Part 2

Gender and Society

Patriarchy is a system of stratification where men are given more power and prestige than women. Literally translated to “rule of the father,” patriarchy evolved out of a need to establish authority and power in society. While every society needs to have leadership and authority, patriarchy has systematically subjected women to subordination, abuse, and exploitation. In some societies, women are not allowed to own property and are sometimes considered property themselves. Women’s sexuality has been controlled to the point where those who do not conform are ostracized, abused, or put to death. In some countries, female infanticide and female selective abortions are performed in order to ensure that families have a male to support them and to escape the financial burden of having a daughter. The problem with patriarchy is not necessarily the power it gives to men, but the patterns of abuse, exploitation, and dehumanization of women that have been found in patriarchal societies throughout the world.

Friedrich Engels was interested in the system of patriarchy and the sexual exploitation of women. He pointed out that in earlier societies, when women and men contributed equally to the food supply, there was more equality between the two. Although there was a gendered division of labor, the roles that women performed were considered equally valuable to those that men performed. However, after societies began to be transformed from Hunter/Gather to Pastoral and Agricultural societies, he saw a marked difference in the way women were treated. The establishment of wealth and private property gave rise to patriarchal societies. Instead of being passed on to the next generation of children, property and wealth were passed down through the line of the patriarch, or father.

In order to ensure a rightful heir, a woman’s sexuality had to be controlled. This is why it became so important for a woman to be a virgin before marriage. If she was not sexually pure, she was less desirable for marriage. According to Engels, under the system of patriarchy, women became an instrument for the production and maintenance of a class structure. In working-class families, where little or no property was owned, it was less important to impose these rules on women. However, as society progressed, the ideas of the ruling class were adopted by the majority of the population. Today, women’s sexuality is still controlled and exploited. As with other forms of social stratification, religion has served as a means of justifying gender inequality, perhaps more so than any other social institution.

Historically, there have been significant changes in gender stratification. By tracing these patterns through history, we can see how gender inequality has evolved through time and determine the influence of social forces on these patterns of gender stratification. Below is a chart outlining patterns of gender stratification in pre-industrial and industrial societies.


Type of Society Patterns of Gender Stratification
Hunter-Gatherer Society
  • Women gathered vegetation and were responsible for child rearing.  Men were hunters.
  • Equitable relationship between men and women because neither has the ability to provide sole means of food necessary for survival.
  • No inheritance rituals.
Horticultural Society
  • Hand tools, hoes and digging sticks make it possible for women to work in cultivation of vegetation. For this reason, there was a high degree of equality between men and women.
  • Neither sex controls food supply.
  • Inheritance could be matrilineal or patrilineal.
  • Patriarchy is not yet established. Many horticultural societies are matrilineal.
Pastoral Society
  • Domestication of animals is done mostly by men and women contribute very little to production of food.
  • Patrilineal inheritance rituals
  • Women’s sole purpose is to produce male offspring to preserve family lineage
  • Marriage practices include:
  • Polygyny (marriage of one man to many wives), and
  • Bridewealth where men provide goods and services in exchange for the sole right to a woman’s sexual services and offspring.
  • Menstrual taboos subordinate women by segregating them from the rest of society when they have their cycle. Menstruation is considered “unclean.”
  • Patriarchy is established and monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) document the importance of the patriarch and the subordination of women.
  • Men increasingly begin to control procreation and women’s sexuality.
Agricultural Society
  • Use of animal-drawn plow and equipment requires more strength, and because men are physically stronger, they do the majority of work.
  • Surplus of wealth is established.
  • Premarital virginity and marital fidelity are strictly enforced.
  • Male dominance becomes institutionalized through religion, government, marriage, and the family.
  • Protecting paternity and ensuring rightful heir are of extreme importance. Women are punished severely if they do not conform.
  • Purdah (found mostly in Hindu and Muslim societies)—the practice of keeping men from seeing women. Either women must cover their bodies (burqa and veil), walk behind men to show deference, eat only after men, and only speak when spoken to.
  • Genital Mutilation—surgical procedure that involves cutting the clitoris and labia out in order to control a woman’s sexuality. In some cases, the girl’s vagina is stitched up until she is married. Women are not considered desirable for marriage if this procedure is not performed. This practice still occurs in over twenty nations today.
  • Primogeniture—inheritance ritual where property of the estate is passed down to the oldest male in the family. As a result, women cannot own property.
Industrial Society
  • Men are considered sole providers or “breadwinners” and women are “homemakers.”
  • Men continue to control women’s sexuality, and procreation is further controlled by establishment of male dominated field of medicine.
  • Medicalization of Childbirth—childbirth, a natural condition, became treated medically as if it were an illness. Abortion was made illegal and the practice of midwifery became practically non-existent.
  • Cult of Domesticity—true manhood depended on how well a male provided for family; true womanhood depended on how well a woman performed duties of wife, mother, and homemaker.
  • Body Consciousness Increased—both men and women became occupied with body image more as jobs became less physical and more sedentary. Mass media influenced this by showing images of thin, attractive people in movies, advertisements, and television shows.
Post-Industrial Society
  • Service based economy brought more women out of the home and into the workforce. As a result, women’s status is on the rise.
  • More women receive college education and higher paying jobs.
  • Inheritance is bilateral.
  • Men have less control over procreation as more women enter field of medicine.
  • Dual Earner Marriages—both husband and wife must work outside the home in order to make a living.
  • Second Shift—women are faced with more work today; after working a full-time job, they do most of the work at home, including childrearing, cooking and cleaning.
  • Feminization of Poverty—due to increase in divorce rates, there are more female-headed single parent families. Because women are paid lower wages than men, this results in increase in poverty rates among these families.
  • Eating Disorders—prevalence of anorexia and bulimia in young women who are increasingly concerned about body image.


As societies modernize, women gain more rights through the democratic process. Also, because social stratification is less extreme in modern societies, women are treated more equally. However, due to the nature of socialization and internalization, gender roles have not changed as much. Women’s roles are continually devalued in modern society. Female-dominated professions receive lower pay than male-dominated professions. And poverty is higher among women and children. These patterns show the power and pervasiveness of social structure. In modern societies, women continue to be faced with new problems such as eating disorders, body dysmorphia, feminization of poverty, and the second shift. In the next section, we will explore how gender stratification is built into our social institutions and the challenges women face in trying to bring about change at the level of social structure.