The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end. -- Gerda Lerner
An unexpected source, Steve Bannon, recently declared the certainty of patriarchy’s demise, pronouncing: "The anti-patriarchy movement is going to undo 10,000 years of recorded history." May it be so, because patriarchy is contraindicated for life.
The definition of patriarchy is the control by men over women and children in all the important institutions of society. While patriarchy is primarily about gender, its deeper force is about dominance—dominance of one group over another, and of people over nature. And even though male dominance is the mechanism of patriarchy, men and boys and people across the gender spectrum also suffer from its rigid gender roles.
The Origin of Patriarchy
The story of patriarchy goes something like this. Modern human beings have been around for about 200,000 years. Until about 10,000 years ago when agriculture was adopted, we lived in primarily egalitarian, hunter-gatherer societies. Our relationship with nature was deeply integrated and of spiritual significance. When we shifted to agriculture as our primary food source, everything changed.
Agriculture required something new. Instead of travelling lightly on the earth, we needed to control land, which led to the concept of “property” and its ownership. We also needed to control labor to work the land, and women and girls became the primary source of labor. As men accumulated property and wealth, the need to control who became “heirs” arose, leading to the need to control women’s sexuality so that offspring remained in the man’s family line. Under this new property framework, women lost almost all of their autonomy and became the property of their fathers and husbands.
As agriculture took hold, people settled down to live in one place. More complex societies formed, first as villages, then towns, then cities, and civilization was born. During this period institutions were created to address the new complexity, including law, economy, political structures, and the state, and patriarchy was written into the very foundations of these institutions.
The Spread of Patriarchy
It took about 2,500 years for patriarchy to spread to almost every corner of the world. Even in matrilineal and egalitarian indigenous cultures, the power of patriarchy was so strong it often influenced gender relationships. As patriarchy spread, a justifying narrative emerged: men and women are inherently different creatures—both in the way they were created and in their social function assigned by nature or God.
Why It Took So Long to Challenge Patriarchy
Because the human lifespan is so short, the gripping force of this story coupled with barring women from access to power of any kind made it very difficult to contest. It took women about 3,500 years to challenge their own subordination, and it was only just over 100 years ago that women began taking significant collective action to make change. It’s been history’s longest standing case of oppression.
After a century of feminist activism, inspired initially by Native American egalitarian culture and the abolitionist movement, there are real signs that patriarchy is coming to an end. Thanks to the powerful leadership of women of color, current-day movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, #WomensMarch, and #MeToo have laid the groundwork for a new intersectional and more impactful wave of resistance and change. Additionally, as women have gained increasing access to power, and as communications technology has grown, connection across previously impenetrable boundaries has created momentum.
Nature Is Inherently Cooperative
Alongside social change efforts, exciting new science supports overturning the old “dog-eat-dog” narrative that long supported patriarchy with its premise that dominance is an inherent human condition. The evidence increasingly supports what indigenous cultures knew all along, that nature is inherently cooperative.
According to biologist and founder of the biomimicry field, Janine Benyus, the organisms that survive and thrive on planet Earth are the ones that “create conditions conducive to life.” It turns out that cooperative, generous, and diverse networks are the primary organizing principle of the universe, and nature uses genius techniques to avoid conflict and competition.
Since human beings are organisms, if we want to survive and thrive like other organisms we too have to “create conditions conducive to life.” This is the great work of our time. Becoming a human family where cooperation, equality, and taking care of each other and the planet are integral to all we do.
Mushrooms—Yes Mushrooms—Can Be Our Mentors
In addition to looking at indigenous cultures for wisdom about how to do this, we can turn to elder organisms as our mentor. One of the oldest organisms that illustrate this new understanding of cooperation is the mushroom. Mushroom fungus, which has been around for over 100 million years, has become known as the wood-wide web. Mushroom filament strands create a network that connects 90 percent of all trees and land plants under the earth. The network shuttles nutrients, information, and warning signals between plants.
For example, the wood-wide web allows a tall tree that has access to the sun to give the nutrients to the tree that is blocked by shade. Trees with big roots hold onto water and share it through the web to plants with small roots. And plants will help other kinds of organism throughout the web, not just kin.
Creating Conditions Conducive to Life
Cooperation is pulsing through the universe, which is why patriarchy is contraindicated for life. If we are going to survive and thrive, dominance as the driving force must come to an end. The good news is that from an organism point of view, human beings are still in our infancy and we have time for learning and course corrections.
One of the greatest strengths of the feminist movement is its central chord of optimism that the world can be different. In every corner of the world, we are making progress. We are moving toward a new paradigm where we #DoPowerDifferently by creating conditions conducive to life—being cooperative, generous, diverse, and networked. Sounds a lot like feminism to me, and like #TimesUp on patriarchy.