Russell Haggar

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Theorising Patriarchy

Theorising Patriarchy :Sylvia Walby 1990.

In this fairly recent detailed study Sylvia Walby first criticises alternative approaches to the explanation of gender inequalities. Thus according to Walby , radical feminists have assumed Patriarchy to be universal and unchanging and have not analysed the impact of class and "race" on gender; Marxist feminists have concentrated too much on capitalism and have failed to explain women’s exploitation in non-capitalist societies; liberal feminism is seen as providing a very limited analysis of gender inequalities failing to relate them to structural aspects of societies and finally dual systems theory is criticised for its under-estimation of the extent to which patriarchy is based on violence and for its insufficient analysis of the relationship between capitalism and patriarchy.

According to Walby, Patriarchy is indispensable for an understanding of gender inequality and there are 6 "key patriarchal structures which restrict women and help to maintain male domination."

    1. Thus Patriarchy operates via paid work where females face horizontal and vertical segregation leading to lower rates of pay than for men;


  • Patriarchy operates via the gender division of labour in the household which forces women to take primary responsibility for housework and childcare even if they are also in full-time employment. Women may be trapped in unsatisfactory marriages because they are unable to find well paid jobs to support themselves and their children.
  • Women are also at a cultural disadvantage because modern western culture especially emphasises the importance of feminine attractiveness which degrades and sometimes threatens women.


    1. Heterosexual relationships are seen by Walby as essentially patriarchal although Sylvia Walby argues that women have made some gains in this respect, for example as a result of modern contraception and liberalisation of abortion and divorce law.
    2. Patriarchy is often sustained by male violence against women


  • Patriarchy is sustained  by the activities of the State which is "still patriarchal as well as capitalist and racist" although there may have been some limited reforms such as more equal educational opportunities and easier divorce laws which have protected women against patriarchy to some extent.


Walby also makes the significant point that the nature of patriarchy has changed from Private patriarchy in the C19th to Public patriarchy in the C20th. Essentially Walby argues that in the late C19th most married women were excluded from employment such that patriarchal domination occurred mainly privately within the family where it was "the man in his position as husband or father who is the direct oppressor and beneficiary, individually and directly, of the subordination of women."

Gradually, however, women did gain greater access to the public sphere; most notably their opportunities for employment increased although they were still disadvantaged in the labour market relative to men. Thus "women were no longer exploited so much by individual patriarchs (ie fathers/husbands) but instead are exploited by men collectively through their subordination in public areas (mainly but certainly not entirely in employment.)

Walby also points out that in contemporary societies different groups of women may be exploited by different combinations of public and private patriarchy. For example British Afro-Caribbean origin women are more likely to experience public patriarchy and British Muslim women are more likely to experience private patriarchy.

In her more recent study Gender Transformations (1997) Walby argues that although patriarchy still exists in Britain it has altered in several respects. Especially she argues that young women have made important gains relative to older women. Older women may still be subject to private patriarchy whereas younger women on average have better educational qualifications are less likely to accept gender discrimination at work; have greater sexual freedom; and are more likely to be involved in environmental social movements. However some young women are still poorly qualified; they may be heavily dependent upon a husband; or they may be poor single parents; and even very well qualified women still find it difficult/impossible to reach the highest positions in the occupational structure. There is still very considerable vertical segregation in the labour market.

Might it possibly be that opportunities for young, well qualified women are definitely improving and might it be that informal networks are less male dominated than they once were so that the Ally Macbeals of this world certainly can make career progress.? However once these young women marry and have children their career opportunities may be significantly reduced for reasons which we have already discussed. Imagine Ally with 2 young children now deciding to return to work at age 36.