Review of: The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, by Angela Saini

“Down With the Patriarchy” is a both a powerful rallying cry and a fashionable emblem broadcast in memes, coffee mugs, tee shirts—and even, paired with an expletive, sung aloud in a popular Taylor Swift anthem. But what exactly is the patriarchy? Is it, as feminists would have it, a reflection of an entrenched system of male domination that defines power relationships between men and women in arenas public and private? Or, as some on the right might style it, a “woke” whine of victimization that downplays the equality today’s women have achieved at home and at work? Regardless, is male dominance simply the natural order of things, born out of traditional gender roles in hunting and gathering, reaping and sowing, sword-wielding and childbearing? Or was it—and does it remain—an artificial institution imposed from above and stubbornly preserved? Do such patterns run deep into human history, or are they instead the relatively recent by-products of agriculture, of settled civilization, of states and empires? Did other lifeways once exist? And finally, perhaps most significantly, does it have to be this way?

A consideration of these and other related questions, both practical and existential, form the basis for The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality, an extraordinary tour de force by Angela Saini marked by both a brilliant gift for analysis and an extremely talented pen. Saini, a science journalist and author of the groundbreaking, highly acclaimed Superior: The Return of Race Science, one-ups her own prior achievements by widening the lens on entrenched inequalities in human societies to look beyond race as a factor, a somewhat recent phenomenon in the greater scheme of things, to that of gender, which—at least on the face of it—seems far more ancient and deep-seated.

To that end, in The Patriarchs Saini takes the reader on a fascinating expedition to explore male-female relationships—then and now—ranging as far back as the nearly ten-thousand-year-old proto-city Çatalhöyük in present-day Turkey, where some have suggested that female deities were worshipped and matriarchy may have been the status quo, and flashing forward to the still ongoing protests in Iran, sparked by the death in custody of a 22-year-old woman detained for wearing an “improper” hijab. There are many stops in between, including the city-states of Classical Greece, which saw women controlled and even confined by their husbands in democratic Athens, but yet celebrated for their strength and independence (of a sorts) in the rigidly structured autocracy that defined the Spartan polis.

But most of the journey is contemporary and global in scope, from Seneca Falls, New York, where many Onondaga Native American women continue to enjoy a kind of gender equality that white American women could hardly imagine when they launched their bid for women’s rights in that locale in 1848, to the modern-day states of Kerala and Meghalaya in India, which still retain deeply-rooted traditions of the matrilinear and the matriarchal, respectively, in a nation where arranged marriages remain surprisingly common. And to Afghanistan, where the recently reinstalled Taliban regime prohibits the education of girls and mandates the wearing of a Burqa in public, and Ethiopia, where in many parts of the country female genital mutilation is the rule, not the exception. There are even interviews with European women who grew up in the formerly socialist eastern bloc, some who look back wistfully to a time marked by better economic security and far greater opportunities for women, despite the repression that otherwise characterized the state.

I’m a big fan of Saini’s previous work, but still I cracked the cover of her latest book with some degree of trepidation. This is, after all, such a loaded topic that it could, if mishandled, too easily turn to polemic.  So I carefully sniffed around for manifesto-disguised-as-thesis, for axes cleverly cloaked from grinding, for cherry-picked data, and for broad brushes. (Metaphors gleefully mixed!) Thankfully, there was none of that. Instead, she approaches this effort throughout as a scientist, digging deep, asking questions, and reporting answers that sometimes are not to her liking. You have to respect that. My background is history, a study that emphasizes complexity and nuance, and mandates both careful research and an analytical evaluation of relevant data. Both science and history demand critical thinking skills. In The Patriarchs, Saini demonstrates that she walks with great competence in each of these disciplines.

A case in point is her discussion of Çatalhöyük, an astonishing neolithic site first excavated by English archaeologist James Mellaart in the late 1950s that revealed notable hallmarks of settled civilization uncommon for its era. Based on what he identified as figurines of female deities, such as the famous Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük that dates back to 6000 BCE, Mellaart claimed that a “Mother Goddess” culture prevailed. The notion that goddesses once dominated a distant past was dramatically boosted by Lithuanian archaeologist and anthropologist Marija Gimbutas, who wrote widely on this topic, and argued as well that a peaceful, matriarchal society was characteristic to the neolithic settlements of Old Europe prior to being overrun by Indo-European marauders from the north who imposed a warlike patriarchy upon the subjugated population.

I squirmed a bit in my seat as I read this, knowing that the respective conclusions of both Mellaart and Gimbutas have since been, based upon more rigorous studies, largely discredited as wildly overdrawn. But there was no need for such concerns, for in subsequent pages Saini herself points to current experts and the scholarly consensus to rebut at least some of the bolder assertions of these earlier archaeologists. It turns out that in both Çatalhöyük and Old Europe, while society was probably not hierarchal, it was likely more gender-neutral than matriarchal. It is clear that the author should be commended for her exhaustive research. While reading of Indo-European invaders—something Gimbutas got right—my thoughts instantly went to David Anthony’s magnificent study, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, which I read some years back. When I thumbed ahead to the “Notes,” I was delighted to find a citation for the Anthony book!

It is soon clear that in her search for the origins of inequality, Saini’s goal is to ask more questions than insist upon answers. Also increasingly evident is that even if it seems to have become more common in the past centuries, patriarchy is not the norm. No, it doesn’t have to be this way. Perhaps matriarchy did not characterize Çatalhöyük—and we really can’t be certain—but there is evidence for matriarchal societies elsewhere; some still flourish to this day. History and events in the current millennium demonstrate that there are choices, and societies can—and we can—choose equality rather than a condition where one group is dominated by another based upon race, caste, or gender.

With all of the author’s questions and her search for answers, however, it is the journey that is most enjoyable. In such an expansive work of science, history, and philosophy, the narrative never bogs down. And while the scope is vast, it is only a couple of hundred pages. I actually found myself wanting more.

If there is one area where I would caution Saini, it was in her treatment of ancient Greece. Yes, based upon the literature, Athenian women seem to have been stifled and Spartan women less inhibited, but of the hundreds of poleis that existed in the Classical period, we really only have relevant information for a few, surviving data is weighted heavily towards the elites of Athens and Sparta, and much of it is tarnished by editorializing on both sides that reflected the antipathy between these two bitter rivals. There is more to the story. Aspasia, the mistress of the Athenian statesman Pericles, was a powerful figure in her own right. Lysistrata, the splendid political satire created by the Athenian Aristophanes, smacks of a kind of ancient feminism as it has women on both sides of the Peloponnesian War denying sex to their men until a truce is called. This play could never have resonated if the female characters were wholly imagined. And while we can perhaps admire the status of a Spartan woman when juxtaposed with her Athenian counterpart, we must remember that their primary role in that rigid, militaristic society was to bear the sons of warriors.

But the station of a Spartan woman raises an interesting counterintuitive that I had hoped Saini would explore. Why was it—and does it remain the case—that women seem to gain greater freedom in autocratic states than democratic ones? It is certainly anachronistic to style fifth century Sparta as totalitarian, but the structure of the state seems to have far more in common with the twentieth century Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China, where despite repression women achieved far greater equality than they did in Athens or, at least until very recently, in Europe and the United States. And I really wanted a chapter on China, where the crippling horror of foot-binding for girls was not abolished until 1912, and still lingered in places until the communist takeover mid-century. Mao was responsible for the wanton slaughter of millions, yet women attained a greater equality under his brutal regime than they had for the thousands of years that preceded him.

While she touches upon it, I also looked for a wider discussion of how conservative women can sometimes come to not only represent the greatest obstacle for women’s rights but to advance rather than impede the patriarchy. As an American, there are many painful reminders of that here, where in decades past the antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly nearly single-handedly derailed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Most recently, it was a coalition of Republican and Christian evangelical women who led the crusade that eventually succeeded in curbing abortion rights. But then, as I wished for another hundred pages to go over all this, Saini summed up the incongruity succinctly in a discussion of female genital mutilation in Africa, citing the resistance to change by an Ethiopian girl who asserted: “If our mothers should refuse to continue cutting us, we will cut ourselves.” [p191]

In the end, Saini’s strategy was sound. The Patriarchs boasts a manageable size and the kind of readability that might be sacrificed in a bulkier treatise. The author doesn’t try to say it all: only what is most significant. Also, both the length and the presentation lend appeal to a popular audience, while the research and extensive notes will suit an academic one, as well. That is an especially rare accomplishment these days!

Whatever preconceived notions the reader might have, based upon the title and its implications, Saini demonstrates again and again that it’s not her intention to prove a point, but rather to make you think. Here she succeeds wonderfully. And you get the impression that it is her intellectual curiosity that guides her life. Born in London of ethnic Indian parents and now residing in New York City, she is a highly educated woman with brown skin, feet that can step comfortably into milieus west and east, and an insightful mind that fully embraces the possibilities of the modern world. Thus, Saini is in so many ways ideally suited to address issues of racism and sexism. She is still quite young, and this is her fourth book. I suspect there will be many more. In the meantime, read this one. It will be well worth your time.


Note: This review was based upon an Uncorrected Page Proof edition

Note: I reviewed Saini’s previous book here: Review of: Superior: The Return of Race Science, by Angela Saini

Author: stanprager

Book nerd, computer geek, rock music fan, dogmatic skeptic.

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