In sociology, the term patriarchy (from Old Greek patriá: descent, gender, tribe, extended family, and árchein: to rule) describes a social system in which a power imbalance exists between the male and female sexes and women are subordinate to male dominance. The concept of patriarchy is highly significant, especially in feminist theory, for exploring social inequalities and discrimination against women and „grasping them as parts of an overarching phenomenon“ that is a structural problem and not a natural one (see Cyba 2008). In this context, the term is not only reducible to political systems in a temporal context; rather, it describes a concept and an everyday existing condition that globally includes all kinds of discrimination against women in relation to the male gender (cf. ibid.).
Patriarchal structures in the course of time up to the present day
The development of patriarchy is still a controversial topic in science today, but patriarchal phenomena and systems can be dated up to 3000 years before Christ (cf. Cyba 2008). The entire history of past documented millennia is characterized by patriarchal rule, which was often justified primarily by the supposed physical and mental superiority of men.
However, patriarchal structures are still relevant today and have given rise to a variety of discussions and movements with regard to social gender equality. In Germany, for example, it was not until 1918, after decades of effort and ultimately successful demonstrations, that women were recognized as having the right to vote in political elections (see Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung 2018). The stated superiority of men can also be found in the statement that marital rape has only been considered a criminal offense in Germany since 1997, and before that it was only punished if committed outside of marriage (cf. Deutscher Bundestag 2008). This means that until a few decades ago, a woman’s will to perform the sexual act was legally subordinate to her husband’s will.
Another crucial feature of patriarchal structures is the dominance of men in leadership positions (men occupy approximately two-thirds of leadership positions), as well as the gender pay gap, which describes the differences in average gross hourly wages. According to this, women earned on average 21% less than men in 2018 (see Federal Statistical Office 2018) and are thus not equal in financial terms either.
In the most common definition of the term, matriarchy (from Latin mater: mother; Greek árchein: to rule) refers to a social system in which women have supremacy in the family, state, and social order. Thus, matriarchy appears to be antagonistic to patriarchy, or to „mirror“ it. Alternative definitions of feminist matriarchy theory describe the concept as an egalitarian, pacifist social order based on naturalistic values (cf. Helduser 2002).
Heide Göttner-Abendroth, in turn, defines matriarchy based on observations of extant matriarchal social systems (e.g., Khasi and Garo in northeast India, Nayar in southern India, Akan peoples in West Africa, etc.) and describes it as a social structure that is fully different from patriarchy. These societies are mostly agrarian societies living in clans, whose women have control over the supplies, as well as supremacy in decision-making. Particularly defining is the matrilineality, that is, the line of inheritance on the maternal side. In these matriarchal societies, sometimes up to 100 clan members live in one house and follow further, sometimes strict internal guidelines (cf. Göttner-Abendroth 2010).
The history of matriarchy is illuminated by various theories. Jakob Bachofen, for example, suggested that all patriarchal orders were preceded by a matriarchal order. According to this, agriculture gave rise to cults in which, among other things, female deities were worshipped for fertility and women held supremacy. In the change to patriarchy he saw the replacement of ‚female‘ sensuality by ‚male‘ rationality (cf. Helduser 2002).
On this basis, Friedrich Engels, supplemented by the research of the ethnologist Lewis Henry Morgan, reinterpreted this theory materialistically and defined this supposedly matriarchal early historical order as a communist society that was replaced by the emergence of private property. The potential existence of matriarchal systems made it possible to question whether alternate social systems could have existed alongside patriarchy (cf. ibid.).
However, the historical existence of matriarchal societies in archaeology and ethnology are highly disputed. Instead, the possibility of matrilocality, i.e. female dominance in certain social spheres, seems to be very likely (cf. ibid.).
Heide Göttner-Abendroth therefore defines the history of matriarchy on the basis of still existing matriarchal social forms. According to her, matriarchal social systems existed in the tropical, subtropical and temperate zones of the earth, which were created by the replacement of the hunter-gatherer culture by plant cultivation (‚Neolithic Revolution‘). According to Göttner-Abendroth, the matriarchal cult spanned a period of several millennia and ranged from the Neolithic to the Late Bronze Age, encompassing the earlier urban centers (cf. Göttner-Abendroth 2010).
Cyba, Eva (2008): Patriarchat: Wandel und Aktualität. In: Becker, Ruth/ Kortendiek, Beate (Hrsg.): Handbuch Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung. Theorie, Methoden, Empirie. 3. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag. S.17–22.
Göttner-Abendroth, Heide (2010): Matriarchat: Forschung und Zukunftsvision. In: Becker, Ruth/ Kortendiek, Beate (Hrsg.) Handbuch Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung. Theorie, Methoden, Empirie. 3. Aufl. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag. S: 23–29.
Helduser, Urte (2002): Matriarchat. in: Renate Kroll (Hrsg.): Metzler Lexikon. Gender Studies Geschlechterforschung. Ansätze – Personen – Grundbegriffe. Stuttgart, Weimar: J.B. Metzler. S: 259–260.
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Statistisches Bundesamt. Qualität der Arbeit. Gender Pay Gap https://www.destatis.de/DE/Themen/Arbeit/Arbeitsmarkt/Qualitaet-Arbeit/Dimension-1/gender-pay-gap.html [19.09.2020]
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