Patriarchy …

a reflection for comment and development
(c) 2012, Davd

Maybe patriarchy isn’t so bad after all—maybe, in fact, it is good in context, and maybe some of those Feminists who condemn it so viciously and see it where it is not, “protest too much” (in Shakespeare’s famous phrase.) The anthropology of patriarchy suggests that it is practical in context and even, with a little logical extrapolation, that it can be learned as a skill.

Lenski, Lenski, and Nolan (1991: 205-7) describe herding societies as “strongly patriarchal”, and add “… the basic economic activity in these societies is men’s work.”

Marvin Harris (1969: 217-8, 328-331) attributes patriarchy to the need for strength and muscle [as distinct from cardiovascular] endurance in agriculture [plow farming] where soils dry out and become hard-packed. (His Index does not have an entry for “Herding” or “Herding societies”. I was surprised that it did not.)

Merrick (2011) points out that civilization depends on the skilled, heavy labour of blue collar men. Whether rural work such as farming, fishing and forestry should be counted as part of civilization is not settled, but civilized or not, those kinds of work contribute vitally to the subsistence of a people and to the sustainability of that subsistence. Over-mechanization of forestry especially, but also of fishing and farming, have degraded the resource base—the land and waters that grow fish, food-crops, and timber. More, not less skilled, heavy men’s labour will be needed to restore the natural productivity of these resources. If dependence on men’s work entails patriarchy, then civilization needs more patriarchy in future than it has had in the very recent past.

Neither Lenski, Lenski, and Nolan, nor Harris, present analysis of the work of herdsmen. In a herd of cattle, sheep, or goats, the adult population will nearly always be more than 90% female*: The females are the source of offspring, which are raised for meat and to replace breeders. One male can breed 20-100 females even without artificial insemination—and the males are more dangerous and difficult to manage.

The herdsman’s work thus consists of managing large numbers of adult females, most of them pregnant or lactating, and a small number of breeding males. Where winters are short and-or mild, castrated males (steers and wethers, but seldom goats) may be “carried over” to grow into a larger meat animal to be slaughtered their second autumn; and steers and geldings may be reared for draft animals. Juvenile females with breeding potential will be carried over one winter before being bred.

Managing cattle, horses, and camels, and to a considerable degree managing sheep and goats, requires muscle power; and this is the “explanation” that would be parallel to Harris, for patriarchy among herding societies. That explanation doubtless has some merit. So, perhaps, might the learning a herding-boy gains about female motivation and conduct, even though most of it involved other, herbivorous species.

In becoming a competent herdsman, one can speculate, a boy learns much more about the sexual and maternal behaviour of other mammal species, than a city boy—or a fisher-boy, tractor-boy, etc.—is likely to learn. He enters puberty with an instrumental attitude toward female sexuality, and with skills and knowledge to apply. Not all he’s learned about cattle, goats, horses and sheep will “transfer” to managing women and girls—but much of it will, and the boy will have had many hours to discuss the valid and invalid analogies between cow, ewe, mare, and nanny-goat behaviour, to women’s, with older men. His muscular advantage in the hard work of handling large animals, will be combined with a practical attitude and much practical knowledge. He will meet young women with a practical attitude and knowledge to back it up.

Perhaps that is a seldom-specified reason why, when and where patriarchy was common, it met with much less criticism and hostility than it now receives when it is scarce.


Harris, Marvin, 1989. Our Kind. NY: Harper and Row.

Lenski, Gerhard, Jean Lenski, and Patrick Nolan, 1991.Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Merrick, B. R. 2011. “Power Lines”. Blog post to A Voice for Men website, November 3.


*Where cattle or horses are used as draft animals, these are normally castrated males, and kept not in herds but in small working teams.

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About Davd

Davd Martin (Ph.D., 1966, Sociology) has been a professor, a single parent on a low income from a small commercial herb garden, and editor of _Ecoforestry_. His men's-interest essays and blogs have appeared on "The Spearhead" "A Voice for Men", and "False Rape Society", as well as this site.
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