Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Creation of Patriarchy, the first book of the two-volume work Women and History, begins with Gerda Lerner’s conviction that patriarchal systems are historical, that they emerge from historical processes and therefore can be ended by historical processes. If one does not understand patriarchy’s historicity, one may be tempted to see it as natural, a product of human biology or psychology and perhaps ordained by God. In fact, these very views of patriarchy have dominated Western culture for more than two thousand years. Lerner’s book traces the emergence in the ancient Near East and classical Greece both of patriarchal social systems and of the structures of ideas that led most women and men to accept them as immutable.

Patriarchy, as Lerner defines it, is more than the sexual asymmetry of many tribal societies in which the tasks assigned to women are different from those given to men. It is a system which has institutionalized men’s dominance over women and children, both in the family and in the larger society. In a patriarchal society, legal systems give men power within families, and organizational systems deny women access to power in the society’s important institutions. The term does not imply that women in patriarchal societies are completely without rights, power, or resources. Lerner leads the reader through the steps, however, by which women in the ancient world came to live in cultures which strictly regulated their sexuality, subjected them to the rule of husbands, and...

(The entire section is 623 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Creation of Patriarchy won the Joan Kelly Prize of the American Historical Association for the best work on women’s history in 1986. Reviewers praised the fearlessness and systematic thought underlying its presentation of almost twenty-six hundred years of human history. A survey of such scope necessarily simplifies the causes involved, but Lerner goes far in suggesting the complex and subtle nature of her material and the uncertainty of modern conclusions about ancient societies. To her exploration of the processes by which men’s collective dominance of women was built into social systems and systems of religion and philosophy, Lerner brings a contemporary feminist’s questions about the interaction of class and race domination with gender relationships. While to some, the persistence of patriarchal domination through many social and cultural formations might bring a conviction of patriarchy’s timelessness, Lerner gives students of early history a provocative framework for future investigation of its gradual construction. She also reinforces the conviction that with understanding and a will to change, transformations away from patriarchy are possible.

Lerner says she commenced her study with two questions. The first asked what definitions and concepts can enable one to explain and interpret the particular relationships of women to the making of history. The second explored the explanation for the long delay in women’s arrival at an articulated consciousness of and resistance to their subordination, the explanation for their participation in the upholding and transmitting of patriarchy, and the reason for their marginalization in recorded history. Though The Creation of Patriarchy begins to answer the second question, it concentrates on the first. Lerner completed her project—whose overall title is Women and History—with The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (1993). These two follow six books on U.S. women’s history: The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Pioneers for Woman’s Rights and Abolition (1967), The Woman in American History (1971), Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (1972), The Female Experience: An American Documentary (1977), The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), and Teaching Women’s History (1981).


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Anderson, Bonnie S., and Judith P. Zinsser. A History of Their Own: Women in Europe from Prehistory to the Present. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Opening chapters discuss the origins of attitudes toward women and traditions subordinating and empowering women. Later chapters give useful attention to the role of class differences in women’s experiences, from peasant field workers to mistresses of salons. Volume 2 ends with a history of European feminism. Extensive bibliography.

Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. Cambridge, Mass.: Harper & Row, 1987. Less scholarly and more polemical than The Creation of Patriarchy, this work examines the pattern of early European and Near Eastern history as one in which peaceful, goddess-worshipping “chalice” cultures were defeated by invading militaristic and patriarchal Indo-European groups, “blade” cultures, and connects the contrasts between the two to decisions facing humanity today. Looks more briefly than Lerner does at the ancient Near East; also touches on prehistoric Europe, Minoan Crete, and early Christianity. Maps, chronological tables.

Pantel, Pauline Schmitt, ed. From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Vol. 1 in A History of Women in the West, edited by George Duby and Michelle Perrot. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992. First volume of series about women’s history, originating with Italian scholars and including a number of essays related to Lerner’s themes—goddesses, Greek culture, and the myth of matriarchy. Bibliography.

Richlin, Amy. “The Ethnographer’s Dilemma and the Dream of a Lost Golden Age.” In Feminist Theory and the Classics, edited by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin. New York: Routledge, 1993. Discusses the aims and theoretical approaches of feminist work on ancient history, including Lerner’s work. Bibliography.

Scott, Joan Wallach. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988. Introductory essays, “Women’s History” and “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” are highly regarded and frequently cited explorations of issues facing historians who attempt a feminist rewriting of history. One of Scott’s points in the second essay, written before Lerner’s book appeared, is that theories of patriarchy fail to show what gender inequality has to do with other inequalities; The Creation of Patriarchy addresses this very question.