Male homosociality and men’s consciousness

Next week I’m off to a conference in Oxford on homosociality Beyond Between Men, organised by Rachel Moss. So here to get myself and others in the mood, is a post inspired by a recent rereading of Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy , at the start of my research into how patriarchy is created and sustained in past societies.

At the moment I’m still working on my framework for studying patriarchal change and thinking about some of the definitions and assumptions Lerner was making and their implications in her study of the topic. Lerner talks (p. 242) about the development of “feminist consciousness”, when women realise that the wrong they suffer is shared with other women. (Indeed, Lerner later wrote a whole book on the history of this topic). She also gives a “wide” definition of patriarchy (p. 239):

patriarchy…means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general. It implies that men hold power in all the important institutions of society and that women are deprived of access to such power.

She adds: “It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence, and resources.”

Lerner argued that feminist consciousness did not arise immediately on the formation of patriarchy, but only developed gradually. But her statements about men, such as (p. 8), “The appropriation by men of women’s sexual and reproductive capacity occurred prior to the formation of private property and class society”, effectively assume (even if she doesn’t state it explicitly) that solidarity between men, what one might call “men’s consciousness”, already exists, even at this prehistoric period and certainly as a very early historical phenomenon.

What I want to ask is whether we can see “men as a class” in early history, a shared consciousness and feeling of solidarity with other men. (I’m using “men as a class” as shorthand here, without assuming a specifically Marxist meaning of class). The obvious answer is that we can see forms of male homosocial groups very early on (the hunting party and the war band), but the follow-up question is if that built male solidarity, why didn’t shared female activities (gathering, horticultural activities, attending births) build female solidarity in the same way?

My tentative answer would be a functional one: solidarity in male groups for hunting and warfare tends to be more crucial (e.g. you potentially may not catch your prey or be killed by another tribe if even one man in the party doesn’t work effectively with the rest of the group).

Greek hoplite tactics: image from Time Trips website (

Because of this need for male solidarity, formalised male bonding rituals seem to have been common among small-scale societies, for example, the “men’s house” reported by many anthropologists or brutal initiation rites for adolescent boys. (As far as brutal initiation rites for adolescent girls go, childbirth probably means you don’t need to invent an artificial rite).

But even if you can imagine that such male homosociality might create men’s consciousness in such early and small-scale societies, I’m mostly interested in larger, hierarchical societies. Is there really much male solidarity within those? It’s hard to see how homosociality could create a generalised feeling of men’s consciousness in such societies, because homosocial institutions didn’t include all men. Assemblies, armies, universities, hunting parties, coffee shops – these were places of sociability for the men who attended them, but not all male social classes or status groups could. The hoplite shield-wall pictured above was composed only of Spartan male citizens, not helots, for example.

Here’s where I think we need to remember that patriarchy isn’t equally created and sustained by all men. One of the common patterns in societies is homosocial bonds that link together the key regulators of a culture or subculture; such bonds can have a major impact in creating patriarchal institutions.

For example, Mary Beard’s SPQR discusses the introduction of the Roman census (pp. 106-109), which divided the army into unequal-size “centuries” with different armament, depending on wealth. These centuries were also used for voting in the first assembly, the Centuriate Assembly and thus formed an obvious way of increasing both class and gender identity for elite Roman men.

Fifth and fourth century BC Rome also shows us how the homosociality of such restricted groups of men could then come to influence the whole of society. The Twelve Tables is legislation by the patrician elite for the whole of Roman society and demonstrates the varying limits of solidarity between men. It specified that fathers had the power of life and death over their sons (4.2a) and that all women, except Vestal Virgins, were placed under male guardianship (5.1). But solidarity between (free) men was not complete: patricians and plebeians were not allowed to intermarry (11.1). And, although the surviving fragments of the Twelve Tables don’t specifically refer to this, slaves could not marry. A male slave could not legally be a “father”.

If there’s so little patrician solidarity with plebeian men that they’re not prepared to allow them to marry patrician women, it’s hard to imagine that the “ten men” who supposedly composed these tablets actually really cared whether or not freewomen of the lowest classes had guardians or day labourers in an allied city had the right to kill their sons. Instead, I suspect what we’re seeing is the effect of legal generalisation: norms originally developed by groups of upper class men to control their own families now being formalised to apply to almost all of society (with the exception of slaves). In this way, a ruling male elite who really only care about upper-class men and women can nevertheless create a society in which patriarchal institutions affect women of all classes. You don’t need wide bonds of male solidarity, embracing all men, to achieve such a society. You just need a few groups of men in key places to have a much wider patriarchal effect.



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