Angela Saini's The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality was published in was published in 2023 by Beacon Press.
Unmasking the Slow Grift of Patriarchy
Another World Was Possible
Short Takes: Provocations on Public Feminism, an open-access feature of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, offers brief comments from prominent feminists about a book that has shaped popular conversations about feminist issues. Short Takes is part of the Feminist Public Intellectuals Project.
Unmasking the Slow Grift of Patriarchy
Historians are trained to be suspicious of grand narratives. Understandably, then, I began reading Angela Saini’s The Patriarchs with a skeptical mindset. Who would have the hubris to take on millions of years of human history? The publisher compared the book to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which didn’t help. Surely any attempt to trace the entire history of patriarchy in one fell swoop would flatten what is necessarily a complex, diffuse, and contradictory process – one, in other words, that defies easy blurbing.
How wrong I was! Despite my fear that Saini – a British science writer whose previous works include Inferior (2017) and Superior (2019) – would privilege cleverness over carefulness, I quickly revised my thinking. Saini’s sensitive treatment of matrilineal communities, at the outset, convinced me to be more generous. I assumed, unfairly, that Saini would idealize matriarchies and extol them for privileging “feminine” values. Yet asymmetries of all types can be tricky.
I was pleased to see Saini recognize these complexities. “Matriliny doesn’t guarantee that women are better treated, or that men won’t be in positions of power and authority,” she readily concedes (17). This is typical of Saini’s stance toward her material, which rejects gender essentialism and binary thinking. The book as a whole models what it means to engage with difficult ideas in ways that are lucid, honest, and unsparing. And to do so without sacrificing the bigger picture.
And what is the bigger picture? As Saini reminds us throughout the book, patriarchy is not a natural or inevitable state but rather a cultural construct, and a fragile one at that – though one that has benefited enormously from legal and religious systems, capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Patriarchy, she writes, needs to be “constantly remade and reasserted” and is no less a “puzzle” than any other means of structuring a society (5). This may not be a novel idea, at least to the initiated, but Saini brings a birds-eye perspective to the proceedings. Hers is a rare willingness to make connections across centuries, continents, countries, and academic disciplines.Patriarchy is not a natural or inevitable state but rather a cultural construct, and a fragile one at that.Click To Tweet
We need this kind of intelligent synthesis, now more than ever. It is not an alternative to the more focused projects that scholars are pursuing in archives, libraries, and field sites, but it is a necessary complement. Saini respects the role of others in this process, too. At every turn, she foregrounds the social scientists to whom she is indebted, with particular gratitude for the pioneering Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, whose work shed early light on shifts in gender organization. In the end, it is this humility – apparent on every page – that made me completely smitten.
My only quibble, really, would be with the title of the book. Why The Patriarchs rather than Patriarchy or Patriarchies? It seems a minor issue, but there are very few patriarchs in this book at all, let alone men and women (other than the scholars often cited). Humans, in fact, are somewhat beside the point here – other than as mouthpieces for or transmitters of broader beliefs and practices. Really, this is a history of ideas. Saini’s goal is to unmask patriarchy and reveal it for what it is: a “slow grift” (7). Only by recognizing the grift, she suggests, can we begin to chart different paths.
Arianne Chernock is a Professor of History and Associate Dean of the Faculty for the Social Sciences at Boston University. She is the author of two books, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism (Stanford UP, 2010) and The Right to Rule and the Rights of Women (Cambridge UP, 2019).
The title of Angela Saini’s new book, The Patriarchs, seems to promise a unified look at the people (mostly men) who have embodied, enacted, and benefited from patriarchy historically. Instead, the book whirls around its subject, leaping continents and eras to offer carefully contextualized critiques of any kind of uniform explanation for or definition of patriarchy. Saini’s not arguing against the existence of patriarchy. Rather, she’s showing the ways in which patriarchy is constantly changing, constantly challenged, and constantly reimagined as more powerful (and universal) than it actually was. The Patriarchs is less concerned with developing its own unified theory of its subject and more interested in destabilizing unified theories that portray patriarchy as a natural or unchanging part of human experience. It joins a number of recent feminist histories coming from authors with roots in the UK (like Kit Heyam’s magnificent new Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender) that seek to disrupt the assumption that our current “Western” way of thinking about gender and patriarchy is inevitable or natural.
