Mary L. Wentworth: What is Patriarchy and Why is it the Most Powerful Force in the World Today? Print E-mail

Mary L. Wentworth is also the author of
Publisher: Lightning Source Inc., January 2004 ISBN: 1413423167
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Author's personal biography
It was while I was attending a Women’s Congress for Peace after the 9/11 attack that I heard about Women In Black. I knew instantly that I wanted to be part of this international network of women. Two friends joined me for our first vigil on Friday, November 30, 2001. Since that time, other women have made a similar commitment and we have been present in the center of Amherst from noon until one every Friday.

I grew up in a large family in Maine, attended college during the post-World War II years, and taught school before working for a government agency in Washington, D.C. I did not become politically active until after I married and had children. In the late sixties, a developing social conscience prompted my involvement in confronting racism and sexism in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In 1973, following a divorce, I moved to Amherst, Massachusetts. I have toured the People’s Republic of China, Cuba, Europe, and Central America. My activism eventually led me to join the Democratic Party in the eighties and to run for Congress. I have written newspaper articles and columns and provided radio and TV commentary on a range of issues.

I am also the author of Discovering America: A Political Journey.* This politically-oriented memoir features an innovative “Looking Back” section at the end of every chapter in which I place each experience in a broader context, analyzing it from a current perspective.

I am available for speaking engagements, panel presentations, radio interviews (by phone is fine), and workshops.  

*(For those who wish to do so, this book can be ordered at or by calling 888-795-4274 ext. 277, or at, or from your local bookstore.)

Mary L. Wentworth
514 Clark House, 22 Lessey Street, Amherst MA 01002, USA

What is Patriarchy and Why is it the Most Powerful Force in the World Today?


This paper paints a broad picture of patriarchy rather than providing a definitive analysis of the system. What I offer in this paper are the origins of patriarchy, its methods in achieving its objectives, and its powerful presence in today’s world.

As this paper shows, patriarchal control is not exercised in exactly the same way throughout the world. Over the centuries, the patriarchy has had to maintain its power through subjugating women in a multitude of cultures and through using varying forms of governments. The system has experienced setbacks, regained some lost ground, reasserted control after resistance to it weakened, but in a relentless pursuit for world domination by one or another of its factions, its power remains unchallenged, partly because it is not explicitly recognized. It is unusual to find a discussion about patriarchy in the account of a particular war or about war, in general, or to hear an analysis of  patriarchy’s obvious role in the plight of women.

This picture of patriarchy does not include a discussion of the fact that there are many men and women who are actually opposing patriarchy by participating in anti-war organizations, for instance. They are doing so in an unconscious way since they do not name it. It is equally true that there are many who unconsciously work on its behalf.  And they certainly do not name it.  Again, in an unconscious way, individual men opt out of the system by rejecting the patriarchal ideals of dominance/submission in personal relationships and/or by refusing to go to war. They are to be commended. However, the old adage applies: If you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem because this system must be confronted on a collective basis.

Under patriarchy men and women are socialized to view themselves and the world through different lenses. While patriarchy severely oppresses women, men have been given a stake in the system, but may not recognize the price they pay for it. In trying to eradicate patriarchy, men start from a place that is quite different from women’s. It is the work of men to raise the consciousness of other men in regard to the trade-off that patriarchy requires of them.  

In the final analysis, neither sex, acting alone, can achieve the kind of world that all peace-loving people so deeply desire.

August, 2005


A worldwide system that predates recorded history, the patriarchy is the most powerful force in the world today, trumping other ideologies or political systems or religious beliefs.  By its very nature, it is rooted in the subjugation of women. Patriarchal cultures uphold the privileges of men based on gender, social structures, religious practices, and legal codes. Exactly when this system established its pre-eminence is not known, but it is clear that for thousands of years, men have ruled tribes, clans, city-states, kingdoms, sheikdoms, and empires as well as the nation-states of the modern era. The patriarchal code spans the artificial divisions of today’s nations as leaders like the G-8 confer, bargain, disagree, threaten one another, and engage in armed conflict.  

