The creation of patriarchy: How did it happen?

I began with the conviction, shared by most feminist thinkers, that patriarchy as a system is historical: it has a beginning in history. If that is so, it can be ended by historical process.

Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy


You can read this essay in Turkish here.

This essay draws heavily on three texts: Gerda Lerner’s ‘Creation of Patriarchy,’ Marilyn French’s ‘The History of Women’ (Vol I), and Sally Roesch Wagner’s ‘Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists.’ It also draws on Merlin Stone’s ‘When God Was a Woman.’ In this essay I have tried to condense and relay key points about the creation of patriarchy and the matrilineal societies that came before, as explained in those books. Many passages follow the original texts very closely.


For most of our existence, human beings have not lived under patriarchal rule. The patriarchal order as we know it today is only about five thousand years old, but homo sapiens sapiens – modern humans – were making sophisticated tools, clothes, wind-proof shelters and watercraft within matrilineal communities 90,000 – 80,000 years ago. The origins of patriarchy in the West are generally traced to Mesopotamia, or the fertile crescent. By 4000BC, men in Sumer – today southern Iraq – had claimed naming and ownership rights over children, and were gaining control over women’s bodies in turn.

Before Sumer was patriarchal, it was matrilineal: worldwide, matrilineal societies abounded before the creation of patriarchy and colonization. In Mesopotamia, patriarchy become embedded with the transition from subsistence living to agriculture, the formation of cities and the rise of militarism; and this seems to be a pattern. Societies became patriarchal either as they transitioned to agriculture, or through colonization. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States describes Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) society before the arrival of Europeans:

“Women were important and respected in Iroquois society. Families were matrilineal. That is, the family line went down through the female members, whose husbands joined the family, while sons who married then joined their wives’ families. Each extended family lived in a “long house.” When a woman wanted a divorce, she set her husband’s things outside the door.”

In matrilineal societies like that of the Haudenosaunee, children inherit from their mothers. Sons, husbands or brothers have access to property because of their relationships to women who are the recognized guardians. Most matrilineal societies are also matrilocal – meaning that women inherit rights to land, men help to raise their sisters’ children, and young men leave home to marry into another matrilineal clan. Women have political status to match their central place in society, as Gabriela Ngirmang explains in Zohl de Ishtar’s Daughters of the Pacific:

“In Palau [Belau] women play an important role in issues of policy. Women traditionally own land. We control the clan money. We traditionally select our chiefs – women place and remove them. Having observed their upbringing closely we are able to decide which men have the talent to represent our interests.”

In her book Sisters in Spirit: Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Influence on Early American Feminists, Sally Roesch Wagner makes clear it is no coincidence that the American women’s rights movement was born in the territory of the Haudenosaunee (or native American “Iroquois.”) Three leaders of the women’s rights movement – Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Matilda Joslyn Gage and Lucretia Mott – had personal connections with the Haudenosaunee, and these early suffragists “believed women’s liberation was possible because they knew liberated women, women who possessed rights beyond their wildest imagination: Haudenosaunee women.”

In an 1891 speech, Stanton told the National Council of Women about how misbehaving Haudenosaunee husbands “might at any time be ordered to pick up his blanket and budge.” She envied how Indian women “ruled the house” and how “descent of property and children were in the female line.” She wrote that,

“The women were the great power among the clan, as everywhere else. They did not hesitate, when occasion required, ‘to knock off the horns,’ as it was technically called, from the head of a chief and send him back to the ranks of the warriors. The original nomination of the chiefs also always rested with the women.”

The Haudenosaunee lived by hunting and horticulture, prior to colonization. Villages were composed of longhouses (Haudenosaunee means “people of the longhouse”) in which twenty-five families could live. Each had a partitioned sleeping area, sharing a fireplace with the family opposite. Women farmed and stored food at both ends of a longhouse, and controlled its distribution – meaning chiefs, whom women had the power to depose, needed women’s consent to make war. Wagner writes that many eighteenth and nineteenth century Indian and non-Indian reporters, “contended that rape didn’t exist among Native nations prior to white contact.”

