Biology and Patriarchy

For many years now, when I teach literature, especially tales that highlight the roles of women–whether Penelope fending off suitors while her husband Odysseus sleeps his way across the Mediterranean or Janie Crawford dealing with her husband Jody’s jealous possessiveness or even the troubles of the Bennet sisters when Lydia runs away with Wickham–I always stop for a bit to discuss what I consider the biological flaw of patriarchy.  I start by asking the students to define patriarchy.  They immediately suggest it means men run things.  We refine that point to men in power and men having wealth until eventually they get around to the nub of the matter:  power, wealth, and land passes down from fathers to sons.

From there, I ask them what underlying biological reality makes this system problematic.  Lots of guesses ensue–men don’t always have sons, men sometimes die before women, women should have wealth too–so it takes a while to get to the one simple fact that men do not bear the children, and therefore men (until the 1980s and the advent of DNA testing) could not know for sure if their sons were really their sons:  a woman knows a child is hers because it comes out of her body, but her husband has historically had no means of knowing.  So what? Well, from there, we jump back to the definition: to ensure that fathers pass power and wealth to their sons and not some interloper’s offspring, patriarchal society constructs an entire system of rules that segregate and control women, that keep women away from possible interlopers.  Now, I do not advocate interloping, but if we look at the rules through this lens, we can begin to understand their weirdness:  In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jody makes Janie tie up her bounteous hair because other men have admired and even attempted to touch it.  He considers it his property.  Rules about women’s hair abound across cultures–somehow hair gets tied with women’s sexuality.  In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy keeps secret the scandal about his fifteen-year-old sister Georgiana nearly running away with Wickham because it could hurt her chances of marrying when she comes of age; a flighty teenaged girl might mean a flighty wife leaving a man unsure of his offspring.  When Lydia does run away with Wickham, the odious Mr. Collins uncharitably writes a distinctly non-consoling condolence letter to Mr. Bennet that first says, “The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison to this” and then goes on to add view of society”: “this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family?”  (One can laugh if one did not remember that women have indeed been killed for less.) Thus, not only does flightiness ruin the girl (Lydia is after all only sixteen), it ruins the sisters of the girl, it ruins the entire family.

This idea about patriarchy makes for interesting thought and interesting discussion in class.  And today, I found that my idea well-expressed in an interesting article about mother-child relationships and anthropology, “Women and Children First” by Eric Michael Johnson.  The article addresses in part the work of Sarah Hrdy, who examined anthropology and evolution from the perspective of women–that is, looking at how females and their offspring adapted over time, rather than assuming that evolution centered on the male.  And there in the middle of the article was the very idea I talk about:

As it turns out, there is a direct connection between male-biased societies and the attitudes expressed towards women. Research in cultural anthropology in the decades after Bowlby has shown that what anthropologists call “patrilocal societies” – societies in which men stay in the communities they are born into while women marry into outlying regions – tend to be more patriarchal, with an emphasis on controlling women’s freedom of movement, expression and reproduction. Societies with more flexible residence patterns, in which females have the option to remain in their home group near helpful kin or to move between groups, tend to be more egalitarian with higher levels of female control over their own lives and the lives of their children. Hunter-gatherers, the foraging societies that most closely approximate how our Pleistocene ancestors would have lived, are generally multi-local, with parents opportunistically moving between father’s and mother’s kin, or even joining some new group.

However, most farming societies today are based on patrilocal residence – and this suggests that a dramatic shift occurred when humans first invented agriculture approximately 12,000 years ago.

“Over time, as populations built up, as property became much more important – and it also became important to defend property – that’s when boundaries became less porous and men stayed together,” Hrdy says. With patrilocality and the influence of patrilineal descent, there emerged a heightened concern over female chastity. Control over women became increasingly important, and reduced autonomy for mothers came at the expense of children. “While patriarchal ideologies promote fertility,” Hrdy says, “they undermine child well-being.”

Words to point to the next time we hit one of those literary high notes about women and marriage and men.


One thought on “Biology and Patriarchy

  1. Or to remember when one of our sanctimonious republican politicians wants to restrict the rights of women – much like they do in strict Muslim societies.

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