Modern patriarchy: all the way down?

I’ve recently finished reading Nina Power, What Do Men Want? Masculinity and Its Discontents (Allan Lane, 2022), which is a fairly bad attempt to argue that some aspects of masculinity are positive and should be maintained in the modern world. It unfortunate that it’s not a well-argued book, because I’m sympathetic to the view that some men do get a very raw deal in twenty-first-century capitalist society.

However, Power’s book made me think of another question connected to the wider background of my patriarchy project. Some of the patriarchal structures I discuss in a historical context still exist in today’s world. I talked a few months ago about how patriarchal advantages probably didn’t apply to men of some subordinate religions or races in the premodern world. Now I want to consider whether male advantage still holds for all social classes within the modern UK.

Homeless man by a wall (by Garry Knight)

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Deadly egalitarians and grateful children

This post is inspired by several recent things I’ve been reading as background for the patriarchy project. The first is Christopher Boehm, Moral origins: the evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame (Basic Books, 2012) and his intriguing hypothesis about the development of egalitarianism and moral thought more generally in prehistoric forager societies. Boehm was an American anthropologist (he died in 2021) who triangulated between the behaviour of great apes and modern forager bands to argue that egalitarianism (in the sense of the equality of all hunters in a group) was a development made by early humans, replacing the dominance of bands by alpha males characteristic of great apes. This change was initially made by coalitions of subordinate males who could resist, and in some cases even kill, any would-be alpha male who tried to bully them.

Skhul V skull of anatomically modern human from around 90,000 years ago.
Photo by Wapaponda
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The last non-graduate PM?

The last British Prime Minister who didn’t have a degree was John Major (1990-1997). What I’m wondering at the moment is whether he’s going to be the last ever non-graduate Prime Minister of the UK (or any successor states). Is it still feasible for someone without a degree-level education to reach that position?

That I think Major may be the last isn’t just because of the professionalisation of the political class or its increasingly middle-class nature, but also because of the extension of higher education. The only two leaders of the opposition in the last forty years who haven’t been graduates have been Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, both from middle class background, but without much academic aptitude. The same is true of another recently successful politicians without a degree, Nigel Farage.

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Premodern patriarchy: intersections with class, race and religion

Right from the start of the Patriarchy Project, I knew that I would have to consider the impact of the intersection of class with sex/gender in the premodern world and my initial definition of “patriarchy” included this aspect:

Patriarchy is a system of social practices and institutions which gives men more power and opportunities for power than women of the same social class

I included this reference to class because it seemed obvious to me that you could schematically represent part of the hierarchy of power and status within medieval social groups in the following way:



Male peasants

Female peasants

This is a vast simplification, of course, of the many complex layers of medieval society and misses some particular situations of vulnerability even for high-status women, but it does give some sense of the type of hierarchy, with class normally trumping gender. In contrast, here’s the classic suffragette poster:  What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote, in which morally superior and in some cases more qualified and middle-class women are denied the vote that poor and disreputable men have.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Evolutionary approaches and history

I’ve been reading some interesting work on what evolutionary approaches can bring to the study of gender in human society, including Bobbi Low, Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look a Human Behavior (revised ed, 2015) and Richard G Bribiescas, Evolutionary and life history insights into masculinity and warfare. Current Anthropology 62 (2021), DOI: 10.1086/711688. These works are a lot more nuanced than some of the evolutionary psychology I’ve read in the past, accepting the interaction of social/cultural and ecological components with biology, rather than assuming an unchanging male psyche. I’ve heard historians call evolutionary psychology the enemy of history and especially feminist history, but this research doesn’t give that impression. But precisely because it’s careful and interesting work, it confirms my views in the limitations of the field’s use for historians.

This is made explicit at points, as when Bribiescas says (p. 2): “Because of the necessity of a deep time perspective and changes in populations, evolutionary and life history theories often lack the precision to predict specific events or individual behavior.” It’s precisely at that relatively small-scale level that much historical study takes place. Alan MacFarlane may want to look at the ten-thousand year old roots of the Industrial Revolution, but most historians studying the Industrial Revolution would look at a handful of countries over at most five hundred years, which in global and chronological terms is a tiny part of humanity.

Similarly, many of Low’s arguments rely on the “phenotypic gambit” assumption: that enough time has passed for the interaction of genes and behaviours to come into equilibrium, so that the most common behaviour is the (locally) optimal strategy for inclusive fitness. However, it’s a lot easier to assume that for mice (with generations of a few months) or even cats (with generations of 2 years), than humans (with generations of 20-25 years). Ten generations of humans (200-250 years) in most historical societies would see a lot of changes to the social and physical environment. With the possible exception of small-scale societies isolated from others, it’s unlikely that you’re going to reach that equilibrium position. Certainly, for Western Europe in the first fifteen centuries of the common era (the boundaries for my patriarchy project), it’s hard to think of societies that were that unaffected by outside factors for that long. And Low also comments (p. 164): “We cannot assume, for humans today, that any particular behavior is, or is not, adaptive.”

But I also want to talk in this post about a number of other reasons why evolutionary approaches are not very helpful for one of the main concerns of historians: theorizing people’s motivations in a particular historical society.

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Downward social mobility

A while ago, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman wrote about an aspect of social mobility that isn’t often discussed: the need for downward social mobility:

Part of the reason why a kid in a seat the Conservatives first won in 2019 is not getting a job as a barrister is because a barrister in a seat the Conservatives have held since 1906 is giving unfair opportunity to their idiot nephew, or to a friend’s child.

