To Smash the Patriarchy, We Need to Get Specific About What It Means

Patriarchy doesn’t just mean sexism. It’s a concrete system of social relations that operates in specific ways. To get rid of it, we need to better understand it.

Patriarchy is rooted in the cultural and legal traditions of patrilineality and patrilocality. (Lambert / Getty Images)

Too many liberal feminists purport to want to #SmashThePatriarchy without really understanding what this concept means and how it infiltrates our everyday lives. A Greek word that means “the rule of the father,” patriarchy has long worked to oppress all people who lack the social position or necessary requirements to become patriarchs (such as being a first-born son or having independent means). Patriarchy not only shapes our public worlds as workers and consumers, but also regulates the most intimate details of our private experiences. But the “rule of the father” isn’t something just asserted, it depends on specific social customs regarding the shape of our families.

Patriarchy is partially rooted in the cultural and legal traditions of patrilineality (paternal descent) and patrilocality (where wives leave their natal kin to join a husband’s family). These twin forces still operate in the daily lives of billions of people and maintain a distinct lingering influence even in contemporary cultures that see themselves as more “enlightened” with regards to the traditional family. We can’t undermine patriarchy without dealing first with these two less familiar concepts: patrilineality and patrilocality.


Patrilineality denotes a set of social customs that confer primacy on the father’s family line. The best example of patrilineality comes from Genesis 5 and 11 in the Old Testament, the “begats” from Adam to Noah and from Shem to Abram, where we learn the names of each father and his firstborn son. Patrilineality is why fathers still “give the bride away” to the bridegroom during the traditional Western wedding ceremony, and it’s why about 70 percent of American women in 2015 and 90 percent of British women in 2016 still took their husband’s name after tying the knot.

It is also why the children of heterosexual couples generally take their father’s name even though it is the mother who gestates them for nine months and labors to bring them into the world. One 2018 survey from the American website BabyCenter, found that only 4 percent of children have their mother’s surname. And in Belgium until 2014, a child born to a married couple was legally obligated to have its father’s name. When you receive a holiday card from “the Andersons,” the whole family is identified by the last name of the father, which was his father’s last name, and his grandfather’s last name, and so on.

Historically, patrilineality meant that, upon marriage, rights over a woman’s body were transferred from father to groom. For example, the utopian socialist Flora Tristan lived her life governed by the 1804 Napoleonic Code, a wide-ranging law that stipulated that married women must obey their husbands, reside with their husbands, follow their husbands whenever they changed domiciles, and give over all property and wages for their husbands to administer.

In 1816, the French state also re-outlawed divorce, further trapping women in indissoluble marriages no matter how abusive or reprehensible the husband. Tristan only escaped her own nuptial chains after her husband repeatedly molested their daughter and then subsequently shot Tristan at point-blank range in broad daylight on the streets of Paris.

With her husband imprisoned for life, Tristan became a prominent utopian socialist intellectual who understood that women’s subjugation within the institution of monogamous marriage served to ensure women’s fidelity so that they produced only “legitimate” heirs. In postrevolutionary France, the Napoleonic family code facilitated the transfer of private property from fathers to sons among a newly ascendant bourgeois class. Propertied men demanded strict wifely fidelity so that their wealth and privileges did not end up in the hands of some sneaky milkman’s son.

Laws establishing a husband’s legal rights over his wife can still be found across the globe and were only repealed in Western countries in the last hundred fifty years. In the United Kingdom, the Married Women’s Property Act granted wives the right to own, buy, and sell their own property in 1882. In the United States, the 1907 Expatriation Act meant that American women who married immigrant husbands in cities like New York and Boston automatically lost their citizenship and had to apply for naturalization when their foreign husbands became eligible. The provisions of this act weren’t fully repealed until 1940. In West Germany, married women could not work outside the home without their husbands’ permission until 1957, and then only if their jobs did not interfere with their domestic responsibilities. This latter provision was not removed until 1977.

Although American women won the right to vote in 1920, married women were legally obliged to vote under their husband’s surname until 1975. Married women also had to fight for the right to maintain driver’s licenses and passports in their maiden names if they preferred. In Japan in July 2021, the Supreme Court upheld a law that required married couples to have the same surname. Although in theory it could be either spouse’s name, in practice 96 percent of Japanese women took their husband’s name.

To counter these pervasive patrilineal customs, countries such as Greece, as well as the province of Quebec in Canada, have rendered it illegal for a woman to take her husband’s name after marriage even if she wants to. In Canada as a whole, where white settlers once imposed patrilineal naming conventions on matrilineal indigenous peoples to help “regulate [the] division of property among heirs in a way that conformed with European, not Indigenous, property laws,” the 2008 to 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed for the free restoration of indigenous names, including mononyms (the ability not to have a surname at all).


