The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality
For fans of Sapiens and The Dawn of Everything, a groundbreaking exploration of gendered oppression—its origins, its histories, our attempts to understand it, and our efforts to combat it
For centuries, prominent thinkers have treated male domination among humans as natural or inevitable. But how would our understanding of gender inequality—our imagined past and contested present—look if we didn’t assume that men have always ruled over women? If we saw gendered oppression as something fragile, that, alongside other forms of inequality, has had to be constantly remade and reasserted?
In this bold and radical book, award-winning science journalist Angela Saini explores the roots of what we call patriarchy, uncovering a complex history of how it first became embedded in societies and spread across the globe from prehistory into the present. She travels to the world’s earliest known human settlements, analyzes the latest research findings in science and archaeology, and traces cultural and political histories from the Americas to Asia, finding that:
- Matrilineal societies are more common than we appreciate, existing under a variety of different social and environmental circumstances, and in some cases for thousands of years.
- From around seven thousand years ago, there are signs that a small number of powerful men were having more children than other men.
- In societies where women left their own families to live with their husbands, marriage customs came to be informed by the widespread practice of captive taking and slavery, later influencing laws that alienated women from systems of support and denied them equal rights.
- There was enormous variation in gender and power dynamics in many societies for thousands of years, but colonialism and empire dramatically changed ways of life across Asia, Africa, and the Americas, spreading rigidly patriarchal customs and undermining how people organized their families and work.
In our own time, despite the pushback against sexism, abuse, and discrimination, even revolutionary efforts to bring about equality have often ended in failure and backlash. But The Patriarchs is a profoundly hopeful book—one that reveals a diversity to human arrangements that undercuts the old grand narratives and exposes male supremacy as no more than an ever-shifting element in systems of control.
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