Anthropology, Top Stories

On the Nature of Patriarchy

By their very nature, it is said, women are the source of nearly all discord and litigation within the community. Through their ceaseless enticements to adultery, their notorious insensitivity to the sensible commands of father, husband, and brother, and their mindless passion for gossip and intrigue—in these and countless other ways women are the bane of a peaceful society.
~Anthropologist Donald Tuzin, describing the ideology of the Ilahita Arapesh ‘men’s cult’ in Rituals of Manhood, 1982.

Humans are an anisogamous species. For us, as with all animals, reproduction involves the fusion of gametes—small, highly mobile sperm that joins with the larger, relatively immobile egg. This initial asymmetry between organisms who produce sperm (males) and those who produce eggs (females) contributes to the different fitness strategies individuals of each sex tend to utilize.

Sexual conflict is an inevitable consequence of being a sexually reproducing species: the evolutionary interests of males and females do not always neatly align. Being placental mammals, human females gestate, give birth to relatively helpless live young, and nourish their infants through lactation after birth. The potential consequences of sexual activity differ for males and females—since they are not constrained by gestation time, men can often reap greater fitness benefits from pursuing multiple partners, but they also face greater fitness costs if they are cheated on and invest resources in a child that is not theirs. In these core sex differences of reproductive biology—the larger parental investment of females due to gestation and lactation, the greater potential reproductive output of males, and the fact of paternal uncertainty—we find the foundation, though not the true extent, of patriarchal social systems.

In The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology, women’s and gender studies professor Michelle Meagher writes that, “Patriarchy is a theory that attempts to explain this widespread gender stratification as an effect of social organization than the result of some natural or biological fact.” While discussions of patriarchy today do tend to emphasize social organization—and socialization practices in particular—as the primary explanation for its existence, this was not always the case. Some of the earliest, and indeed most informative, work on the nature of patriarchy was done in the 1980s and 1990s by feminist social scientists well versed in evolutionary theory, who integrated primatology and ethnographic data to aid in their understanding of the degree of male dominance across human societies.

Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, a feminist and self-described sociobiologist, wrote one of the earliest evolutionarily informed analyses of the idea of patriarchy in her 1981 book The Woman That Never Evolved. Much as I do here, Hrdy traced the initial foundation of male dominance to the fact of anisogamy, but also noted the important role of socioecology in expanding or diminishing its extent. Hrdy criticized existing explanations for male dominance that focus exclusively socialization, arguing that:

They cannot explain sexual asymmetry in even one other species. Yet male dominance characterizes the majority of several hundred other species that, like our own, belong to the order Primates. Save for a handful of highly informative exceptions, sexual asymmetries are nearly universal among primates. Logic alone should warn us against explaining such a widespread phenomenon with reference only to a specialized subset of human examples.

The “highly informative exceptions” Hrdy mentions are in reference to three social contexts among some primate species that are most favorable to high female status: where there is a monogamous mating system, where females have a short breeding season, which relaxes male competition for most of the year, and/or where females live in matrilineal (rank inherited through the female line) “sisterhood” groups of relatives. Hrdy emphasizes the role of monogamy in particular, writing that, “Only under one particular type of breeding system, monogamy, do we routinely find anything approaching equality between the sexes in either size or rights of access to preferred resources.”

Because some elements of patriarchal social systems are tied to evolved sex differences, we would expect certain aspects of ‘patriarchal behavior’ to be found in every society, even those that are relatively egalitarian. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the extreme violence some males sometimes employ in the pursuit of women, or in attempts to control their sexuality. As anthropologist Richard Wrangham and psychologist Joyce Benenson note in their book chapter titled “Cooperative and Competitive Relationships within Sexes,” across cultures, “The primary causes of within-community aggression between men are competition for status and access to women.”

Hadza hunter gatherers

Among the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania, women have a relatively high degree of autonomy, and are free to choose their own marriage partners. Anthropologist Frank Marlowe writes that, “Female choice appears to be the main factor influencing Hadza marriage.” This is quite notable, because a girl’s first marriage is usually arranged across most hunter-gatherer societies—as well as most small-scale societies more generally—and males tend to have a greater say in marriage arrangements than females do. The Hadza also have one of the lowest recorded homicide rates of any contemporary hunter-gatherer society, as I noted in a previous article for Quillette. Yet even among the Hadza, male competition over women remains a potent source of dispute. Marlowe notes that:

The main source of conflict that can escalate into violence is competition for mates. Almost all murders of Hadza by other Hadza are related to male jealousy. This may be when a man discovers that his wife has had an affair, in which case he may kill the other man and beat his wife, or kill both of them. More often, however, it is when two men are competing for the same single woman.