Imbued as it is with the drive for domination through violence, it can be no surprise that the patriarchy’s quintessential activity is waging war. “To the victor belong the spoils” is as true today as it was many millennia ago. In an unbroken line through recorded history, patriarchs have tried to take by force what does not belong to them whether it has been the territory of a rival power or of a weaker nation; they have fought over natural resources, for slave labor and for low-wage labor; and for economic, social, and political control of another’s turf.

Throughout the last century, international agreements, beginning with the Hague Regulations of 1906, sought to restrain this antisocial behavior. Aimed at preventing war altogether, the Nuremberg Accords cited an aggressive war as the supreme crime against humanity. Nevertheless, the twentieth century turned out to be one of the bloodiest in recorded history.E1 Even though our DNAs are nearly identical, we humans distinguish ourselves from our primate cousins by devising ever more brutal ways of killing one another. We can now murder millions with just one bomb. In most primate societies, tribal members sit back, allowing alpha males to fight among themselves to be king of the hill, raising the question of whether the proclivities in human leaders and followers are biologically-driven rather than socially-induced. In other words, are these proclivities in our genes?E2

Whatever the reasons, the patriarchal code is embedded to a greater or lesser degree in virtually all cultures — in languages, religions, laws, mores, and forms of government. It even dictates interpersonal relationships.

The very first step in developing strategies for achieving a non-violent world based on economic justice, social and political equality, and peace is to recognize the existence of this ruthless universal system.


Even though men are more privileged under patriarchy than women, some men are more privileged than others. These differences vary according to the culture with its particular class subsystems and, of course, the castes based on physical characteristics like skin color and sex that cannot be changed. These subsystems can also be based on lineage, on religion, or on wealth. Women within the subsystems, however, always occupy a lower status than their male counterparts. [A woman who is attached to an upper-class man has a better life in a material sense than lower-class men and women, but she may be physically or emotionally abused. If she displeases her father or husband she can find herself relegated almost overnight to a life of poverty or prostitution.] In any case, it is male privilege in all its gradations that is the glue that keeps the patriarchal system intact.

A male’s privilege begins during his mother’s pregnancy when his family expresses the age-old preference for a boy, especially if the baby is the first. In many cultures, if a man does not father a son his virility is questioned. The patriarchal system makes a daughter a liability since it requires that she be married, a status that normally affords her no long-term possibility of economically benefiting her family of origin. Male privilege also means that a son stands little chance of having his life snuffed out at birth.  

Without naming patriarchy as the villain, a UN report on the state of the world’s population underscores this stark reality for girls: “At least 60 million girls who would otherwise be expected to be alive are ‘missing’ from various populations, mostly in Asia, as a result of sex-selected abortions, infanticide or neglect.”E3  Some tradition-oriented couples practiced female infanticide in order to get around a strict ban limiting families to one child that was imposed by Chinese authorities in the early nineteen eighties. Others tried to keep a second pregnancy a secret, or simply abandoned their daughters. Consequently, most of the children available for adoption in China are girls. Female infanticide is also a problem in India. Midwives report that under intense pressure from families, they are often forced to end a newborn girl’s life. The abortion rate in that country shot up when the amniocentesis procedure that can reveal the sex of a fetus became available there in the seventies.

Actually, it is our reproductive function that sealed our fate. Feminist historians offer evidence for the hypothesis that for thousands of years, long before the advent of record keeping, we women were revered, icons in our image were worshipped, because it was thought that we alone performed the miracle of bringing forth new life. As incredible as it may seem, the ancients saw no connection between sexual intercourse and the birth of an infant. Throughout a long stretch of human life on the planet, the goddess reigned supreme with men being seen as having no part in the perpetuation of the species.

