How do men dominate women?

One shorthand description of a patriarchal system is one in which men dominate women. A slightly more sophisticated version of this description is one in which “men as a class” dominate “women as a class”. But I’m interested in how patriarchal systems have changed over time, so what I want to look at in more detail is which men get to dominate which women and the methods by which they do that.

In particular, I’m focusing on how patriarchy interacts with socio-economic status. So this is an initial attempt to look at the different mechanisms for male domination and think about which men can take advantage of them. I’m still trying to refine such categories of dominance, so there are some overlaps here and I’d be very happy to receive comments on any categories you think I’m missing or that need to be changed.

I’d also add that all of these mechanisms are opportunities for dominance; individuals can choose not to take them. The rich person can choose to give their money away; the physically stronger person can choose not to use violence; the powerful can choose to dedicate themselves to the protection and advancement of the weak. But some people (and historically it’s been men) have had more options to dominate others and it’s important to see what these are.

DoolittlesAlfred and Eliza Doolittle

1) The use of wealth to dominate others. This takes varying forms: classic ones include owner/slave and employer/employee. But wealth can also be used to dominate others in purely market transactions. The rich customer can make outrageous demands on the poorer provider desperate to keep their business. The seller rich enough to purchase/retain a scarce good can make a killing, whether it’s accumulated grain in time of famine or the renting out of a house.

Any mechanism which tends to make men wealthier than women thus enhances their opportunity to dominate them. Such mechanisms include job segregation (with “male” jobs then better paid or with better prospects for advancement), unequal pay/promotion opportunities within the same occupation, unequal inheritance rights and unequal control of household income.

2) The use of violence to dominate others, whether socially sanctioned or not. Such violence can be subdivided according to the closeness of relationship between the perpetrator and victim:
a) domestic violence against those within a man’s household
b) violence against friends/colleagues: date rape is the obvious example, but sexual harassment at work would also be included
c) violent crime towards strangers within your own society
d) warfare – violence against those from other societies

3) Male dominance of the political/judicial system is clearly crucial to the enforcement of patriarchy: specifically a preponderance of men in law-making, law enforcement and court decision-making. It is this that enforces or allows discriminatory practices and sanctions or fails to prevent some forms of violence.

4) More generally, any male-controlled or male-dominated institutions/organisations allow discriminatory practices against women within such institutions to thrive: such institutions include churches, modern universities, medieval guilds, many businesses, traditional trade unions.

5) The extreme version of this is all-male institutions: male-only bureaucracies; medieval universities, social clubs, schools, pre-twentieth century parliaments, etc. To the extent that these provide power to those men/boys in them either directly or via enhanced opportunities for social advancement, they help entrench male domination.

6) Ideological control has always been important for male dominance and takes place at two levels:
a) intellectual theory (scientific, theological, political etc)
b) popular thought (where the key point is who has the “loudest voice”, whether that’s in terms of media control or just the people who are able to dominate discussions).

7) A desire by girls/women for the approval of a man/a group of men is also an important part of patriarchal dominance and one that crops up in a wide range of settings. (Such emotional power can also be used to the advantage of women and children: I will discuss that in a future post). A wish for it can appear in settings where men/boys otherwise have a disadvantage in socio-economic power over women/girls: i.e. when a girl from a prosperous family wants the bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks to like her. But it’s also common in settings where there is equal social status (you want your male co-workers to like you) or there is a power imbalance, i.e. a daughter want her father’s approval, a female student wanting a male lecturer’s approval, or a woman in a religious setting wanting approval of her behaviour as devout.

Using this typology, to what extent are men from lower socio-economic groups able to dominate those from equal or higher socio-economic groups? Obviously, in situations where the rich dominate the poor (1), a poorer man can’t dominate a richer woman.