By contrast, the European tradition legalized both marital rape and wife battering. A woman’s property and earnings legally belonged to her husband, and divorce was almost impossible for women to pursue. “That the woman of every Christian land fears to meet a man in a secluded place by day or night, is of itself sufficient proof of the low state of Christian morality,” wrote Gage, who was working on a book about the Haudenosaunee when she died in 1898. Her research focused on the position of women in the Haudenosaunee system of what she called “mother-rule.”

Matrilineal societies existed throughout the Near and Middle East before the creation of patriarchy. Among the evidence are an abundance of relics indicating goddess religions – in her book When God was a Woman, Merlin Stone says that historians’ routine characterization of these goddess religions as “fertility cults,” has been sexist and oversimplified. Mother goddess figurines, and other goddess figures associated with serpents, doves and double axes, have been found in modern day Iraq; around 7000BC, the goddess Astarte was worshipped in Canaan. Female figurines, with their hands raised to their breast, have been found there in the old town of Jericho.

From about 7000BC, ruins also show the existence of matrilineal villages in fertile river valleys on the Aegean and Adriatic coasts of Old Europe, Czechoslovakia, southern Poland, and western Ukraine. Houses in these villages held altars with statues and paintings of women alone, as female-animal shapes, or associated with snakes and butterflies. According to Marilyn French, these villages “lived in peace and stability for thousands of years, farming, raising animals, making pottery, carving, and making bone and stone implements. Set in beautiful, accessible, unfortified sites with good water and soil, none of these villages show signs of war, nor do the graves show stratification.”

From 7000 to 3500BC, these towns “developed complex governing, social and religious institutions, specialized crafts such as goldsmithing, and perhaps a rudimentary script. By 5500 BCE they knew copper metallurgy and depicted sailing boats on their ceramics.” Forty shrines dated from 6500BC have also been found at the site of an ancient town called Çatal Hüyük, in Anatolia (modern day Turkey), including figurines of young women, mothers giving birth, and crones. Çatal Hüyük had a population of 6-8,000 people living in connected houses that were entered from the top with a ladder, and furnished with mud brick fireplaces, clay ovens, and sleeping platforms.

One precondition for the creation of patriarchy was an understanding of paternity: for most of our past, people did not connect sexual intercourse with the much later event of women giving birth. This discovery though does little to account for or justify what followed.

According to French, male dominance was first asserted as men claimed ownership and naming rights of children, which necessitated control over women. The murder of firstborn children became common as men sought to ensure a wife’s firstborn was really his “own.” By 4000BC, villages in Sumer had become patrilineal, though women may have still controlled food. Men and women fished, farmed and trapped birds, and worked together to build temples dedicated to the goddess Inanna.

Yet after communities began to trace lineage through the paternal line, they also became patrilocal. French explains,

“In patrilocal marriage a woman lives with strangers, isolated from any who love her or will protect her, sometimes even from any who share her language. Often abused and exploited by husbands and their families in patrilocal groups, women do not possess their bodies, their labor, or their children, who belong to their husbands’ lineage. Some patrilocal societies allow wives to leave, but they can never take their children with them. Therefore, most women remain.”

Male solidarity and puberty rites were developed at this time, teaching boys to “scorn “feminine” emotions, replacing them with hardness, self-denial, obedience, and deference to “superior” males, creating a bond not of love but of power directed at transcendent goals.” Womanhood ceased to be regarded in high esteem: “in male-dominated societies,” French writes, “girls are humiliated. Isolated, confined, allowed only small amounts of certain foods and drink, taught that her body is powerful but contaminated, a girl learns she has power – to pollute: in such cultures, menstrual blood is a source of horror and fear.”

Once patrilineality was established, with women marrying into their husbands’ clan, rather than vice versa – it was difficult for women to escape. Patriarchy then became embedded with the development of agriculture and population increase, which fuelled territorial expansion and militarism. If women had controlled food distribution before, they lost that power in this shift: the temple complex was controlled by a city ruler and his wife in the city centre, who also managed the harvest from there. This gave them the power to pressure farmers to continue producing a surplus. As Sumerian temples promoted gods over goddesses, the goddess Inanna lost primacy (although some still worshipped goddesses – Christian emperors of Rome and Byzantium closed down the last Goddess temples in about 500AD).

