Understanding Patriarchy

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 23 December 2013

Patriarchy seems to be a difficult concept for some and so I’d like to present what it means to me and, in particular, how it influences fantasy literature and games, particularly those influenced by medieval Europe.

First, I want to say that this article by Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog has an excellent breakdown not only of patriarchy but also kyriarchy. Both are ways of organizing the power structure of a society in an hierarchical manner. Here are the definitions for both that the article references.

Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men to not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).
- Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001

So basically, patriarchy represents the preference of men as a group over women as a group, especially in terms of power and authority. When we look at history, it’s hard to argue against this being an element of most if not all of the civilizations referenced commonly used as inspiration in fantasy games and literature. For instance, in many sects of Christianity women are often forbidden from holding leadership positions, especially over men. We talk about founding or town fathers but rarely founding or town mothers. Until relatively recently, male heirs were preferred over female heirs when it came to succession for the British throne, and other titles still follow that preference structure.
From WikipediaFrom Wikipedia

However, it is also easy for it to be argued that this view is incomplete. The English didn’t go through every living man before settling on a woman as regent, women were still allowed to rule. Better someone with royal blood rule than a commoner after all! Likewise, African-American males in the US often had a lower social status than white women, especially white women of the upper class. That is why it’s important to look just beyond gender, which is part of the concept of kyriarchy.

Examples of the influences of a patriarchal system

Now, for me, it’s quite obvious that we have lived, and continue to live, in a patriarchal culture. Take, for instance, the founding of a city. A group of people, often lead by one person or a small group of people, travel from one place to another and decide to set up a community. Many times the leader or leaders are married men and their wives perform duties expected of them due to their status as spouse of a founder. However, the history books often don’t record what both of them did, but rather record the man’s name as the founder. Both of them were there at the same time. Both of them were often instrumental to the success of the endeavor, and yet the man is the person who gets the credit, the statues, etc.

Likewise, if you ever do genealogical research, especially in the US, you’ll see that it is often difficult if not impossible to trace female lines. Wives often were referred to only by the husband’s name. I have one obituary for my great-great-grandmother and her surviving family is listed as follows: “She is survived by a sister, Mrs. Frederick Westphal and three daughters and one son: Mrs. Herman Schnoor; Miss Dora Gandesbergen, of Bremen, Germany, and Mrs. William Puetz and William Fillmer of Newburgh Gardens, also by three grandchildren.“

Similarly, if you look at the US Census before 1840, you’ll notice that the only name listed is the “Head of Household.” There are columns for males and females where census takers were expected to enter the number of each age group living under the head of household, who was usually male. Slaves were kept under a separate list and, of course, were listed under a white head of household.

Additionally, sayings like “it’s a man’s world,” “who wears the pants in the family,” and the like point to an assumed male head and female subordinate. In a gender equal world, no gender could claim ownership and, even if clothing was gendered, it wouldn’t matter who wore what.

But many men don’t have it easy!

Besides arguments that patriarchy does not, and has never existed, the second most common argument I get is that many men don’t have it easy and, therefore, I need to stop talking about how women have it so bad as if it’s men’s fault. There are multiple issues with that argument. First, no one says that only men reinforce patriarchal systems. We’re all raised in them from the time we are young and we have a bias to the status quo.

Additionally, while patriarchal systems tend to favor men as a group over women as a group, there is still a hierarchy and not all men are going to come out at the same level in that hierarchy. For instance, sons are also expected to be subservient to their fathers (“Honor thy father and mother”). Men without families of their own might never find a time in their lives when they rule the roost. Likewise, if you read Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages, you’ll see that too much subdivision of property meant that a resource such as farm land or manors would cease to support the family. Thus, often the eldest son would inherit the land and other sons may be left out.

By the way, if you’ve ever heard of concepts such as the disposable male (the belief that men’s lives are expendable whereas women’s lives are not), this is where it comes from, meaning the blame rests on the natural results of a patriarchal/kyriarchial system, not feminism. But the belief that we would have to get rid of all of the negatives groups of men face as a result of these hierarchies before we can start on women’s equality is also a result of patriarchal thinking which values male interests above those of other genders.

But this woman I’ve heard of supports patriarchy!

If the system was set up to favor men in these ways and you were a woman, it was in your best interest to reinforce the hierarchy in ways that provided benefits to you and/or your male guardian. When we wonder how it is that women can reinforce a system that restricts them, it’s important to remember this.

What does this have to do with fantasy games and literature?

Understanding how our society’s hierarchies formed and function is important when creating new worlds that make good on their promises. For instance, I’m often told that the Forgotten Realms is a gender equal place. But as I look through the content being created for that world, I see the content often doesn’t match that vision.

The difficulty of course is that it can be difficult to write fantasy worlds for readers in a way where they feel at home and can identify with the characters. Books can’t give us every detail for life and when details are left out, we substitute our own experience in. Since these products serve a wide range of backgrounds, especially ages, and we’ve had a fair amount of change since the end of World War II until now, it’s hard to create the worlds that each broad group expects.

For instance, someone born in the US before the women’s lib movement might find it disconcerting to be in a world where one’s gender wasn’t called into question when it came to business, education, or combat. On the other hand, someone who grew up with stories of the Night Witches and the other women who fought in WWII might find it difficult to believe that women would be excluded purely on their gender alone. People like me might find it unsurprising that some people question whether or not a woman can do “x” but may also dislike highly gendered occupations and societies, especially when we’re asked by the writer to identify with characters who espouse those beliefs. I know many people much younger than me find the gendered messages in early D&D modules strange and disconcerting. Details that were provided as hints that a woman was evil, for instance, don’t resonate with them in the same way.

By understanding how the patriarchal and kyriarchial nature of our society influences us, we can more easily separate out what is reliant on those beliefs being commonly held and which are truly based on sex-based or gender-based differences. I believe that can help us in providing content that speaks to a wider range of audiences and also helps us create worlds closer to what we say we want.

For a closer examination of the lives of women in the Middle Ages, I highly recommend Terry Jones' Medieval Lives : S1 Ep 3 - The Damsel and Women in the Middle Ages by Frances and Joseph Gies. I've also found a bunch of examples of warrior women from the time period in Warrior Women: 3000 Years of Courage and Heroism. Also, after my last post, David Donnelly recommended Nancy Godstone's Four Queens: The Provincial Sisters who Ruled Europe, Helen Castor's She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, and Susan Ronald's Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion.


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