History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism

By Judith M. Bennett | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Patriarchal Equilibrium

In women’s history, the distant past tells a story of enduring patriarchy, a story that poses two challenges to our field. The first challenge is the long-standing and baffling job of locating the historical origins of patriarchy. From J. J. Bachofen and Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century to Gerda Lerner in 1986, the search for the origins of patriarchy has been compelling and inconclusive.1 It has not been a fruitless search—we have learned a great deal—but it is doomed in both conception (there was almost certainly no single original site of patriarchal power) and execution (the sources are too fragmentary for firm conclusions). The second challenge is posed by the seeming ahistoricity of patriarchy. If patriarchal power is a feature of all historical societies, then what can historians have to say about it? Or worse yet, perhaps the persistence of patriarchy betrays it roots in biological imperatives that are outside the purview of history altogether. If patriarchy is everywhere, where is its history?

This chapter argues that patriarchy does have a history, one that is inherent to the feminist project of women’s history. Patriarchy might be everywhere, but it is not everywhere the same, and therefore patriarchy, in all its immense variety, is something we need to understand, analyze, and explain. If we have the courage to make patriarchy—its mechanisms, its changes, its forms, its endurance—a central problem of women’s history, we will write not only better history but also history that speaks more strongly to central feminist concerns. The partnership of feminism and history has withered in recent years, but the venture of historicizing patriarchy breathes new life into the relationship. As I see it, the study of patriarchy is properly as central to women’s history as is the study of capitalism to labor history or the study of racism to African American history. To move patriarchy from the margins of women’s history to a more central position, this chapter begins with patriarchy per se, then examines the need to confront the continuity at the heart of patriarchy, and ends with a case study—of

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