Ant Cule

Defining the Patriarchy



“Clearly we cannot dismantle a system as long as we engage in collective denial about its impact on our lives.” – Understanding Patriarchy, bell hooks

What is the bloody Patriarchy? Is it a club? Can I join (I don’t like to feel left out of stuff)? Is it tangible? Where do I sign up? Isn’t that how the world is run by a bunch of rich white men? (Sort of, but you’re possibly thinking of the Bilderberg Group.) As a term, I have only really heard it used in feminist circles. Dr. Samuel Furse says he has never heard a clear definition of the phrase. So I wondered, can we pin down what the bloody hell the Patriarchy is? Let’s give it a go…

The Oxford English Dictionary seems as good a place as any to start, when looking for a definition.

  1. a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.
  2. a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
  3. a society or community organized on patriarchal lines.

So far, so defined. The question I have thus far managed to facetiously ignore is do we live in a Patriarchy? And does it have an impact on our lives? So let’s take these definitions one by one.

1. a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.

I’m aware that in most families in the UK the very notion of a ‘head of the family’ is outdated and no longer relevant. It’s very hard to quantify for everyone in the UK with only my laptop. But there is one influential and powerful family that we can take a look at. The Royals, of course. ‘The father or eldest male is head of the family…’ we have Queen Elizabeth II as the head of the family, bam! Disproved! BUT of course, she was the eldest of two daughters of George VI, so there were no male heirs. If she had had a younger brother, we’d all be singing “God save the King” like crazed Elvis fans. The Royal family is run along the lines of male preference primogeniture, in which descent is, yes, ‘reckoned through the male line’.

Interestingly, there are twelve monarchies in Europe. Of those twelve, four are known as microstates (Vatican City, Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein) leaving eight countries of which six have abolished male preference primogeniture. The two which haven’t are also the biggest; Spain and the UK. And I haven’t heard of much serious debate as to whether this should be abolished on these shores. Now, the Royals have less influence in modern Britain than in the past, and it’s seen by many as an outdated institution, but it still strikes me as alarming when such a publicly influential family still bows to such a regressive system. Particularly when you consider several of Britain’s queens have been (arguably, subjectively) it’s most successful monarchs.

2. a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.

So who holds the power in Britain? The Prime Minister, as the leader of the government, it could be argued (pretty convincingly) is the position of power in Britain. And since 1900 we have had one female Prime Minister in twenty five. 96% of our leaders have been (white [quick! Close that can of worms!]) males. That percentage increases exponentially the further back in history you take your start point from.

And what about those behind the leader? The government – do men hold the power, are women largely excluded from it? According to this table, based on information provided by the parliaments of 190 countries (up to 30/09/12) less than a quarter of those in parliament in Britain are women (you have to scroll all the way down to joint 58th for the UK. It’s 17% for the US (and I know the US doesn’t have a parliament – the total refers to all voting members of the house). The closest we have been to a female Vice President, let alone President, was Sarah Palin. And the less said about that the better. Now do these statistics show men hold the power while women are largely excluded from it? In terms of majority rule, yes. But of course it could be that women hold all the sway.

3. a society or community organized on patriarchal lines.

I’ll point you in the direction of the Everyday Sexism project for examples of how deeply embedded in our society these patriarchal lines are. All I know is – and this happened to my girlfriend recently (I didn’t say it) – a man wouldn’t dream of calling another man ‘Sugar Lips’ in the street.

Now the Patriarchy, it seems to me, is not any one of these things, but a combination, along with many other factors I’d love to go into but don’t have the space. Britain as evidenced (to some extent) by the above seems still largely patriarchal, and has historically been such. All of which conspires to make the world less easy for women these days. In 2012. Is all of this useful in defining the modern Patriarchy? Well, that’s for you to decide and discuss (and it’s important to discuss). 


-Ant Cule

4 thoughts on “Defining the Patriarchy

  1. Didn’t the Queen make a statement earlier this year that the law of Male Succession will change and an announcement was made by Cameron to this effect to affect the whole Commonwealth aristocracy? If Kate and Wills have a daughter and then a son, that the daughter would by right and law inherit the throne. However, if any of them decide to convert to Catholicism, they’re still out the running!

    • Well, good. Still, it’s taken until 2012 to change it, and male preference primogeniture has certainly played a role in embedding the idea of male superiority in society. I think.

  2. Thanks for writing this and putting it up.

    I had a look on the, via a subscription paid for by my employer. They list the first meaning as (in effect) the elders of the catholic church. If we wanted an example of an exclusively male bunch who are in charge no matter what, I fear it is they…
    I do think there is a good argument for suggesting that the Royal family is the most high-profile family in the UK; I can’t think of anything else that is a ‘family’ that is more recognisable etc at the moment, but is it a strong example of how a lot of people live, in that sense?
    On the subject of primogeniture, I do believe the law of succession is being altered. The Daily Telegraph seem to think so anyway:

    I would argue that parliament is a poor example when it comes to determining any sort of Patriarchy, because it is populated democratically. In order to demonstrate anything is awry, we would need data on the number of women candidates and selection thereof at party level, and their election with respect to the men. Though of course how one quantifies worthiness within that is tricky. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that we should choose the people who are best at/for running the country. There is, of course, no intellectual reason why this should not include a healthy contingent of either gender, but quite how one arrives at Nadine Dorries or Tony Banks out of that is anyone’s guess…or is the wish the father of the thought on that one? 😉

  3. Pingback: Who’s Right to Say Who’s Wrong? | Belle Jar

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