The brutal subjugation of women that spread across continents over a period of several centuries began at the point in each tribe when men realized that they, too, played a part in procreation. This realization may have come about as tribes settled in one place for longer periods of time, living together in larger groups, planting crops, and domesticating animals.  But it is clear that the proliferation of phallic symbols, some remarkable for their size, indicated the arrival in culture after culture of this critical bit of knowledge and signaled an end to the primacy of the female.E4

Rosalind Miles, author of Who Cooked The Last Supper? quotes Jean Markdale: “When man began to assert that he was essential to fertilization, the old mental attitudes suddenly collapsed. This was a very important revolution in man’s history, and it is astonishing that it is not rated equally with the wheel, agriculture, and the use of metals . . . As the male had been cheated for centuries . . . equality was not enough. He now understood the full implications of his power, and was going to dominate.”E5  

Not only had man discovered that he was “essential to fertilization,” but he realized that by subjugating women he could control and profit from it. Consequently, over a span of hundreds of years, as Miles explains, a woman’s place in life on earth sank from the highest level to the lowest — from being glorified to being reviled. The idols that represented the old forms of worship were destroyed and replaced with new ones. Over time new monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — plus Buddhism and Confucianism replaced the old pantheon of gods and goddesses. These new beliefs all featured the male as the key figure. Some claimed that there was one God who had made man in His image, making a man superior to a woman. Judaism and Christianity claimed women’s sins were of such a magnitude that they could never be expiated. Men trumpeted the message, “We are in charge and don’t you forget it,” that has sounded down through the ages.

With the exception of menses, the complicated process of ovulation and conception was hidden from view and, therefore, not part of the equation. Men began to market procreation in a novel way: the womb, men now claimed, was merely a vessel for the protection of their semen as it developed into new life or, put another way, a man planted his seed in the womb’s soil.E6 This concept prevailed until the nineteenth century when scientists discovered genes. Consequently, it was a no-brainer that the producer of the all-important seed would claim ownership of what came forth from the womb. [This is the backdrop for the present-day anti-abortion movement’s focus on the fetus that ignores any concern for the mother.]

Women, then, like slaves, became valuable property. Gerda Lerner in her seminal work, The Creation of Patriarchy, writes, “The ‘invention of slavery’ involves the development of techniques of permanent enslavement and of the concept, in the dominant as well as in the dominated, that permanent powerlessness on the one side and total power on the other are acceptable conditions of social interaction . . . Historical evidence suggests that this process of enslavement was at first developed and perfected upon female war captives; that it was reinforced by already known practices of marital exchange and concubinage. During long periods, perhaps centuries, while enemy males were being killed by their captors or severely mutilated or transported to isolated and distant areas, females and children were made captives and incorporated into the households and society of the captors.

“Since their male kin had been slaughtered, these captives could have no hope of rescue or escape. The process of dishonoring could in the case of women be combined with the final act of male dominance, the rape of captive women. If a woman had been captured with her children, she would submit to whatever conditions her captors imposed in order to secure the survival of her children. If she had no children her rape or sexual use would soon tend to make her pregnant, and experience would show the captors that women would endure enslavement and adapt to it in the hope of saving their children and eventually improving their lot.”E7

Can there be any doubt that this span of history saw the inextricable linkage of sex and power that survives in male culture to this day? And we see, as well, that rape, early on, was an act that asserted, and could be used to reassert, male dominance. One wonders whether the very first battles between tribes were, in fact, battles to gain possession of women even before men’s role in procreation was recognized. More women meant more warriors would be produced for the tribe. Women captives also meant more hands for all of the tasks that have been known down through the ages as “women’s work.”

We women became property that could be mistreated and abused, traded or given away, bought and sold, not only into marriage, but trafficked into prostitution. Even in the so-called enlightened or advanced societies, male culture finds it difficult to distinguish between rape and consensual sex because a man’s preferences under patriarchy carry so much weight and a woman’s so little. In most places in the world we are still forced to bear children whether or not our lives are endangered, whether or not we can feed them, and whether or not we want them. What men want remains the top priority. (Throughout history, a few women, usually upper-class women, have been able to escape this yoke, through the acquiescence of a father, husband, or son, and some have come to wield power, usually exercising it in the patriarchal mold.)

