Well, not much, anyway. Let me explain. (And yeah, I realize I’m courting trouble here.)
Before anyone starts throwing rotten tomatoes at their computer screens, I’ll give you an actual thesis statement: Patriarchies (note the plural, she says pedantically) have existed in many parts of the globe over many centuries. To call the present-day United States a patriarchy is just inaccurate. Yes, male privilege is still the rule rather than the exception. But to collapse all societies including our own into this single category ignores the substantial cracks in the edifice of male power today. The term patriarchy vastly overgeneralizes. It’s ahistorical.
In the gender and religion class I’m helping teach, we’ve been discussing the patriarchies of the ancient Middle East. Patriarchy was invented, according to Gerda Lerner’s now-classic study The Creation of Patriarchy, when humans morphed from hunter-gatherers into settled farmers. Increased productivity from agriculture meant people could begin to accumulate property for the first time. Control of property gave men both a motive for controlling productive and reproductive resources – slaves of both sexes and fertile “free” women. Holding property also gave dominant men leverage in controlling subordinate persons.
What, exactly, did this patriarchal control look like? Relying largely on Lerner’s account, Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam describes this history for ancient Mesopotamia. In ancient Assyria, laws were geared to give men as much control as possible, up to and including selling wives and children into slavery (or pawning them in cases of debt) and killing them under certain circumstances. Virgins essentially belonged to their fathers and were sold into marriage; virginity was thus an asset that belonged to the patriarchs. Veiling and seclusion marked wives as respectable – and their opposites, harlots and slaves, as not. (Concubines occupied a middle position in this hierarchy.) Men were free to screw around with slaves, prostitutes, and concubines. Women could be put to death for adultery.
Initially, under the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1760 B.C.E.), women – especially wives – did have a few rights that mitigated this bleak situation. They could hold property, practice a number of occupations, make contracts, and sign pre-nuptial agreements that might spare them from debt slavery or other abuses. Wives could hold slaves as prostitutes and pimp them out, which just goes to show how the upper-crust women were complicit in the system and profited from it.
Over time, though, women’s status went from bad to worse throughout the Middle East, due largely to the increasingly warfare and militarization in the region. Where Zoroastrianism reigned several centuries before the birth of Jesus, women lost rights precipitously, and – as Ahmed puts it – “Elements of these Zoroastrian regulations suggest that notionally women were somewhere between personhood and thingness – as evidenced by wives being legally loaned for sexual and other services.” (Ahmed, 20–21) A man could loan out his wife to another man without her consent; she had to give him sex and raise his children if he was a widower. But any offspring still belonged to her lawful husband, in accordance with the idea that “a woman is a field. … All which grows there belongs to its owner, even if he did not plant it.” (Ahmed, 20) Disobedience was grounds for a man to divorce his wife and invalidated any pre-nup. Incestuous marriage was held to be pious and a smart way to outfox demons, with the result that men married their own mothers and sisters and daughters.
What sets modern America apart from ancient Mesopotamia? Mainly, the control of women isn’t nearly systematic enough to qualify as patriarchy. In fact, patriarchy has been in a slow though uneven decline ever since the early days of Christianity. Yes, I know that Christianity has much to answer for in its history of misogyny and loathing of sex and the body. But compared to a society where women had no sexual determination, the ability to opt for celibacy offered women at least the chance to say no.
Fast-forwarding to today: I realize we’re still far from full equality. We haven’t had a female president. Women are still a minority in each house of Congress. Female CEOs are scarce on the ground, too. Absolutely, there are fuckwits of both sexes who’d like to give the state far-reaching control over women’s reproductive lives. People like Leslee Unruh and Ann Coulter prove the point that those who’d like to restore patriarchy need female collaborators.
But the fact remains that American women do have the right to abortion, which fundamentally and fatally undermines male control of women’s reproductive capacities. We have a viable female candidate for the presidency, even if her campaign has been beset by media sexism. We’ve gone from having just a token woman or two in Congress to women making up 16 percent of each chamber – not to mention our first female Speaker of the House. (Even if I don’t always agree with Nancy Pelosi, I’m mostly glad she got the job.) Ann Coulter has a megaphone but I’m not sure anyone other than hypnotized wingnuts take her seriously. I’ll admit Leslee Unruh scares me, especially since her latest brainstorm, a new ballot initiative banning abortion in South Dakota that might actually pass since it has a rape/incest exemption. If you want to convince yourself that the patriarchy has planted pod people among us, just read The Well-Timed Period’s take on Unruh.
But Unruh is just one super-scary chick, up against legions of young women who believe that they get to do with their bodies what they will. Women in the United States now have very substantial reproductive and sexual freedom. Even something as apparently trivial as no-strings-attached hookups undercuts patriarchal control of women (unless the women involved are being coerced). I’m not saying women should all go out and get laid to smash the patriarchy. But women’s sexuality and fertility was the main “resource” captured by patriarchy in the first place. Where women dissociate the two and claim an autonomous sexuality, true patriarchy cannot exist. This (and not the welfare of the fetus or even anti-sex hysteria) is the rock-bottom reason why right-wingers froth at the mouth over abortion rights.
Patriarchy is still absolutely a useful term. It can explain a great deal about the history behind today’s gender woes. But we’d be better off not just intellectually but politically if we reserved it for those situations where it really fits: Afghan fathers who sell their 13-year-old daughters into marriage with men four decades their senior. Or polygamist Mormon men who do the same with their daughters in Texas. When feminists use “patriarchy” imprecisely (as happens all the time in the blogosphere), it diminishes those abuses while painting us into a corner, politically. If patriarchy is timeless, then what’s the point in blaming it, much less fighting it? If instead we note that male control of women is no longer monolithic, we might have better luck dismantling its remnants – and inspiring others to join us.