We see the same pattern among other relatively gender-egalitarian societies. Consider the matrilineal Mosuo (also known as the Na) of China, “the society where a man is never the boss,” according to the Guardian. In Cai Hua’s ethnographic work on the Mosuo, entitled A Society without Fathers or Husbands (2001), we see some of the same conflicts over sexuality, and particularly male attempts to control it, as we see everywhere else. Hua writes that:

In some households, especially those with a member in a high level job, the husband will forbid his wife to receive visitors. Some of them say: “Before she comes (as a wife) to my house, she can do whatever she likes. There is no question of telling her not to. But once she has moved in with me, she can no longer do so.” The husbands however do not stop visiting other women.

It is also not uncommon for young Mosuo males to try and prevent outsider males from visiting female members of their communities; “In certain villages, through insults and violence, young men chase off a visitor who has come from far away and whose only tie to the village is the woman he wants. This phenomenon occurred with some frequency before 1960.”

Hua also provides a number of case studies describing costly conflict over sexual activity. Hua notes one case of severe male violence against a partner over an affair of hers: “During their relationship, Dgimatsie saw [other partners]. Once, when she was returning from Zuo-suo in the mountains, Ishi [her male partner] grabbed her and cut her nose with a knife. Dgimatsie is still alive, and the scar on her nose bears witness to this fit of jealousy.”

For Hrdy, it is largely the problem of paternal uncertainty, and cultural endeavors to mitigate it, that underlie patriarchal social practices: “To keep women (and their sexuality) in check, husbands and their relations (and perhaps especially property-owning families) devised cultural practices which emphasized the subordination of women and which permitted males authority over them.” One important insight here is the recognition that women may themselves sometimes support social norms that control female sexuality, to the extent that it benefits their lineage.

Across cultures, there is frequently a double standard regarding the social disapproval of men who have affairs compared to women who do so. Out of 96 societies in the standard cross-cultural sample which contain information about punishment for adultery, in 72 of these societies there is a sexual double standard where women are punished more harshly than men are, while in only 24 societies are men and women punished equally. Why many men would support such a double standard is obvious, as it may increase their own paternal certainty through the threat of harsh punishment for female affairs, while still allowing them to increase their reproductive success through their extra-marital pairings.

Notably, many women can also reap fitness benefits through inclusive fitness by increasing the paternal certainty of her brothers and sons. If she is part of a particularly wealthy, powerful family, in a patrilineal descent system, she has even more of an evolutionary incentive to support norms that restrict female sexuality and increase paternal certainty, to prevent her family’s resources from being passed down to the illegitimate children of her brothers and sons. Hrdy writes that, where large dowries are offered, “The bride’s family, then, as well as the groom’s, has an interest in ensuring her virginity and future fidelity. Access through marriage or concubinage to a wealthy family is competitive, and the bride’s family has a direct stake in her reputation and eligibility.” Intrasexual competition can also play a role; women sometimes have an incentive to obstruct the sexual behavior of other women, which may reduce the likelihood of her own partner cheating or investing resources in another woman.

In her 1995 paper ‘The Evolutionary Origins of Patriarchy’, published in the journal Human Nature, feminist anthropologist Barba Smuts identifies six factors that she hypothesizes contribute to the existence of patriarchal social systems in humans:

  1. The relatively limited power of female coalitions across human societies, due in part to patrilocal residency (living close to the husband’s family after marriage) being more common than matrilocal residency.
  2. The strength of male-male alliances across cultures, due in part to the demands of warfare.
  3. Male control of resources.
  4. Large variance in male wealth and power, leaving women more vulnerable to the authority of powerful men and reducing women’s control over their sexuality.
  5. Female behaviors that promote male resource control and control over female sexuality.
  6. The human capacity for language (unlike other primates) which allows males to propagate ideologies that promote male dominance.

Smuts argues that these characteristics lead to humans having a unique and more extensive elaboration of male dominated social systems than many other primates. In many primate species, females generally live closer to their kin, while the males disperse into other communities. Further, female primates can usually support themselves and their children without requiring much contribution from males in the way of resources. Smuts notes that these divergences from the primate pattern can contribute to unique sources of sexual conflict. Smuts also intends her paper to aid as a roadmap to enact social change, as she writes that these six characteristics point “directly to the essential counterstrategies that women must develop in order to reduce gender inequality,” such as developing and empowering female coalitions and reducing inequality among males.

Considering the question of female coalitions, Hrdy gives significant attention to female competition in primates, and how the conflicting fitness interests of individual females can impede the development of strong female coalitions, giving examples such as, “competition between females for resources, or female manipulation of males in order to protect offspring or elicit male investment.”

