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Decoding Origins of Patriarchy and Feminism


Netflix’s Bridgerton has been quite a rage these days. Another gem out of the Shondaland Universe, the stunning Daphne and handsome Simon are about everything dreamy but unreal. Daphne’s assertiveness and Simon’s regard for her likes is everything we want but unfortunately don’t get. But we all know its fantasy right ! Afterall a colorblind Europe can be nothing more than a far-fetched fantasy that is more illusory than Hogwarts. But more fictitious is the freedom that women seem to enjoy, or the agency they seem to hold. Lady Whistledown’s courage and notoriety is as mythical as the ancient tale of aliens. But it’s Shondaland where sheros save the day, everyday ! Real life, my dearies, has been far from it for a very long time. That’s not to say things aren’t changing. Some women out there are constantly striving to break free from the invisible shackles of patriarchy and redefining the concept of feminism. Kamala Harris roaring at her inaugural speech in 2021 as the first ever female Vice President of the most powerful country in this supposedly unipolar world is a case in point. Not to take away from her glory, but South Asians have definitely seized the game here with countries like India having elected her first female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as early as 1960s.

Since we are talking cinema, Frame Changes, Enters “Misbehavior” !! This 2020 comedy is an attempt to depict the real life intersectional drama that unfolded amidst the 1970 Miss World Competition, becoming the epicenter of a firestorm of feminist anger as well as other geopolitical controversies, most significantly from anti-apartheid activists. This film tries to bring out the essence of feminism in the Women’s Liberation Movement, which finds its genesis around the same time. It also highlights how a group of feminists, often perceived as misbehaving, were able to subvert the western ideal of beauty as well as drive out patriarchy and institutionalized racism overnight, and that too, in front of over 100 million global viewers. The World got to see women who were neither beautiful nor ugly, but angry !

Today the world is full of angry women. Most importantly, it is full of those angry women who aren’t scared or complex about showing their anger. They fume at injustices that have been done against them for eons. They swear at violence hurled at them in all forms – physical, mental, social, emotional and verbal. They are shattered over not having agency over their own bodies. They are confused as to why men have all the power. They are disgusted at stereotypes showing them in a lower light. Most of all, they are ready to kill when their supposed anger is often blamed on their PMS. Therefore, I am compelled to ask a few basic questions here. What caused this anger in the first place ? When did this anger start ? Was this anger always so visible or, rather, when did it become okay to show this anger ? Were the reasons for this anger always prevalent since the beginning of time ?

In this article, I would like to discuss the origins of patriarchy in this world and how the patriarchal setup very conveniently replaced the egalitarian setup. What made Adam believe he was superior to Eve and assume all the power, reducing her to a mere subordinate? I would also discuss the various waves of feminism that swept this world off its orthodoxy when a group of “Misbehaved Women” took it upon themselves to speak for their own selves, when no one else would. They took an interest in everything that would help them change the world that didn’t suit them. 

Origins of Patriarchy

For those asking what’s Patriarchy, it is an “institutionalized pattern of male dominance in society.” This institutionalization engulfed almost every aspect of one’s life, including agency over one’s body, thoughts, actions and most importantly the property, thereby making the society both androcentric as well as patrilineal. That brings me back to my foremost question i.e. Was it always the same ? The answer to that is a big NO ! To the dismay of some self-appointed power wielders and agency holders, early anthropological, archeological and evolutionary psychological evidence suggests that our early societies were egalitarian and that patriarchal social structures did not develop until many years after the end of the Pleistocene era, following social and technological developments such as agriculture and domestication. There have been many debates contemplating the causes which led to the replacement of the abovementioned egalitarian order with the unjust androcentric order. Dr. Gerda Lerner, author of “The Creation of Patriarchy”, views the establishment of patriarchy as a historical process that developed from 3100 B.C. to 600 B.C. in the Near East. According to her, though there is no single factor one can pinpoint. Speaking of early human societies, Dr. Lerner said: ”In a time when women’s average life span may have been less than 28 years, and when infant mortality was 70 to 75 percent, women were bearing and nursing babies all the time in order for the tribe to survive. So a sexual division of labor was created that was functional and approved of by both men and women.” There was a biological basis for this division of labor, she said, ”but what came to be the oppressive part of that division was a social invention.” According to her, “Patriarchy is not based on a biological difference” between men and women, on a stage of human development when women had to nurse babies all the time.” Thanks to changes involving longevity and mortality, ”Freud’s statement that anatomy is destiny is wrong”. Instead, ‘Anatomy Once Was Destiny’. She also contends that Patriarchy arose partly from the practice of intertribal exchanges of women for marriage ”in which women acquiesced because it was functional for the tribe.” These intertribal exchanges, which uprooted young women, gave early peoples the notion that men had rights that women did not. She asserts that because of several factors, including the domination of warlike tribes over egalitarian societies lacking a warrior class, women and children became the first prisoners and ultimately the first slaves in an era when male prisoners were killed. According to her, “the slavery of women and the exploitation of their sexual and reproductive capacity by conquering men marked the initial development of class distinction”, and that ”slave women and children were the first property in these societies.” She argues that the subordination of women became the basis for class distinctions, the basis for the concept of property itself, and ultimately led to the idea of men’s enslavement.