In terms of violence (2), men of any social status can commit crimes in times of war. Crimes against strangers can also be committed by men of any socio-economic status, but such crimes by low-status men against high-status women are more likely to be prosecute and harshly punished. It is still high treason to sleep with the wife of the king, for example, and in the US, black men accused of the rape of white women have always been liable to injustices. Men “marrying up” may be able to carry out domestic violence on higher-status partners, but are also more liable to retaliation from their partner’s family.

The judicial system (3) allows limited opportunities for some lower-status men to dominate higher-status women: essentially, there are opportunities for police officers and prison guards to do so.

In male-dominated organisations (4), the men at the top of the organisation can obviously dominate all the women within it (as well as the men lower down). But the extent to which men at lower levels can dominate women at their own level varies greatly between organisations. At one extreme you’ve got guilds which would allow a few women in, but specifically exclude them from all senior roles and thus make them firmly second-class members. At the other are organisations which are formally non-discriminatory, but in which policies/procedures/prejudices still exist which disproportionately hamper women from getting to the top (such as in modern universities).

All-male institutions (5) offer the greatest opportunity for lower-status men for at least some domination over higher-status women: however rich and powerful these women may be, they don’t get to be a freemason, etc. In terms of ideology (6), intellectual control is difficult for most lower-status men to achieve, although there are a few examples of clever men rising socially to do this, such as Jerome. Lower-status men, however, can sometime manage to “shout louder” than women of the same or higher-social status.

Finally, lower-status men are not often in a position to try and gain approval (7) from higher-status women. However, it is an option for low-status men who are sexually attractive or charismatic in some other way (one obvious example would be Rasputin). Because the need for approval by family members tends to be inculcated at an early age, lower-status men may also be able to use the tool of giving or withholding approval as a way of dominating higher-status wives and daughters. Alfred Doolittle may be part of the undeserving poor, but he can still sponge off Eliza Doolittle, despite her increased social advancement.

So overall male dominance of women doesn’t necessarily assist low-status men. Even if men are on average richer than women and more likely to be at the top of institutions, that doesn’t help you if you’re a poor man or at the bottom of an institution and not likely to be able to move upwards.

Men of lower socio-economic status who cannot rise socially are therefore more reliant on a relatively small number of opportunities for dominance. Traditionally, they have been able to lord it over the women within their household and they could enjoy the benefits of all-male institutions. Some male-dominated institutions have also given opportunities for dominance even to those men not at the top. Apart from that, their options have effectively always been limited to “shouting louder”, relying on female need for approval, and possibly using varying forms of harassment and violence (although these are more risky options).

During the twentieth century, however, the vast majority of all-male institutions disappeared. A large number of male-dominated institutions survive, but formalised equal opportunities within these lessen the options of domination for men near the bottom. Men’s control over households has also been considerably reduced, by a combination of easier divorce, domestic violence being taken more seriously and more economic independence for women.

If you think of it in those terms, you can start to see why many in the modern Men’s Rights Movements and similar groups use the particular tactics they do. Such men mostly aren’t at the bottom of the heap, but they’re not in dominant positions within society. If they feel the need to dominate women (although obviously not all men do), partners/families are their main option. Such men are likely to be frustrated if these aren’t available for them and women either choose not to be with them or leave them. The power of male approval over women’s behaviour, meanwhile, has always relied heavily on supposed male solidarity: “if you do this, none of the men will like you”. The support of some men for feminism has broken such solidarity down: if MRAs do not like a particular woman, she can still find men who do. With a large number of traditional methods for ensuring male dominance removed or weakened, it’s not surprising that lower-status men who are desperate to demonstrate domination focus on ideology (insisting that women are inferior to men) or toy with the possibility of violence.

It’s hard to claim that patriarchy has disappeared when the vast majority of those at the top are still men. But the forms of patriarchy have changed over history and are continuing to change, and I think there is evidence that patriarchal dominance by lower status men is becoming considerably harder for them to achieve in the modern West.


One thought on “How do men dominate women?

  1. Fascinating. What about education? For millennia women were, by and large, ignored in this area which enabled men to sustain dominance. I think this is still true in certain ways – education does enable lower-status men and women to rise socially?


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