Beyond a ‘man’s world’: patriarchs, matriarchs and the quest for gender equality


Three elder women sit on a bench
A woman’s world The Mosuo community in south-western China has a matrilineal structure and many of its women hold positions of power. Such societies have often been viewed – and written about – as backwards or uncivilized, simply because they deviate from the patriarchal “normal”. (Courtesy: Shutterstock/Alexander P Bell)

Award-winning journalist Angela Saini has spent years interrogating and exploring deeply rooted bias in science. Her previous two books, Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong (2017) and Superior: the Return of Race Science (2019) examined how sexist and racist theories have been embedded in the fabric of science, permeating throughout history to affect society today. Saini now turns her careful eye to history, anthropology and archaeology in her new book The Patriarchs: How Men Came To Rule.

Exploring the origins of the patriarchy and how it came to take root in societies across the globe, Saini begins by taking us on an ambitious global tour of varying cultures – from ancient history to modern society. Saini offers us glimpses into societies that are matrilocal (where the family unit is based around the woman, usually meaning men move to their wife’s home when they marry), matrilineal (where lineage is traced through the female line) and “gender blind”.

There is a vivid description of the Nairs in Kerala, India, whose households were organized around a single female matriarch, tracing their ancestry and inheriting property along the female line, until the British colonized the region and enforced a patriarchal social structure.

There is also insight into the Indigenous American Haudenosaunee women who held a sacred position in their society. Until colonial settlers arrived in America in the 1600s, these women experienced political, social, economic and spiritual equality within their communities. What makes this story so intriguing is how the Haudenosaunee inhabited the area around Seneca Falls in New York state – the place that would eventually host the first women’s rights convention in 1848, starting the suffrage movement across America. Saini, of course, cleverly highlights this fascinating and thought-provoking intersection of feminist history.

I was particularly intrigued by the story of successful corporate lawyer Choo Waihong, who visited the matrilineal, goddess-worshipping Mosuo community in south-western China in the early 2000s (Choo explores this in her book The Kingdom of Women). During her time there, Choo witnesses a 66-year-old grandmother who has a sixpack from manual labour; a woman approaching a group of men at a bar to buy them a round of beer; and grandfathers regularly changing their granddaughters’ nappies. Choo enjoyed the liberating “feminist utopia” so much that she ended up staying.

A theme that runs throughout The Patriarchs is how these societies have been viewed as the exception to the rule – often being described as “unnatural” and “uncivilized” by their patriarchal alternatives. Even the archaeologists and anthropologists studying these societies have had to fundamentally shift their views on what is and isn’t possible, in terms of gender.

In the late-1990s, science provided a revolutionary tool to dramatically alter the field of archaeology and the mindsets of those working within it. For the first time, biologists were able to reproduce the genetic sequence – and therefore determine the sex – of ancient skeletons. This new tool provided definitive evidence to support the idea that women in ancient cultures existed outside the “normal” roles as expected by our modern standards.

In 2018 a 9000-year-old skeleton surrounded by weapons was excavated in the Peruvian Andes and was presumed to be a male hunter. However, when DNA sequencing concluded it was, in fact, a woman, the weapons and artefacts found alongside the skeleton were suddenly described by many as symbolic or religious – rather than entertaining the possibility that women could also be hunters. A male anthropologist called Kim Hill is quoted saying “You can’t just stop in the middle of stalking a deer in order to nurse a crying baby” – unable to hide his disbelief that women can do something other than look after children.

In this and other similar examples, it required women in archaeology and anthropology to point out the simpler, more likely explanation – that women can hunt and even be military leaders. Here is where Saini’s book is most directly relevant to modern physics. She makes clear that new evidence should make us re-evaluate established conclusions. But equally important is that it sometimes takes a person with a different perspective or life experience from the status quo to see that there could be a different explanation. If women and other under-represented groups aren’t part of the scientific discussion, then we could be missing out on real breakthroughs in understanding.

As with Inferior and Superior, Saini has researched The Patriarchs with rigour, with nearly 40 pages of references included. This is in part what makes her books such an enjoyable and engaging read. As a reader you can trust that Saini is giving you a balanced, thoughtful and insightful overview of the subject. I learned something new on almost every page.

Despite dealing with a topic as complex and nuanced as surveying the roots of patriarchy, Saini does not try to provide an over-simplified explanation. History, and the origins of the patriarchy, is not a straight line with a single definitive story. In the quest for gender equality, there are gains and losses again and again throughout history. What becomes clear from this book is that male domination is not biological inevitability, but a cultural phenomenon. “By thinking about gendered inequality as rooted in something unalterable within us, we fail to see it for what it is,” writes Saini. She adds that it is “something more fragile that has to be constantly remade and reasserted”.

Our society and the patriarchal norms we follow are still evolving, and we all have a role to play in making the change we want to see

This is perhaps the key take-home message from the whole book. Our society and the patriarchal norms we follow are still evolving, and we all have a role to play in making the change we want to see. Saini uses the example of the Soviet Union, and the fact that women working in science and engineering roles was completely normalized during this period, between 1922 and 1991. In that region in 1913, only 10% of doctors were women, which rose dramatically to 79% by 1959. This attitude lingers in society today. The journal Nature reported in 2019 that central and eastern European countries are among the best in the world for gender balance of authors on scientific papers. The US, the UK and other western countries lag far behind.

Throughout the book, Saini drives home the point that the patriarchy is essentially a tool used for categorization, to divide society into “relentless binaries”. She writes how scholars strictly define the sexes – “Men are violent and cruel; women are nurturing and caring” – often with little room for nuance between the two extremes and no room for individuals who break this mould. But ironing out subtleties, and categorizing humans as defined by stereotypes, pushes us to look at the differences between ourselves, rather than the similarities. This technique of divide-and-rule has been used for centuries and is in part what gives patriarchy its power today. This powerful idea is weaved into every chapter of the book, and I’m sure will resonate with many of its readers.

The book ends with hope. If division is what gives patriarchy its power, it can be countered simply by humans’ innate ability to love and trust one another.

  • 2023 Fourth Estate 320hb £15

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