In many cultures, a close emotional tie between mother and son is frowned upon. Boys approaching puberty are pulled away from their mother’s influence for fear that they will emerge into adulthood too sensitive and empathic to be “real men.” Down through the ages, the patriarchy has molded men’s consciousness to achieve a masculine ideal, an identity for men that fits patriarchal objectives.  

The authors of the United Nations booklet, Lives Together, Worlds Apart, write,

“Men’s attitudes and behaviours are strongly influenced by societal expectations about what it means to be a man:

“A ‘real man’ acts, he is not the object of action: he is demanding or aggressive in articulating his desires and striving toward his goals. His proper  sphere of action is economic or political, not domestic or familial;

              A ‘real man’ is the head of his family. He provides for his household, but he is entitled to use his resources as he chooses. He may choose personal pleasure above family expenses;

             A ‘real man’ is strong. He does not recognize or admit uncertainty — a sign of weakness;

             “Emotion may also be a sign of weakness. A ‘real man‘ therefore admits little concern for his partner’s wishes, pleasure or well-being. He does not readily attend to the emotional, as opposed to the instrumental, aspects of relationship“Men who — consciously or unconsciously — measure their lives against such stereotypes set themselves up for failure, difficulty in family relationships and unreasonable stress.”E8

In the United States, our ideal is “the strong, silent type,” characterized by:

“Suppression of a range of emotions, needs, and possibilities, such as pleasure in caring for others, receptivity, empathy, and compassion, which are experienced as inconsistent with masculine power. The emotions and needs do not disappear but are not allowed expression. The persistence of emotions and needs not associated with masculinity is in itself a great source of fear. Such hidden pain may be expressed in aggression against others or against themselves.”E9

How do these distortions of the human personality serve the purposes of the patriarchy? Myriam Miedzian, in Boys Will Be Boys, summarizes the effect of this socialization: “Men who are guided by the values of the masculine mystique find it difficult to develop deep emotional bonds not only with their wives and children, but also with other men. The hollow quality of their lives is then alleviated by the excitement and camaraderie of war.”E10 [Italics mine]


A key factor in the subordination of women is the institution of marriage. This institution effectively divided the world into two spheres: the private realm and the public arena. The overwhelming majority of the world’s women live out their lives in this private realm where each husband reigns supreme in his own patriarchal-given fiefdom. Over the centuries women have been allowed on the fringes of the public arena in order to sell produce at a neighborhood market, to work as servants, or to labor in factories where they have been mercilessly exploited or, in more recent times, as teachers, nurses,  secretaries or social workers under the careful supervision of men. But, by and large, the public arena has been posted with a Men Only sign.

By providing each man with the services of at least one female, marriage rewarded men for their allegiance to, and for their willingness to fight for, the patriarchy. Marriage also successfully settles disputes among men about who has the right to which woman. Since women’s sexual activities are confined to the private realm, men are guaranteed certainty concerning the paternity of their children. Men, on the other hand, enjoy a double standard since they have access to prostitution via the public arena and tend to excuse one another’s sexual liaisons within the private sphere. With the growing prevalence of the nuclear family and more mobile families, marriage increasingly isolates women from one another, distinguishing us in that respect from other oppressed groups.

The marriage ceremony is itself a mechanism for transferring property between men whereby the father gives his daughter to another man, her husband. In some religious ceremonies, for example, the minister asks, “Who giveth this woman to this man?” and the bride’s father responds, “I do.” English law, like the Bible, maintained that husband and wife were one, and that one was the husband who supposedly acted in the best interests of both. Among wealthier males marriage has been a way to increase their assets. Along with patrimony, the practice of leaving everything to the oldest son, marriage helped create the wealth for the European aristocracies.

“A man’s home is his castle” is no idle adage because in most of the world, the husband is the dominant figure in the household. The patriarchal family, then, forms the basic unit for maintaining social order, training and socializing children for the gender roles, unequal as they are, that they will have when grown. Daughters learn at a young age to cope with emotional and physical abuse, to do the hard work and perform the menial tasks involved in the care of a family. By emulating their mothers, daughters do not see it as out of the ordinary that they are not paid for this work when they are wives and mothers. Uneducated or less educated than her brothers, girls are often malnourished, subjected to incest, and denied minimal information about their bodies.
Is it any wonder that both children and adults often harbor resentment, experience psychological problems, and endure severe stress from this unhealthy arrangement?

