book on surface

'Can we reject these labels?': A new book questions how patriarchy became the norm.

How did patriarchy become common around the world, and can we change the dominance of men in societies? Science journalist Angela Saini explores these questions in her new book, "The Patriarchs; The Origins of Inequality."

The World

Back in the 17th century, an English law known as the Common Scold punished anyone who was a public nuisance, argumentative, angry or disruptive.

It was primarily women who were found guilty under the law. That's just one example of how patriarchy was evident in the past.

But male dominance over women in many aspects of life is still common today.

How did patriarchy become the norm around the world? Are men and women inherently different — and are our social constructs a natural state — or can societies be changed?  

Science journalist Angela Saini explores these questions in her new book, "The Patriarchs; The Origins of Inequality" and talked to The World's host Carol Hills about her findings.

Carol Hills: There’s often circular reasoning to this topic, which goes like this: It's always been this way. Your research for this book goes back thousands of years, right up to last year. Has it always been this way?
Angela Saini: Well, that's a complicated question. We treat patriarchy, as you say, as this kind of huge monolithic beast that, however much we chip away at it, there will always be a little bit left at the end. And the assumption is that it has been around forever. And that's what I wanted to interrogate. When you look at the evidence, in fact, certainly, there are parts of the world where patriarchy is thousands of years old, but there are many other parts of the world where it was very recent. So, it's well within living memory that systems of male domination were introduced. So, it depends on where and when you live.
Now, a lot of your book looks at how archaeologists and anthropologists have interpreted the historical record of various civilizations. And traditionally, for example, female figurines were interpreted as a goddess or fertility symbols. But more recent research suggests something different. Give us an example of that.
Well, one of the very first places I visited while writing "The Patriarchs" was Chattel Hill, a beautiful old settlement in southern Anatolia. This is in Turkey, not very far from where the recent earthquakes happened. This site is 9,000 years old. It's one of the oldest settlements in the world. When it was excavated in the 1960s, archaeologists then described it as the oldest city in the world, and that's how it was described in archaeology books for many years. There’s still some debate over that. But what we can see in the ruins is a very sophisticated settlement in which thousands of people lived. Every single measure that we have of gender inequality shows us that men and women lived pretty much the same lives. In burial patterns, the food they ate, the work they did, the amount of time they spent indoors and outdoors, every single measure tells us that this was not a particularly gendered settlement. And at the same time, we have loads of female figurines, not just from Çatalhöyük, but from across that region, from that time period. So, women were not invisible, either. One of the figurines that I saw in person at a museum in Anatolia was a seated woman of Çatalhöyük here. I wish everybody could see it because it is the most arresting, incredible figurine. It’s about as big [and] tall as my hand. It depicts what looks to be an older woman sitting up completely straight — her body clearly weathered by age. You can see these deep indentations in her skin and these rolls of fat just spilling out beautifully around, behind and underneath her resting hands are what look to be big cuts. So, under each hand is what possibly is a leopard.
You also write about the Nair community in southern India. And in many ways, it was a matrilineal society. And then, that was kind of undone by Western colonial powers. Briefly tell us about that interaction.
We sometimes forget just how many matrilineal societies there are in the world. By matrilineal, that means that property and name are passed from mother to daughter rather than from father to son, which they are in patriarchal societies. There are many of them. There are a few that I picked out when I was writing "The Patriarchs," particularly in the Nayars, because Kerala — I have Indian heritage — and Kerala is very famous in India for being a state in which there are very high rates of female education and literacy; a state in which it is relatively much easier to travel and work as a woman. People believe that part of the reason for that is these matrilineal traditions. So, the Nair community, a very ancient community and very influential and wealthy in its time, was known for having these huge family households known as tharavads. Inside these huge family homes, the eldest woman would be the head of the household, the matrilineal, or even some people have interpreted it as the matriarchal head of the household. Women had a lot of sexual freedom. And certainly, you know, women were well-educated, girls were well-educated. But the introduction of Christian missionaries to that region and the effects of British colonialism in that region was to undermine matrilineal practices because essentially foreigners in India were just shocked that women were living this way, that they had this much agency and power and through legal means, but also through cultural and social means. They told people that their practices were backward and this was not the way that you should live. If you want to be modern and civilized, you have to live this way. That had an effect over very many generations. It ate away at their traditions and customs, so much so that people fundamentally changed how they felt about themselves.
As a writer and scholar, do you get annoyed that somehow you have to prove that male dominance isn't inherently natural?
You know, that's not what I'm trying to do. I leave open the possibility that there are biological aspects to the way that societies work. What I want to be able to do for readers is to say that if that's all you have, if the only way you have of understanding inequality is to say, well, that's just natural. How fatalistic is that? And does it match up to the evidence? If we have so much evidence of egalitarian societies in history, of huge amounts of social variation all over the world of women in power, women as hunters and warriors all over the world, in every single time span that we have looked at, then, isn't it fair then to look for other historical explanations for why things are the way they are?
In your research, and other people who've researched this topic that you write about, it seems like there has been more gender fluidity in the past than we thought, and that it's the idea of creating notions of male and female and men and women that in some ways helped create patriarchy.
I think it was part of the project of patriarchy to create this very rigid idea of what you can and can't do based on how you have been categorized. This is why I'm so heartened to see this generation that is emerging now that are really challenging, that are living these nonbinary lives, that are thinking in a much more expansive way about what masculinity and femininity mean and asking, can we reject these labels? Can we live in a much more freer way? For me, there is nothing more anti-patriarchal than that.

This interview has been slightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.