Book review

The Patriarchs by Angela Saini: book review

My review of the new book by Angela Saini on "how men came to rule".

This is my review of the new book by the British science journalist Angela Saini,The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule“. Her previous books, Inferior and Superior, respectively narrated how misogyny and racism became entrenched in science, and were an important and informative read. Saini’s new book is very recommendable also. It is different from the previous two in the sense that where Saini previously studied biological science for racial and sexist bias, she now turned her attention to history and archaeology when trying to find out how patriarchy came to establish itself as a presumable “natural” state in ancient and modern times.

The book is certainly much needed in this debate. On the patriarchs’ side, the debate is led by rabid misogynists with far-right tendencies like Jordan Petersen, but also by the less vitriolic but equally dangerous male scholars who pretend to have undeniable scientific proof that men’s dominance over women is a biological default state. On the feminist side, there are also many simplistic assumptions about human biology and history, which are often incomplete, hopelessly naive and even wrong. I reviewed such a book some time ago:

Saini is different from many popular science writers as she does not provide simple explanations or solutions for complex concepts. Unlike other bestseller authors, she won’t serve an exact reason of how men established themselves as rulers over women in almost all societies in Europe and Asia (later exported via colonialism to other parts of the world). This book author discusses the many factors which contributed to the rule of patriarchate, and she introduces the reader to various thinkers and their ideas on its origins.

Starting with the primatologist Frans de Waal (whose own books are very recommendable), who laments why scientists insist that the male-dominant chimpanzees must mirror human biology, when it may just as well be the equally related bonobos whose matriarchal society could explain human origins. In any case, even the chimps are not as patriarchal as modern humans are. Women of the 19th century Europe and USA would envy female chimps for their societal influence and their sexual freedom.

Friedrich Engels, the 19th century co-author of the Communist Manifesto, associated private property, which arose historically from the ownership of the agricultural land, as the original time point when the oppression of women began. This theory became very popular with feminists, especially with those on the left political spectrum, but was since proven wrong. There are (or rather, there were) human societies where land is owned not by male hereditary succession but by matrilineal tribes (where family lineage is traced via mothers and not fathers). Such social groups are not necessarily matriarchal, rather egalitarian: men and women enjoy same rights and often perform same jobs. Many Native American nations used to be such matrilineal societies, with women being more or less equal to men or possibly even dominant (depending on the tribe), yet colonist anthropology turned the “Red Indians” into “primitive” caricatures of the patriarchal Europeans, where chiefs do politics and “squaws” carry loads in the background.

Saini’s example of colonial misrepresentation of Native American societies is this diorama in American Natural History Museum.

In fact, where-ever the archaeologists and anthropologists look, they find extinct and even extant matrilineal communities, which seem to have been the real original state of human society. Certainly in Europe and Middle East, the archaeological evidence from the Bronze Age shows no signs of male superiority. One of the examples Saini brings, is that of the Çatalhöyük culture of the Neolithic period from almost 10 thousands of years ago in what is today Turkey. This culture was distinctly matrilineal, in fact quite possibly matriarchal.

Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, Turkey. Phoot: Nevit Dilmen on Wikipedia

Which cataclysmic events turned these prehistoric societies into the oppressive and controlling patriarchies, from ancient Greece to 1950ies USA, which we perceive today as natural and normal?

Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), the Lithuanian archaeologist who lived in California, postulated the most interesting theory in this regard. Gimbutas is credited with establishing the original source of the Indo-European languages, tracing it to the so-called Kurgan people who used to live in the Pontic–Caspian steppe (what is today mostly south-eastern Ukraine and central russia). The archaeologist postulated that 5 to 4 thousand years ago these militant Kurgan tribes conquered Europe (and later India), displacing not just the local people’s cultures, including their matrilineal societies. Gimbutas thought, the Kurgan warriors must have violently imposed with their arrival not just their Indo-European language, but also their patriarchal society model. The theory was soon accepted by many feminists but was viciously attacked by prominent male scholars.

Soon enough, genetic studies confirmed the theory of an influx of people from the Pontic–Caspian steppe into Europe during the third and second millennia BC. This certainly provided biological support for the Indo-European language origins theory, vindicating Gimbutas in full on this topic. But what about the patriarchy?