During intertribal warfare, enemy men were commonly killed, while women and children were taken captive. Female captives were absorbed into a tribe through rape and pregnancy: they became loyal for the sake of their children, and because their own male relatives were dead and could not come to their aid. This capture, enslavement and ownership of women and children was the beginning of class formation, and may have been the first form of private property. In The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner argues that it was only after decades of conquering women this way that tribes learned how to enslave men.

During 3500-2800BC in Sumer, military elites developed next to temple elites, before becoming an independent and overpowering force. Military strong men became chieftains over villages, later taking over previously communally held temple lands and herds, and then using their clans to dominate a city and its surrounds. The strongest of these chieftains eventually set themselves up as kings, treating temple property as their own – a smaller number would unite several city-states into a kingdom or a national state.

In the temples, daughters of kings and rulers were appointed as high priestesses or non-dingir who participated in an annual sacred marriage to a high priest, while impersonating or representing the goddess Inanna. The sacred marriage reflected a belief that fertility of land and people depended on celebration of sexual power of a fertility goddess – the practice was performed in the temples of various fertility goddesses for nearly 2,000 years.

Many myth cycles reflect the gradual subjugation of women, with wars between the sexes resulting in men as triumphant or taking women’s powers. French explains that in early Sumerian myths, “goddesses created everything, and Siduri, one of the most prominent, reigned in paradise. Later, a sun god usurped her realms, goddesses were demoted, and, by the later epic of the legendary king Gilgamesh, Siduri was a barmaid.” The later Babylonian/ Assyrian creation epic describes how the god Marduk defeats Tiamat, the divine mother.

As French explains, in the first myths about her, Inanna encompassed everything: she controlled birth, death, and rebirth “as mother, protector and goddess of the vegetation and the weather, of the morning and the evening star.” In the later myth of “Enki and the World Order,” the male Enki became the primary god – a bureaucrat, presiding over a hierarchy of lesser gods. He assigned offices to them including only two minor goddesses, and Inanna is not one of them. She later became goddess of love and war, then a healer, and then an interceder between dominant male gods. After the Amorite conquest of Mesopotamia, French writes, “Inanna became the goddess of prostitutes.”

Kar.kid is the Sumerian word for a female “prostitute.” It first appears around 2400BC in one of the earliest lists of professions – priests prostituted female captives and slaves to draw men and money to the temples.

In The Creation of Patriarchy, Lerner elaborates, stating,

“It is likely that commercial prostitution derived directly from the enslavement of women in warfare. As slavery became an established institution, slave owners rented out their female slaves as prostitutes, and some masters set up commercial brothels staffed by slaves. The ready availability of captive women for private sexual use and the need of kings and chiefs, frequently themselves usurpers of authority, to establish legitimacy by displaying their wealth in the form of servants and concubines led to the establishment of harems. These, in turn, became symbols of power to be emulated by aristocrats, bureaucrats, and wealthy men.

Another source for commercial prostitution was the pauperization of farmers and their increasing dependence on loans in order to survive periods of famine, which lead to debt slavery. Children of both sexes were given up for debt pledges or sold for “adoption.” Out of such practices, the prostitution of female family members the benefit of the head of the family could readily develop. Women might end up as prostitutes because their parents had to sell them into slavery or their impoverished husbands might so use them.”

From around 2350BC, slavery consolidated into class, which became a permanent feature of the social order; and the notion of private property emerged. Women were degraded into private property, and judged by a different legal and moral standard from men. By 1750BC, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi compiled and amended previously existing law codes, engraving the Codex Hammurabi onto a stele made of black diorite – sanctioned by the god Shamash.

This legal code encompassed a large body of law already practiced for hundreds of years, administered in individual communities by judges and elders forming tribunals. It was based on the concept of an “eye for an eye,” though for some offences, financial burdens and punishments such as whippings could be substituted. Lerner explains that the Codex Hammurabi recognized three distinct classes of people: the patrician, which includes priests and government officials; the burgher, and slaves. Punishment was graded by class, and injury to a higher-ranking person resulted in more severe punishment than that to lower-ranking people – a man could send members of his family, servants or slaves to suffer the punishment on his behalf, for crimes he committed.