Smuts’s model also draws largely on the primatology data, but we can see how it compares to the ethnographic and historical record. Anthropologist Laura Betzig described the extreme degree of control that powerful males exerted over women and their reproduction in early empires, writing that, “in every one of the six pristine civilizations—Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Mexico, and Peru—emperors collected hundreds of women and had hundreds of children.” Archaeologist Bruce Trigger concurred, noting that:

All early civilizations displayed varying degrees of masculine bias… The position of women appears to have been inferior to that of men in all the early civilizations, given the growing importance of male leadership roles, greater male access to wealth as a result of political manipulation and warfare, and the increasing domination of family life by society and the state. (Trigger 194)

Here we see many of the themes emphasized by Hrdy and Smuts, such as male alliances in war, inequality of wealth and power, as well as male control over women and their reproductive outcomes. However, these early civilizations have long been considered by many to be patriarchal, so we might instead look at more small-scale, less well-known societies, to see how male dominated social systems might manifest.

Consider the Mundurucu horticulturalists of the Amazon, for example, who reside matrilocally. Anthropologists Yolanda and Ryan Murphy note that among the Mundurucu:

Men do tend to be isolated from their close kin, and women more commonly have first degree relatives living in either the same house or nearby. And in a society that phrases solidarity in the idiom of kinship, this means that the women are surrounded by larger groups of supporters than are the men.

Women also produce much of the food. Anthropologist Thomas Gregor writes that, “Women…have effective control over the economy of food distribution, including the distribution of meat provided by the men. Men do not intrude upon domestic activities because they are the province of women.” The Mundurucu are also universally monogamous, with the exception of polygynous chiefs in the past, and monogamy is said to be “enforced by the women.” Further, the Mundurucu have relatively egalitarian relationships among men, with limited wealth and power differences.

Here, many of the conditions are met which should reduce the extent of patriarchy. Yet the Mundurucu are a strongly male-dominated society. Murphy and Murphy write that:

Every woman must have an adult male who will protect her and vouch for her, on condition that she conform to the standards set for women… The custody of a woman can be held by her father or brother, but that of most mature females is held by their husbands, a reaffirmation of the right of the men, and their patrilineal clans, to the sexuality of the women. (Murphy and Murphy, 134)

Among the Mundurucu, “loose women,” or women who challenged the men’s authority, would sometimes be punished with gang-rape by the males: “the men consciously state that they use the penis to dominate their women.” This punishment would transcend kin relationships, with even male first cousins of the woman sometimes participating in her rape. Two core conditions that seem to contribute to the strong pattern of male dominance among the Mundurucu are patrilineal beliefs about descent, where the lineage has a strong incentive to control female sexuality, and the Mundurucu history of chronic warfare. The Mundurucu “men’s cult” promoted strong male solidarity, while their universal monogamy reduced in-group male-male competition in favor of male cohesion to participate in wars against outsiders. Matrilocal residency, rather than reducing male alliances compared to the promotion of female ones, instead allowed males to develop strong coalitions across ethnic lines, which aided in expansionist warfare. Gregor writes that, “the separation between the sexes and the domination by the males [among the Mundurucu] is less an interpersonal matter than an intergroup question.”

We can contrast the Mundurucu with the Tiwi, an aboriginal hunter-gatherer society of northwest Australia. Like the Mundurucu, Tiwi women procured the majority of the food; however, unlike the Mundurucu, the Tiwi had a matrilineal descent system. Furthermore, Tiwi marriage arrangements were strongly unequal, as I described in a recent article for Areo:

The Tiwi—like many other aboriginal Australian societies—had a system that has sometimes been referred to as gerontocratic polygyny, in which most women were polygynously married to old men, while most young men remained single. The Tiwi also practiced infant bestowal and widow remarriage: young girls would be promised in marriage by their fathers before they were even born, while widows were required to remarry soon after the deaths of their husbands.

A 19th century engraving of an Indigenous Australian encampment.

This led to a situation where successful old men could have upwards of 20 wives, men under 30 had no wives, and men under 40 were mostly married to old women. To obtain wives, men would promise their female relatives to other men—sometimes before their sisters, nieces, grandnieces etc., were even born—in exchange for the other men’s female relatives, to take them in marriage. Here, rather than matrilineal descent and extensive female control of resources increasing female power and acting as a check on patriarchy, we have a scenario where it provided males with a pool of female relatives they could use as bargaining chips: to gain allies through marriage exchange, to get many wives for himself, and to get a work force of women that would produce a surplus of food, allowing him to hold feasts and increase his status.

The general pattern across cultures is that polygyny tends to be associated with greater female contribution to subsistence, less resource inequality among males, and strongly male-biased marriage arrangements, in which female marriages, but not male marriages, are arranged. We can see that the relationships between control of resources, inequality, and patriarchal social practices are quite complicated. Even the mostly monogamous, relatively egalitarian Hadza have a religious complex known as the epeme, where important parts of the largest game animals are reserved only for adult men. Marlowe writes:

When a male is in his early 20s and kills a big-game animal, he becomes an epeme or fully adult man. Certain parts of all larger game animals can be eaten by the epeme men only. Not only can females and sub-adult males not eat the meat, they cannot even see the men eat this meat or, it is said, they could die or get ill or suffer any number of misfortunes.

