is one of the oldest foundations of family life that has supported the functioning of families for centuries. Patriarchy is broadly defined as “the sociological condition where male members of a society tend to predominate in positions of power” (Wikipedia, 2006). Max Weber defines patriarchy in the following way:
the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house, the sib elder over the members of the household and sib; the rule of the master and patron over bondsmen, serfs, freedmen; of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials’ of the prince over house- and court-officials, nobles of office, clients, vassals; of the patrimonial lord and sovereign prince over the ‘subjects (Gingrich, 2002).
Whereas the utility of patriarchy in more massive social structures is a matter for a separate debate, this paper will consider arguments in favor of patriarchal arrangements within families. Inside families, patriarchy results in a specific power structure and power distribution that can provide the backbone for any family arrangements. At the same time, these benefits are accompanied by severe shortcomings that can decrease the viability of the family.
History of Patriarchy
Historically, patriarchy evolved as a form of power distribution between genders alternative to another type, matriarchy that included distribution of power skewed toward women. Clare Janaki Holden and Ruth Mace, researchers from University College London, UK, proved that patriarchy appeared with the introduction of cattle and development of “bridewealth” (Bhattacharya, 2003). When herds of cattle became inheritable, the society became “patrilineal,” which means that inheritance was mostly occurring along male genealogical lines (Bhattacharya, 2003). Men accumulated wealth in the form of cattle to support as many wives as they could.
Thus, patriarchal structures appeared where men were ready to control resources and take on full responsibility for the family. Giving the controlling position to the man is an efficient way to alert the male head of the family to the role of the supporter and breadwinner. The man who ‘takes’ a wife or several wives becomes automatically vested with the responsibility to provide food and shelter for them. In more sophisticated social arrangements, the man often becomes responsible for ensuring the psychological well-being of his family. It is particularly noticeable in Islam where the man is supposed to be kind to his wives and share the love between them.
Power Distribution in Families under Patriarchy
Since the dominant role is ascribed to the man in patriarchal arrangements, the woman’s role becomes supportive. She “engaged in domestic labor … for the benefit of the entire family” (Park, n.d., p. 44). The woman thus makes her contribution to the family’s well-being by performing a range of domestic duties. At the same time, the man typically controls financial resources, acting as the owner of household assets and/or bread-winner.
It should be noted that patriarchal arrangements can differ in many aspects, including the distribution of duties, rights awarded to women etc. Besides, patriarchal systems undergo transformation over time. For example, in Korean society, the patriarch “in his position of absolute power and authority at the apex of the family structure, controlled all the members of the family” (Park, n.d., p. 44). In this way, the man in this position became the authority not only for his wife, but also for his children and their children.
The patrilineal inheritance results in the woman leaving her family to join her husband’s. Since she cannot contribute to the continuation of her father’s line in contrast to sons, daughters will often be treated as less important than sons. In extreme cases, this can even lead to infanticide as daughters are killed in infancy in households where the challenge of providing nutrition and care for them till the time they grow up to leave the family does not justify the economic benefits of raising a daughter. Joining the husband’s family, the woman is also faced with the difficulty in adaptation and lower social status compared to other members of the household. These issues emerge because patriarchal families most typically involve a number of nuclear families living in the same household headed by the patriarch.
Patriarchy as Foundation of the Family
Although patriarchy is most often criticized for exploiting the woman and depriving her of rights, there are also weighty arguments in its favor. One of them is the already mentioned responsibility with which the man is vested. Transferring the burden of providing for the family to the man, patriarchy relieves the woman of the money-making challenge. In most modern patriarchal systems, she is not prohibited from taking a job; however, her earnings are not regarded as crucial to the family’s survival, and in the world dominated by such concepts the man is encouraged always to rely on his own ability to support himself and his family financially. The change in this trend one observes today most likely reflects departure from traditional patriarchal ideals.
Patriarchy is also believed to be accompanied by more certain paternity and greater paternal investment in children. Stigmatization of illegitimate children is hardly a positive phenomenon; however, it does provide incentives for births occurring within two-parent families where both parents will contribute to the process upbringing. In this way, conservatives believe that patriarchal families “can provide the best combination of quantity of children and quality of their upbringing” (Sailer, 2006). Indeed, rising illegitimacy as well as early dissolution of marriage may contribute to the psychological well-being of parents who do not receive the stigma for their sexual behavior, but for children this inevitably means distress and loss of parental care. In many cases, weak paternal support results in loss of opportunities stemming from financial troubles that beset single mothers. Traditionally, the role of the patriarch was grounded in economic power and control of the family’s wealth. Arguably, this led to the distribution of power in society in which men occupied the leading positions in politics and economics, lucrative posts in business and through various means including social network, discrimination of women, and lack of adjustment of jobs to women’s needs maintain these positions. In this way, the single mother cut off from the breadwinner often finds herself in a dismal situation.
Critique of Conservative Ideology
For all the benefits of patriarchy, it is also quite possible to identify its shortcomings that undermine family structures. For example, by placing the male in the position of responsibility, the woman is deprived of such role. As a result, girls often develop a high sense of risk and less initiative. The subsequent family life can further suppress development of independence in women and in this way leave them unprepared to be heads of households, the need that can often arise with the husband’s death or a more frequent scenario, divorce.
Besides, the preservation of male dominance perpetuates women’s powerlessness. On the one hand, children in two-parent families have more opportunities. On the other, women forced to turn to men for financial empowerment are both prone to use tricks to net wealthy men and tolerate abuse for the sake of remaining in the complete family. In any case, as women’s position in society improves, patriarchal structures undergo deep transformation as power structures undergo inevitable reshuffle in the direction of women’s empowerment.
Whatever view of patriarchy a person takes, it is certainly an important trend in the development of families. For centuries, most societies around the world existed relying on patriarchal structures of power distribution, giving most of the power to men. Patriarchy provides several benefits such as increase in male responsibility for family well-being, greater certainty in paternity definition, and increased paternal investment. However, it is also associated with significant downside, most notably female disempowerment. That is why patriarchal structures are undergoing gradual transformation these days.
Bhattacharya, S. (2003, October 1). Cattle ownership makes it a man’s world. NewScientist.com. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn4220
Gringich, P. (2002). Sociology 250: Weber on gender and patriarchy. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/o2502.htm
Park, B.J. (n.d.). Patriarchy in Korean Society: Substance and Appearance of Power. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://www.koreasociety.org/KS_curriculum/GKK/06-Boo_Jin_Park-PatriarchyInKoreanSociety.pdf
Sailer, S. (2006, March 5). The Return Of Patriarchy? VDARE. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://www.vdare.com/sailer/060305_patriarchy.htm
Wikipedia. (2006, June 12). Patriarchy. Retrieved June 12, 2006, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarchy
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