As it turned out, Gimbutas’ theory, even though too simplistic and in some aspects incorrect, largely stood the passage of time. Just as she herself predicted when showered with openly misogynous criticism. It was however not likely a quick and brutal military conquest as she assumed, but a gradual, (even if occasionally conflict-laden) migration which led to the spread of the Indo-European language and social structures. It is quite likely that the Kurgan “invaders” showed an over-representation of young males, which is always bad news for women. But still, Saini reminds us that even the Kurgan tribes were unlikely as patriarchal as European societies have become soon after. Indeed, almost nothing is known of the Kurgan people except for their typical burial mounds (kurgan in Turkic language).

Lithuanian postage stamp celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Marija Gimbutas. Autor: E. Kulbyte (Post of Lithuania), on Wikipedia.

Saini draws inspiration from a different warring nation which conquered Europe and Asia later on, creating the biggest empire the world ever saw: the Mongols, led by the famous Genghis Khan. The Mongol society was certainly patrilineal, family ties were traced exclusively via fathers. Yet Mongol women were trained to ride horses and to shoot arrows just like men. There were quite many women soldiers and officers in the Mongol army, some even became kings. We also know now of female warriors among the Vikings, who lived at around the same time. Compare all this to Europe of the 20th century or even some Islamic countries of today where women are not allowed to drive cars. So if the constantly warring and male-dominated Mongols and Vikings did not oppress women like modern patriarchies do, it is unlikely that the Kurgan tribes were what Gimbutas feared them to be. These Indo-European speaking tribes most likely brought the concept of patrilineality and male rule to Europe and Asia, but that was not enough to enslave women.

In fact, Saini suggest, it was the slavery itself which did it. In the Athens of ancient Greece, women were basically locked up in their homes, while thinkers like Hesiod and even Aristotle spent much time educating their fellow males how stupid and evil women were. As it happens, the economy of ancient Greece was built on slavery, just like the economies of many other societies were built on slavery (and on its feudal variant, serfdom), from the ancient times till the 19th century USA and russia. In fact slavery didn’t go extinct even then: it was the pillar of Soviet Gulag economy of 1920ies-1950ies and is evident in the sex trafficking industry of today. Slavery, in each of its forms, is inherently cruel, racist and dehumanising, people raised in accepting slave work as normal easily lose compassion for other groups of humans. Like for women in fact.

Another factor contributing to patriarchy which Saini discusses, is the rise of states and governments in human history. A society had to be divided into those who rule and those who work and even go to war for the benefit of the rulers. Laws and religious rites had to be designed to justify the rule of elites over the rest; older wealthy and powerful men ruled over younger and poorer men, including by sending them to fight in wars. Like all individual humans in disadvantageous situations, many women betrayed feminist interests by siding with the patriarchal oppressors in order to gain personal advantage. Once established in such men-dependent power positions, these women became carriers of patriarchal traditions and actively policed and oppressed their younger kin. This happens even today: as Saini points out, female genital mutilation is performed and advocated by other women.

Now imagine into what centuries of patrilineality, state control, warfare and slavery must have turned the originally matrilineal and often matriarchal societies of the Bronze Age into. Well, the society we live in today, in fact.

The Politburo inn 1986, celebrating 70 years of women’s emancipation in USSR.

Saini spends the last chapters of her book discussing patriarchy and feminism in modern history, from Soviet Union to today’s Iran. It is truly curious how russian communists granted women all the right and equality which these never had (and would still long wait for in Europe and USA). Yet soon enough, the time-honed russian patriarchal structures took over. Stalin even banned abortions to boost birth rates (the ban was only lifted after his death in 1953). Soon after, in the communist Romania, the dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu did the same. All Communist elites, in USSR and its vassal states, were male, despite all the talk of women emancipation. In today’s communist China, the Standing Committee (i.e., the Chinese politburo) remains exclusively male.

It was totally wrong for Marxist feminists like Angela Davis to celebrate USSR as role model. Soviet women did get free childcare, but only because the state urgently needed them as work force, and used the opportunity to indoctrinate their children. And as for professional fulfilment of women: it’s not like in USSR one could practice business, chose their job and even chose not to be employed all. There were no salary gaps like in the capitalist west, but in USSR women were simply kept out of certain well-paid jobs. And all these equal rights proved to be not necessarily such a great thing when Stalinist purges took place: women were found guilty, executed, imprisoned, and sent as slaves to Gulag, where they were also regularly raped, or had to sell sex for food in order to survive.

