patriarchal (such as chimpanzees), others are matriarchal (such as bonobos) and others are egalitarian (such as muriquis, the woolly spider monkey).
Hormones, on the other hand, are a more telling indicator, especially as they determine the sex of the foetus and affect puberty in the pubescent individual. Testosterone, the “male-hormone”, and oestrogen, the “female-hormone”, are responsible for some of the basic differences between men and women. For instance, men are on average larger and stronger than women, especially in the upper body20, and we know that testosterone is responsible for aggressive behaviour21.
Interestingly, for male chimpanzees known for their aggression (and who live in patriarchies), the testosterone levels are high; in the more passive bonobo males (who live in matriarchies), testosterone is low. In humans, the most violent crimes are committed by men. According to the FBI, 98.9% of rapes, 87.6% of murders and 87.9% of robberies in the United States were committed by men22. While certainly not the only factor behind these exceptionally high rates, testosterone does enhance risk-taking behaviour.
According to Mark van Vugt, males evolved more aggressively in order to secure resources, such as territory, status, food and mates. His Male Warrior hypothesis proposes that males are also more group-oriented, forming groups or gangs to contend with other groups for the scarcity of resources23.
For much of human history, physical strength and aggression have been crucial to survival. As domestication and agriculture became essential to human progress (including the need to protect these resources from opponents), men’s natural size and physical strength meant they were most equipped to assume roles associated with leadership. It is not hard to then posit that women, who were more concerned with the raising of young, would prefer men who could control more resources to support her and their offspring. This is sometimes referred to as Bateman’s Principle24 in evolutionary psychology25.
In other words, a functional hierarchy emerged in response to need, and it appears that men’s natural physical strength and women’s reasonable child-rearing concerns combined to sustain it.
A functional hierarchy emerged out of human beings response to need, and men’s natural physical strength and women’s child-rearing concerns combined to sustain it.
So, yes, biology did have a say, but evidently, not a determinant one. The biological differences between the sexes accounted for how men and women tacitly responded to change in an age in which physical strength became the core factor for survival.
Physical strength is no longer a factor determining our survival or social progress today.
Patriarchy & Sociology
To make sense of (and justify) this new societal shift in which men were dominant and women were subordinate, sociological constructions such as societal roles and expectations were formed and passed down from one generation to the next, becoming societal norms over time.
To pick on but one notable man of considerable influence: Aristotle—who, along with his teacher Plato, is considered the “Father of Western Philosophy”—portrayed men as morally, intellectually and physically superior to women. He viewed women as the property of men, claiming that a woman’s role in society was principally to bear children and serve men26.
Both intentional social engineering, as in Aristotle’s subordination of women, and unintentional social conditioning27—such as ‘innocent’ expressions like, “girls mustn’t be bossy” and “real men don’t cry”—result in the formation of entrenched societal norms. Thus, the corruption and dysfunction of the once useful, and even necessary, hierarchy resulted in both systemic bias and individual prejudice, denying women equality of dignity and rights.
Social engineering corrupted a once-functional hierarchy and social conditioning entrenched it.
Tragically, our society is still tilted to serve an ancient system once founded expediently on physical strength and aggression. As reasonable people enjoying the privileges of the twenty-first century, we can honour and thank our forebears for all the good they’ve given us—even as we contend for the change required today.
To be clear, we have made tremendous progress as a human race in so many ways. Yes, the likes of Aristotle have contributed immeasurably towards the society we enjoy today. However, as long as systemic injustice keeps people from equality, we still have work to do. And let’s not forget, this systemic dysfunction inflicts both women and men28.
Patriarchy & Religion
Many religions reinforce the “rule of the father” and thus, the patriarchy. Since the Judeo-Christian ethic29 has so profoundly influenced Western civilisation—in many positive, humane ways30—let us pick on these two religions.
Judaism taught that every man and woman was made in the image of God31. It is difficult to properly grasp just how revolutionary this was in the ancient world where only kings (and sometimes queens) were considered made in God’s image.
Every human was an image-bearer. Every man and woman.
However, despite this ground-breaking statement, Judaism promoted male headship and privilege. In fact, the founding ancestors of the Israelites—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—are fondly referred to as the patriarchs.
The Hebrew Scriptures do include women leaders and role models (one of the Judges was a woman and seven of the fifty-five prophets were women)32. And the Mosaic Law was a monumental step forward in terms of human rights in general. In fact, the position of women under Jewish law was better in many ways than that of women in American civil law as recently as a hundred years ago. The Mosaic Law was simply revolutionary in its day. However, in Judaism, the overwhelming weight of privilege was (and remains) granted to men.
