Women In Patriarchal Societies

Women In Patriarchal Societies

The Origins Of Civilizations

Date: 1992

Most agricultural civilizations downgraded the status and potential of

women, at least according to modern Western standards and to the implicit

standards of hunting-and-gathering societies. Agricultural civilizations were

characteristically patriarchal; that is, they were run by men and based on the

assumption that men directed political, economic, and cultural life.

Furthermore, as agricultural civilizations developed over time and became more

prosperous and more elaborately organized, the status of women deteriorated

from its initial level. Individual families were normally set up on a

patriarchal basis, with the husband and father determining fundamental

conditions and making the key decisions, and with humble obedience owed to

this male authority. Patriarchal family structure rested on men's control of

most or all property, starting with land itself; marriage was based on

property relationships and it was assumed that marriage, and therefore

subordination to men, was the normal condition for the vast majority of women.

A revealing symptom of patriarchal families was the fact that, after marrying,

a woman usually moved to the orbit (and often the residence) of her husband's


Characteristic patriarchal conditions developed in Mesopotamian

civilization. Marriages were arranged for women by their parents, with a

formal contract being drawn up. The husband served as authority over his wife

and children just as he did over his slaves. Early Sumerians may have given

women greater latitude than came to be the case later on. Their religion

attributed considerable power to female sexuality and their early law gave

women important rights, so that they could not be treated as outright

property. Still, even in Sumerian law the adultery of a wife was punishable by

death, while a husband's adultery was treated far more lightly - a double

standard characteristic of patriarchalism. Mesopotamian societies after

Sumerian times began to emphasize the importance of a woman's virginity on

marriage and imposed the veil on respectable women when in public to emphasize

their modesty. These changes showed a progressive cramping of women's social

position and daily freedoms. At all points, a good portion of Mesopotamian law

(such as the Hammurabic code) was given over to prescriptions for women,

assuring certain basic protections but clearly emphasizing limits and


Patriarchal conditions also could vary from one agricultural civilization

to another. Egyptian civilization gave women, at least in the upper classes,

more credit and witnessed a number of powerful queens. The beautiful

Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaton, seemed to have been influential in the religious

disputes in this reign. Some agricultural societies gave women a certain

importance by tracing descendants from mothers rather than fathers. This was

true, for example, of Jewish law. But even these matrilineal societies held

women to be inferior to men; for example, Jewish law insisted that men and

women worship separately. So while variety is truly important, it usually

operated within a framework of basic patriarchalism. It was around 2000 B.C.

that an Egyptian writer, Ptah Hotep, put patriarchal beliefs as clearly as

anyone in the early civilizations: "If you are a man of note, found for

yourself a household, and love your wife at home, as it beseems. Fill her

belly, clothe her back. . . . But hold her back from getting the mastery.

Remember that her eye is her stormwind, and her vulva and mouth are her


Why was patriarchalism so pervasive? As agriculture improved using better

techniques, women's labor, though still absolutely vital, became less

important than it had been in hunting-and-gathering or early agricultural

societies. This was particularly true in the upper classes and in cities where

men frequently took over the most productive work, craft production, or

political leadership, for example. The inferior position of women in the upper

classes was usually more marked than in peasant villages where women's labor

remained essential. More generally, agricultural societies were based on

concepts of property, beginning with the ways land was organized. Early law

codes were based on property relationships. It seemed essential in these

circumstances for a man to be sure who his heirs were - that is, to try to

make sure that he monopolized the sexual activities of his wife or wives. This

situation helps account for the strong legal emphasis placed on women's sexual

fidelity and the tendency to treat women themselves as part of a man's

property. Within this framework, in turn, it became possible to think of women

as inferior and partly ornamental, so that when groups achieved a certain

prosperity they often tried to demonstrate this by further reducing the status

of women. This was a very clear pattern in Chinese civilization and may have

operated also in India and, later, in western Europe. Patriarchalism, in sum,

responded to economic and property conditions in agricultural civilizations

and might deepen over time.