I often think of history as being like a window: it’s easy, on first glance, to be preoccupied with your own reflection, to see only that which is similar to what you already know. Many of us who work in marginalized histories come to this work because we are looking to find images of ourselves or our communities that we have been denied elsewhere – a valid and important project that can, unfortunately, lead to a myopic view of history that replaces historical actors with clones of ourselves in period drag.The truly radical potential of history... is that it shows us ways of being that have very little to do with our limited presentClick To Tweet
But the truly radical potential of history – which Saini embraces in The Patriarchs – is that it shows us ways of being that have very little to do with our limited present. We cannot predict the future, but by showing us how different the past has been, Saini explodes the nihilistic, cynical, and misogynist idea that change is impossible, allowing us to imagine different futures. In so doing, she offers a take on history that empowers her readers to make the changes that will enact those futures. As Saini writes in her final chapter:
We’ve been pushed gradually into believing that there are just a few ways in which humans can live—to the point where we now feel that the social patterns we follow must be natural rather than man-made. We’ve developed an inertia when it comes to bold social and political change. We resign ourselves to the systems and institutions we have, even when we know they’re not working. How do we rediscover our capacity to be socially nimble?
The answer: books like The Patriarchs, which remind us that resistance has always been nimble, always mutable, pushing back when and where it can, and in so doing, revealing the cracks in the supposedly monolithic forces arrayed against change.
Hugh Ryan is the author of The Women's House of Detention: A Queer History of a Forgotten Prison, which won the American Library Association’s Stonewall Book Award for Nonfiction. His first book, When Brooklyn Was Queer, won a New York City Book Award, was a New York Times Editors' Choice, and was a finalist for the Randy Shilts and Lambda Literary Awards. He has been honored with the Allan Bérubé Prize from the American Historical Association and the Duberman Fellowship at the New York Public Library. He teaches in the MFA Program at Bennington College.
Another World Was Possible
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, third-wave feminists knew that if we were going to refer to “the patriarchy,” it had damn well better be with a dose of self-mockery. We came of age with media caricatures of overearnest second-wave feminists looming over us, and making feminism more accessible meant that one-word indictment had to go. And so “patriarchy” was tucked into air quotes, shorthand for “we know there’s a more nuanced way to refer to a centuries-long system of oppressions, and we know that you know that, but we’re trying to reinvigorate a movement here.” Patriarchy, meanwhile, didn’t care how much young feminists were tiptoeing around it.
In recent years, however, the popularizing of feminist discourse in mass media and consumer culture has reintroduced the concept of structural patriarchy to new generations by way of teen TV dramas, Etsy shops, and celebrity activism. While patriarchy is rendered overbroad in some instances, it’s just as likely to be nuanced and intersectional. Discourse around the repeal of Roe v. Wade and the rights of trans youth, for example, has mainstreamed the more specific category “Christian heteropatriarchy;” “internalized patriarchy,” meanwhile, is a useful description of the numerous ways that non-men are psychologically conditioned to prioritize, defend, and capitulate to their oppressors. But terms like these still rest on a reflexive assumption of patriarchy as inevitable, a monolith that can be chipped at with tools, defaced with graffiti, and obscured by fog but remains unmoved.
Angela Saini’s new book The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality hits that monolith with a satisfying thwap, asking not what patriarchy is but why it is. Saini begins with the conventional wisdom that patriarchy is, with few exceptions, the default by which human societies have structured themselves and asks whether this is in fact accurate. As she presents us with the answer (which, spoiler alert, can be summed up as “no, but also yes, and usually at the same time”), we get a cascade of fascinating insights into ancient cultures, misunderstood political eras, and revolutions that continue to unfold.
Saini is engaging and deft in the book’s first half, which complicates the accepted narrative of patriarchy as a default setting by centering matrilineal societies. In considering both documented matriarchies and those hypothesized by way of archeological ruins and ancient artifacts, Saini notes the frequent desire of Western scholars for a neat, linear narrative that connects prehistory to the present. This often results in framing evidence that disproves that trajectory—say, the remains of an ancient hunter who happened to be female, or the grave of a female Viking—as puzzling anomalies rather than context clues. In these sections, The Patriarchs becomes a cautionary metanarrative about the dangers of grafting gendered assumptions to incomplete information and calling it history (women couldn’t have built houses because babies!), and well as those who strive to “prove” unprovable histories in order to validate change in the present (these female figurines are evidence of a goddess-focused matriarchy!). Her evenhandedness has the effect of activating a reader’s imagination precisely because she isn’t invested in posing one fixed, correct theory. Instead, she makes room for the much likelier possibility of societies that were complex and changed in structure over long spans of time, noting that “What is too easily left out from the big, essentializing narratives of history are the counterbalancing forces of resistance. Changes in how societies were organized must have been challenged, the same way they are now. But this pushback or slow negotiation is hard to spot in the archaeological record.”The Patriarchs becomes a cautionary metanarrative about the dangers of grafting gendered assumptions to incomplete information and calling it history (women couldn’t have built houses because babies!)...Click To Tweet
The open-ended explorations in these early chapters contrast sharply with those that bring us to relatively modern sites of civilization. From ancient Pompeii to post-Revolution Iran, these demonstrate, in often claustrophobic detail, the patriarchy as both intrinsic to and a weapon of colonialism, state identity, philosophy, and religion. It’s also where we clearly see how a still-extant emphasis on centering Western civilization in global history has tethered contemporary understandings of what is “natural,” rational, and traditional to systems of ownership and forced dependence. Western citizens tend to see ongoing practices like trafficking, dowry, and bride abduction as barbarity in other cultures, but how often do we acknowledge that these crimes loom large in the creation of the “civilized” world? One of The Patriarchs’ strengths is that it simply acknowledges such facts, and in doing so exposes the limits of the binary thinking—good versus evil, rational versus emotional, hunting versus gathering—that characterizes the dominant narratives of history and society. (Saini’s own sympathetic examination of the ways women use their domestic and economic status to perpetuate the oppression of other women is just one example of this.)
