cover image The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality

The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality

Angela Saini. Beacon, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8070-1454-7

Patriarchy is not an irresistible monolith, but rather an unstable power structure that requires constant maintenance, according to this wide-ranging and incisive study. Science journalist Saini (Superior) surveys the ancient Nairs, “a powerful caste-based community that... organiz[ed] itself along matrilineal lines” in present-day India, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy of tribal nations in North America, in which women held important leadership roles, revealing that both societies underwent a long, partial, and contested shift in gender norms as a result of Western colonialism. Noting that 18th- and 19th-century Westerners looked to Bronze Age Greece for “validation of the unequal societies they were choosing to build,” Saini suggests that gender inequality emerged with the rise of the first states, which required a stable population to defend and enrich them and used gender roles as one method to enforce order: “The moment gender becomes salient is when it becomes an organizing principle.” Elsewhere, she examines feminist reforms in the former Soviet Union and the imposition of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran and Afghanistan to underscore that inequity and egalitarianism are in constant conflict. Encouraging feminists to look to the past for inspiration, Saini makes a persuasive case that patriarchy is more vulnerable to change than it appears. It’s a game changer. (Feb.)