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Patriarchy (from Greek: Patria meaning father and arché meaning rule) refers to a society in which male members predominate in positions of power. The term "patriarchy" is also used in systems of ranking male leadership in certain hierarchical churches or religious bodies, such as the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.

Anthropologists studying cultures around the world, and at different times in history, have attempted to classify societies as patriarchal or matriarchal, but their efforts have been controversial. Although it appears that many societies developed as predominantly patriarchal, women have often played significant roles too. As the term patriarchy suggests, this categorization of societal structure is developed from the structure of the family, namely father, mother, and children. Just as families do not function effectively without a balance between the father and mother, so it can be expected that successful, stable societies require the contributions of both men and women sharing power and responsibility in a balanced and harmonious way. Only with men and women working together in the position of loving "parents" to society, will the "children"—all members of the society—be happy and able to fulfill their potential.


Did you know?
Patriarchy literally means "rule of fathers"

Patriarchy (from Greek: patria meaning father and arché meaning rule) is the anthropological term used to define the sociological condition in which male members of a society predominate in positions of power: The more powerful the position, the more likely it is that a male will hold that position.

The term "patriarchy" is also used in systems of ranking male leadership in certain hierarchical churches or religious bodies. Examples include the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches.

Related terms

The term "patriarchy" is distinct from patrilineality and patrilocality. "Patrilineal" defines societies where the derivation of inheritance (financial or otherwise) originates from the father's line. For example, a society with matrilineal traits, such as Judaism, provides that in order to be considered a Jew, a person must be born of a Jewish mother. "Patrilocal" defines a locus of control coming from the father's geographic/cultural community.

In a matrilineal/matrilocal society, a woman lives with her mother and siblings, even after marriage; she does not leave her maternal home. Her brothers act as "social fathers" and hold a higher influence on the woman's offspring to the detriment of the children's biological father. Most societies are predominantly patrilineal and patrilocal. The opposite of a patriarchy is a society in which the female members of the society hold positions of power, known as a matriarchy.


Patrilineality (also known as agnatic kinship) is a system in which one belongs to one's father's lineage. It generally involves the inheritance of property, names, or titles through the male line.

A patriline is a line of descent from a male ancestor to a descendant (of either gender) in which the individuals in all intervening generations are male. In a patrilineal descent system (also called agnatic descent), an individual is considered to belong to the same descent group as his or her father. This directly contrasts the less common pattern of matrilineal descent through the mother's lineage.

The agnatic ancestry of an individual is his or her male ancestry. An agnate is one's (male) relative in an unbroken male line: A kinsman with whom one has a common ancestor by descent in an unbroken male line. The fact that the Y chromosome is paternally inherited enables geneticists to trace patrilines and agnatic kinships of men.

The Salic Law in medieval and later Europe purportedly served as the grounds for only males being eligible for hereditary succession to monarchies and fiefs, through patrilineal or agnatic succession. The line of descent for monarchs is almost exclusively through the male personalities.


Patrilocality is a term used by social anthropologists to describe a socially instituted practice whereupon a married couple lives with or near the family of the husband.

A patrilocal residence is based on a rule that a man remains in his father's home after maturity. When he becomes married, his wife joins him in his father's home, where the couple will raise their children. These children will follow the same pattern: Sons will stay, and daughters will move in with their husbands' families. Household sizes grow quickly as this process continues. Families living in a patrilocal residence generally assume joint ownership of domestic sources. A senior member leads the household and directs the labor of all other members. The majority of the world's societies practice patrilocality.

Image of traditional cultural paternalism: Father Junipero Serra in a modern portrayal at Mission San Juan Capistrano, California


Paternalism usually refers to an attitude or a policy stemming from the hierarchical pattern of a family based on patriarchy. A figurehead (the "father") makes decisions on behalf of others (the "children") for their own good, even if this is contrary to their opinions. It is implied that the fatherly figure is wiser than, and acts in the best interest of, those he protects.