Smuts’s model points to some key factors that contribute to patriarchal social systems, but we can see that strongly patriarchal systems can still occur even where most of the conditions she identifies are not met. Similarly, Hrdy says that, “As it happens, a particular subset of human societies (patrilineal and stratified) takes the prize for “sexism.”” But as we see here, even among relatively egalitarian, non-patrilineal societies, we can find strongly male-dominated institutions. Numerous relatively egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies were known to have engaged in wife-capture practices against neighboring groups throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With these points in mind, we might consider an alternative explanation for male-dominance across human societies. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss, for example, attributes patriarchal social systems largely (but not entirely) to female choice:

My view is that women’s preferences for a successful, ambitious, and resource-capable mate coevolved with men’s competitive mating strategies, which include risk taking, status striving, derogation of competitors, coalition formation, and an array of individual efforts aimed at surpassing other men on the dimensions that women desire. The intertwining of these coevolved mechanisms in men and women created the conditions for men to dominate in the domain of resources.

One issue with this explanation remains the ubiquity of male-biased marriage arrangements across cultures. Young girls who are married off usually have very little say in the matter; overwhelmingly marriage arrangements tend to benefit males from powerful or high-status kin groups. Still, the fitness interests of a young girl and her kin do align in some respects, and young girls may exercise some choice in vigorously protesting a marriage, or divorcing when she can, but this is a quite limited degree of choice. Furthermore, looking specifically at the Tiwi case, a ‘female-choice’ explanation for that kind of social system seems to me utterly implausible. Buss, like Hrdy and Smuts, also places strong emphasis on male control over resources as a key fact of patriarchy, but as the patterns above show, strongly male dominated social control can be exerted without males necessarily dominating resources. We can also point to various patriarchal social institutions which control female sexuality, such as female genital cutting, which may benefit some women through inclusive fitness or intrasexual competition, but can’t be said to be the result of female choice in mating, and instead often reflect the interests of a man and his lineage in assuring paternal certainty.

To be fair to Buss, across many small-scale societies, successful warriors are often rewarded with greater mating opportunities, which fits with female choice playing a role in some male-dominated social practices, but it can be difficult to tell how much of this pattern occurs through choice compared to how much of it is fundamentally coercive. Male-male competition, competition between lineages, and cultural evolutionary processes all likely also play some role in many male dominated social traditions, particularly in domains such as warfare.

While female choice may sometimes support more domineering male behaviors, in many socioecological circumstances, women are likely going to want someone who will help provide for and protect herself and her children long-term. In such circumstances, if they were choosing males who were chronically engaged in warfare and pursuing ever more mates, it would seem to be a poor fitness strategy (Buss is not insensitive to these concerns). Humans are a pair-bonded species after all, with heavy male investment into their children—such as through provisioning, protection, or direct caregiving—often needed to support our highly altricial (dependent) infants. My own impression, which I’ve noted elsewhere, is that people around the world really do tend to prefer pretty stable, monogamous pair-bonds across most societies. Divorces, affairs, intimate partner violence happen in every society, of course, with variable frequency, but in every society, people form long term, cooperative bonds with members of the opposite sex. They usually live with each other, help feed each other, and raise children together.

Similarly, male-female cooperation can lead to cultural solutions to issues that otherwise might have led to more patriarchal social practices. For example, across many small-scale societies, there are often strong taboos imposed on menstruating women, who are not infrequently segregated in huts, and/or banned from touching certain objects or engaging in certain activities. This was the case across many Andaman Island hunter-gatherer societies, where women were usually segregated from the rest of the group during menstruation. The Onge, however, were a notable exception to this pattern. Onge men would cut soft green leaves from special trees: the leaves would then be made into a garment, known as a bataghē, that the husband would give to his wife, who would wear it while menstruating. The Onge thus had no taboos or restrictions on women during menstruation.

At the end of her work, Hrdy writes that modern advances toward sex equality reside on a “unique foundation of historical conditions, values, economic opportunities, heroism on the part of women who fought for suffrage, and perhaps especially technological developments which led to birth control and labor-saving devices and hence minimized physical differences between the sexes.” As Hrdy sees patriarchal social practices as being rooted in our ancient evolutionary heritage, she argues that progress towards sex equality should not be taken for granted. I will conclude with the final sentence of her book; “Injustices remain; there are abundant new problems; yet, never before—not in seventy million years—have females been so nearly free to pursue their own destinies.”


William Buckner is a student of Evolutionary Anthropology at UC Davis. He is interested in cultural evolution and understanding human conflict patterns across cultures. You can follow him on Twitter @Evolving_Moloch


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