Patriarchalism raises important questions about women themselves. Many

women internalized the culture of patriarchalism, holding that it was their

job to obey and to serve men and accepting arguments that their aptitudes were

inferior to those of men. But patriarchalism did not preclude some important

options for women. In many societies a minority of women could gain some

relief through religious functions, which could provide a chance to operate

independent of family structures. Patriarchal laws defined some rights for

women even within marriage, protecting them in theory from the worst abuses.

Sumerian law, for example, gave women as well as men the right to divorce on

certain conditions when their spouse had not lived up to obligations. Women

could also wield informal power in patriarchal societies by the emotional hold

they gained over husbands or sons; this was behind the scenes and indirect,

but a forceful woman might use these means to figure prominently in a

society's history. Women also could form networks, if only within a large

household. Older women, who commanded the obedience of many daughters-in-law

as well as unmarried daughters, could powerfully shape the activities of the


The fact remains that patriarchalism was a commanding theme in most

agricultural civilizations, from the early centuries onward. Enforcing

patriarchalism, through law and culture, provided one means by which these

societies regulated their members and tried to achieve order. While women were

not reduced to literal servitude by most patriarchal systems, they might have

come close. Their options were severely constrained. Girls were raised to

assume patriarchal conditions, and boys were raised with full consciousness of

their distinctiveness. In many agricultural civilizations patriarchalism

dictated that boys, because of their importance in carrying on the family name

and the chief economic activities, were more likely to survive. When

population excess threatened a family or a community, paariarchal assumptions

dictated that female infants should be killed as a means of population



The Issue Of Heritage

The centuries in which early civilizations took hold and spread in

Mesopotamia and Egypt, and then in surrounding regions, provide a fascinating

insight into the ways civilization took shape, the reasons it developed, and

the mixtures of advantages and disadvantages it involved. The period of early

civilization, stretching over more than 2000 years, also allows a clear

understanding of the mixtures of diversity and contact that would long shape

history in the Middle East, northern Africa, and southern Europe. Separate

centers arose, particularly along the Tigris-Euphrates and the Nile, that had

relatively little interaction and differed in numerous ways.

Civilization, though it grouped unprecedented numbers of people in common

cultures and common political structures, was also a separating phenomenon

because of its diverse points of origin. Because of the way in which two

distinct civilizations began in the Middle East and North Africa, supplemented

by successive invasions and the formation of smaller regional cultures, the

area would be permanently marked as a complex, vibrant, but often disputed and

disputatious part of the world.

As a new set of civilizations began to emerge to replace the societies

born of the river-valley achievements, it is important to ask more

specifically what traces of the river-valley civilizations would survive.

Diversity in the region is one important trace, as is the persistence of

specific developments such as the Jewish religion. So too, at another level,

were the monumental achievements of the early civilizations, notably of course

the great Egyptian structures.

Beyond specifics, however, there were two levels of heritage from the

river-valley civilizations, one vital and precisely measurable, the other

vital but harder to assess.


The basic apparatus of civilization never had to be reinvented in the

Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean regions, or in those areas that received

civilization from these regions. This apparatus includes the idea of writing,

calendars, basic mathematical and scientific discoveries, and improved

technologies, such as irrigation, iron use, more productive grain seeds, the

potter's wheel, and the wheel. Money and the idea of written, collected law

did not have to be rediscovered in this part of the world, nor did the use of

certain medicinal drugs. A large number of the attributes or consequences of

civilization were so obviously advantageous that they would be taken over by

any successor society and carefully preserved amid vast political or cultural

change. Other parts of the world had to invent some of these civilization

features separately, but in this considerable region the river-valley

civilizations produced a framework that never had to be redone.