In the Codex, a father’s authority over his children was unlimited. Of the 282 laws, 73 pertain to marriage and sexual matters: for instance, a wife was legally obliged to fulhill her economic role to her husband’s satisfaction. A man could divorce his wife or reduce her to the status of a slave and marry a second wife, if she persisted “in behaving herself foolishly wasting her house and belittling her husband.” For women, divorce was virtually unobtainable.

By the time of Hammurabi, property passed from man to man, male family head to male family head – but it passed through women, through dowry marriage. The main value of a daughter was her potential as a bride, and virginity was a condition for marriage. Any marriage arrangement could be cancelled if the bride was found not to be a virgin, so strict supervision of girls ensured chastity and family control over marriage partners. Lerner writes,

“By the middle of the second millenium B.C., prostitution was well established as a likely occupation for the daughters of the poor.

As the sexual regulation of women of the propertied class became more firmly entrenched, the virginity of respectable daughters became a financial asset for the family, and commercial prostitution came to be seen as a social necessity for meeting the sexual needs of men. What remained problematic was how to distinguish clearly and permanently between respectable and non-respectable women; and how to discourage men from associating socially with women now defined as “non respectable.” Both purposes were accomplished by the enactment of Middle Assyrian Law 40.”

In the sixteenth century BC, Babylon was sacked, and by around 1300BC, a militaristic Assyrian empire rose, named after its capital Assur, in Syria. The preserved Middle Assyrian Law code (MAL) is harsher than its Babylonian predecessor, and this time, a full 59 out of 112 surviving laws deal with marriage and sexual matters. If a virgin girl was raped, she was condemned to marry her rapist, who was forbidden from divorcing her. If the rapist was married, he had to pay the girl’s father by giving by giving him his wife to be kept as a slave or concubine.

The MAL resolved the problem of distinguishing respectable women from “prostitutes”: domestic women, who were sexually serving one man and under his protection, as “respectable” by being veiled. Women not under one man’s protection and sexual control had to go unveiled. The law reads,

“Neither [wives] of [seigniors] nor [widows] nor [Assyrian women] who go out on the street may have their heads uncovered. The daughters of a seignior… whether it is a shawl or a robe or [a mantle], must veil themselves… when they go out on the street alone, they must veil themselves… A sacred prostitute whom a man married must veil herself on the street, but one whom a man did not marry must have her head uncovered on the street; she must not veil herself. A harlot must not veil herself; her head must be uncovered…”

A woman appearing in public unveiled was assumed to be a “prostitute,” her uncovered head distinguishing her from respectable women. Breaching this rule was a major offense against the state, and punishable as such. The law instructed,

“…he who has seen a harlot veiled must arrest her, produce witnesses (and) bring her to the palace tribunal; they shall not take her jewelry away (but) the one who arrested her may take her clothing; they shall flog her fifty (times) with staves (and) pour pitch on her head.”

One of the harshest punishments women were subjected to under MAL was for abortion: women who performed abortions on themselves or others were to be impaled and denied burial. Abortion, like adultery, was a crime only for women: a man who hit another man’s pregnant wife, causing her to lose the child, was punished by being made to hand over his wife for the same abuse if she became pregnant.

As Lerner explains,

“The savage punishment against self-abortion has to do with the importance placed throughout the MAL on the connection between the power of the king (state) and the power of the patriarchal family-head over his wives and children. Thus, the right of the father, hitherto practiced and sanctioned by custom, to decide over the lives of his infant children, which in practice meant the decision of whether his infant daughters should live or die, is in the MAL equated with the keeping of social order. For the wife to usurp such a right is now seen as equal in magnitude to treason or to an assault upon the king.”

In her essay The Rape Atrocity and the Boy Next Door, Andrea Dworkin sums up the principles underlying these earliest legal codes. “Women belonged to men; the laws of marriage sanctified that ownership; rape was the theft of a woman from her owner,” she wrote. The crime of rape was a crime of theft, of abduction, of taking another man’s property outside of any agreed arrangement or transaction. This is what made adultery only possible on the side of the wife; divorce difficult for her to initiate; and forceful resistance to rape both punishable, and necessary to evidence. Ultimately, “Rape was a crime against the man who owned the woman,” Dworkin wrote. Dworkin studied these laws late last century because they remain “the basis of the social order as we know it.” Like Stanton and Gage and the first wave feminists who came before her – she wanted to change them.

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