The stigma of homosexuality has been kept alive through the centuries because homosexual relationships undermine the patriarchal practice of subordinating women through the institution of marriage. In homosexual relationships one partner is not entitled by the patriarchal code to be dominant over the other; one partner is not confined to the private sphere while the other has access to the public arena. These relationships provide a model that does not fit the patriarchal paradigm.

The perception of women as property has kept alive the most abhorrent practices of the patriarchy. Property, of course, is bought and sold, depending on factors of supply and demand. In some cultures, the bride’s father offers a dowry to the prospective son-in-law to save the family from the social disgrace of an unmarried daughter and from the financial burden of her support. The Indian Ministry of Women and Child Development reports that in that country fourteen wives are murdered every day by their husbands’ families — murders that are driven by greed or by economic desperation.E11

In other cultures, it is the prospective buyer who pays, bargaining with the father until the two settle on a “bride’s price.” The younger the bride, the higher the price since virginity is an absolutely essential part of the deal. We may recall that this cult of virginity required that Princess Diana undergo a medical examination before her marriage to Prince Charles to assure the royal family that he would be the first. In some Caribbean cultures, men compete to be the first to have sex with a girl entering puberty. Often, before she is out of her teens, she has become one of several women who have children by the same man who provides only a subsistence existence for each family. The virginity cult is being given new life in the United States by the “abstention until marriage” movement. In the United States, men can order a bride through the mail from countries like the Philippines, the Ukraine and Russia.

 “Women’s sexuality is often feared,” report the authors of Lives Together, Worlds Apart, “and is the subject of bizarre and ferocious myths . . .”E12 Patriarchs have used religions to propagate myths, often to women who, as has been noted, tend to be uneducated. At various times, for example, patriarchs have decreed hair to be seductive and made it a religious requirement that women cover their heads in public. Or women in many cultures have been required at one time or another to wear restrictive clothing because religious patriarchs have ruled that exposing any part of the female body, even an ankle, was “indecent.” Women have experienced the horror of the chastity belt of medieval Europe. The cruel practice of foot binding in China that probably began in the tenth century and lasted for a thousand years because young women who had bound feet had better prospects for marriage than those who didn’t. The most egregious example of the male obsession with women’s sexuality is female genital mutilation that is practiced in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the Middle East and the Far East and is spreading into Europe and the United States. This would stop immediately if prospective husbands stopped demanding it.

For at least four millennia, then, women, like servants or slaves, have been dependent on the good will of their fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, and in-laws since in most cultures we have few, if any, legal rights. Even in the self-proclaimed bastion of freedom and democracy women’s rights are still not guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Where we women do have legal rights, they tend not to be enforced, because ingrained cultural beliefs are supported by the patriarchy.

“Honor” killings are on the rise worldwide,” according to a United Nations report. “Throughout the world, perhaps as many as 5000 women and girls a year are murdered by members of their own families, many of them for the “dishonor” of having been raped, often as not by a member of their own extended family.”E13 These assassinations have the same roots as what we in the United States call domestic violence. An issue of Mother Jones notes, “31 percent of women slain in this country are murdered by husbands, boyfriends, or exes — the majority killed after attempting to leave an abusive relationship.”E14 More than one murderer has announced, ” If I can’t have her then nobody will.” For lower-status men, in particular, the power to dominate a woman is the only power they feel they have. In both areas, men murder women who either defy or are perceived as defying their control.

