Are men and women naturally different, and do the roles socially assigned to us proceed from those differences? Refreshingly, science journalist and broadcaster Angela Saini begins her stirring interrogation of patriarchy by arguing that it is neither constant, inevitable nor unshakeable. “By thinking about gendered inequality as rooted in something unalterable within us, we fail to see it for what it is,” she writes, “something more fragile that has had to be constantly remade and reasserted.”
Anthropologists, political theorists, feminists and, importantly, patriarchs themselves have often reached across time and space to look for the origins of sex and gender division. In 1680, Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha invoked ancient and biblical authorities as evidence that patriarchy (with the divine right of kings at its head) was natural and ordered by God. Even when later revolutionaries rejected the idea of a king as the head of a nation-family, they were reluctant to let go of elite male power. Thomas Jefferson wrote, creepily, that “the tender breasts of ladies were not formed for political convulsion”.
Friedrich Engels broke with this narrative when he claimed that the transition from ancient matriarchies to patriarchy represented “the world historical defeat of the female sex” – a calamity that reduced women to the status of property. His view was simplistic, but it did begin to challenge the idea that male dominance was inherent. In the 20th century, Simone de Beauvoir spent the introduction and the first eight chapters of The Second Sex discussing how sex and gender had been constructed through science and history, demolishing notions of essentialism.
Saini builds on De Beauvoir’s approach, again viewing the question from a scientific and a historical perspective. Nearly 75 years on, there is plenty more to say. While elite male power might seem universal, it’s not. As Saini shows, women in matrilineal societies, such as Nairs of Kerala, the Khasis of Meghalaya, or the Mosuo of western China, have often exercised (and in some cases still do) considerable freedom around sex, labour, child rearing and property. Even within patriarchal societies, patriarchy isn’t consistent. It manifests in different forms, which change over time.
It’s logical, and worth noting in the current climate, that many of the societies where women enjoyed more power and greater equality were also more relaxed about gender identity: either recognising multiple or mutable genders, or differentiating little between masculine and feminine roles, or both. The strict division of people at birth into two distinct sexes – supposedly on the basis of biology, but with the intent to determine their social and cultural roles – is a hallmark of patriarchy. (As Amia Srinivasan wrote recently in her indispensable The Right to Sex, sex is “a cultural thing posing as a natural one. Sex, which feminists have taught us to distinguish from gender, is itself already gender in disguise.”)
Saini gives the example of ancient Athens, where women were defined and controlled: they could not own property, and could claim legal protection only through their husbands or fathers. This wasn’t easy to impose – Athenian patriarchy had to reinforce its ideas about male dominance and female submission constantly. They were challenged internally by individuals and externally by societies such as Egypt, where gender roles were less rigid. “Sometimes violence, or the threat of it, was used, but more often it was formed by the layer-upon-layer creation of social norms, laws, and edicts,” she writes. Some people’s bodies didn’t fit with these prescriptions, and they were treated as abhorrent. Babies born with visible intersex traits might be murdered. While policing the boundaries of sex and gender, patriarchies have fetishised and demonised womanhood: “In one part of northeastern Thailand, the weapon used by people to overcome evil spirits is a wooden penis.”
De Beauvoir believed that the advent of private property was what had “dethroned” women; Saini argues that the causes of patriarchy are more complex, but identifies the rise of the first states as a significant turning point. “The moment gender becomes salient is when it becomes an organising principle, when enormous populations are categorised in ways that deliberately ignore their everyday realities and force them to live in ways they may not otherwise choose.”
While she shows that matrilineal societies can present a wider range of options, Saini doesn’t suggest that putting women in charge automatically makes things better. The idea that women are naturally gentle, non-violent, more deeply connected to nature and so on is itself patriarchal, embodying yet again that essentialism on which the whole edifice rests. “These beliefs squeeze women all over the world into one narrow version of what women are, and strain uncomfortably when it becomes clear that individuals do not always fit these divisions,” Saini writes. “What this kind of gender essentialism does … is ignore that women are also capable of cruelty, coercion, and violence. Men, too, can be nurturing and creative.”
Saini looks at examples of radical change within patriarchal societies using the examples of the Soviet Union, where restrictions on women voting, working and fighting were substantially reduced, and the Iranian revolution, after which restrictions on women were harshly imposed. Neither story is simple. Though women in Soviet states moved much closer to equality by some markers (in 1982, 40% of women in Austria were classified as housewives, contrasted with just 5% across the iron curtain in Hungary), traditional roles proved hard to shift. Some women wanted more domestic lives for themselves; plenty of men were reluctant to take on an equal share of housework and childcare.
The backlash against equality in post-communist states has been fierce, as we can see in Hungary and Russia: “Since taking power, Putin has become known as a defender of so-called ‘traditional’ values, in favour of heterosexual families, and against feminism and the rights of sexual minorities, particularly those who are non-binary, queer, or transgender.” Meanwhile, in Iran, even the most ruthless regime has found it impossible to crush resistance to extreme patriarchal authority altogether. Women and men alike challenge gendered restrictions, even on pain of death.
By the end of this fascinating and insightful book, Saini is optimistic: big shifts in the status of women have occurred in the past, and will in the future. As she says, the forces competing for power will sometimes produce more authoritarian societies and sometimes more liberated ones. “What we call patriarchy can be thought of as a set of factors in that ongoing conflict. It’s about people looking to assert dominance over others through their own appeals to nature, history, tradition, and the divine. Their claims are invented, adjusted, embellished, and reinvented all the time, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing. But the fight for a fairer and more equal society is constantly repositioning itself, too. It doesn’t stand still either.” Change isn’t only possible, then, it’s inevitable. Our job is to help it move in the right direction.
• The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule is published by 4th Estate (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.