Whether the early civilizations also produced a set of basic political

and cultural impulses that would survive into later societies is harder to

determine. Certainly there are some important traces. The flood story of

Mesopotamia passed into the Jewish Bible and so into the cultural arsenal of

both Christian and Muslim civilizations in the world today--some of them far

distant, geographically, from the story's place of origin. We use words that

come directly from the ancient Middle East or Egypt--such as the

Sumerian-derived word alcohol--that suggest important transmissions. It is

increasingly believed that modern music owes much to discoveries in early

Mesopotamian civilization in the form of specific instruments (harps, drums,

flutes) as well as in the development of the seven- and eight-token scales now

used in the West and passed from Mesopotamia through Greece. Towers and

columns now common in Muslim and in European and American architecture were

based on the ziggurats and perhaps Egyptian columns. These continuities in

style or vocabulary were not of course unchanged as they were transmitted, but

they show the omgoing influence of the early civilizations on societies that

succeeded Mesopotamia and Egypt.

The heritage of the early civilizations in politics, though incomplete,

is fairly obvious. Ideas of divine kingship, worked out in Mesopotamia and

Egypt, were remembered and revived in the later Roman empire, and may also

have influenced later African monarchies. The importance of regional

city-states recurrently marked Middle-Eastern history, with some bearing on

the political fragmentation of the region even in recent times.

Some historians have gone further still, in suggesting an ongoing link

between certain modern civilizations and their river-valley progenitors. It

has been argued, for example, that cultures that accepted Mesopotamian

influence, including classical Greece and later Christian cultures, emphasized

a division between humanity and nature quite different from the civilization

traditions launched by early societies in India, China, and probably

sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of seeing humanity as part of a larger natural

harmony, the Mesopotamian tradition held humans separate from nature, capable

of observing and exploiting it from a different vantage point, seeing nature

as antagonistic rather than seeking a peace within it. From this basic

division in early cultures would come different scientific approaches,

religions, and religious goals. The Middle East and Europe have long been

centers of religions that encourage action and anxiety, as opposed to

religious traditions of greater tranquility that arose in India; some of these

characteristics may go back to the Sumerian world view. Distinctive attitudes

toward women might even result, as the Mesopotamian tradition tended to argue

that women were closer to nature than men and so more inherently inferior.

Whether this basic cultural divide holds up in general may be debated; it may

presume too much on what is known about later scientific or religious

outlooks, not on what is known about the early civilizations themselves. Much

would depend, of course, on how any Mesopotamian core tradition was

transmitted into subsequent cultures such as the Greek, the Christian, and the


Nevertheless, the idea of some basic guidelines passing down from the

early civilizations is a fascinating one. Not fully provable and certainly not

definite fact, the idea legitimately suggests the power and complexity of the

values, not just the specific technical and social inventions, that early

civilizations developed. There is one point that might give support to the

idea of distinctive, durable frameworks of values: The civilizations that

inherited from Egypt and Mesopotamia were not all the civilizations in the

world. Other, quite separate early civilization centers, notably those in

India, China, and later the Americas, would send out different signals,

duplicating through separate invention some of the practical features of Egypt

and Mesopotamia but inevitably producing quite different versions of culture

and politics. More people in the world today look back to these other early

civilizations for points of origin, than lay claim directly to the heritage of

the Middle East and North Africa.

Further Readings

Two excellent studies can guide additional work on early civilization in

Mesopotamia: C. L. Redman's the Rise of Civilization: From Early Farmers To

Urban Society in the Ancient Near East (1988); and J. J. Nissen's The Early

History of the Ancient Near East, 9000-2000 B.C. (1988). See also S. N.

Kramer's History Begins at Sumer (1981). Two fine studies of Egypt are A.

Gardiner's Egypt of the Pharaohs (1966), a very readable treatment, and A.

Nibbi's Ancient Egypt and some Eastern neighbors (1981). Patterns of life with

some useful comparison are the subject of J. Hawkes' Life in Mesopotamia, the

Indus Valley, and Egypt (1973). Two recent books deal with important special

topics: M. Silver's Economic Structures of the Ancient Near East (1987); and

T. Jacobsen's The Treasures of Darkness: A History of Mesopotamian Religion


Two studies of Israel are J. Bright's A History of Israel (1981); and the

first two volumes of W. D. Davies and L. Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge

History of Judaism (1984, 1987). For a study of Phoenicia, see N. K. Sandars'

The Sea Peoples (1985). Early civilization in the Upper Nile is the subject of

Roland Oliver, ed., The Dawn of African History (1968).

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