The threat of death is certainly an intimidating factor in the lives of many women and rape, which is often a prelude to death, continues to be a powerful weapon. Gerda Lerner clarifies the role that rape played in our subjugation, “The impact on the conquered of the rape of conquered women was twofold: it dishonored the women and by implication served as a symbolic castration of their men. Men in patriarchal societies who cannot protect the sexual purity of their wives, sisters, and children are truly impotent and dishonored. The practice of raping the women of a conquered group has remained a feature of warfare and conquest from the second millennium B.C. to the present. It is a social practice which, like the torture of prisoners, has been resistant to ‘progress,’ to humanitarian reforms, and to sophisticated moral and ethical considerations. I suggest that this is the case because it is a practice built into and essential to the structure of patriarchal institutions and inseparable from them. It is at the beginning of the system, prior to class formation, that we can see this in its purest essence.”E15

Rape, then, is a way of humiliating the enemy by defiling “their property.” The plight of black women in the Darfur region of southern Sudan typifies this use of rape. They are caught up in an on-going conflict there, suffering twice, first from being raped by the Janjaweed militia forces from the Arab north and by being shunned afterwards by their families. The children born as a result of these rapes will be stigmatized throughout their lives. One Darfurian woman reported that the lighter-skinned Arabs who gang-raped her arrogantly told her, “We want to change the color of your children.”E16 Unbelievable as it may seem, the United Nations is investigating accusations of rape against their international peacekeepers serving in countries such as Haiti and Congo.E17

Rape is also used to punish a family when a tribal council orders that a daughter be raped, making her marriage impossible because she is no longer a virgin. In a widely-publicized case, a tribal council ordered Mukhtar Mai, a very courageous Pakistani woman, to be gang-raped in retribution for the alleged association of her much younger brother with a girl from a tribe of a higher caste.

Rape has been the penalty that women pay for men’s behavior, criminal or otherwise, as we have seen in Mukhtar Mai’s case. She was raped to pay for her brother’s violation of the patriarchal code! While the eighteenth century Code of Hammurabi permitted women to own property, it also authorized a rapist to allow the husband of his victim, in an eye for an eye mentality, to rape one of “his” women. [The Code also allowed a husband to indenture his wife in payment for a debt.] In some countries, Hungary, for instance, women are forced by intense community pressure to marry their rapists.

Rape is also an outlet for men’s aggressive attitudes of entitlement that are cultivated and prized by the patriarchy. For instance, in my state of Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health reports that there are approximately 7500 sexual assaults each year. This figure averages out to an estimated 21 rapes a year in every town and city across the state, or 1 every hour. Even within marriage rape is used to show who’s boss since most countries do not consider it a crime when a husband rapes his wife.


Many veterans consider the male bonding that occurred during military conflicts to have been the peak emotional experience of their lives. Men’s defenses against acknowledging deeply-felt needs are broken down in the thick of battle as fear forces them to realize that they must depend on one another to stay alive. In Boys Will Be Boys, Myriam Miedzian shares an insight into this phenomenon, “ . . . according to J. Glenn Gray [a sociologist and World War II veteran] the intense feelings of power, excitement, delight in destruction, and camaraderie that many men experience in war are reactions to the boredom and lack of meaningful goals in their own lives.”E18

However, as we have seen in the previous section, the emotional side of men that would allow establishing “meaningful goals” and for the growth of loving bonds is crippled by the male identity that is promoted, fostered, and rewarded by the patriarchy. In other words, the need of the patriarchy for a male population that can easily be trained to be violent, to fight, and to kill is in direct opposition to the need of us women and our children for compassionate, emotionally-healthy, socially-oriented men that reject and boycott war, recognizing it for the sociopathic behavior that it is.  

The patriarchy diverts the emotional makeup of males away from familial needs. Early on in man’s history the patriarchal code demanded loyalty to the tribe. Now, the code demands loyalty to one’s country. This loyalty, which we call patriotism and which has the same Latin root as patriarchy, divides the world into “us” and “them,” infusing the “us” with a narrow-minded, nationalistic hubris, and blinding “us” to the horrors that we inflict on “them.” At a time when a population needs to be thinking about what would be best for everyone, patriotism focuses attention on the “us.”  

Patriotism comes wrapped in an emotionally-appealing package of symbols, dress uniforms, rites and ceremonies, awards, privileges, honors, admiration, and even religious approbation that effectively lays the basis for a patriarchal appeal to go to war.

