“The Creation of Patriarchy”

Gerda Lerner. The Creation of Patriarchy. (New York: Oxford, 1986.)

I started my prelim reading with Gerda Lerner’s classic “The Creation of Patriarchy.” Although I know how to do the “graduate skim” and have even been advised on skimming “best practices” by my chair I wanted to take the time to actually read this book, to savor it, and really think about it.

Previous to this piece, and separate from prelims reading, I had read Sherri Ortner’s “The Virgin and the State” in which Ortner discusses the seeming links and the possible links to the control of women’s sexuality and the formation of the state. In that essay Ortner calls for other scholars to explore the possible connections she raises in more detail.

Lerner does just this and references Ortner in the footnotes. (As an aside, Ornter and Lerner’s work, in 77 and 78 respectively, differs in substantial ways from that of, say, Heidi Hartmann’s 1979 piece “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism.” I hope to tease out more of these differences, their sources, and their outcomes as I make my way through the reading list.)

Lerner grounds her project in several related questions. The one which reoccurs most throughout the book is, “What could explain women’s historical ‘complicity’ in upholding the patriarchal system that subordinated them and in transmitting that system, generation after generation, to their children of both sexes?” (6)

It’s a brilliant question and part of its brilliance comes from its simplicity. It seems like an obvious question for any feminist researcher. If patriarchy is not god-given then it must have come to be at some time and before that time women must have had roughly equal power with men. If that was the case then when, how, and WHY would women participate in creating and sustaining a system in which they were subordinated. Nevertheless, I just began reading a book, purportedly feminist and transnational, in which the author seems to genuinely believe that patriarchy has always been a given of human social relations.

Lerner spends the first two chapters explaining the deficiencies in existing models of the creation of patriarchy and elaborating her own “working hypothesis.” Within her working hypothesis Lerner speculates that roughly egalitarian hunter-gatherer tribes began to divide labor based on sex so that mothers could care for children which increased the survival rate of the tribe as a unit. Lerner speculates that these societies were often matrilineal and matrilocal though they eventually shifted patrilineal and patrilocal. More complex societies began to divide labor not by sex but by notions of power, specifically a patriarchal power in which some men had power over other men and over all women (41, 53).

Lerner goes on to argue that the emergence of the archaic state is based on the solidification of separate classes and a decrease in class mobility all of which is based on the development of slavery. Within “The Woman Slave” Lerner uses linguistic evidence and secondary sources on the history of slavery to show that the first slaves were women (79). More importantly Lerner argues that slavery was able to be institutionalized because men had learned that they could permanently subordinate a class of persons from the process of subordinating women to men. As Lerner so concisely puts it, “the oppression of women antedates slavery and makes it possible” (77).

In “The Wife and The Concubine” and “The Veiled Woman” Lerner discusses the types of roles women could occupy within patriarchy. Wife, concubine and slave women were all oppressed by men but had varying class advantages depending on their status. Veiling, as a practice, was instituted so that these differences in women’s status would be perceivable instantly, by looking.

The second half of the book from “Goddesses” through “Symbols” feel rushed. The first half of the book is exemplary because it goes into detail taking a new look at existing historical evidence and challenging assumptions about the development of patriarchy and the state. For most of this portion Lerner stays in the same geographical region and looks at several different types of evidence progressing through time towards the development of states. However, the penultimate “Symbols” expands Lerner’s arguments to Plato’s Greece. The jump in time and place feel forced as does Lerner’s argument.

The first half of the book is an excellent analysis of the gradual processes by which women were complicit in their own subjugation in the process of creating patriarchy.


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