Patrilocality means that a new bride must leave her family and move into her husband’s household, usually with or near his family (think of Elizabeth Bennet moving from Longbourn to Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice). In many societies in Asia and Africa, wives are still expected to reside with their in-laws and obey their authority.

In Greece, it was only a 1983 Family Law reform that abolished the provision in the Civil Code that automatically established that a married woman’s legal residence was that of her husband. Although new families in many industrialized nations prefer to form their own residences (called neolocality), our deeper history of patrilocality means that men are expected to be breadwinners because a patrilocal culture assumes that the father must be the head of the new household and therefore primarily responsible for its provisioning.

A 2017 study found that 72 percent of American men and 71 percent of American women agreed that a man must be able to financially provide for his family in order to be considered a “good husband or partner.” This puts a lot of pressure on men, especially in weak economies with labor markets transformed by outsourcing and automation. Although the percentage of female breadwinners has grown in the last decades, about 71 percent of husbands still outearn their wives in households of heterosexual couples where both spouses work.

Patrilocal traditions also explain why only in exceptional cases do men uproot their lives to relocate for the new job of a wife or girlfriend. In my own field of academia, for example, one 2008 study of 9,043 full-time faculty at thirteen leading American research universities found that 36 percent of faculty had a partner also employed in academia and another 36 percent had a partner working in a different industry — but women disproportionately felt the limiting effects of being in a dual-career couple.

In contrast to men who prioritize their own professional ambitions, the study noted that the number one reason women academics gave for refusing an external offer of employment was that their male partners were not offered appropriate employment at the new location. The availability of a job for their partners outweighed other key considerations such as salary, benefits, research funds, or opportunities for promotion. And since getting a decent raise in academia usually requires moving to a new university, women’s relative immobility exacerbates the gender pay gap.

Whether it is in academia, in the military, or within the corporate world, women are more likely to follow their partners to a new city or country. When a couple needs to decide whether or not to take a job in a new place, it makes sense to invest in the career prospects of the partner with the higher salary. And because on average women more frequently leave their jobs to follow their partners than men do, employers may consider all women less reliable workers in the aggregate and pay them less than “more reliable” men. Finally, following a partner to a new city or country often separates women from their support networks: family, friends, and perhaps their preexisting childcare arrangements. The resultant isolation makes it more difficult to restart careers in the new location.

Too many women, with higher degrees and years of work experience, simply give up because it is so hard to “have it all.” Of those parents who did not work outside of the home in the United States in 2016, 78 percent of mothers reported they didn’t work because they were taking care of their home and family. For women, who generally earn less than men and who societies expect to provide more unpaid care work, it makes rational sense in economies with few social safety nets to embrace what social scientists call “hypergamy,” or the desire to marry up and find a partner who can and will support them. This practice reinforces the traditions of patrilineality and patrilocality because the man remains the “head of household.” And even in couples where wives earn more than their husbands, women still bear a disproportionately larger share of household tasks, which is why so many pine for new domestic arrangements.

Patrilocality is only one way of organizing domestic relations; human societies once displayed a diversity of traditions. But after centuries of Western colonialism that dispersed patriarchal family forms across the globe, fewer than thirty human societies remain matrilocal today. One community of Tibetan Buddhists called the Mosuo provides a fascinating example of a matrilocal society where neither spouse is expected to relocate. Among the Mosuo, grandmothers preside over large multigenerational families. Women own and inherit property through the maternal line and live with their mother’s extended family. Men live in their maternal grandmother’s household and practice a form of “walking marriage,” whereby they visit their partner only at night.

Both men and women can have as many companions as they desire, without stigma, and women often do not know who has fathered their children. The concept of “father” barely exists, and men have few paternal responsibilities. Being a good uncle is far more important, as men help raise the children of their sisters. Since there is no formal marriage, the only reason men and women form pairs is because they are attracted to each other or enjoy each other’s company. When the attraction fades, romantic ties can be dissolved without negative financial consequences or social impacts on the children. How very radical the Mosuo family structure seems to many of us today highlights just how deeply ingrained our own patrilocal and patrilineal traditions remain.

Of course, patriarchy works in tandem with capitalism as a tool for embedding structural forms of discrimination in our economies and societies, but if we are serious about challenging both systems, it is essential that we begin to target the underlying practices that uphold them both. Both patrilineality and patrilocality allow the nuclear family to become the core institution in capitalist societies that facilitates the intergenerational transfer of wealth and privilege. Radical changes to the way we organize our own domestic arrangements can profoundly disrupt the persistence of these traditions. It turns out that humanity has over two thousand years’ worth of cross-cultural experiments to help us imagine what these radical changes might look like in practice, and how we might implement them in our daily lives.