book review: "the creation of patriarchy"

a book review

The Creation of Patriarchy

by Gerda Lerner

Women have for millennia participated in the process of their own subordination because they have been psychologically shaped so as to internalize the idea of their own inferiority.

Gerda Lerner
The Creation of Patriarchy


1/Premise + Purpose

The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) explores the historical process of the establishment of the patriarchal thought-system that nearly all of us have been born into.

Author Gerda Lerner takes us back to the earliest seeds of patriarchy, to our prehistoric ancestors, and painstakingly traces the sometimes subtle (and sometimes decidedly not) developments in the stability of the human species, our social customs, and our religious beliefs ... all of which accumulated over the course of two and a half millennia to form the patriarchal system we all know and love today.

Lerner's point is that, contrary to what the modern 'goddess culture' would like to believe, there was never a point in human history in which matriarchy was the predominant societal structure. Matrilineal and matrilocal kinship, on the other hand, were prevalent before the transition to patrilineality, patrilocality, and, ultimately, patriarchy.

Lerner's purpose in writing this book is to show how that transition unfolded over the course of two and a half thousand years, and that there was never a point at which patriarchy, as we know it today, was 'inevitable' or 'natural'. Instead, patriarchy was systematically and intentionally created through the choices of hundreds of generations of humans (most of them male).

2/Reading Experience

This book was a really challenging read for me. I don't mean that I found the ideas challenging to my beliefs, but rather that the actual reading of this book was challenging. This is a dense book. A good portion of the first several chapters is Lerner's analysis of existing literature on the topic at hand. While I appreciate her thoroughness, the first half or more of the book reads like an academic text.

Because of the dryness and denseness of the first half of the book, I slogged through it. It was definitely not a casual read that I could just pick up any time of day or that I could read a chapter or two of at a time. I found that I had to be in the right frame of mind, with a dedicated amount of time to sit and focus, to be able to make progress with this book.

This book was also ... depressing. Some of the books on this topic that I've read have a quality of disbelief, as in, in reading them my mind is blown by the things I don't know or the way our society or our species 'work'. Often these books will spark a sense of outrage, a sense of "I've got to help change this!" But this book, at least the first half of it, is just unrelenting. It is chapter upon chapter of new attitudes of women's inferiority, new customs + regulations enforcing women's subjugation. It never stops. And that's our history as a species. Oof — I'm telling you, it'll get you down.

With all of that said, if you can make it through the first 180 pages of this book, the last fifty are well worth the slog to get there. This book finishes strong! It may have taken me two and a half weeks to get through the first half of this book, but it only took me a weekend to fly through the rest of it.

It starts picking up momentum a little over halfway through the book with Chapter 8 ("The Patriarchs") and all the threads start coming together in Chapters 9 + 10 ("The Covenant" + "Symbols", respectively), all leading into the final chapter ("The Creation of Patriarchy") when Lerner brings it all home with practical application and meaning for our lives as modern women.

3/Who This Book Is For

Let me start by saying this: This book is probably not for the woman who is looking for a casual read on the topic of womanhood, or for the woman who is in the early stages of her exploration of womanhood.

If you are well underway into your personal exploratory journey, if you have more than just a passing interest in the topic, if you are committed to learning (as in, really studying) the topic of womanhood, then this book would be a strong addition to your personal library.

I would also add that I think this book would be most influential for the woman who would not consider herself a traditionalist when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Or, at least, perhaps, for the traditionalist woman who is one of the rare people who can entertain an idea that does not corroborate her own beliefs.

4/Favorite Quotes

It is sex which determines that women should be child-bearers, it is the sex-gender system which assures that they should be child-rearers.

Abandoning the search for an empowering past — the search for matriarchy — is the first step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past of women will not emancipate women in the present and the future.

As men's class positions became consolidated and defined by their relationship to property and the means of production, the class position of women became defined by their sexual relationships.

The consequences of Adam and Eve's transgression fall with uneven weight upon the woman. The consequence of sexual knowledge is to sever female sexuality from procreation. God puts enmity between the snake [historically associated with the fertility goddess] and the woman... Thus by God's command, the free and open sexuality of the fertility-goddess was to be forbidden to fallen woman. The way her sexuality was to find expression was in motherhood.

Women have always experienced the reality of self and community, known it, and shared it with each other. Yet, living in a world in which they are devalued, their experience bears the stigma of insignificance. Thus they have learned to mistrust their own experience and devalue it.

The social cost of having excluded women from the human enterprise of constructing abstract thought has never been reckoned. We can begin to understand the cost of it to thinking women when we accurately name what was done to us and describe, no matter how painful it may be, the ways in which we have participated in the enterprise. We have long known that rape has been a way of terrorizing us and keeping us in subjection. Now we also know that we have participated, although unwittingly, in the rape of our minds.

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If you're looking for something similar, try ...

When God Was a Woman (1976) by Merlin Stone