The term is also used derogatorily to characterize attitudes or political systems that are thought to deprive individuals of freedom, only nominally serving their interests while, in fact, pursuing another agenda.

In anthropology

Human societies, whether "ancient," "indigenous," or "modern industrial," have been described in anthropology as either patriarchal or matriarchal systems. Between these polarities lie a number of social structures which include elements of both systems.

Whether purely matriarchal societies have ever existed is controversial. The controversy began with the publication of Johann Jakob Bachofen's Mother Right: An Investigation of the Religious and Juridical Character of Matriarchy in the Ancient World in 1861. Several generations of ethnologists were inspired by his pseudo-evolutionary theory of archaic matriarchy. Following Bachofen and Jane Ellen Harrison, scholars, arguing usually from myths or oral traditions and neolithic female cult-figures, suggested that many ancient societies were matriarchal.

Belief in a matriarchy, and its subsequent replacement by patriarchy can be linked to the historical "inevitabilities" which the nineteenth century's concept of progress through cultural evolution introduced. Friedrich Engels, among others, formed the curious and rather racist notion that some primitive cultures had no clear notion of paternity. According to this hypothesis, women produced children mysteriously, without necessary links to the man or men they had sex with. When men discovered paternity, they acted to claim power to monopolize women and claim children as their own offspring. The move from primitive matriarchy to patriarchy indicated a step forward in human knowledge.

Others, such as Donald Brown, argue patriarchy as one of the "human universals," which include characteristics such as age gradation, personal hygiene, aesthetics, food sharing, and other sociological aspects, implying that patriarchy is innate to the human condition.[1] Margaret Mead observed that "all the claims so glibly made about societies ruled by women are nonsense. We have no reason to believe that they ever existed…. Men have always been the leaders in public affairs and the final authorities at home."[2]

Societies have developed out of patriarchal cultures. Institutions of religion, education, and commerce retain patriarchal practices. Patriarchy in the form of divided roles between women and men into domestic and social spheres is distinctly visible in modern Muslim countries. In Europe and America, whose cultures are based on a Christian model, political and religious power continues to exert a strong influence.

In religion

The teachings and ecclesiology of many of the world's major religions are patriarchic in nature. The founders and early leaders of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Chinese philosophy were all men, and their influence has dominated both belief and practice.


The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, formed what is known as Judaism. Jewish tradition and law does not presume that women have more or less of an aptitude or moral standing required of rabbis. In fact, many biblical scholars consider the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, to have been superior in prophesy.[3] However, the longstanding practice holds that only men can become rabbis.

Orthodox Judaism does not permit women to become rabbis, but female rabbis have begun to appear in recent years among more liberal Jewish movements, especially the Reconstructionist, Renewal, Reform, and Humanistic denominations. Reform Judaism created its first woman rabbi in 1972, Reconstructionist Judaism in 1974, and Conservative Judaism in 1985, and women in these movements are now routinely granted semicha (rabbinical ordination) on an equal basis with men.

The idea that women could eventually be ordained as rabbis sparked widespread opposition among the Orthodox rabbinate. Norman Lamm, one of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy and Rosh Yeshiva of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, totally opposed giving semicha to women: "It shakes the boundaries of tradition, and I would never allow it."[4] Writing in an article in the Jewish Observer, Moshe Y'chiail Friedman states that Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from being given semicha and serving as rabbis. He holds that the trend towards this goal is driven by sociology, not halakha.[5]

The issue of allowing women to become rabbis is not under active debate within the Orthodox community, though there is widespread agreement that women may often be consulted on matters of Jewish religious law. According to some reports, a small number of Orthodox yeshivas have unofficially granted semicha to women, but the prevailing consensus among Orthodox leaders (as well as a small number of Conservative Jewish communities) is that it is not appropriate for women to become rabbis.