That’s the sharp end of the social mobility debate that politicians have generally been reluctant to touch. As Vince Cable, a rare exception to that rule, once observed, the son of an investment banker who ends up working as a cloakroom assistant is also an example of social mobility: indeed, for the most part, it is a necessary precondition of social mobility.

His suggestion was that there ought to be “hard discussions about unfair and opaque hiring practices that entrench rather than spread privileges”.

Jonn Elledge similarly complained about how:

Britain’s more privileged classes are very good at ensuring that those thicker, more useless offspring don’t tumble down the class ladder… but instead still go to university, before joining one of the white-collar professions that act as havens for thick and useless people.

Elledge gets nearer to the details of the process, but I think both miss some important points. And I want to approach them via an example of downward social and professional mobility: that of my paternal (adoptive) family.

My paternal grandfather’s house as it looks in 2021
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The invention of the housewife

All I am is just a housewife

Nothing special, nothing great

What I do is kinda boring

If you’d rather, it can wait

All I am is someone’s mother

All I am is someone’s wife

All of which seems unimportant

All it is is just my life

Do the laundry, wash the dishes

Take the dog out, clean the house

Shop for groceries, look for specials

God it sounds so, Mickey Mouse

Drop the kids off, pick the shirts up

Try to lose weight, try again

Keep the troops fed, pick their things up

Lose your patience, count to ten

Lyrics from “Just a housewife”, from the musical “Working” (1977)
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The best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire

A friend at my Oxford college once told me that their father had been described as “the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire”. I can’t remember if I realised the significance at the time, but a few years later I started to understand that phrase more fully, when I worked as a librarian at Plymouth College of Further Education.

Trainee bricklayers at City College Plymouth (formerly Plymouth College of Further Education)

We didn’t have agricultural engineers there, but we did have a construction department. I was responsible for liaising with them and going along to departmental meetings. It was clear from how those construction lecturers talked at the time that they felt looked down on by the rest of the college. And at the bottom of the construction department hierarchy, below the plumbers and the carpenters and electrical engineers, were the bricklayers and the staff who taught them. The brickies were the least academic students of all, the ones who needed the most help from the remedial maths and English teachers.

But then, at some point, I got to see photos of some of their final-year projects and they were amazing. There were people making curves in brickwork that I couldn’t entirely believe were possible and a lot of other impressive structures. These students, many barely literate young men, had a skill that I could never possibly match (despite the fact that I already had two degrees).

That was when my educational philosophy really expanded, beyond my previous default assumption that doing lots of qualifications made me a better person in some nebulous way. In Plymouth it dawned on me that the key role of (non-compulsory) education at all levels was finding the best course for a particular learner so they could develop the skills that mattered to them and lead a more fulfilling life. And it also reminded me that any job that benefited others was worthwhile and should be done well. (That probably came easier to me, having been raised as a child on George Herbert’s idea of any task as potentially “divine“).

Ever since, the endless debates about “vocational” as against “academic” education have seemed rather futile: it depends on what the learner wants to do. You can learn Japanese because you want to work for Toyota or watch Noh plays or read manga, and they’re all perfectly reasonable justifications. There are a few subjects you may have to study that you don’t really want to, like those brickies having to scrape through basic maths (and school children having to follow a basic curriculum), but the courses adults should be taking are what they want to learn, because they probably won’t gain much from other education.

I think that having this broad view of education has helped me avoid some common pitfalls. If you’ve spent almost all your life studying history, for example, as some of my friends have done, and you’ve benefited from it personally, it’s easy to start presuming that everyone should study history. There’s an added pressure when your continued employment as a lecturer depends on enough people studying a subject at university. But if you take a wider perspective, the question becomes whether a specific type pf course is the right one for that particular student to study at that particular time. If they would gain more personally from a different subject or one at a different level, we ought to be steering them towards that instead.

But equally, appreciating and valuing vocational education doesn’t mean rejecting academic education or presuming that it’s only for a select few. For a short time I taught history at Birkbeck, where mature students, often without previous qualifications, can study for degrees. I still remember the pleasure I felt when some of the weaker students improved in their essay writing or had a revealing comment to add in a discussion.  Ranganathan’s second law of librarianship is: “Every reader his or her book”. In the same way, maybe we should be thinking about “Every student their course”.

And perhaps, too, “Every worker their job.” I never met my friend’s father but being the best tractor mechanic in Lincolnshire strikes me as an honourable and admirable vocation. I’ve tried, with my own child, to make sure that I didn’t push them onto an academic path and to make it clear that if they wanted to become a hairdresser or a plumber or a nursery nurse or some other relatively non-academic career I would be fine with that. (Although I admit that education is sufficiently important to me that I’d have wanted them to be a really well-trained and fully-qualified hairdresser, plumber, etc). As it turns out they’re currently aiming for a more academic, but relatively practical career in computing. But it’s only by keeping these basic principles in mind, valuing all kinds of education/training and all kinds of jobs that we can put together a society that works better for all of us.

Excluding women in capitalism and anti-capitalism

For my patriarchy project, I’ve been reading Martha Howell’s Women, production and patriarchy in late medieval cities (University of Chicago Press, 1986). I’m trying to get a handle on her ideas of the family production unit and small commodity production and how that relates to the gradual exclusion of women from high status jobs that she sees happening in late medieval and early modern Northern European cities. Howell’s focus is specifically on crafts and trade, i.e., a wide  middle stratum of urban society. She defines high labor-status (p. 24) as status which:

accrues to individuals who, as part of their occupations, independently obtain their own raw materials and supplies (their means of production), and control the distribution of the products of their labor.

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