Sarah Hardy, anthropologist and primatologist at the University of California at Davis, too believes that patrilocal residence is associated with origin of patriarchy. The development of agriculture and the domestication of animals (about 10,000 years ago) brought about significant social change. By the time of the Bronze Age, around 2,000 BC, light-weight hoes were replaced by large bronze-tipped plows pulled by oxen. Men’s strength was needed to handle large animals and heavier plows. Also due to increase in Warfare and International Trade, biological factors placed women at a disadvantage and hence their subordination started.

According to Philosopher and Marxist theorist Friedrich Engels, author of the historical treatise “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, patriarchy found its genesis in the emergence of Private Property, which has traditionally been controlled by men. Dr. Lerner, however, has disputed this idea, arguing that patriarchy emerged before the development of class-based society and the concept of private property. According to her, “race, class and gender oppression are interconnected and have been from the beginning.” 

With all the important aspects like muscle power, trade, property and ofcourse the freedom from childbearing now being in control of men, it was only a matter of time before the decision making authority was also usurped by them very conveniently. Materialism clearly took precedence over all other egalitarian values and those with this newly acquired authority ensured the institutionalization of this inequality as the most natural social order, deemed as god’s own will. Starting from then, men like Aristotle, Herodotus, Manu, Kautilya, Confucius etc. have made it their life mission to declare the divine law wherein women were somehow always the lesser sex, in need of guidance, direction, protection and sustenance. So much so, they even made laws governing the rights women had over their own bodies. (The ongoing 21st Century debate over Women’s right to abortion, with some states going to extremes to treat it as murder, is just a small example of how this male dominated world deems it his authority to govern women). Until the nineteenth century, this conversation was primarily theological and deemed patriarchy to be the natural order. This took on a biological trope with Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution in The Origin of Species. Social Darwinism quickly morphed natural order for the world into a biological order. Sociobiologist Steven Goldberg, author of The Inevitability of Patriarchy, argued that male dominance is a human universal as a result of our biological makeup, propagating the view that females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males and, as a result, females are a resource over which males compete. This theory is called Bateman’s principle.

Realization of Injustice

There’s no set date to determine as to when this sense of injustice dawned upon women. It’s actually a very subjective notion. Even today, I come across many women, who take immense pride in dissociating themselves from other “misbehaved/feminist women” by asserting that “they aren’t like them”. Some women find it convenient to grow in the protective shadow of men. They consider the idea of feminism a taboo which will make them less “like-able”. And I don’t blame them. After all that is what this society has taught us and it’s no wrong to opt for the easier path. However, hats off to the champions who braved “the road less travelled” and made all the difference. Afterall, it’s not easy for a woman of authority and strength to hold ground in a maze choked by power wielding men.  Having said that, I would also not limit myself from degendering the concept of feminism here. Feminism owes as much to Males as to Females. Afterall, Ruth Bader Ginsburg could continue to get ‘angry’ because Marty Ginsburg was strong enough to take that ‘anger’. Feminism, often one of the most derogatory terms among chauvinists these days, is nothing but a commitment to ensure equal political, social and economic rights to women and to not subject them to any disadvantage merely on the basis of sex. This realization of unfairness must have surely prevailed among some men and women since the beginning of time and some early protofeminists like Plato are known to have “[argued] for the total political and sexual equality of women, advocating that they be members of his highest class, … those who rule and fight” Some have also attempted to locate roots of feminism in ancient Greece with Sappho ( 570 BCE), or the medieval world with Hildegard of Bingen ( 1179) or Christine de Pisan (1434). The following age of renaissance also witnessed few standalone episodes but were largely irrelevant. The 18thcentury age of enlightenment saw philosophers Jeremy Bentham, Olympes de Gouge, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen,  Abigail Adams and Catharine Macaulay who popularized secular intellectual thinking and defended the dignity, intelligence, and basic human potential of the female sex. However, it was not until the late nineteenth century that the efforts for women’s equal rights coalesced into a clearly identifiable and self-conscious movement, or rather a series of movements.

