Western female thought through the centuries has identified the relationship between patriarchy and gender as crucial to the womens subordinate position. For two hundred years, patriarchy precluded women from having a legal or political identity and the legislation and attitudes supporting this provided the model for slavery. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries suffrage campaigners succeeded in securing some legal and political rights for women in the UK. By the middle of the 20th century, the emphasis had shifted from suffrage to social and economic equality in the public and private sphere and the womens movement that sprung up during the 1960s began to argue that women were oppressed by patriarchal structures.
Equal status for women of all races, classes, sexualities and abilities – in the 21st century these feminist claims for equality are generally accepted as reasonable principles in western society; yet the contradiction between this principle of equality and the demonstrable inequalities between the sexes that still exist exposes the continuing dominance of male privilege and values throughout society (patriarchy). This essay seeks to move beyond the irrepressible evidence for gender inequality and the division of labour. Rather, it poses the question of gender inequality as it manifests itself as an effect of patriarchy drawing from a theoretical body of work which has been developed so recently that it would have been impossible to write this essay thirty years ago.
Although K patriarchy is arguably the oldest example of a forced or exploitative division of social activities and clearly existed before it was ever examined by sociologists, the features of patriarchy had been accepted as natural (biological) in substance. It was not until feminists in the 1960s began to explore the features and institutions of patriarchy, that the power of the concept to explain womens subordinate position in society was proven (Seidman, 1994) .
The feminist engagement with theories of patriarchy criticised pre-existing theoretical positions and their ideological use, tracing theoretical progenitors of popular views about gender, gender roles etc (Cooper, 1995; Raymond, 1980). Developing theories to explain how gender inequalities have their roots in ideologies of gender difference and a hierarchical gender order, feminist theoretical concepts of patriarchy are able to explain and challenge gender inequality and the gendered division of labour in the private and social spheres (Seidman, 1994). They have done this by challenging concepts of gender, the family and the unequal division of labour underpinned by a theory of patriarchy that has come to reveal how it operates to subordinate women and privilege men, often at womens expense.
Patriarchy, Structure and Gender Inequality
Walby (1990) reveals how patriarchy operates to achieve and maintain the gender inequalities essential for the subordination of women. Crucially for this essay, she shows how it can operate differently in the private and public domain but toward the same end. She identifies patriarchy as having diverse forms of and relationships between its structures in the public and private spheres, and yet still operates in a related fashion.
Walbys explanation sees the household and household production as being a key site of womens subordination but acknowledges that the domestic area is not the only one that women participate in. She shows how the concept of patriarchy is useful in explaining the relationship between womens subordination in the private and public arenas by showing that they work equally to achieve this subordination as well as supporting, reflecting and maintaining patriarchy itself.
Firstly, Walby points out that the structures of patriarchy differ in their form. The household has a different structure to other institutional forms, e.g., the workplace. This is an important point because if feminist theories of patriarchy are to stand they must show that patriarchy operates to the same end in both the private and public sphere, even if it uses different strategies, otherwise it could not be the main reason for the continuing inequality of women in both the private and public sphere.
Walby shows that within the private structure and the public structures, patriarchy does use different strategies to maintain gender inequality and these strategies both achieve the subordination of women. The household strategy is considered to be exclusionary and the public structures strategy as segregationist.
The exclusionary strategy in the private arena is based on household production. Application of this strategy in the domestic sphere depends on individual patriarchs controlling women in the private world of the home. The male patriarch in the household is both the oppressor and recipient of womens subordination. This strategy is direct V women are oppressed on a personal and individual basis by the individual patriarchs who share their lives.
The segregationist strategy used in the public patriarchy actively excludes women from the public arena using various structures to subordinate them. Application depends on controlling access to public arenas (Golombok and Fivush, 1995). This strategy does not benefit the institution directly, but it does ensure that individual patriarchs are privileged at the expense of women, and it maintains gender differences.
The way in which individual patriarchs and public institutions use there power further reveals how related the structures of patriarchy are. Public institutions do not have the power to oppress individual women or exclude them directly from public structures; this work is carried out in the home. Power in institutions is used collectively rather than individually, and the segregationist strategy pursued in the public arena maintains the exclusionary strategy used in private that in turn supports the segregationist strategy used in public. Yet, the institution can only pursue its segregationist strategy because the individual patriarch subordinates the individual women daily.
