Along with the question about continuity or change in womens history raised by Judith Bennett in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), theres the associated problem of periodization for womens history. Bennett is unhappy with periodizing womens history by the conventional periods, which are organised around male historical experience. Shes particularly unhappy with Joan Kellys idea (p 66) of an inverted synchronization between womens history and traditional history, as in Kellys classic article Did women have a Renaissance? (I think Bennett is right: I am increasingly inclined to the view that Kellys article was one of those significant points where the new question asked is very important, but the answer has taken people up the wrong track. Its been productive for womens historians to ask Did women have a Transformation of the Roman World? etc, but its been counterproductive to try and squash the evidence into a paradigm of decline, as has happened frequently).
Im quite happy to accept different periodizations for womens history than other history (and indeed multiple ones for different classes of women or different aspects). However, Lisa Bitels argument (discussed briefly by Bennett p 134 and in more detail in Period Trouble: The Impossibility of Teaching Medieval Feminist History” in Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz, eds., Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies (Palgrave, 2007)) for the wholesale rejection of the master narrative of medieval history strike me as an unrealistic cop-out (and Bennett in her more pragmatic teacher mode of Chapter 7 accepts the need to work with such a master narrative). If we are trying to construct a periodization of womens history, what might it look like? As Alexandra Shepard and Garthine Walker pointed out in their introduction to a special issue of Gender and History on periodization (p 454) While familiar periodising categories have been declared inappropriate for the history of women, they have not usually been replaced by alternative schemas.
At first glance, its difficult to see how we might get a periodization of womens history that Bennett would like. One of her repeated arguments is that changes in womens experiences dont equate to changes in womens status (see e.g. pp. 62, 74). The problem is, if you need changes in womens status for periodization, youre stuck with 3000 BC 2000 AD as one period, which is not a whole heap of use.
However, there is an alternative, which Bennett refers to, but doesnt really develop. This is her idea (p 59) of distinguishing various sorts of historical patriarchy, particularly as they have interacted with various socioeconomic systems. If you try starting a periodization of womens history from the idea of historically changing patriarchies, then you can accommodate both the historical change we see and some of the continuity in womens status.
How might such a very broad periodization look? Bennett wants to stress socioeconomic systems, which seems sensible, but I dont think on their own theyre enough. I would want to add religious change, because I think religion has provided much of the ideological framework for patriarchy, at least in the West, as well as (more rarely) providing the ideological framework for attacking it. Id also include as another variable the nature of the male elite. I think it does make a difference whether the men at the top of society are there on the supposed basis of their birth or their wealth or their intellectual superiority or their fighting ability.
Based on this, this is my initial attempt at a very broad typology of Western patriarchies. (Im starting with the late antique period, because Im not sure enough of some of the classical socioeconomic background):
1) Christianised patriarchy (from maybe 300-500 AD). Economically based on the feudal mode of production, ideologically on a Romanized Christianity and a civilian aristocracy.
2) Warrior patriarchy (500-1000/1100). Economically based on a peasant mode of production, ideologically on a warrior aristocracy and micro-Christianities.
3) Signeurial patriarchy (1000/1100 1350). Economically based on the feudal mode of production, ideologically on an officially defined Catholic Christianity and an institutionalised split between a warrior and a clerical elite.
The distinction between 2 and 3 and the date for them is tricky. Ideologically, the Gregorian Reforms seem key, but Chris Wickham (who developed the idea of the peasant mode of production) sees the feudal mode of production (I think) kicking in again earlier, about 800. (Ive drawn a lot on Chriss ideas on socio-economic periodization, but I admit I havent read all of Framing the Middle Ages yet, so if you want to argue the socio-economic bits in particular, please feel free to).
4) Commercial patriarchy (1350-1800). Economically based on early forms of capitalism, ideologically influenced by Protestantism, elite split between militarised aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.
Its obviously slightly misleading to stress Protestant ideology when half the West wasnt Protestant even in 1800, but I think the impact of Protestantism did mean a clarification and hardening of the official Catholic churchs position on women. A bigger problem is whether this period is too long: Ive been influenced by Judith Bennetts argument on the continuity of womens work (and Martha Howells has a similar take on the gendered aspects of the commercial revolution, but Merry Wiesner-Hanks in the same issue argues against late medieval/early modern continuity (coming from a religious history perspective). Id be particularly interested to hear more informed takes from people who work on these centuries
5) Industrial patriarchy (1800-late twentieth century) Economically based on industrial capitalization, ideologically on Protestantism, bourgeois elite.
6) Post-industrial patriarchy (late twentieth century to present). Economically based on globalised financial capitalism, secular ideology, very narrow bourgeois elite.
(Not all of the West has secularized, of course, but even in the US, since the 1960s there has been a challenge to Christian ideology and morality that is much more substantial than previously).
This is my provisional idea of broad periodization, and Im aware that it ends up near traditional ones. But there was an Industrial Revolution for women: economic changes do have impacts on social structures, including patriarchal ones. What I have omitted is periodizations based on intellectual movements. This isnt because women didnt have a Renaissance, a Carolingian Renaissance, an Enlightenment etc, but they were relatively marginal to all these movements. I also havent said anything about the development of the state, which is an important part of conventional periodization, because right from the start, the state has been involved in womens lives. There are extensive laws on womens behaviour from Mesopotamian times, and one of the key justifications from early medieval times (if not further back) of the states attempts to control/monopolise violence has been the protection of widows and orphans. Im not convinced that the development of administrative kingship or the modern state or absolutism was that significant for womens experiences. But if you think theres some other important factor Ive missed, or you want to suggest a better periodization, feel free to weigh in.