Introduction Western female thought through the centuries has identified the relationship between patriarchy and gender as crucial to the women’s subordinate position. For two hundred years, patriarchy precluded women from having a legal or political identity and the legislation and attitudes supporting this provided the model for slavery. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries suffrage campaigners succeeded in securing some legal and political rights for women in the UK. By the middle of the 20th century, the emphasis had shifted from suffrage to social and economic equality in the public and private sphere and the women’s movement that sprung up during the 1960s began to argue that women were oppressed by patriarchal structures. Equal status for women of all races, classes, sexualities and abilities – in the 21st century these feminist claims for equality are generally accepted as reasonable principles in western society; yet the contradiction between this principle of equality and the demonstrable inequalities between the sexes that still exist exposes the continuing dominance of male privilege and values throughout society (patriarchy).
This essay seeks to move beyond the irrepressible evidence for gender inequality and the division of labour. Rather, it poses the question of gender inequality as it manifests itself as an effect of patriarchy drawing from a theoretical body of work which has been developed so recently that it would have been impossible to write this essay thirty years ago. Feminist Theory and Patriarchy Although ” .. patriarchy is arguably the oldest example of a forced or exploitative division of social activities” and clearly existed before it was ever examined by sociologists, the features of patriarchy had been accepted as natural (biological) in substance. It was not until feminists in the 1960s began to explore the features and institutions of patriarchy, that the power of the concept to explain women’s subordinate position in society was proven (Seidman, 1994). The feminist engagement with theories of patriarchy criticised pre-existing theoretical positions and their ideological use, tracing theoretical progenitors of popular views about gender, gender roles etc (Cooper, 1995; Raymond, 1980). Developing theories to explain how gender inequalities have their roots in ideologies of gender difference and a hierarchical gender order, feminist theoretical concepts of patriarchy are able to explain and challenge gender inequality and the gendered division of labour in the private and social spheres (Seidman, 1994). They have done this by challenging concepts of gender, the family and the unequal division of labour underpinned by a theory of patriarchy that has come to reveal how it operates to subordinate women and privilege men, often at women’s expense. Patriarchy, Structure and Gender Inequality Walby (1990) reveals how patriarchy operates to achieve and maintain the gender inequalities essential for the subordination of women.
Crucially for this essay, she shows how it can operate differently in the private and public domain but toward the same end. She identifies patriarchy as having diverse forms of and relationships between its structures in the public and private spheres, and yet still operates in a related fashion. Walby’s explanation sees the household and household production as being a key site of women’s subordination but acknowledges that the domestic area is not the only one that women participate in. She shows how the concept of patriarchy is useful in explaining the relationship between women’s subordination in the private and public arenas by showing that they work equally to achieve this subordination as well as supporting, reflecting and maintaining patriarchy itself. Firstly, Walby points out that the structures of patriarchy differ in their form. The household has a different structure to other institutional forms, e.g., the workplace.
This is an important point because if feminist theories of patriarchy are to stand they must show that patriarchy operates to the same end in both the private and public sphere, even if it uses different strategies, otherwise it could not be the main reason for the continuing inequality of women in both the private and public sphere. Walby shows that within the private structure and the public structures, patriarchy does use different strategies to maintain gender inequality and these strategies both achieve the subordination of women. The household strategy is considered to be exclusionary and the public structures strategy as segregationist. The exclusionary strategy in the private arena is based on household production. Application of this strategy in the domestic sphere depends on individual patriarchs controlling women in the private world of the home. The male patriarch in the household is both the oppressor and recipient of women’s subordination.
This strategy is direct – women are oppressed on a personal and individual basis by the individual patriarchs who share their lives. The segregationist strategy used in the public patriarchy actively excludes women from the public arena using various structures to subordinate them. Application depends on controlling access to public arenas (Golombok and Fivush, 1995). This strategy does not benefit the institution directly, but it does ensure that individual patriarchs are privileged at the expense of women, and it maintains gender differences. The way in which individual patriarchs and public institutions use there power further reveals how related the structures of patriarchy are. Public institutions do not have the power to oppress individual women or exclude them directly from public structures; this work is carried out in the home.
Power in institutions is used collectively rather than individually, and the segregationist strategy pursued in the public arena maintains the exclusionary strategy used in private that in turn supports the segregationist strategy used in public. Yet, the institution can only pursue its segregationist strategy because the individual patriarch subordinates the individual women daily. Walby’s description of patriarchal structure looks powerful where there are fewer variables – e.g., when women and men seem to share the ‘privilege’ of being exploited equally as a labour force working equal hours for equal pay in equal conditions (Haug, 1998). Haug (1998) cites research from East Germany which allows her to calculate that women do 4 hours and 41 minutes of domestic labour against men’s 2 hours 38 minutes. Men split their extra two hours between leisure time and paid employment. She asks if it is a realistic possibility that patriarchy could be so completely and comprehensively asserted in as little as two hours a day. Haug does not answer this question (perhaps it is rhetorical) but I think that Walby’s (1990) theory of patriarchy is so powerful because it can reveal the answer to questions like this.
Walby’s theory stands because she shows that the power of patriarchy is asserted in both the private and public sphere simultaneously supporting, reflecting and maintaining itself, regardless of the economic and social framework that prevails. In Haug’s case, patriarchy is not being asserted in two hours per day, rather it is an expression of patriarchy, i.e., a symbol of male privilege, which could only be expressed if the general strategies of patriarchal structure were intact and functioning. This description of the relationship between patriarchy and structure demonstrates how inequalities in the workplace and in inequality in the home are two sides of the same coin and individual males are involved in the direct and indirect subordination of women simultaneously. The concepts that allowed Walby (1990) to define patriarchy as she has are discussed below, with reference to the work of second and third wave feminist thinkers. Gender and Gender Inequalities in the Domestic and Occupational Divisions of Labour Feminist concepts of gender and gender inequality allow us to refer more or less directly to a theoretical framework for understanding how they have come to form a basis that helps structure the whole of society according to the concept of patriarchy (Seidman, 1994). The gender differences, which lead to gender inequality in the division of labour, and presented as natural by patriarchy and unequal gender order has been normalised and legitimated by science, medicine and popular culture (Raymond, 1980). Feminists hold that this normalisation conceals the social and political formation of an unequal male order, arguing that gender difference is socially produced in order to sustain male dominance (Seidman, 1994).