The patriarchy is a modern invention, not the natural order.

The "patriarchy", a male-dominated social order with entrenched hierarchies giving power and authority to men over women, is pitched by masculinity influencers and pop social scientists as humanity's natural state. They argue patriarchy represents the primal hard-wiring of the human species, where men lead societies due to innate traits and capabilities. But the historical and anthropological evidence suggests patriarchy is actually a relatively modern invention, emerging only within the last few thousand years.

For over 90% of human existence, during our hunter-gatherer phase, social structures tended to be egalitarian, with equal status and autonomy for women. The subordination of women only began with the development of agriculture, cities, and more stratified economic systems. Patriarchy today is the culmination of a long transition away from complementary gender roles toward the increasing commodification of women's reproductive capacity through paternal laws controlling lineage, inheritance, virginity, and monogamy. Understanding that patriarchy emerged so recently, under particular economic conditions rather than from biological fate, is empowering. It means we can rewrite modern society through consciously structuring culture and laws.

Our ancestors lived in small egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers for over two million years. They were nomadic, owned little property, and had fluid leadership depending on tribal needs and seasons. Research shows both men and women in these tribes had equal standing when it came to major decisions, access to resources, religious authority, and personal autonomy. There was a division of labour by sex regarding certain tasks like hunting versus foraging. But women brought in the majority of calories through gathering and insignificantly less protein than men. Both sexes were considered economically productive and crucial for the community's survival.

Leadership in these societies tended to be informal, task-based and ephemeral, depending on tribal needs at the time rather than rigid structures cementing lifelong rule to certain high-status men. Anthropologists characterise this social orientation as "egalitarian", meaning equal status between the sexes and generations. Women particularly had high levels of personal freedom compared to subsequent eras. They could freely express sexuality, often had a choice in partners, and had unilateral power to dissolve partnerships if they were unsatisfied. Violence between partners was also extremely rare.

The anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday extensively studied gender dynamics in indigenous societies for her classic text, "Female Power and Male Dominance: On the Origins of Sexual Inequality". Analysing ethnographic data from over 150 cultures, Sanday found the majority of early hunter-gatherer bands were oriented around principles of gender "equality" or "complementarity" rather than patriarchy. Even in subsistence cultures after the advent of agriculture, almost two-thirds retained relatively egalitarian conceptions of gender compared to just 15% with firmly patriarchal structures. These findings suggest human society's natural orientation is toward equitable partnerships between sexes. The female subjugation we see today is an aberration from a much longer period where women and men collaborated effectively, with mutual authority, to ensure community prosperity.

This period of gender equity effectively lasted from the emergence of Homo Sapiens up until approximately 12,000 years ago when humans began transitioning toward agriculture and animal domestication. With the rise of crop cultivation and food surpluses, certain bands settled into permanent villages. This neolithic revolution spawned a cascade of technological innovations, population growth, occupational specialisation and trade networks over the next few thousand years. But it also saw the beginnings of social stratification and wealth inheritance. Settlements became villages and proto-city states with ruling elites and peasant classes. Generalised reciprocity in hunter-gatherer days gradually turned into systems of economic redistribution, funnelling resources from many families up to a single "chiefly" one.

In this new property-based economy, the chief concern became managing inheritance to ensure the concentration of wealth. For the first time, paternity certainty and tracking reproductive lineages took on vital importance. Researchers believe this economic shift of property accumulation and transfer is what instigated the subjugation of women and the rise of patriarchy. When wealth flows through sons alone, women's virginity and fidelity become paramount. Husbands sought to control women's sexuality through customs, laws and violence. Paternity uncertainty threatened a patrimony.

Anthropologists see many artefacts of this transformation from egalitarian kinship to patriarchal pedigree, what Gayle Rubin termed "the world historical defeat of women". Matrilineal descent was replaced by harshly patrilineal lines with militant enforcement of female virginity and monogamy. Prestige and survival depended substantially on female relatives' productive and reproductive capacity. Fathers began selling daughters as brides in exchange for substantial dowries, effectively commodifying their reproductive capacity. Historical records show rates of bride price and female infanticide rose sharply. Men could take multiple wives, concubines and female slaves while women's autonomy contracted. Public governance began excluding women more substantively over this era as well.

Today, the world's predominant religions also encode the residues of this history where male gods rule by divine right. Pagans had male and female deities with substantial religious authority invested in women. But the monotheistic pivot toward solitary males instituted the cosmic model of a singular, powerful patriarch reinforced by subordinate female figures like Mary. Religious doctrines and texts carried rigid codes of behaviour policing female virginity alongside double standards for male promiscuity. Religious leaders were almost universally older men, seen as representative of the divine patriarch himself. Social and religious structures sanctified the increasing patriarchal concept that men must govern society within households and that elder men hold authority over the tribe.

