The Creation of Patriarchy Critical Essays

Gerda Lerner


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A major strength of The Creation of Patriarchy is Lerner’s insistence on avoiding explanations based on a single cause. There was no single “overthrow event” back in the dim prehistorical mists in which men seized control of a matriarchal culture. In fact, Lerner sees some contemporary feminists’ quest for an original matriarchy as a step away from historical understanding.

The establishment of slavery in ancient societies is one of Lerner’s central examples of a complex change in human relations. She suggests that the institutionalization of slavery requires a crucial human innovation: the possibility of thinking of the group to be dominated as somehow entirely different, other than human. Slavery was possible, Lerner thinks, because, before its invention, men had already experienced the subordination of women of their own group. In early agricultural societies, an increased need for labor had made women’s reproductive capacities a commodity which was exchanged or acquired to strengthen families. The practice of the exchange of women meant that men had rights over women that women did not have over men and that women had less autonomy than men. Historians have known that the majority of those first enslaved were women—in warfare, for long periods, enemy men were commonly killed, while women and children were brought into the households of the victors. Lerner asks why this happened and points to the victors’ power to control female captives who could be attached to them by rape and pregnancy, who would want to protect their children, and who could have no hope of rescue because their male kin were dead. The ownership of enslaved women and their children may have been the earliest form of private property. Furthermore, just as the idea of women’s “difference” had been a starting point for the...

(The entire section is 752 words.)