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23 February 2023

Angela Saini: “Societies haven’t always been male-dominated”

The British science writer argues that patriarchy is newer and more fragile than we think.

By Alona Ferber

Among Bonobos, one of our closest evolutionary relatives, females dominate. Smaller than their male peers, female Bonobos cement their power not through brute force but social strategy. They form intimate networks that prevent any male dominating the group.

This fact – once controversial but now agreed upon by primatologists – raises interesting questions for mankind. It suggests that physical power doesn’t guarantee political power, and that patriarchy is not intrinsic to human nature. After all, if female apes, our genetic kin, can form powerful social alliances, so can women.

Since patriarchy is not necessarily in our nature, then, how did it emerge? And why is it so widespread? Was there a moment in history when the “kingdom of the fathers”, as the American poet and feminist Adrienne Rich called it, began?

These questions drive the British science writer Angela Saini’s new book The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule. In her previous books Saini investigated the history of race science and the way that sexism has impacted scientific research. In fact, it was reader reactions to her 2017 work, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong, that first gave her the idea for digging up patriarchy’s roots.

“It was the one question I was always asked when Inferior came out,” Saini, 42, recalls. “I had a chapter, I think it was titled ‘Why Men Rule’, and we know from anthropological evidence – in fact, it’s not even very contested anymore – that human societies haven’t always been male-dominated the way they are now. Obviously, the structures we’ve created have happened over time. The question I was constantly asked by readers was: how did we get to here if it hasn’t always been this way?”

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When we spoke over video call from her home in New York, Saini told me she was surprised by how little literature there is exploring the origins of patriarchy. Wearing a black jumper and her black hair cut short, Saini chose her words slowly, careful not to overstate the significance of any findings. “Quite often there is this idea that, right from the beginning, it has always been this way, and that in fighting for equality, we’re doing something new,” she said. “Actually the historical evidence for that doesn’t really stack up. There is much more variation, and in fact the further back you go into history the more social variation you see in how people live.”

There is no single answer to the question of when patriarchy first emerged. The word is commonly used as a catch-all for women’s oppression; it is misleadingly understood as a “very rigid monolith that has this force over us”, Saini says, as if “however hard we try, we can’t push against it”. Some people might not even see it as a political system but as “the natural way that humans live” – as if this is the way things have always been.

But there has never been one kind of patriarchy, and the set-up has always been precarious, manifesting in a “piecemeal way”. It is an order upheld by subtle, individual decisions, as well as social contracts, laws and government policy. We see it in women taking their husband’s name after marriage, for instance – which has remained common despite its patriarchal significance. “In so many mundane ways, we act out these systems,” Saini says. “I think we need to question what we’re doing.”

Her book traces the “remarkably thin” literature on patriarchy’s origins – from the 1680 tract Patriarcha by the English political theorist Robert Filmer, which argued that “the state was like a family, meaning kings were effectively the fathers and their subjects the children”, to today. It was a question that preoccupied philosophers in the 19th century. In 1884, Friedrich Engels published his theory that human civilisation involved a “world historical defeat of the female sex”. Like a number of his contemporaries, he argued that primitive society was organised around “mother right”, inheritance through the female line, but that as society progressed it became patriarchal. For him the transition between the two represented, in Saini’s words, “a tragic destruction of women’s freedoms”.

Engels’s theory continued to influence feminist thinking for decades but it wasn’t until nearly a century later that a narrative emerged of when that “tragic destruction” occurred. DNA evidence now seems to confirm a theory developed by the Lithuanian-born archaeologist Marija Gimbutas from the 1950s to the 1990s. Around 4,500 years ago “Kurgans” from the Eurasian steppes migrated to old Europe and parts of Asia, bringing with them male-dominated culture. Gimbutas believed that the societies overrun by these invaders were originally female-centred and goddess-worshipping.

Perhaps this theory is a little too neat, Saini suggests. Would these ancient societies not have resisted a violent new patriarchy? Can this development in history really be deemed responsible for a world, thousands of years later, in which the majority of human society is increasingly male-dominated – and women increasingly restricted?

There is no easy narrative arc. Saini writes that “gendered rules” start to appear at the point when the early states and empires began to expand, as far back as 6,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. Rulers needed women to have children and men to be warriors. This shift reshaped power dynamics in the home. Along the way, Saini notes, the institution of marriage, informed by the antecedent of slavery, isolated and weakened women.

Male-dominated society, developed over many centuries, was not the same everywhere. “Patriarchy is thousands of years old in some parts of the world,” Saini says, “but in other parts of the world, it is within living memory that it was introduced. We forget that.”

In Kerala, southern India, for instance, members of the Nair caste traditionally lived in large households organised around an older female. Women could have more than one sexual partner and men would help to raise their sisters’ children, not their own. Unlike under patriarchal systems, women were not uprooted upon marriage to live with their husband’s family. But British colonialism brought with it Victorian and Christian sensibilities that questioned this social organisation. Kerala only officially abolished matriliny (tracing descent through the female line) in 1976.

Saini believes we are mistaken when we treat these matrilineal societies as outliers. “The stranger thing for me is not that they exist. The stranger thing is that patriarchy is so widespread now. How did it spread its tentacles and become so popular?”

Part of the answer lies in colonialism and imperialism. Throughout history empires and states have exported fixed ideas about gender roles. “We do need to get a hold of that history,” Saini says, “not least because there’s this very common narrative that Europe somehow invented gender equality and is now the one to export it, which is just very strange when you understand the other side of that of that narrative.”

Politics, of course, can dramatically change gender relations. In the Soviet Union state policy led to major shifts. In 1918 Lenin said that “one of the primary tasks of the Soviet Republic is to abolish all restrictions on women’s rights”. In 1920 Russia was the first country to legalise abortion and childcare was freely available under Soviet rule. The effects of this are still evident today, says Saini, for instance in the higher levels of women from former Soviet countries working in scientific fields.

So society can change, but our ability to envision this is limited by how our contemporary assumptions about men and women colour our readings of the past, and of our biological natures. “We would do well to think of biological sex, like biological race as an excuse rather than a cause for any sexism,” Saini cites the anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo as saying. Our ancestors did not necessarily share the gender stereotyping of today, either. There is evidence of ancient women warriors and even – as per the archaeologist Ian Hodder – “aggressively egalitarian” communities, where gender may have been “fluid”, to use an anachronistic term.

Patriarchies can be dismantled – the key is to engage with the specifics and question the subtle ways in which we are complicit. And the struggle should be global, Saini says. “If we care”, she says, about women’s oppression in places like Iran and Afghanistan, as well as the West, “we should be seeking out those feminists” and working with them across cultural differences.

Oppressive systems, Saini says, “divide people deliberately”. They do this by fuelling an unhelpful “politics of anger”. But Saini believes what differentiates us as a species could ultimately save us. “Our capacity to love others who aren’t related to us, to be able to feel their pain and understand them. That, I think, is the underlying thing we need to cling to.”

Angela Saini’s “The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule” is published by Fourth Estate on 2 March 2023

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