Waves of Feminism

Waves of Feminism
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash
  • The first wave: 1848 to 1920

First wave of Feminism refers to the West’s first sustained political movement dedicated to achieving political equality for women: the suffragettes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Emerging out of an environment of urban industrialism and liberal, socialist politics, The goal of this wave was to open up opportunities for women, with a focus on suffrage. The wave formally began at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 when three hundred men and women rallied to the cause of equality for women. In 1902, Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted the Seneca Falls Declaration outlining the new movement’s ideology and political strategies. Discussions about the vote and women’s participation in politics led to an examination of the differences between men and women as they were then viewed. Some claimed that women were morally superior to men, and so their presence in the civic sphere would improve public behavior and the political process. This wave was generally propelled by middle class, western, cisgender, white women.

  • The second wave: 1963 to the 1980s

This wave unfolded in the context of the anti-war and civil rights movements and the growing self-consciousness of a variety of minority groups around the world. The New Left was on the rise, and the voice of the second wave was increasingly radical. In this phase, sexuality and reproductive rights were dominant issues, and much of the movement’s energy was focused on passing the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing social equality regardless of sex. As mentioned earlier, this wave found its genesis in the 1970 Miss World Beauty Pageant. Feminists satirized what they held to be a degrading “cattle parade” that reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs. In publications like “The BITCH Manifesto” and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” feminists advocated for an equal and individual place under the sky. This phase drew in women of color and developing nations, seeking sisterhood and solidarity, claiming “Women’s struggle is class struggle.” 

  • The third wave: (1990s)

According to feminist scholar Elizabeth Evans, the confusion surrounding what constitutes third wave feminism is in some respects its defining feature. But generally, the beginning of the third wave is pegged to two things: the Anita Hill case in 1991, and the emergence of the riot grrrl groups in the music scene of the early 1990s. In this phase, several constructs of universal womanhood, body, gender, sexuality were destabilized. It saw the readoption of lip-sticks, high-heels, and low cut necklines by the young feminists, the very things that the first two phases of the movement identified with male oppression. The “grrls” of the third wave emerged as strong and empowered, shunning victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy. According to Martha Rampton, “Most third-wavers refuse to identify as “feminists” and reject the word that they find limiting and exclusionary. Grrl-feminism tends to be global, multi-cultural, and it shuns simple answers or artificial categories of identity, gender, and sexuality. Its transversal politics means that differences such as those of ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, etc. are celebrated and recognized as dynamic, situational, and provisional. Reality is conceived not so much in terms of fixed structures and power relations, but in terms of performance within contingencies. Third wave feminism breaks boundaries.”

  • The present day: a fourth wave?

According to some, it began around 2012 and is characterized by a focus on the empowerment of women, the use of internet tools, and intersectionality. The fourth wave seeks greater gender equality by focusing on gendered norms and marginalization of women in society, with a focus on sexual harassment, body shaming, and rape culture, among other issues. As #MeToo and Time’s Up cause mayhem across the world, the Women’s March floods Washington with pussy hats every year, and now the first female finally appointed as VP in one of the most powerful countries of the world, fourth wave is generating quite the current.

Note to Self and All the Strong Women Out There

Ladies, when the times are harsh, and most certainly, they shall be, just tell yourself this : “Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History”.

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