These early beginnings of male dominance took root around major population centres where agriculture and trade-based wealth accumulated over generations. But most of humanity before modernity still lived outside major civilisations in simpler communal economies. Anthropology shows us small subsistence-level communities tended to maintain more reciprocal gender dynamics even after the initial shift toward patriarchy elsewhere around 12,000 years ago. Simple horticultural tribes had much more flexibility around norms of sexual behaviour, partnerships and egalitarian leadership compared to wealthier city-states. Over 90% of human history featured these smaller peasant subsistence communities where women had greater autonomy and markers of male rule were relatively muted or absent.

The real global cementing of patriarchal structures came with the major accelerations of the modern era – industrialisation, urbanisation, European colonisation and the violent spread of a market economy. The mammoth social changes of the 16th through 20th centuries expanded male control over female sexuality, labour and mobility to much of the world population living in peasant subsistence modes. Laws and social norms enforcing female obedience, dependence, domesticity and propriety infiltrated all corners of the globe, where Europeans interacted through colonial projects and enforced cultural hegemony.

Industrialisation shifted labour away from home, separating reproductive work from economic production and devaluing women's domestic burden. Urbanisation broke up village structures and the communal sharing of childcare burdens. Children became ever more intensive investments for solitary nuclear families. This drove intensified control of female reproduction from fathers and eventually the state itself. Individualised wage labour also meant men no longer needed to pool their resources as reciprocal, interdependent families. Women lost collective bargaining power. Meanwhile, rapid developments in science and medicine turned women's fertility into an object of intense male manipulation and regulation, a patriarchal commandeering of biological destiny itself.

Economic systems have given men unilateral power over material resources in the last few centuries. Religion, science and medicine gave them unilateral power over women's bodies and reproduction. Laws removed traditional community accountability, giving men unilateral power within nuclear family units behind closed doors. At no point were women genuinely consulted about these changes in technology or social structures. What emerged by the 20th century was a society unilaterally organised by male interests around the axis of controlling women's sexuality to ensure genetic pedigree and inheritance.

Today, we have a veneer of female advancement, full civil liberties and empowerment narratives. But most gender historians argue patriarchal oppressions have simply shape-shifted into more pernicious and invisible forms. Liberal laws guaranteeing equality, pay equity, and safety conceals the fact that female economic, social and sexual dependence on men remains firmly entrenched. Women still do far more unpaid domestic labour, which enables male kinsmen to accumulate economic advantages and progress their careers. Rape, domestic violence, enforced modesty, and reproductive control remain rampant in many societies despite technically granting women freedom and autonomy. True gender equity is constrained because, fundamentally, patriarchal assumptions still govern societal values and priorities well into modernity. Laws alone cannot reverse the accretion of technologies, economic setups and religious beliefs orbiting around male control of reproduction within a property-owning system.

Escaping this patriarchal paradigm will require a re-orientation of basic social building blocks – our fundamental assumptions around family structures, wealth inheritance, divisions of labour, authority and norms regulating sexuality. Philosophy since the Enlightenment has presumed atomised individualism to be the pinnacle of liberty while interdependence within communal bands was primitive. However, for women, historically, the reverse was true. Social reforms must re-open the ability of communities to mutually hold men accountable for sexual ethics rather than privileging male privacy and autonomy behind closed doors. Property ownership itself may need decoupling from systems of lineage and inheritance, which originally instigated demands for patriarchy. There are few blueprints yet for holistically re-structure the technologies, beliefs, behaviours and incentives that maintain modern systems enabling male dominance. But recognising that patriarchy is a recent economic development rather than natural law is the vital first step toward conceiving more equitable alternatives.

The full span of human existence and prehistory shows gender equity as - frequently - the norm, not the exception. Patriarchy only emerged as recently as 12,000 years ago, an aberration within the past 0.5% of our species' timeline. Yet today, patriarchy seems so entrenched that we cannot imagine society functioning in any other way. This belief in the naturalness of patriarchy is relatively new itself, a retrospective invention projected back onto the whole of human history. Gender parity prevailed for the better part of our evolutionary journey. There is no biological or historical imperative dictating patriarchal rule. Though today, patriarchy might decorate itself with the liberal trappings of equal rights and empowerment narratives, at its core lies a regime of controlling women's reproduction within property-owning structures. This strategy only became necessary over the past few thousand years. But for hundreds of millennia prior, complementary partnerships between men and women were the cultural norm – and societies still functioned with innovation and economic success. This forgotten history proves, if nothing else, that arrangements cementing unilateral male power are not the only workable social order. Matriarchy is also unjust, but there are older templates for equality we can still recover and adapt to modernity. With its late and rapid ascent, the current patriarchal paradigm can realistically be dismantled in favour of more equitable arrangements in centuries ahead if we harness the will.

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