In 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Paul outlined the role of women in the Christian church, which includes dressing modestly and learning "in silence with all subjection"—not "to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man." In chapter 3, he delineates the roles and values of bishops and deacons, further discussing the supportive nature of their wives.


The spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic church is the Pope, frequently referred to as the "Holy Father." The church is structured hierarchically, with offices of priest, bishop, archbishop, and cardinal, all traditionally held by single men who have taken vows of chastity.

The Sacrament of Order is that which integrates men into the Holy Orders of bishops, priests (presbyters), and deacons—the threefold order of "administrators of the mysteries of God" (1 Corinthians 4:1). The Sacrament gives certain people the mission to teach, sanctify, and govern: The three functions referred to in Latin as the tria munera. Only a bishop may administer this sacrament because only a bishop holds the fullness of the Apostolic Ministry. Ordination as a bishop makes one a member of the body that has succeeded to that of the Apostles. Ordination as a priest configures a person to Christ the Head of the Church and the one essential Priest, empowering that person, as the bishop's assistant and vicar, to preside at the celebration of divine worship, and, in particular, to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist, acting in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Ordination as a deacon configures the person to Christ the Servant of All, placing the deacon at the service of the Church, especially in the fields of the ministry of the Word, service in divine worship, pastoral guidance, and charity.

Traditionally, and in most jurisdictions currently, only men may be ordained as priest or bishop, as they act "in the person of Christ," who was incarnated as a man. In some jurisdictions women may become deacons. Generally, women who wish to dedicate their life to the Church enter a monastic order as nuns, the female equivalent of monks, not priests, and do not ascend the hierarchy of governance of the Church.

Eastern Orthodoxy

Orthodox clergy at All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church, Raleigh, NC (L to R): priest, two deacons, bishop

The Eastern Orthodox Church considers itself to be the original church started by Christ and his apostles. The life taught by Jesus to the apostles, invigorated by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, is known as "Holy Tradition." The Bible, texts written by the apostles to record certain aspects of the life of the Church at the time, serves as the primary witness to Holy Tradition. Because of the Bible's apostolic origin, it is regarded as central to the life of the Church.

Other witnesses to Holy Tradition include the liturgical services of the Church, its iconography, the rulings of the Ecumenical councils, and the writings of the Church Fathers. From the consensus of the Fathers (consensus patrum), one may enter more deeply and understand more fully the Church's life. Individual Fathers are not looked upon as infallible, but, rather, the whole consensus of them together will give one a proper understanding of the Bible and Christian doctrine.

The Eastern Orthodox church follows a similar line of reasoning as the Roman Catholic Church with respect to ordination of priests.

Regarding deaconesses, Professor Evangelos Theodorou argued that female deacons were actually ordained in antiquity.[6] Bishop Kallistos Ware wrote:[7]

The order of deaconesses seems definitely to have been considered an "ordained" ministry during early centuries in at any rate the Christian East. … Some Orthodox writers regard deaconesses as having been a "lay" ministry. There are strong reasons for rejecting this view. In the Byzantine rite the liturgical office for the laying-on of hands for the deaconess is exactly parallel to that for the deacon; and so on the principle lex orandi, lex credendi—the Church's worshiping practice is a sure indication of its faith—it follows that the deaconess receives, as does the deacon, a genuine sacramental ordination: Not just a χειροθεσια but a χειροτονια.

On October 8, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece voted to restore the female diaconate.[8]


Although Muslims do not formally ordain religious leaders, the imam serves as a spiritual leader and religious authority. Traditionally and generally the position of imam is held by men.

The circumstances in which women may act as imams, that is, lead a congregation in salat (prayer), remains controversial. Three of the four Sunni schools, as well as many Shia, agree that a woman may lead a congregation consisting of women alone in prayer, although the Maliki school does not allow this. According to all currently existing traditional schools of Islam, a woman cannot lead a mixed-gender congregation in salat. Some schools make exceptions for Tarawih (optional Ramadan prayers) or for a congregation consisting only of close relatives. Certain medieval scholars, including Al-Tabari (838–932), Abu Thawr (764–854), Al-Muzani (791–878), and Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), considered the practice permissible, at least for optional (nafila) prayers; however, no major surviving group accepts such views.

