A patriarchal society is a society in which men are assigned greater social status and power than women.
According to feminist theory, the existence of patriarchy leads to social inequalities and injustices perpetrated against women. The more outdated functionalist theory, however, may see it as a natural way to organize society to achieve social stability.
Patriarchy examples include hiring practices that discriminate against women, exclusion of women from decision-making, institutional discrimination against women, and the relegation of women to the domestic sphere.
In sociology, patriarchy is described as a form of social organization where cultural and institutional beliefs and values are dominated by men. This leads to male-oriented decision-making and social organization.
Patriarchy literally means the “rule of the fathers” (the opposite, matriarchy, means “role of the mothers”).
Contemporary sociologists consider any system that contributes to the social, cultural, political, and economic superiority or hegemony of men as patriarchal.
Many earlier sociologists considered patriarchy to be the natural result of biological differences or differential tendencies to address society’s need for a division of labor (Durkheim, 1933).
For example, Durkheim argues:
“Today, among cultivated people, the woman leads a completely different existence from that of the man. One might say that the two great functions of the psychic life are thus dissociated, that one of the sexes takes care of the affective functions and the other of intellectual functions.” (Durkheim, 1933)
Sociologists like Durkheim, who embrace a functionalist perspective, tend to see patriarchy as a natural occurrence based on the objectivity of sexed and gendered traits developed in humans through evolution.
However, more recently, academic scholarship has highlighted the negative effects of patriarchy, seeing it as an issue of injustice similar to racism or classism (Hartsock 1983).
Today, feminist and intersectional researchers commonly investigate the consequences of patriarchy, i.e., differential access to power, authority, and opportunity by gender.
- Patriarchal Legal system – In patriarchal societies, the laws and rules are biased towards males. Legal provisions and laws are in favor of men, which leaves women exposed. For example, a patriarchal legal system may require men to sign documents on behalf of their wives.
- The Gender Pay Gap – To this day, women are often paid less than men for the same work. Women tend to do more part-time and precarious work, and feminized careers such as teaching and nursing tend to be paid less for work of similar value to higher-paid male-dominated industries.
- Unequal Distribution of Domestic Work – In patriarchal societies, men benefit from women’s unpaid labor. To this day, studies find that women do most of the housework and childcare in the Western world.
- The Perspective that Men are ‘Fit to Rule’ – A patriarchal society tends to have men dominate in positions of prestige and power. For instance, men continue to dominate the political system and are culturally seen as fitting into leadership roles more naturally than women.
- Greater Power for Men in the Family – Many patriarchal societies encourage and expect the woman, no matter how bad the marriage is, to stay married to her husband. This is based on the idea that a woman cannot survive on her own.
- Male-Based Inheritance Rules – In the case of inheritance in patriarchal societies, male children often inherit family capital, such as family property, wealth, heirlooms, and so on. Similarly, we can see how the passing-down of the male’s surname represents remnants of a patriarchal social structure.
- Privileges for Men in Cultural Roles – Patriarchal societies constantly distinguish between men and women and expect different behaviors from them. Attributes that are associated with femininity are undervalued, and attributes associated with masculinity are privileged.
- Patriarchal Gender Socialization – Patriarchal families encourage their boys to embrace masculine traits from an early age. Behavior considered to be feminine may be subtly discouraged, while toys and clothes will be gendered from the very beginning.
- Expected Obedience of Women to Husbands – In a strictly patriarchal family, every wish and order from the man in the house is to be strictly adhered to. Humility, respect, and obedience must be directed toward the man at all times. Women and children are expected to follow what the patriarch says or does.
- Domestic Violence to Silence Women – A patriarchal society may permit or be permissive toward domestic violence. Culturally, the patriarchy has perpetuated the idea that women should be meek and submissive, which may lead to physical and psychological abuse within the domestic Sphere.
1. Paid work
In patriarchal societies, men continue to dominate the best-paid jobs, and women tend to be paid less for equal work.
