Not your feminist grandmother’s patriarchy

Originally published at The Atlantic under the title, “America is still a patriarchy.”


Male dominance may be weakening, but it’s not gone.
In this election, women were the majority of voters, and the majority of them voted for Obama. The weaker sex clearly was men, contributing less than half the vote, the majority of whom preferred the loser. This is not new. As with Obama, men and whites also failed to unseat Bill Clinton in his reelection after voting for him the first time.

This story tests my ability to think systematically about power and inequality. How is it possible to understand an unprecedented transformation in women’s relative status while also acknowledging men’s continued dominance? Must we just list data points, always just including an “on the other hand” caveat to our real narrative?

I have been described as part of a “feminist academic establishment” that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in “data wars” over the details of gender inequality. But what I actually try to do is keep the change in perspective.

In our academic research on gender inequality, my colleagues and I study variation and change. That means figuring out why women’s employment increased so rapidly, why some labor markets have smaller gender gaps, why some workplaces are less segregated, why couples in some countries share housework more, why women in some ethnic groups have higher employment rates, and so on.

The patterns of variation and change help us understand how gender inequality works. Systemic inequality doesn’t just happen. People (in the aggregate) get up in the morning and do it every day. To understand how it works, we need to see how it varies (for example, some people resist equality and some people dedicate their lives to it). Someone who studies inequality but doesn’t care about change and variation is not a social scientist.


“It’s easy to find references to patriarchs, patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes in reporting on other countries,” writes Nancy Folbre:

Yet these terms seem largely absent from discussions of current economic and political debates in the United States. Perhaps they are no longer applicable. Or perhaps we mistakenly assume their irrelevance.

In fact—my interpretation of the facts—the United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: they are ruled by men. That is not just because every country (except Rwanda) has a majority-male national parliament, and it is despite the handful of countries with women heads of state. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture and the political arena.

Top political and economic leaders are the low-hanging fruit of patriarchy statistics. But they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets. If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy.

In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held. But I’m confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal.


Maybe the most basic indicator is the apparently quaint custom of wives assuming their husbands’ names. This hasn’t generated much feminist controversy lately. But to an anthropologist from another planet, this patrilineality would be a major signal that American families are male-dominated.

Among U.S.-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husband’s in 2004 (it was not until the 1970s that married women could even function legally using their “maiden” names). Among the youngest women the rate is higher, so there is a clear pattern of change—but no end to the tradition in sight.

Of course, the proportion of people getting married has fallen, and the number of children born to non-married parents has risen. Single parenthood—and the fact that this usually means single motherhood—reflects both women’s growing independence and the burdens of care that fall on them (another piece of the patriarchal puzzle). This is one of many very important changes. But they don’t add up to a non-patriarchal society.

Differences that matter

The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich—in a 1976 essay she might or might not like to be reminded of—urged feminists to acknowledge distinctions that matter rather than tar everything with the simplistic brush of “patriarchy.” Using China as an example, she wrote:

There is a difference between a society in which sexism is expressed in the form of female infanticide and a society in which sexism takes the form of unequal representation on the Central Committee. And the difference is worth dying for.

China presents an extreme case, with an extremely harsh patriarchy that was fundamentally transformed—into a different sort of patriarchy. By the late 1970s female infanticide (as well asfootbinding) had indeed been all but eradicated, which represented a tremendous improvement for women, saving millions of lives. Since the advent of the one-child policy in the 1980s, however, female infanticide has given way to sex-selective abortion (and female representation on the ruling committees has dropped), representing an important transformation. Calling China a “patriarchy” is true, but by itself doesn’t much help explain the pattern of and prospects for change.

Like Ehrenreich, I think we need to look at the variations to understand the systemic features of our society. Men losing out to women in national elections is an important one. Given the choice between two male-dominated parties with platforms that don’t differ fundamentally on the biggest economic issues despite wide differences in social policy, women voters (along with blacks, Latinos and the poor) bested men and got their way. I wouldn’t minimize that (more than I just did), or ignore the scale and direction of change. The American patriarchy has weakened.

I expect some readers will go right to their favorite statistics or personal experiences in order to challenge my description of our society as patriarchal. In that tit-for-tat, men leading the vast majority of the most powerful institutions, and that American families usually follow the male line, become just another couple of data points. But they shouldn’t be, because some facts are more important than others.

10 thoughts on “Not your feminist grandmother’s patriarchy

  1. I think it might be worthwhile to separate “male dominated” and “patriarchal.” Patriarchy is a specific cultural pattern (or rather, a number of specific patterns, depending on who is defining it); and while these patterns obviously put men in positions of power, they are more than that. They represent history, prejudices, patterns of behavior which are not necessarily directly involved in “domination” per se. Patriarchy is defined by anthropologists.

    “Male domination,” on the other hand, is a much more politically significant term, which, I would argue, is loaded with political activism in a way that “patriarchy” isn’t. Feminists often use the word patriarchy in a pejorative way, but that’s not the only usage.


  2. To dominate, to be in the highest position of power, requires a vast commitment of time and energy, something few people are willing to do. Couldn’t it simply be that more men than women are interested in spending their life this way?

    There seems to be lots of evidence that many more men than women say their work is of primary importance in their life. Many more women find a “work-life balance” to be their goal, with family and children exerting a strong emotional pull. Such a situation would naturally lead to more men rising to the top leadership positions.

    Unless we believe that the better-educated women of today really don’t know what is best for themselves, why should we consider this to be a problem? Shouldn’t the fulfillment of our life’s goals be our standard, not absolute equality?


  3. is the age difference even a trend? Or do younger women move towards using their husband’s surname once they have kids/once the kids go to school? That’s something I’ve seen among the few women I know who kept their names. Though my wife kept hers and hasn’t changed it with the arrival of our child.


  4. Some married couples will change their name and take the same last name. One friend and his wife married in their late 20s, and both took his late-mother’s maiden name. Other friends found a new last name. Other friends take the same hyphenated or otherwise combined name. I know that’s hard or perhaps not possible to measure these attempts at egalitarianism, but you’ve underestimated egalitarianism if you look only at people who keep their last names after marriage.


  5. Apologies for being late to the comments party, but I don’t think our society is as much of a patriarchy as you maintain. Let us look at two examples where matriarchy rules the roost-marriage and reproduction.

    Let’s look at marriage for a moment. Even though a lot of men make more than the women in the relationship (which A LOT of women demand, btw), if a woman leaves the man, she is entitled to half their assets and in some cases cash flows, the later even if they do not have children. And then in terms of child custody, women are heavily favored to have custody of the children, and then have child support payments directed to her, even if the father is completely against the marriage. Our society gives women more or less hostages so they can receive income streams. Seems like a lot of power to me…

    Or let’s look at reproduction. Women have a lot more options in choosing motherhood than a man. A woman can chose to abort a child against the man’s wishes. But if she decides against terminating the pregnancy, she is entitled to 18 years of income streams. Seems like a lot of power to me.

    I also wonder too if you take out the fact that a lot of young men take more dangerous jobs than young women (which has some biological basis in terms of risk perception), gender pay inequality dissipates. Keep in mind that the US has more women in higher professional positions than most other countries, except perhaps for those in northern Europe.

    I think we may have a residual of patriarchy in our society, but the above examples I cited are more prevalent and meaningful examples of matriarchy than the ones you cited.



  6. Patriarchy works that’s why every successful technological civilization in history has been a patriarchial one. As America becomes more feminized it will crash. America is crippled with debt and is dependent on harsh patriarchial societies like china to keep it’s economy afloat.


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