Some Muslims in recent years have reactivated the debate, arguing that the spirit of the Qur'an and the letter of a disputed hadith indicate that women should be able to lead mixed congregations as well as single-sex ones, and that the prohibition of this developed as a result of sexism in the medieval environment, not as a part of true Islam.


The tradition of the ordained monastic community (sangha) began with Buddha, who established orders of Bhikkhu (monks) and later, after an initial reluctance, of Bhikkuni (nuns). The stories, sayings, and deeds of some of the distinguished Bhikkhuni of early Buddhism are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigatha. However, not only did the Buddha lay down more rules of discipline for the Bhikkhuni (311 compared to the Bhikkhu's 227), he also made it more difficult for them to be ordained.

The tradition flourished for centuries throughout South and East Asia, but it appears to have died out in the Theravada traditions of India and Sri Lanka in the eleventh century. However, the Mahayana tradition, particularly in Taiwan and Hong Kong, has retained the practice, where nuns are called "Bhikṣuṇī" (the Sanskrit equivalent of the Pali "Bhikkhuni"). Buddhist nuns are also found in Korea and Vietnam.

There have been some attempts in recent years to revive the tradition of women in the sangha within Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka, with many women ordained in Sri Lanka since the late 1990s.

Chinese patriarchy

Chinese philosopher Mencius outlined the Three Subordinations: A woman was to be subordinate to her father in youth, her husband in maturity, and her son in old age. Repeated throughout ancient Chinese tradition, the familiar notion that men govern the outer world, while women govern the home serves as a cliché of classical texts and Confucianism.

In the Han dynasty, the female historian Ban Zhao wrote the Lessons for Women to advise women how to behave. She outlined the Four Virtues women must abide by: Proper virtue, proper speech, proper countenance, and proper merit. The "three subordinations and the four virtues" became a common four-character phrase throughout the imperial period.

As for the historical development of Chinese patriarchy, women's status was highest in the Tang dynasty, when women played sports (polo) and were generally freer in fashion and conduct. Between the Tang and Song dynasties, a fad for little feet arose, and from the Song dynasty forward footbinding became increasingly common for the elite. In the Ming dynasty, a tradition of virtuous widowhood developed. Widows, even if widowed at a young age, were expected to not remarry. If they remained widows, their virtuous names might be displayed on the arch at the entrance of the village.

Examples of patriarchic attitudes in twentieth and twenty-first century China include the immense pressure on women to marry before the age of 30 and the incidence of female infanticide associated with China's one child policy.

Feminist view

Some feminists claim that matriarchal societies have and do exist in the world, and that they offer a viable and attractive alternative to the prevalent patriarchal systems. The Modern Matriarchal Studies organization held conferences in Luxembourg (2004) and San Marcos, Texas (2005) in efforts to redefine the term "matriarchy."[9] Various chairs, called "priestesses" in the group's literature, conducted workshops and at the end of the conference declared that, “International Matriarchal Politics stands against white supremacist patriarchal capitalist homogenization and the globalization of misery. It stands for egalitarianism, diversity, and the economics of the heart. Many matriarchal societies still exist around the world and they propose an alternative, life affirming model to patriarchal raptor capitalism."[10]

Many feminist writers have argued that it is necessary and desirable to get away from the patriarchal model in order to achieve gender equality. Feminist writer Marilyn French, in her polemic Beyond Power, defined patriarchy as a system that values power over life, control over pleasure, and dominance over happiness. She argued that:

It is therefore extremely ironic that patriarchy has upheld power as a good that is permanent and dependable, opposing it to the fluid, transitory goods of matricentry. Power has been exalted as the bulwark against pain, against the ephemerality of pleasure, but it is no bulwark, and is as ephemeral as any other part of life […] Yet so strong is the mythology of power that we continue to believe, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that it is substantial, that if we possessed enough of it we could be happy, that if some "great man" possessed enough of it, he could make the world come right. … It is not enough either to devise a morality that will allow the human race simply to survive. Survival is an evil when it entails existing in a state of wretchedness. Intrinsic to survival and continuation is felicity, pleasure […] But pleasure does not exclude serious pursuits or intentions, indeed, it is found in them, and it is the only real reason for staying alive.[11]

French offered the latter philosophy as a replacement to the current structure where, she says, power has the highest value.

Gender-issues writer Cathy Young, by contrast, dismisses reference to "patriarchy" as a semantic device intended to shield the speaker from accountability when making misandrist slurs, since "patriarchy" means all of Western society.[12] She cites Andrea Dworkin's criticism as an example of misdirected blame: "Under patriarchy, every woman's son is her potential betrayer and also the inevitable rapist or exploiter of another woman."

Conclusion: Still "a man's world?"

The ideas of Enlightenment philosophy, and revolutionary movements including Feminism have brought about changes creating wider possibilities for both women and men. Marxist ideals support the advocacy of egalitarianism between the sexes, but these aspirations have been overtaken by authoritarian forms of political organization in communist states. In China, for example, the law requires that an equal number of women and men compose the National People's Congress. There are, however, no women within the Politburo of the Communist Party of China, the agency that actually rules China. Prior to its dissolution, the Soviet Union's Congress of People's Deputies likewise consisted of equal numbers of men and women. Its successor, the Duma, which has governing authority, at present has only 35 female deputies among the 450 members.[13]

In Beyond Patriarchy: Jewish Fathers and Families, Brandeis University professor Lawrence H. Fuchs discussed the modern role of fatherhood by outlining the evolution of the Jewish patriarchy. The first rabbis accorded women a relatively large amount of sexual and economic freedom in hopes of tempering the abuse of male power. Following this trajectory, fatherhood, religion, and dominance no longer have to be mutually inclusive. Fuchs went as far to identify modern society as a "post-patriarchy."

Religious, social, political, and familial models demonstrate the inherent flaws and advantages of a patriarchal system. Although twenty-first century society remains predominately patriarchal, trends seem to suggest a movement toward a more equitable model in which men and women (as couples or as cooperative individuals) share power and responsibility over all realms of society.


  1. Robert Brown, Human Universals (McGraw-Hill, 1991, ISBN 007008209X), 137.
  2. Men on Purpose, Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  3. Jusaism 101, The Patriarchs and the Origins of Judaism. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  4. Jeff Helmreich, "Orthodox women moving toward religious leadership," Long Island Jewish World (June 6, 1997). Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  5. Moshe Y'chiail Friedman, "Women in the Rabbinate," Jewish Observer 17(8) (1984): 28-29. Retrieved May 8, 2011.
  6. The St. Nina Quarterly, Orthodox Women and Pastoral Praxis. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  7. "Man, Woman and the Priesthood of Christ," in Women and the Priesthood, ed. T. Hopko (New York, 1982, reprinted 1999), 16, as quoted in Women Deacons in the Early Church, by John Wijngaards, ISBN 0-8245-2393-8
  8. America: The National Catholic Weekly, Grant Her Your Spirit. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  9. Hagia International Academy, Modern Matriarchal Studies and Matriarchal Spirituality. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  10. Hagia International Academy, Societies of Peace Declaration (2005), 2-3.
  11. Marylin French, Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  12. Cathy Young, Woman's Hating: The misdirected passion of Andrea Dworkin. Retrieved July 25, 2007.
  13. Francesca Mereu, Women in Russian Politics. Retrieved July 25, 2007.

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