The Christian corpus of teachings was again revolutionary in its Judeo and Greco-Roman setting. Indeed, it sowed the seeds for further progress in social equality through Jesus’ humane interactions with women, the inclusion of women among his closest followers, and in declarative statements like, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus”33.
In fact, many Christians hold to the principle of ‘Biblical accommodation’34; that is, God communicated with humanity throughout history in a manner they could understand in their time—given their obvious limitations such as culture, physiological and psychological development and so forth.
For example, the teachings of the New Testament concerning slavery were revolutionary but did not bring an immediate end to slavery. Truth is, abolishing slavery in the first century would have brought down an entire civilisation and the slaves would have paid most dearly. Although slavery was notionally outlawed in France as early as 1315, the abolitionist movement, which led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, was led by English and American Christians who questioned the morality of slavery35.
In a similar fashion, Biblical Accommodation accounts for patriarchy as a cultural norm that God accommodated in times past. The seeds sown in the New Testament provide the moral impetus for equality for all. It is unfortunate that Christendom failed to take the lead in advocating for women’s rights and is often seen as an opponent of it.
We encourage the interested reader to read Women in Ministry & Leadership.
Patriarchy & Politics
Another factor that made matters worse was the septic union of Church and State36, a flawed ideal that spawned a corrupt hierarchy. This union certainly perpetrated societal chauvinism since its inception, when Imperial Rome co-opted the Christian faith in the fourth century.
The concept of separating church and state is credited to the writing of John Locke in the seventeenth century and it was ratified in the American Bill of Rights in 1791. Yet the marriage of Church and State cast a long shadow well into the twentieth century, a shadow in which innumerable injustices, including the inequality of women, were further entrenched.
To think women weren’t even allowed to vote until 1893 in New Zealand, 1902 in Australia, 1920 in the United States and 1928 in Britain, is one definitive example of how deeply systemic injustice was ingrained.37
Even today, with politics populated democratically, women representation in national parliaments is low. In the USA, the figure is 23.6% (72nd), in the UK, it’s 32% (39th) and in Australia, it’s 30% (48th)38. There are possibly many reasons for this, not least that politics does attract a certain temperament of individual, and the answer is certainly not to force a 50/50 representation. It goes without saying that we want the most competent people running the country regardless of their biological sex. However, this observation does raise important questions about the number of women candidates, selection processes at party level, and the like.
Conclusion: Suitability & Lessons Learnt?
While most of human history indicates that women and men have worked together, using their biological distinctions cooperatively to adapt and survive, male dominance increasingly shaped society from around 3100 BC. There have, of course, been exceptions. Some people groups remained egalitarian39, female monarchs have ruled significant kingdoms40 and many outstanding women have contributed to the unfolding of the human story41. That said, patriarchy, a principally social construction, is an accurate term to characterise much of human society over the past 5,000 years.
Is there a better term to use? Perhaps dropping hierarchy from the phrase, the patriarchal hierarchy, and also ditching the definite article (which can turn any phrase into a weapon), might help defuse the incendiary nature of the phrase.
Patriarchy. Suitable by itself? Perhaps it’s necessary to state the obvious:
The answer to patriarchy is not another social construct. The solution is not matriarchy or any other -archy, a phrase that denotes rule or the exercise of power of one over another42. Leadership based on competence, yes; exercising power over others, no. Leadership that is both competent and servant-natured43—in terms of politics, “government of the people, by the people, for the people” (Abraham Lincoln)44—yes, yes, yes!
And here is another lesson learnt.
The solution doesn’t lie in social engineering. Deconstructing a corrupt hierarchy is notably complicated. Yes, blatant and obvious social injustice must be addressed with speedy care but ironing out the vaguer systemic inconsistencies involved requires considerable patience and wisdom. Why? Because as cliched as it might be to say, throwing the baby out with the bathwater is never a good idea. Deconstructing one hierarchy via social engineering will only spawn another corrupt hierarchy, often mindlessly putting to torch the valuable elements of society too. Another lesson history has taught us45.
Scratching the Surface
Yes, this article but scratches the surface. Its primary intent was to discuss patriarchy and feminism in the context of human hierarchy and human rights. Why? To attempt to facilitate meaningful conversation going forward.
Hopefully it achieved that goal even if it is somewhat incomplete in itself.
The following articles are recommended if the reader would like to tease out related issues further.
This is an in-depth look at the meaning of sex and gender.
This is a conversation between two fictional siblings, Taylor and Jamie, discussing the meaning of sex and gender.