Patriarchy is a system of male dominance, rooted in the ethos of war which legitimates violence, sanctified by religious symbols, in which men dominate women through the control of female sexuality, with the intent of passing property to male heirs, and in which men who are heroes of war are told to kill men, and are permitted to rape women, to seize land and treasures, to exploit resources, and to own or otherwise dominate conquered people.
As the discussion of patriarchy* I began last week and the week before shows, patriarchy is not simply the domination of women by men. Patriarchy is an integral system in which men’s control of women’s sexuality, private property, and war (including violence, conquest, rape, and slavery) each play a part. These different elements are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate one as the cause of the others. Patriarchy is an integral system of interlocking oppressions, enforced through violence, and legitimated by religions.
The model of patriarchy I have proposed argues that the control of female sexuality is fundamental to the patriarchal system. This explains why there is so much controversy about the “simple matter” of access to birth control and abortion in the US today. It also explains why so much vicious anger is directed at single mothers by politicians and commentators. Any woman who dares to control her own sexuality is questioning the foundations of the patriarchal system. Women’s right to control our bodies and our sexuality alone is not enough to end the system of male domination. But the right of women to control our sexuality – and yes to have sex whenever and with whomever we please – is the beginning of the end of the patriarchal system. Issues concerning sexuality are sometimes dismissed as “soft” or as only part of the “culture wars.” The definition of patriarchy as an integral system shows that sexual matters are “integrally” related to the “hard” “social” and “economic” issues that are sometimes viewed as more real or important than cultural issues.
The model of patriarchy as an integral system enables us to see that in order to end male domination we must also end war–and violence, rape, conquest, exploitation, and slavery which are sanctioned as part of war. In societies where the violent behaviors of warriors are celebrated and in which soldiers who have been trained in the methods of violence come home, it is unlikely that anyone can succeed in eradicating rape and violence against women. In the US military the rape of women soldiers by other soldiers is common, and the military is covering it up. This needs to stop and the men who rape in the military must be punished. However, the fact that rape has been permitted as the spoils of war from the inception of war up to the present day is rarely considered as one of the reasons for the rape of women in the military. Can justice for raped women be achieved in an institution that has always permitted and sometimes encouraged rape? And even if rape can be stopped within the military, will soldiers still continue to rape the women of the “the enemy” and bring learned violent behaviors with them when they come home? Do we have to end war to end violence against women?
If we wish to end patriarchy, we must also address the unequal distribution of wealth inherent in the notion of “private” property, much of it the “spoils” of war, which led to the concept of patriarchal inheritance, which in turn required the control of female sexuality. It is important that the model of communal land ownership in prepatriarchal societies and the principle of sharing wealth through gift-giving systems become more widely known. Knowledge is power. Knowledge of more communal alternatives exposes the injustices in systems of unrestrained accumulation of private property in the hands of powerful individuals. While we may not be able to return to a system of communal land ownership any time soon, we can support universal health care, progressive tax systems that redistribute accumulated wealth, and social safety nets for the poor and the vulnerable.
When we recognize that the desire to pass property on to heirs is one of the roots of the patriarchal system, we might also become more sympathetic to serious reform of the inheritance system. If individuals were only allowed to leave a set amount to each child and none to family-controlled charities, there would be less incentive to accumulate large amounts of wealth in the first place. Let us not kid ourselves, the “right” of individuals (most of them male) to accumulate vast wealth and to pass it on to heirs is at the root of the right-wing insistence that taxes on the rich not be raised and tax loopholes not be closed.
If we begin to see the injustices involved in acquiring people and property as the spoils of war, we might also become more sympathetic to the idea of paying reparations to indigenous peoples and to people whose ancestors were enslaved. This is not a matter of punishing some for sins committed by others. Are those whose ancestors lived in poverty in the tenements of New York and rose from there to the middle class any less the beneficiaries of the injustices on which the American system was built than those whose ancestors held slaves or took land from the Indians? We could fund reparations with the money that wealthy individuals would no longer be allowed to pass on to their heirs. We might even begin to view these measures–and others like them–as neither unjust nor even as extraordinary, but simply as what is required to repair the injustices inherent in the patriarchal system of private property.
Feminists in religion must also identify and challenge the complex interlocking set of religious symbols that have sanctified the integral system of patriarchy. These include but are not limited to the image of God as male. Images that associate divine beings with warfare and violence are also part of the problem. Feminists have begun this task, but it is not an easy one. The justifying of injustice within patriarchal religions is a worldwide phenomenon. Increasing secularization means that secular symbols, especially those created by advertizing, must also be criticized.
Heidi Goettner-Abendroth said that matriarchal societies honor principles of care, love, and generosity which they associate with motherhood, as models for the behavior of women and men. While it may not be possible or even desirable to return to the past, the example provided by matriarchal societies suggests a way forward, a path toward re-imagining societies that have legitimated and sanctified patriarchy, war, and the accumulation of wealth.
In this time when humanity is poised to destroy itself through war, overpopulation, and disregard for the environment, images that celebrate interdependence in the web of life are profoundly needed. We must recreate the understanding that ours is a relational world. Care, love, and generosity are not female or “girly” virtues–they can be practiced by boys as well as girls, men as well as women. Care, love, and generosity are not contrary to human nature–they stem from recognizing that all individuals, human and other than human, are related in an interdependent world.
Patriarchy arose in history. This means it is neither natural nor inevitable. Knowledge is power. We can change the world.
*See the expanded version with footnotes: “A New Definition of Patriarchy: Control of Female Sexuality, Private Property, and War,” Feminist Theology 23/3 (2016).
Carol P. Christ’s new books are Goddess and God in the World with Judith Plaskow and A Serpentine Path. Join her on a Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in spring or fall. Carol is a founding mother in the study of women and religion, feminist theology, women’s spirituality, and the Goddess movement. She has been active in peace and justice movements all of her adult life. Her earlier books include She Who Changes, and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions.