CultureBooks Book Review: ‘The Creation Of Patriarchy’ By Historian Gerda Lerner

Book Review: ‘The Creation Of Patriarchy’ By Historian Gerda Lerner

"The Creation of Patriarchy" by historian Gerda Lerner is a work of scholarship which was eight years in the making. In the book, in order to explain women's subordination Gerda puts it in a historical context.

‘The Creation of Patriarchy’ by historian Gerda Lerner is a work of scholarship which was eight years in the making. In the book, in order to explain women’s subordination, Gerda puts it in a historical context.

The Creation of Patriarchy 1986

Author: Gerda Lerner

Publisher: OUP USA; Reprint edition (18 February 1988)

Genre: Non-fiction and History

gerda lerner creation of patriarchyLerner’s work gives insights into how women have been systematically subordinated over centuries of creation of the structures of patriarchy. These structures kept women in inferior positions, tied them to norms which they -apparently- willingly conformed to.

It is not an easy book to read, specially for a romantic feminist like me. It took me longer than an average book does, for I had to put it away every few pages. Here is a book which disturbs deeply.

The book and its findings are based on the study of western civilizations, largely derived from Mesopotamian, and Hebrew sources and a study of Abrahmanic religions.

Man has been the default human now, for centuries. Patriarchal thinking and its norms are so deeply entrenched in our society that we take it for granted. This default and so much part of our cultural and mental landscape, we do not even notice it. Not unlike the furniture strewn around your home for months, in the same position. You notice a particular piece only when you move it around into a new arrangement.

Historical scholarship has seen women as marginal to the making of civilization and as unessential to those pursuits defined as having historic significance. While no man has been excluded from historic records because he is man, yet all women were.

Though numerically, women are the majority, we are structured as if we are the minority and and have therefore been victimized by it. Women were essential to creating history, to creating society. They are and always have been agents and actors in history. Women have simply been kept from knowing their history and from interpreting it. They have been excluded from writing symbols, philosophies, science and law, and excluded from theory formation.

Gerda explores how, as laws evolved and religions grew, women’s inferior position in society deteriorated. They were kept away from any learning or intellectual pursuits. She tells us how the lack of women’s access to learning and religion was increasingly reduced, till their eventual cutting off from all sources of history making.

The book is divided into chapters, each of which investigates a different topic in great depth and with detailed and painstaking research comes to its conclusions.

Starting with prehistoric details Gerda hypothesizes that gender is created out of the fact that women do the mothering of the child. Prolonged and helpless infancy of the human child lead to the fact that most nubile women would devote most of their adulthood to pregnancy, child bearing and nursing.

She posits that the time when hunting and gathering or horticulture gave way to agriculture, kinship arrangements tended to shift from matrimony to patriliny and private property developed.

The vast body of research accessed and studied by Gerda Lerner includes the codes of law of Hammurabi, one of the first codes of law to be codified and written down.

Women’s subordination was institutionalized in the earliest law codes and enforced by the full power of the state. The archaic state was shaped and developed in the form of patriarchy and it continues to be so today.

A startling revelation of the book is that men learnt and perfected dominance by practicing it over women and exerting control over them. Later these lessons were transferred to the control of other men. The first slaves were women.

While men could establish class or transcend it based on their relationship to means of production, for women it was always determined through their sexual ties to a man.

Veiling of women began when women came to be segregated into the categories of respectable women and non respectable. Guess what established respectability? Sexual ties to one man was equated with respectability while the sexually available woman became branded as non respectable. The respectable woman had to veiled, others could go unveiled. This was written into law that it was the duty of upright citizen to report women who flouted these norms. Women’s class status came to be defined differently than that of men, from that period on to the present.

The codification which began with the laws of Hammurabi, marked the beginning of the institutionalization of the patriarchal family as an aspect of state power. It reflected a class society in which women’s status depends don the male family head’s social status.

The most disturbing passages to me were the removal of the goddesses from mainstream religion. All over the ancient world, goddess worship was prevalent in one form or another. The goddesses would be worshipped for the sacredness of female sexuality and its mysterious life giving force, which included the power to heal. With the ascent of Abrahamanic religion, began the the erasure of the goddess. Simultaneously, woman came to be painted as the harbinger of death and sin into the world. Women’s sexuality came to be linked with sin. From progenitor of the universe, life giving force and healer, to harbinger of sin – what a fall for womanhood!

The historical process of the development of abstract thought and symbol making began to shape civilization. These developments coincided with the marginalization of women. Males alone became mediators between god and man while women were denied equal access to learning, and to priesthood. Women thus came to be denied the capacity for interpreting and altering religious belief systems. Women’s subordination was complete.

In a passage that I found stunningly evocative, Gerda outlines her call to action plan. She uses the image of a play to demonstrate this. She compares life to a stage where men and women are performers, both acting equally important roles, without either of whom the play can’t go on. But the stage is conceived, painted, defined by men. They have written the play, decided on the props, fixed the lighting, assigning themselves the most interesting parts and have given the supporting roles to women.

Women have begun the struggle to get “equal” roles, but are only now beginning to realize its not enough. Men control which women will get which roles. They punish and ostracise those who try to challenge the script or try to rewrite it.

Simply adding women to the patriarchal framework won’t do. Only by placing women’s vision at its centre will be able to dismantle patriarchy. Its a paradigm shift waiting to happen.

Patriarchy as a system is historical. If we can show it has a beginning, it follows we can show it to have an end and thus begin the work of its dismantling.

I found myself underlining and annotating para after para and as I read this book. This is a book to keep, to read, to go over its pages over and over again, to mull its contents over in your mind.

Author’s note: The question of how patriarchy evolved in the Indian context, with its overlap of culture with Hinduism, is something I’d love to explore. I’m curious to read any available material on the subject. Anyone reading this, if you have any leads please let me know.

Featured Image Credit: AZQuotes


  1. There is a research paper: Why won’t Kali rage. You might wanna try that one.

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