At the end, women in USSR had to do both: to work full time and to take full care of the household. And as Saini points out, they didn’t even have the automatic washing machines which white middle-class US housewives had. Soviet men did no housework at all, women also had to queue for food and other goods, and take care of children. Marital rape was just as legal in USSR as it used to be until quite recently in the capitalist west. So much for the feminist utopia Davis admired.

China’s Politburo in 2017.

No wonder that after the fall of communism, some former Soviet-controlled nations reverted to oppressive patriarchate. Turkmenistan swiftly became a totalitarian nightmare state: like North Korea, but with gas. In Kyrgyzstan, bride abduction was outlawed in 1994 but still happens. Polish ultra-conservative government succeeded in virtually banning all abortions. Hungary is openly progressing towards fascism. And russia itself: well, no need to remind here to which excesses patriarchy and misogyny led them.

At the end, Saini can’t offer us any simple answers on how patriarchy became our standard social model, and how it keeps re-establishing itself. Like in Iran, where Shah’s oppressive regime, which strategically allowed for women’s freedom, was swept away in a revolution to usher in a different totalitarian state, a theocracy with no other founding principle but subjugation of women.

The issue of the origins of patriarchy is way too complex for simple answers. Yet what is perfectly clear is that men’s rule over women was never a “natural” state of things. It is founded neither in biology nor in history. Patriarchy only causes wars and suffering, not just to women, but also to other men. Freedom from patriarchy liberates not only women, but also other men from being oppressed, abused, humiliated, and even led to their deaths by rich old dudes.

Saini’s new book is just as timely and much needed as her previous two, Inferior and Superior. I recommend you read all of them.

The Patriarchs by Angela Saini was published in 2023 by 4th Estate (part of Penguin Random).

Disclaimer: As usual, I receive no payment or incentive to write this review, but I did receive the book gratis from the publisher.


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3 comments on “The Patriarchs by Angela Saini: book review

  1. Multiplex

    I like this review very much. Some thoughts came to me while reading it:

    1) I heard about this “Kurgan”-theory some years ago, but under a different name (it was an ARTE-documentation on TV). The claim was that they brought the plague to Europe, and that genetic traces of Yersinia pestis can be found in graves from that time. Thus, the replacement was driven by the “earliest known pandemic in history”.

    2) I’m more or less sure that Gimbutas’ name was not mentioned in the TV-documentary. I think I never heard of her before. However, reading her wikipedia-entry some of her claims sounded familiar to me: Austrian writer Bertha Helene Diener, sometimes counted as pioneer of matriarchal studies – but also rated as “problematic” person, and thus not cited today. For example, she is completely ignored in the “Literaturmuseum” Vienna, although she was a highly talented and successful writer in her time. But ok, not always consistently likeable (= 100% racist).

    3) I’m grateful to read your clarification on the status of women in USSR-times. I had to think of Nina Kulagina, of whom I once thought she was a kind of soviet-superstar. Only later I heard about her trouble with the authorities, that she was charged for smuggling food a.s.o.. In general, if you know more about the Kulagina-case, I would be very interested to read about it on FBS!


    • Thank you for your appreciation.
      I in fact never heard of Kulagina, and checked Wikipedia:
      “Nina Kulagina, Ninel Sergeyevna Kulagina was a Russian woman who claimed to have psychic powers, particularly in psychokinesis. Academic research of her phenomenon was conducted in the USSR for the last 20 years of her life. “
      Right… Well, USSR leadership was way into supernatural stuff, much worse than the US. My own childhood in the crumbling USSR consisted of TV loonies like the hypnotist Kashpirovsky and the hand-waving magic healer Alan Chumak.
      It got worse since, as we all saw. putin and his followers are firmly convinced that Ukraine and CIA conspired to create transgenic mosquitoes and geese to infect ethnic russians with a virus genetically designed against Slavic people. I am not sure if the anti-russian virus is made to kill russians, or to turn them gay.


  2. Multiplex

    One of many Kulagina-Videos on youtube:

    I always wondered about this stuff… cheap tricks, but seriously investigated for more than 20 years? By physics professors? Sounds unbelievable…


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