Walbys description of patriarchal structure looks powerful where there are fewer variables V e.g., when women and men seem to share the privilege of being exploited equally as a labour force working equal hours for equal pay in equal conditions (Haug, 1998). Haug (1998) cites research from East Germany which allows her to calculate that women do 4 hours and 41 minutes of domestic labour against mens 2 hours 38 minutes. Men split their extra two hours between leisure time and paid employment. She asks if it is a realistic possibility that patriarchy could be so completely and comprehensively asserted in as little as two hours a day.
Haug does not answer this question (perhaps it is rhetorical) but I think that Walbys (1990) theory of patriarchy is so powerful because it can reveal the answer to questions like this. Walbys theory stands because she shows that the power of patriarchy is asserted in both the private and public sphere simultaneously supporting, reflecting and maintaining itself, regardless of the economic and social framework that prevails. In Haugs case, patriarchy is not being asserted in two hours per day, rather it is an expression of patriarchy, i.e., a symbol of male privilege, which could only be expressed if the general strategies of patriarchal structure were intact and functioning.
This description of the relationship between patriarchy and structure demonstrates how inequalities in the workplace and in inequality in the home are two sides of the same coin and individual males are involved in the direct and indirect subordination of women simultaneously. The concepts that allowed Walby (1990) to define patriarchy as she has are discussed below, with reference to the work of second and third wave feminist thinkers.
Gender and Gender Inequalities in the Domestic and Occupational Divisions of Labour
Feminist concepts of gender and gender inequality allow us to refer more or less directly to a theoretical framework for understanding how they have come to form a basis that helps structure the whole of society according to the concept of patriarchy (Seidman, 1994). The gender differences, which lead to gender inequality in the division of labour, and presented as natural by patriarchy and unequal gender order has been normalised and legitimated by science, medicine and popular culture (Raymond, 1980). Feminists hold that this normalisation conceals the social and political formation of an unequal male order, arguing that gender difference is socially produced in order to sustain male dominance (Seidman, 1994).
Frable (1997) points out that there is no basis for a biological account of gender difference since gender identity can only refer to the psychological sense of being male or female. Gender is now understood as a social category (Frable, 1997) and so liberal feminism was correct to deny that nature requires rigidly separate and unequal social roles based on gender (Ruehl, 1983).
The patriarchal concepts of gender criticised by feminists are used to ascribe the roles that result in gender inequality in the division of labour (Sarup, 1993). This view is supported by Garnsey (1991) when she describes the division of labour as the differentiation of work tasks organised in structured patterns of activity. These activities are imposed and remunerated in a specific and unequal manner. When the evidence allows us to place the words according to gender into the last two sentences, and they new sentences mean something, then the concepts of patriarchy argued by feminists begin to take on an explanatory power.
Liberal feminist provided concepts of gender that account for pay differentials and might even account for why women can receive less money than men for doing the same job (Golombok and Fivush, 1995). They can be used to explain why the political and social change which has allowed substantially greater numbers of women to enter the labour force has also concentrated them in the poorest employment (Golombok and Fivush, 1995). This is especially so if Garnseys (1991) description of the differentiated and imposed tasks of the division of labour is used to structure the argument.
However, they do not explain the reasons behind womens oppression and in order to do this Marxist feminists to began to argue that gender inequality has been shaped by capitalist development, highlighting explanations which connect gender inequality with economic needs (e.g., Mitchell J, 1966 used Marxist theory in Women: The Longest Revolution). However, while most feminists see the close links between the organisation of production and the division of labour many thought that there was a limited future for feminism under theories which reduced the specifics of womens lives to the extent that the subjective and interpersonal flavour was not captured (e.g., Firestone S, 1970; The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for Feminist Revolution).
The socialist or Marxist feminist proposition positions class as the most basic form of human conflict but this position was challenged by radical feminists according to whom, equality does not mean being like men (Sarup, 1993). Radical feminists successfully argued for the substitution of gender conflict as the source of all other conflict and fighting for equality in the occupational field became subordinate to challenging the social and cultural order (Sarup, 1993).
Asserting that a female identity and subjectivity could only be defined without reference to the patriarchal framework, many radical feminists looked for ways to identify and develop a female culture and way of being which was free from the influences of patriarchy. For example, Irigaray (1985) proposed that this be done through the promotion of entre-femmes, a kind of social form specific to women. A cultural terrain distinct from womens usual site – the family.
