On Patriarchy
On the question of gender it is difficult to be neutral, but not impossible, I hope to be reasonably objective. I am male, so therefore someone is going to say, “a man would say that”, but I hope not.
My concern in this article is to rehabilitate the term “patriarchy” so that it can return to serving an actual historical function. It has, in my view, a very distinctive meaning and by using it in the way that is currently used, it blurs the understanding of the present and makes understanding history particularly difficult.
Patriarchy, as it is understood today is little more than a synonym for “male domination”. It is always used in context as a contrast to its opposite, “feminism”. It this respect it used by feminists, probably to mean a more traditional and old fashioned prejudice against women in favour of the “superiority” of men. Except in extreme instances, it rarely used in connection with the term “matriarchy” – another important historical term.
It is a descriptive term in the sense, that it generally does not describe a system of social organisation, unless, one is seeing it from a more “radical” feminist standpoint so as to argue that society has been unchanging for thousands of years and is, always has been patriarchal. There some who would subscribe to this I am sure. However, I do not want in this article, to open a debate of that kind, not yet anyway.
The best way to illustrate my standpoint is through a specific historical example. A few years ago I read an article in published by the Women’s Press (Arlen House), called “Women in Irish Society (the Historical Dimension)” by Doncha O’Corrain and edited by Margaret MacCurtain.
Using the evidence of changes in law and custom around marriage, property and children, the author traces the evolution of the position of women in Irish society from the 7th to the 12th century.
Briefly her thesis is that women in 7th century Ireland were oppressed by a “patriarchy” but between then and 12th century they rose to achieve and “honoured” position in Irish society by 12th century. This was all lost again in the 12th century by the Norman invasion and the imposition of English laws and customs on Ireland.
However, apart from explaining the changes in the marriage customs, she does not really explain how or why these changes took place, or how they fitted into changes in the economic or social structure of Irish society.
The author describes early 7th century society as “patriarchal” in that women were dominated by the father or husband, but there is no mention of how property was held or whether there was any class structure in Irish society in which we could understand how women’s position was structured in Irish society. She says early on p1
“Early Irish society was patriarchal: the legal and political life was run by men.”
Such a definition of patriarchal may suit some, but to me it merely confuses. A patriarchal society is not simply a society where women are “governed” by men. A patriarchal society is one where the instruments of production, upon which the whole economic and social structure of society is built is owned by families. In the feudal system, which she alludes to indirectly as the “English customs and laws”, the instrument of production is the land itself.
The families who own these instruments of production are all governed, male and female alike by one “father” or one man – the patriarch. Patriarchy has two forms historically, the first is the “familia” of the slave economy, typical of ancient Rome and Greece etc. and feudalism and its kindred forms.
Patriarchy does not describe the tribal “clanna” of early Ireland, which might have been male dominated but not patriarchal. The simple understanding enables us to see therefore how is it that women became “liberated” in medieval Ireland and became subjugated again.
The author says later,
“in the course of time, the position of a woman was made equal to a man in many respects and this change took place fairly rapidly. It is not at all easy to explain.”
If we were not get waylaid by the notion of patriarchy it there should be an explanation for this.
Early Irish society was still mainly based on tribes. The actual structure of the clanna and the “sept” are not crucial except that the tribes in territorial terms were not settled in any way, territories were still ill defined. This means that Irish society was still in a transition stage of emerging from a nomadic, and therefore pastoral past, into a more settled agricultural society. Its recent nomadic, hunting/gathering or pastoral structure would have tended to make it a male dominant society, certainly, but not a patriarchal one.
Male domination in hunting or pastoral societies stems from the division of labour where men control primary production, that is to say they do the hunting. Hunters have to become warriors because of competition from other tribes. The tools of production for hunters are also the weapons of war. Women are involved exclusively in these society in the processing side of the tribe’s productivity, the turning of the hunted animals into food, clothing etc. In these societies there is no class structure as such, property cannot really exist except that which is tribally owned. There may be a pecking order, in a warrior society there will be, but that is not the same as a property owning ruling class.
Territorial competition either between the tribes themselves or from invaders like the Vikings never disappeared so therefore, the warrior caste could not either.
Despite the fact that Irish society was developing into an agricultural society, with the corresponding changes in the division of labour, therefore the rising role of women, territorial competition prevented it from evolving into an actual matriarchal structure, of the kind that existed in Catal Huyuk in Anatolia in 7th century BC or in pre Hellenic Greece. The evidence of the marriage customs shows that it was on the way towards matriarchy in many respects – at least up to the Norman invasion. The legend of Queen Maeve of Connacht seems to lend itself to this interpretation.
The development of the “Lanamnas comthincuir” appears to indicate as the author says, “marriage in which both parties jointly contribute to the marriage goods” Given that the old primary/secondary division of labour was eroding, this arrangement would make sound economic sense. The later type of custom “lanamnas fir bantinchur”, where the woman made the major contribution, and therefore appears to be in a primary role in the division of labour indicates an evolution towards a matriarchal structure brought about by a non class based agricultural society. I would hazard a guess to say that that various forms of marriage existed at the same time as the evolution in different areas would not be the same. Different economic situations would prevail where tribes on poorer agricultural land would seek to compete with better endowed neighbours, this giving rise to conflict and throwing the emphasis back onto a retention of a warrior caste.
Given a clan structure now based on agriculture, given the equality of labour in such a society and the need to have more children to engage them in production, it is hardly surprising that divorce became a simple matter for either party. If the clan maintained the land as whole community, individual partnerships were less crucial economically. Therefore it would become an economic necessity for a woman to divorce an impotent man, or a man who was cruel to her. Such a man may well have been expelled from the house. It was also important that moveable instruments such livestock; sheep, cattle etc. should not leave the clan. The man’s grounds for divorce equally point to the still pervading existence of outside completion, for instance the betrayal of a man to another clan.
This not to say than within the clan there was some form of hierarchy, some partnerships may have deemed as more important than others. The continued existence in some tribes of polygamous marriages still points to the fact that the redevelopment of matriarchy in its ancient form was still a long way off. This probably explains virtual nil effect Christianity had on marriage customs. In the end it was not the imposition of English law that brought the Catholic ideology into marriage, but the development, through the Norman invasion of the feudal economic and class structure. The new feudal landholders progressively undermined tribal structures.
Today’s society is not feudal, it capitalist, it governed by those who own capital, through which the capitalist owns all the means of production. It is true that the majority of capital is owned by men, but the majority of men are not capitalists. If it comes about that an equal amount of capital or even the majority of capital is owned by women, then little would change for the ordinary worker. The pursuit of profit, the growth of profit, is the rule of the capitalist system, it is a competitive system that gives rise to war and poverty. The gender of those being driven by these rules isn’t relevant to the running of the system, exploitation would be no different if all the capitalists were women. Capitalism does not actually need male domination to work, it is there because it’s antecedent was the feudal system. However, the aspirations inherent in feminism are completely encompassed by socialism, true liberation for women, in my view, lies down the same route as liberation for all from the oppression of capitalism.

27 January 2014