Book review: The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule by Angela Saini

Science writer and Superior author Angela Saini on the oppression of women

the patriarchs angela sainiI’ve read a fair amount on the origins and persistence of patriarchy from a political or social science perspective. The Patriarchs is interesting because it takes a different approach. It focuses particularly on archaeology, anthropology and genetics to consider where patriarchy might have come from and the variety of forms it takes. Saini also considers some contemporary and recent societies which offer a different model.

At its heart is the question often posed by feminist theorists – is patriarchy universal, and if so why? Some have speculated that there may have been prehistoric societies that were built around goddess-worship or more equal gender roles. Even if that is the case, why should it be a precondition for change? Shouldn’t the demand for equality rest on its own merits?

One area of the book I found particularly interesting was on the possible beginnings of patriarchy in Europe and Asia. In the 1960s, British-Dutch archaeologist James Mellaart discovered a spectacular female figurine at Çatalhöyük in modern day Turkey, on an excavation of a 9000-year-old settlement. This led to a narrative of female goddess worship and a matriarchal culture, although there are other interpretations. (Saini notes how the prejudices of researchers colour their thinking. So a body found buried with valuable weapons would be assumed to be male. If evidence proves it is female, researches would assume she must be the spouse or relative of a great male warrior, rather than a warrior honoured in her own right.)

His contemporary, archaeologist and researcher Marija Gimbutas, drew on her work on Neolithic cultures in the Danube Valley. She argued that there may have been matrilineal societies in Old Europe and parts of Asia which were subsequently overrun by a patrilineal, warrior Kurgan culture from the steppes. While there was scepticism about some of the more speculative elements of her work during her lifetime, recent scientific analysis at Çatalhöyük suggests men and women had similar diets and did similar work, and DNA evidence does now bear out the subsequent migration of the Kurgan people to the region.

While many argue agriculture gave rise to inequality and strongly gendered roles, Saini discusses the accumulating evidence from Mesopotamia that it was the birth of the state. States require workers to generate wealth for their rulers. This requires women to be controlled and to reproduce.

Saini reminds us that, even within a dominant ideology, there will be differences in the lives of individual women. People resist, they adapt, they find allies, they make use of whatever power – economic, social or temperamental – they have. 

She also considers some counter-examples to patriarchy, such as matrilineal systems in Kerala (abolished in 1975), and Meghalaya in India, where inheritance is passed down the female line and women have more autonomy in their relationships and child-rearing. She contrasts the positions of authority held by women in Native American societies in the nineteenth century with their white counterparts fighting for suffrage.

Often when I’m reading this kind of book I dip in and out and stop to digest what I’m reading. But The Patriarchs combines scholarship and insight with a very readable and accessible style. It’s a fascinating read and I burnt through it in a couple of days.

I received a copy of The Patriarchs from the publisher via NetGalley.
View The Patriarchs on Goodreads

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