March 31, 2023

50 Years After Roe v. Wade . . .Time to Smash the Patriarchy!

The recent overturning of Roe V. Wade will go down in history as a huge blow to women’s rights and gender equality. Before this supreme court ruling, things had been on an upward trajectory – so much so that when younger people chanted, “smash the patriarchy” I thought they were being hyperbolic. . . not anymore.

The end of Roe was devasting to over 60% of the country who believe in reproductive justice. It caused those of us, who had been somewhat lulled into thinking continued progress was inevitable, to stop dead in our tracks and face the fact that “the patriarchy” is alive and well in our modern society.

Curious about the concept of “patriarchy”, I wanted to know what it actually is; how and when it began and what can be done about it.  These questions sent me on a journey of educating myself – reading lots of articles and a couple books – most notable, “The Creation of the Patriarchy” by Gerda Lerner, published in 1986. This book involves some serious academic research – including fifty-eight pages of footnotes! Because this opus was published almost 40 years ago, I checked with current scholars and determined that it is still considered the most comprehensive research into the history of the patriarchy in Western civilization. That said, I’d like to share my key findings.

What is patriarchy?

A culture where men hold power over women by dominating all key institutions e.g., family, government, religion, education, economics, media, arts, sports, entertainment, etc.

When did it begin . . . or was it always part of our western civilization?

The historians and anthropologists who have studied remnants of ancient cultures in Mesopotamia (the “cradle of western civilization) have concluded that patriarchy is a relatively recent cultural development. The scholars believe that the big bang (creating the universe) occurred about 13.5 billion years ago. Humans, as we now know them, evolved about 200,000 years ago. For the majority of humans’ time on earth, they lived as hunter-gatherers who foraged the land for food and water and shelter. During this long period of time, scholars believe that human work was divided between the sexes and that all work was valued equally – in other words, society was considered to be egalitarian. There were also times in history (before patriarchal society) when families were matrilineal (tracing of kinship through the mother’s lineage) and matrilocal (living with mother’s family).

If it wasn’t always with us, when did it begin and why?

How, when, and why western civilization changed from egalitarian to patriarchal is a complex story. Most scholars believe there were a variety of causes that changed society from egalitarian to patriarchal including; the domestication of land and animals (creating an agrarian society), the development of government as in the city-state, the development of the concept of property and its ownership, the abolition of female goddesses, the development of monotheism including the concept of god’s persona being man-like (as exemplified by Judaic and Christian iconography) with the woman-like ability to create (as in creating the universe), the ability to produce food and goods and man’s (versus woman’s) proximity to such production, the desire to pass down wealth/property to progeny, and of course, wars fought over land and other property. These developments spanned a few thousand years with the patriarchy being established between 10,000 – 12,000 years ago. 

How did it impact the lives of women in the past?

The development of the patriarchy was devastating to the lives of women. They came to be considered property themselves – property of their fathers, brothers and husbands. They no longer had any rights. Their purpose was primarily to provide sexual services and produce offspring for their husbands who could then use this “property” however they pleased, including loaning or giving them to their creditors to pay off their debts!

Once the concept of property ownership existed, the men who owned this property sought to pass down their property to their male offspring to continue their patrilineal line of succession. This desire to pass on property, led to the strict control of women’s sexuality. Husbands wanted to be sure that the children born of their wives were their biological children. Wives were secluded and veiled to mark them as someone’s property. Women were divided into “respectable” and “non-respectable” categories based on their sexual history. Wives were bought and sold. Rape was common and considered a property crime against the man who owned the woman. Women were considered “lesser beings” who were unable to be educated. Women were enslaved and were in fact the first slaves.

How does it impact the lives of contemporary women?

It wasn’t until the 19th century that significant change began. In the United States, the suffragist movement was key to moving women toward equality. Since gaining the right to vote, women began to be considered persons in their own right rather than property. Over time women went from being considered property to having the legal ability to own property. Women eventually began to be educated and with education their demands expanded to include the right to personal autonomy, the right to chose marriage (rather than be forced), the right to education, the right to divorce, the right to their children, the right to work, the right to financial independence, the right to bodily autonomy (including in marriage). Today women are closer than ever to reclaiming equality and that is probably why the patriarchy has reared its ugly head.

What can be done now to stop its progress?

Overturning Roe v. Wade reversed what had been considered a constitutional right to bodily autonomy. It has now become critical for society to pass legislation that makes abortion legal. Passing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which was first proposed almost a century ago) is long overdue. Without reproductive justice and the right to bodily autonomy, all other rights gained over the years become significantly diminished in light of the fact that women cannot control their reproduction.  

Why is knowing history important? 

Knowledge is power. Knowing the bad things that happened in the past can keep us from repeating them. Knowing that the patriarchy was a human construct (as opposed a natural construct) is key to understanding that since it had a beginning, it can have an end and it is up to us to work toward that end. In this 50th anniversary of ROE, it is yime to renew our energy to “smash the patriarchy” and establish a permanent egalitarian society.


Written by Anne Haule, Copyright 2022


All contributions and bequests are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by federal and state law. The Women’s Museum of California is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation. Tax ID is 95-3893212.

This Page is Coming Soon

We are in the process of re-designing our website.
Thank you for your patience.