The pennants that kings held aloft on battlefields of old have now become national flags. Just as Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the ringing of a bell, the waving of the flag cues men to get juiced up for war. Nationalist music like the Star-Spangled Banner, the anthem of the United States, which was actually written during a battle, is a paean to our flag, Old Glory.

Oaths, pledging loyalty to king and country, are still in force.  For years children throughout the United States began their school day by reciting, “I pledge allegiance to our flag and to the Republic for which it stands . . ” Public ceremonies often begin with the pledge. At critical times in my country, patriarchs have required intellectuals such as teachers, librarians, writers, civil servants, and public figures to sign an oath to assure the patriarchs of their loyalty.  

Medals that recognize heroism in battle are meager compensation for the wounds of war, for emotional trauma, or for the loss of life itself that service to the patriarchy requires. Uniforms foster group cohesiveness and identify those who wear them for special attention. Sports have become more militaristic as teams treat the other side, not as friendly competitors, but as the enemy. Basketball, for example, which started out as a non-contact sport, now allows players to elbow, push, and shove one another around the floor. Soccer fans often unleash their pent-up aggressive feelings at stadiums in Europe.

Rather than using holidays to bring people together to strategize about working for a peaceful world we in the United States, for example, use them to reinforce patriotism and militarism. On Memorial Day flags and wreaths commemorate past wars and those who died fighting in them. We celebrate Flag Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day. But we have no Peace Day. Military funerals end with a folded flag being presented to the mother or wife of the fallen soldier who is being buried in a hallowed ground in recognition of his sacrifice as well as hers. (The legislation that curbs our civil rights is called the Patriot Act.)

Patriotism primes lower-status men to be warriors, obligating them to carry out their end of their simple but devilish bargain: in exchange for the privilege of dominating women [and in earlier times, protecting them]they will put their lives on the line for the patriarchy. Sometimes war upends that bargain. WWII vets found that they could not return to ruling the roost because their wives in their absence had grown accustomed to making decisions on their own. This is now happening to veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq. The result is more violence among military families.

Violence by military men is directed at both family members and female service members. The rates of violence in the military [are] two to five times higher than among civilians, depending on which study is consulted.E19 In domestic violence cases, “batterers in the military are typically ordered into anger-management classes . . . These anger-treatment models are not very successful because this is not an illness. It’s an attitude. It’s about people feeling like they’re entitled to do this to their wives, ” says attorney Juley Fulcher. “The day you start seeing these guys go after their commanding officer because they’re pissed off and they can’t control their anger, we’ll rethink our theory.E20”  

When the patriarchy wants another war, it has to be able to generate support for it. At the end of World War II, a British writer interviewed Hermann Göering, Hitler’s Field Marshall, in his prison cell. Göering noted a potential snag, “Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece.” Exactly. But the patriarchal code disallows “the poor slob” from asking this question. Göering continues, “Naturally the common people don’t want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.  . . . voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.E21”

Claiming that Saddam Hussein was preparing to attack us, George W. Bush lied to the American people and to the rest of the world in order to frighten us and to attempt to legitimize his actions. Under international law it is permissible for a nation to wage war if it is threatened with imminent attack. Bush also pursued to no avail the only other avenue for legalizing his war under international law by asking the UN to authorize a collective action.

George W. Bush, however, was not the first American president to lie about an attack. President Roosevelt knew that the Japanese fleet was on its way to Pearl Harbor, but was willing to let 2300 men and women die in order to jumpstart our entry into World War II. President Johnson manufactured the Gulf of Tonkin incident to pressure Congress into giving him the authority to do what he thought was necessary to “win” in Vietnam. President Reagan claimed that Nicaragua would invade the United States if Congress did not authorize funds to aid the counterrevolutionaries who were trying to restore patriarchs to power in that poor beleaguered country.  
Throughout the Cold War, US patriarchs kept insisting, “The Russians Are coming,” even when there was no credible evidence that that was the case. But that false charge proved useful in scaring the American people into sending troops abroad and funding covert interventions by the CIA in other nations in order to advance the economic interests of high-status, wealthy patriarchs. As late in the Cold War as 1986, the American Broadcasting Corporation put on a four-part TV series that dramatized what life would be like if the Soviets occupied our country. In one study it was found that the leaders who took their countries to war, whether they ruled by divine right or were democratically elected, stayed in power longer than those who managed to keep the peace.E22