The Patriarchs comes out at a moment of deeply gendered and punitive backlash, and in a time of reckoning about whose lens on writing and teaching history should be privileged. It’s likely that Saini’s spirited challenge to patriarchy as universally innate will prompt hand-wringing from the sort of cancel-culture foes who see any attempt to fill gaps in the story of human experience as an attack on values or tradition. But for plenty of others, it’s a timely reminder that the prevailing narrative isn’t the only one worth a closer look.
Andi Zeisler cofounded the feminist media organization Bitch Media. She is the author of the books Feminism and Pop Culture and We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Her writing on gender, politics, and pop culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Salon, and many other publications.
I am deeply grateful to the editorial team at Signs for commissioning these commentaries. and to Arianne Chernock, Hugh Ryan, and Andi Zeisler for their generous and thoughtful reflections on my book. It is heartening that they recognized in it exactly the message I was trying to convey: that we are not trapped by the inevitability of patriarchy, that it is mutable like any other form of oppression.
As a science writer researching history, I find myself caught between two different approaches to thinking about human behavior and social change. Biologists often, I find, like people to be described in measurable, discrete, generalizable ways. The work of social scientists exists in the gloriously gray in-between, where nothing that people do or say can be taken as universal. Chernock is absolutely correct to be suspicious of the former approach, one deployed by so many of the “big idea” writers of our time (almost exclusively men) who have tricked us into believing that major historical change has happened in a linear way, almost automatically, without discernible resistance or negotiation. As I found very quickly when writing The Patriarchs, and as Chernock kindly observes in my work, nothing could be further from the truth.
Instead of “patriarchy” looking like a prehistorical catastrophe, then, it begins to look like something that has developed very gradually over time and is still in the process of being invented. This isn’t the fun answer. There are many who I’m sure would like it to be simpler, who would prefer to be able to point at something outside themselves, at a time predating their own, on which we can pin the blame. It’s harder to accept that the responsibility also lies with us right now.Instead of “patriarchy” looking like a prehistorical catastrophe, ... it begins to look like something that has developed very gradually over time and is still in the process of being invented.Click To Tweet
The beauty of queer histories like Ryan’s The Women’s House of Detention and Kit Heyam’s Before We Were Trans is that they offer us a way of reimagining the past, and in so doing, open up possibilities for the future. Why should we feel constrained in our hopes for a radically different world? What is it about how we see human history that makes us believe there is only one way to live? How might our imaginations expand if we had access to different narratives?
The risk of treating patriarchy as monolithic, as Zeisler notes, is that it ultimately “remains unmoved.” By giving it tangibility, rooting it in the behavior of real people in different places at different times, I was hoping to show that it is within our power to move it. I’m glad that for all three writers of these commentaries, this was their takeaway.
As for the title of the book, I hesitated over it for many months. I still wonder if it should have been called “Patriarchies.” And I’ve noticed that a few readers online have already referred to it in error as “The Patriarchy.” With “The Patriarchs,” I was looking to convey that gendered oppression is not some abstract superstructure outside of us but the product of individual actions and choices. Today’s patriarchs are our populist right-wing leaders, religious conservatives, even domineering parents and in-laws within families. They are the most powerful, but they are sometimes also the most desperate.
Angela Saini is an award-winning British journalist and author based in New York. She presents radio and television programmes, and her writing has appeared in National Geographic, New Scientist, and Wired. She was a spring 2022 Logan Nonfiction Program Fellow and a 2022 fellow of the Humboldt Residency Programme in Berlin. Her last two books Superior: The Return of Race Science and Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong have been translated into fourteen languages and are on university reading lists across the world. Angela's two-part television series for the BBC about the history and science of eugenics aired in 2019.