The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

I chose to review The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) by Gerda Lerner as part of a course on women’s history and I could not be happier with my choice. Yesterday I did a quick profile on Lerner as part of my Feminist Sundays meme – click here to read it – so, it was only natural that today I reviewed the first book I finished in 2014.


From GoodReads:

A major new work by a leading historian and pioneer in women’s studies, The Creation of Patriarchy is a radical reconceptualization of Western civilization that makes gender central to its analysis. Gerda Lerner argues that male dominance over women is not “natural” or biological, but the product of a historical development begun in the second millennium B.C. in the Ancient Near East. As patriarchy as a system of organizing society was established historically, she contends, it can also be ended by the historical process.

Focusing on the contradiction between women’s central role in creating society and their marginality in the meaning-giving process of definition and interpretation, Lerner explores such fascinating questions as: What can account for women’s exclusion from the historical process? What could explain the long delay–more than 3,500 years–in women’s coming to consciousness of their own subordinate position? She goes back to the cultures of the earliest known civilizations–those of the ancient Near East–to discover the origins of the major gender metaphors of Western civilization. Using historical, literary, archaeological, and artistic evidence, she then traces the development of these ideas, symbols, and metaphors and their incorporation into Western civilization as the basis of patriarchal gender relations.

When reading books for a course I like exploring their structure first, since it will be give me a quick glimpse into how the author organised the information and how I will be reading it. In The Creation of Patriarchy, the information is organised both chronologically and according to Lerner’s study of gender relationships. Because Lerner’s organisation is simply perfect, I will present some of the very basic ideas from each chapter:

Chapter I starts with myths and Lerner makes a rotund statement regarding matriarchy, a social organisation long-believed to have existed: “It may be noted that I am defining matriarchy as the mirror image of patriarchy. Using that definition, I would conclude that no matriarchal society has ever existed”.

Chapter II focuses on the Neolithic and how “the exchange of women” started. She also posts a very interesting question: Why were women exchanged and not men? Her thesis is the following: “Agricultural revolution and the exploitation of human labor and the sexual exploitation of women are inextricably linked”.

Chapter II already moves to Mesopotamia and how Urukagina’s edicts worsened women’s status in society. For example, a widow was not to re-marry.

Chapter IV focuses in the women slave and Lerner traces the origins of slavery to women’s own slavery as house servants, wives, mothers and simply their reification as goods to the men they were subjected to. “For women, sexual exploitation marked the very definition of enslavement, as it did not for men” […] women has been the very mark of women’s class oppression.”

Chapter V explores the complex and paradoxical relationship between wives and concubines. It was a usual practice for wives to offer concubines to their husbands if they were barren, but, socially, the wives treated the concubines as if they were slaves.

Chapter VI focuses in prostitution and how it could have originated near sacred temples where sexual rituals were performed. With the apparition of prostitutes, there was a need to mark the respectability of women who were not, so only respectable women could wear a veil. “Thus the matter of classifying women into respectable and not respectable has become an affair of the state”.

Chapter VII sees the change from female deities and polytheism to an only male deity in monotheism. This meant a change in the symbol system as well and, since symbolical changes do reflect a social change, it stood for a more prominent role for men.

Chapter VIII already starts with the biblical tradition dealing with the patriarchs and how their role meant a total marginalization of women. Meanwhile, more and more importance was placed on women’s virginity and their fidelity to one man while adultery was permitted to husbands.

Chapter IX explores the Old Testament and how women’s ability to procreate was punished, while men were given the ability to name. The tree of life was substituted by the tree of knowledge and all the religious system changed forever.

Chapter X explores the symbols and the power of creating and reading a symbol system. “The very process of class formation incorporated and marginalized women in the formation of symbol systems”.

Finally, Chapter XI is a summary of all the ideas from previous chapter, and a very recommended reading for a women’s history class if there is no time to explore the whole book.

If I had to choose what I liked most about The Creation of Patriarchy is how impressed I was by Lerner’s ability to make the reader enjoy and learn. I have never studied Ancient History or The Bible, but I had no difficulties following Lerner’s ideas. She herself studied Hebrew for 7 years to be able to read the original texts she was writing about, and it paid off. Lerner is a passionate writer and a more passionate teacher and that percolates into her writing.

I totally recommend The Creation of Patriarchy to anyone who is interested in women’s history, Ancient History or is looking for a masterful non-fiction work.

5 thoughts on “The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

  1. Some of those chapters sound fascinating, it’s interesting that she argues there has never been a true matriarchal society, as it’s something I don’t know much about but had assumed existed once.
    I read A History of Misogyny a few years ago, which had similar themes but was no where near as in depth.

    1. I think Lerner’s is a great work and I also thought there had been, at some point, a society in which matriarchy existed. I think you’ll like this book, Sam!

  2. I the first comment is misunderstanding “matriarchal society,”
    The book author clearly indicates that a matriarchal society as a mirror of patriarchy, hasn’t existed. She doesn’t indicate a matriarchal society has never existed.

    They have existed. Population doesn’t grow due to the social structure. That’s key. When you have population growth, you need more and more solutions to deal with population expansion issues.

    With matriarchal structures, you get small groups that exist as small groups. You don’t populate the world and technology doesn’t advance. I mean of course in the past. So what happens is that once a patriarchy crosses paths, the matriarchal society becomes a part of the patriarchy.

    1. Well, I think most people understand a matriarchal society as a mirror of a patriarchal one, after all, it seems impossible for us but to think in binary structures. But yes, thanks for making it clearer for my readers 🙂

  3. This does sound like an interesting text, both for the look at the development of patriarchy, and the necessary inclusion of ancient history.

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