With its hierarchy of income differentials and class divisions, capitalism fit the iron hand of patriarchy like a velvet glove.  Patriarchs became capitalists for whom wars are moneymakers. The weaponry consumed in fighting has to be replaced and the infrastructures destroyed have to be rebuilt.  Right now American corporations are reaping billions in rebuilding Iraq as our military finishes laying waste that country.


Over the past three decades, researchers have worked at uncovering our past, putting together all the bits and pieces to make women’s history whole, revealing the enormity of our subjugation that globalization now demands we view in a worldwide context.

Rosalind Miles claims that, initially, women had hopes that they would be accorded better treatment through these new religions. However, what we call religious fundamentalism is actually a blatant, overriding presence of the patriarchal code that has not given way to religious tenets even when they are in direct contradiction to it. Today’s feminists search religious texts to find and interpret passages that show that the founders of these religions were not misogynists.

Patriarchs used religion to enforce their code. Men worshipping together at mosques or temples or churches are unquestionably participating in religious services, but they are also engaged in male bonding. In the colonial period of the United States, Christian denominations with the exception of the Quakers did not allow women to sit with men at church services. The persecuted Anne Hutchinson, feeling that all people are capable of having a direct relationship with God, angered colonial patriarchs when she questioned the practice of anointing men as ministers who then interpreted the meaning of the scriptures. Later on, at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention that launched the Women’s Rights Movement in the United States it was stated,  “ That woman has too long rested satisfied in the circumscribed limits which corrupt customs and a perverted application of the Scriptures have marked out for her, and that it is time she should move in the enlarged sphere which her great Creator has assigned her.”

The orthodox Jew thanks God in his daily prayer that he was not born a woman. Even as late as the nineties, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution requiring wives to be subservient to their husbands. In Afghanistan the practices that people attribute to Islam were in place long before Islam arrived in that country in the seventh century A.D.


Our challenges today include raising awareness among men of the price they pay for upholding patriarchy and to work with them to change male culture. Another is to insure that the relationships of men and women who are living together, whether within the institution of marriage or outside of it, are ones in which women are treated with respect and as equals and in which both partners are committed to providing a nurturing and healthy incubator for the fragile young. Without this transformation within the family, women’s ability to participate in the public arena will not develop strong roots.

Women in the United States have challenged the patriarchy through such collective efforts as the Women’s Rights Movement of the nineteenth century and the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late twentieth century. While those movements advanced the rights of women, we have not yet been able to counter US imperialism that has been the catalyst for impoverishing millions, the vast majority of whom are women and their children, or to head off the devastation to the planet caused by corporate recklessness. There remains much for us to do.

In this new century we are able to communicate quickly through high-speed technology making our planet smaller and enabling us to see more clearly that the patriarchy’s subjugation of us is only a matter of degree and that we are all strands in the same piece of cloth. Indeed, as we meet together, marshaling our evidence, we can only conclude that there is ongoing, continual war being waged against us whether or not there is armed conflict between groups of men.

Through understanding patriarchy we become even more aware that our insistence on controlling our reproductive functions strikes at the heart of patriarchy, provoking conservatives and reactionaries into waging an ongoing struggle to turn back the clock wherever progress has been made.

Both strategies of trying to legislate war out of existence and persuading the patriarchy to forego war have failed. Violence continues. The men and women of the world must find ways to directly and massively intervene in conflicts, forcing the warring sides to sit down at the negotiating table.

With our visible presence in hundreds and hundreds of communities around the world, we Women In Black can play a vital role in the struggle against patriarchy by drawing attention to the fact that violence against women and the violence of war stem from the same belief system.