According to Sylvia Walby, a British sociologist, paid employment remains a key structure for disadvantaging women (Walby, 1989).
Feminized professions that provide high value to culture and the economy, such as education and nursing, remain underpaid compared to male-dominated industries.
The expectation that male jobs would be paid more than feminized jobs originated in the idea that men must be the ‘bread-winners’ while women’s work was a supplement to the household income.
In the West today, women are seen as equal participants in the workforce. Nonetheless, remnants of patriarchy are still visible in the continued underpayment of feminized industries.
Furthermore, men still benefit from women’s unpaid labor in the domestic sphere. Studies consistently find that women do most of the housework and take care of the children at greater rates.
2. Legal system
The legal system within highly patriarchal societies tends to be biased toward men. For example, until about 100-150 years ago, men were given greater legal rights, such as ownership of property and the right to vote.
Today, few Western societies are governed by overtly patriarchal laws that give men property rights over wives and children (Folbre, 2021).
However, this does not mean patriarchy is extinct. Male-dominated parliaments continue to uphold laws designed to control women’s access to birth control and control women’s choice of how, when, and with whom to start a family.
3. Marriage and divorce
In highly patriarchal societies, the woman is encouraged and expected, no matter how bad the marriage is, to stay married to their husband.
One way in which this is sustained is through cultural shaming of divorced women. Cultural norms continue to frame divorcees and widows as ‘used goods’.
Furthermore, there are persistent cultural notions that women cannot survive on their own.
The feminist critique of marriage holds that it is an inherently patriarchal institution. For example, the expectation that a woman changes her surname to a man’s highlights the role of marriage in sustaining patriarchy throughout history (Josephson, 2005).
Some feminists even see the decline of the importance of marriage as a social institution as a good thing because it erodes patriarchal views of women and their roles in society.
Social messages in media, cultural practices, and family life can encourage the masculine ideal within boys from a very young age. Boys are often subtly pushed toward idealizing and emulating masculine traits.
For instance, in some cultures, boys are subtly encouraged to embrace leadership roles while girls are subtly encouraged to view themselves in the position of mother, family cook, and so on. This can leads to boys coming to believe in their supposed superiority over girls, even from early childhood.
Cultural theorists often argue that it is this process of gender socialization that helps sustain and pass on patriarchy from one generation to the next.
Related Sociological Terms
- Gender roles – Gender roles are socially-determined social roles assigned to people of a sex or gender. They may place expectations on how males and females should think, speak, dress, and interact with one another.
- Feminism – Feminism is an umbrella term for a range of theories that embrace the belief in a project to achieve women’s empowerment. In its most simple form, it holds that there should be social, economic, cultural, and political equality for all genders.
- Gender socialization – Gender socialization is the socializing process through which children learn about genders. They will learn attitudes, behaviors and social expectations associated with their assigned gender at birth. This may come from parents, siblings, peers, and media, among other sources.
- Masculinity and Femininity –Masculinity and femininity refer to the attributes or behaviors typically associated with being male or female.
- Misogyny – The term misogyny means hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women.
Patriarchy is a social system whereby men are given greater power than women.
The causes of patriarchy have been debated by sociologists for a long time. Emile Durkheim, for instance, believes patriarchy to be natural as a consequence of biological differences between women and men. However, feminists believe patriarchy to be an injustice in the social system that should be rectified.
Examples of patriarchy and its effects include: underpayment of women, institutional discrimination against women, and exclusion of women from positions of power.
É., Durkheim. (1933) Division of Labor, The Free Press of Glencoe, Illinois. (Original work published 1893)
Hartsock, N. (1983) Sex and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism. Longman.
Walby, S. (1989). Theorising patriarchy. Sociology, 23(2), 213-234.
Folbre, N. (2021). The rise and decline of patriarchal systems: An intersectional political economy. Verso Books.
Josephson, J. (2005). Citizenship, Same-Sex Marriage, and Feminist Critiques of Marriage. Perspectives on Politics, 3(2), 269-284. doi:10.1017/S1537592705050206