Feminist writers have taken the family as a central feature of their explanation of patriarchy but they do not always agree about its role in shaping women to serve patriarchal ends in domesticity and work (Sarup, 1993). Liberal feminism recognized the gendered, social roles of wife and mother but advocated choice for women with respect to marriage, family, career etc., proposing to achieve this through a process of education and reform (Seidman, 1994). In radical feminism, the family is viewed as a major institution whose role is to foster gender inequality through the socialisation of children and subordinate women by forcing them to conform to feminine stereotypes (e.g, Greer G, 1970, The Female Eunuch). Postmodern feminism based on Foucaults work explicitly criticises the emphasis on the family as the unit in charge (Sarup, 1993).
In order to carry out its functions, the family relies on differential relationships (Broderick, 1993). Coole et al (1990) point out that the functional needs served by the nuclear element of the nuclear family are neither exclusive nor universal which indicates that differentiation it is not essential to the performance of the vital functions of the family. This means that the social roles of wife and mother as conceived by liberal feminism are a gendered and manufactured choice. The differential relationships that identify the roles of wife and mother are part of the nuclear family model promoted by patriarchal ideologies for more than one hundred and fifty years (Coole et al, 1990; p43). This suggests that the one or some of the roles ascribed to the family by other feminists may be more accurate.
Despite the differences, feminisms main assertion, that gender identities and roles are socially formed, makes the theoretical proposition that a social and political explanation (patriarchy) can be given for male dominance and patterns of gender inequality possible (Seidman, 1994).
The strength of feminist perspectives on patriarchy is that most of them have been developed from the standpoint of womens lives (Seidman, 1994) and yet this is also a criticism K what womens lives does the standpoint reflect? If feminist perspectives of patriarchy are to be useful they must not only make sense structurally, they must also make sense of all womens lives.
Lesbian, Black, Third World and post-colonial critics have demonstrated some of the limitations of western feminist agendas that prefer patriarchal accounts of equality to racialised and cultural accounts (Burman, 1998). For example, the promotion of reproductive choices by western feminists in the 1970s focussed on contraceptive and abortion rights. However, many women at that time were being discriminated against because of their colour, sexuality or physical abilities and were fighting to keep their children, born and unborn (Burman, 1998).
Whilst these criticisms of western feminist raise questions about how and why the priorities of the issues and campaigns these women cho (o)se to think and act on were agreed, they do not suggest an alternative account of inequality in which the public and private oppression of women is explained (Seidman, 1994). Critics are however right to point out that the feminist account of patriarchy developed by western liberal feminists needs to be expanded to ensure that the experiences of more women can be included but they must also acknowledge that the priorities and concerns of liberal feminists have resulted in some of the most far reaching and important education and legal reforms of this century taking place in the last the last twenty years.
These reforms particularly reflect the western feminist concern with differential relationships. In the area of social policy and the law, reformers have begun to focus on protecting the individual rights of vulnerable household members V women, children, and the elderly (MacLean & Kurczewzki 1994) at the expense of patriarchal privilege. Crucially, whilst the law has become aware of the potential for the exploitation of family members and in acting underlines the importance of public attitudes and legislation in maintaining gender inequalities and differential relationships; the reform approach cannot be seen as an open acknowledgement that socialisation patterns and family arrangements are male dominated (MacLean & Kurczewzki 1994).
Following the vote of the General Synod in 1992, the ordination of women in the Church of England has challenged hundreds of years of patriarchal authority and tradition in the church. The implicit relationship between individual men and institutions can be viewed explicitly in the complex provision made to protect those who are individually opposed using the churchs own structures.
Regardless of the refusal of key patriarchal institutions to acknowledge the extent to which man have been and are systematically and deliberately privileged by their structures and actions, these dominant forms of power can help produce social change, even if they are only attempting to keep in touch with contemporary society (Cooper, 1995). The process of power is therefore open to change and feminist theorists have shown using their account of patriarchy that the by products of power (e.g., inequality) can be mediated by the institution which represents it and moderated to be less damaging to individuals (Cooper, 1989).
Burman E (ed.) (1998). Deconstructing Feminist Psychology. Sage: London.
Broderick CB (1993), Understanding Family Process. Sage: USA.
Coole A, Harman H and Hewitt H (1990) Changing Patterns of Family Life, in Eekelaar J and MacLean M (eds.) (1994), A Reader On Family Law, Oxford University Press: England, pp 31:62 (idem. The Family Way, Institute of Public Policy Research, 1990, chap. 2)
Cooper D (1995). Power in Struggle: Feminism, Sexuality and the State. Open University Press: Buckingham.
Frable DES (1997). Gender, Racial, Ethnic, Sexual, and Class Identities. Annual Review of Psychology (48): 139 -162.
Garnsey, E (1981). The Rediscovery of the Divisions of Labour. Theory and Society (10): 337.