Towards a Critical Theory of Patriarchy: Origins of Women’s Oppression – Part 1

Towards a Critical Theory of Patriarchy: Origins of Women’s Oppression – Part 1

This is my contribution to the ongoing discussion on the Origins of Women’s Oppression and the developing “Critical Theory of Patriarchy” [1][2]

Patriarchy is a Men’s Liberation / Equality movement. Specifically, it is based on the concept of “Father’s Right’s” [3]. It is the product of and externalization of an alienated male reproductive consciousness. What is key is understanding how they are defining ‘male’ and ‘father’ – like how they define ‘love [4]. ‘Father’ in their definition means ‘male mother’; it was something entirely new. The male supremacist attempts to negate his negation from the process of human procreation, by erasing the sex difference entirely. Instead, he insists that he is not male, but an upgraded female (he is the same, only stronger, smarter, more rational etc.).

Emily Martin, “The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction” (1987), p.28-9. Images are male conceptions of the female reproductive system. Note the confusion men seem to suffer from while trying to understand where they come from.

He does this because, as you will see below, he needs to explain how it is that he can have children without actually having children.  The core tenet of men’s exculpatory ideology is that despite not being able to give birth themselves, they have somehow been designed to control our ability to do so. Whether “God told me so” or “Nature made me so” it all amounts to the same. Patriarchy is the end result of men seeking to ‘transcend nature’, that is, their biological maleness, and become makers of human history in their own right.

“The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex.”

– Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property & the State (1884)

Patriarchy is a roughly six thousand year long male identity crisis. It isn’t the case that men were unaware of their role in human reproduction (and women certainly knew, for that matter), but that they re-conceptualized ejaculation as though it were parturition. At this point in history, “men constructed a social meaning of paternity in defiance of reality and proceeded to enact the material conditions to support it” [5]. Their concrete separation from species continuity eventually came to be expressed through an abstract superiority: they were no longer of the natural world (in which women are relegated) but stood above and beyond it.

In pre-patriarchal society, both women and men each had their own cultural spheres of influence, oft cited by Indigenous Australian people, for example, as “men’s and women’s business” [6][7]. Patriarchy, however, is a struggle between men and women over a single axis of power: women’s sphere [8]. But as women cannot actually be replaced, “men’s and women’s business” persists in the form of the division between the so-called ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. The public sphere of abstract politics and male-only ‘history making’ exists in a dependent and parasitic relationship to the private realm, where women’s labour in actually reproducing the human race on a day-to-day basis is recast as the productive power of men.

Maria Mies for ROAR magazine

This is the source of the tension in the man-woman relationship: there cannot be two beginnings (two mothers). Although men’s role is necessary at all times, there is a qualitative difference between having a child and having an orgasm. It means something different to be a mother, than it does to be a father. It is impossible to equalize men and women in this way without cutting women in half. Because if men and women are equal as parents in the same way, and she decides not to materialize a human being, then he can’t ‘have’ a child either. When “Men’s Rights activists”  insist that it is women who oppress men, I can’t help but feel it is procreation that they are really thinking about.

Lundy Bancroft, Healing and Hope: Who is the Controlling One?
Drawing by N. Hartsoecker in 1695 depicting a mini human inside a sperm [13].

This is why men don’t believe that what they are doing is wrong [9]. It is why, for example, men insist that abortion is murder: because they believe they have already created life [10]. We have yet to open our eyes to the scandal that is male supremacy because we still retain faith in this belief-system [11]. The problem of sex inequality is instead reduced to a moral question: we may decry it, but it remains considered ‘apolitical’ or a matter of ‘nature’ [12]. But this isn’t a moral issue, it is a biological issue: it isn’t that men can but shouldn’t take advantage of women – it is that men cannot have children.

“Paternity is tyrannized by the abstract, it responds by tyrannizing the concrete”.

– Mary O’Brien, Reproducing the World (1983), p.15.

If this were understood, the problem of sex inequality would stop “being a question of how it could be justified and [start being] a question of how it could be ended” [14]. Instead, women’s oppression is recognized only insofar as it remains considered collateral damage from the ‘real’ struggle, sometimes known as the ‘primary contradiction’, ostensibly being that between men. But a parasitic economic system built around a “class of idlers” who direct and own the labour power of others, for example, is really an outgrowth of men’s system of immaterial filiation driving species continuity while maternal labour is stripped of all historical and creative – that is, human – qualities [15].

Likewise, in giving a social meaning to paternity in defiance of our biological reality, men recast what it means to be human as impotent. Our origins must come from above (in the heavens) or down below (from the animal ‘kingdom’), but never from ourselves, in co-operation with nature (of which we are a part). In resisting their alienation from procreative process, men’s system of Patriarchy manifests as a state of perpetual warfare: war against women, war against nature, war against life, war against reality and war against themselves. It is a historical movement that has spread like a virus via terrorism to every corner of the globe.

All this masculine generation of systems of kinship – immortality and the transcendence of female contamination – demand a blood sacrifice. O’Brien illuminates how “…the male understanding of blood – death and discontinuity – triumphs over the female understanding of blood—life and integration” (1981, p. 156).

Somer Brodribb, Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism (1992)

Marx recognized that relationships based on exploitation (where one side expands as the other retracts or gains at another’s expense) could only occur “from the moment when a division of material and mental labour appears” [16]. But neither Marx nor Engels, who insisted on explaining man’s ‘knowing’ by his ‘being’ [17], could recognize man’s “freedom from necessity” as alienation; that their problems in relation to thinking and existing is due to paternity remaining essentially Ideal. Men’s experience of reproduction is an actual, material separation, and this is the ground by which men are able to “separate reproductive consciousness from its material base and lodge it in the minds of gods, property relations or ‘pure’ Nature” [18].

We have accepted the estrangement of labor, its alienation, as a fact, and we have analyzed this fact. How, we now ask, does man come to alienate, to estrange, his labor? How is this estrangement rooted in the nature of human development? We have already gone a long way to the solution of this problem by transforming the question of the origin of private property into the question of the relation of alienated labor to the course of humanity’s development. For when one speaks of private property, one thinks of dealing with something external to man. When one speaks of labor, one is directly dealing with man himself. This new formulation of the question already contains its solution.

– Karl Marx, Estranged Labour (1844)

Labour…is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.

– Frederick Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876)

Women do not need to read between the lines of patriarchal ideology in order to figure out what they are really trying to say, we only need to listen to what they are saying. They are telling us what Patriarchy is, and what they’ve gone and done about implementing it. The history of patriarchy itself – its architecture, philosophy, religious doctrine and cultural creations – will be its own undoing. As Mary O’Brien writes, “embedded somewhere in the theory and practice of male supremacy are the seeds of its growth and inevitable decay”.

“The property-owning class and the class of the proletariat represent the same human self-alienation. But the former feels at home in this self-alienation and feels itself confirmed by it; it recognises alienation as its own instrument and in it possesses the semblance of a human existence. The latter feels itself destroyed by this alienation and sees in it its own impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.”

– Nachlass II, The Holy Family, Chapter 4, p. 132 cited by Georg Lukacs in History & Class Consciousness

The persistent dualisms which characterize Western philosophy are the product of men’s inability to mediate the contradiction that is their simultaneous inclusion and exclusion from the process of human procreation:


It is women who mediate the natural and the historical worlds though reproductive labour: this is the actual sex difference between human beings. What Patriarchy is attacking is the core basis of our social being, and human consciousness itself: women’s unification of knowing and doing. Women appropriated the productive forces of our bodily nature, in the same way we appropriated our hands with which to make tools, and gained our freedom through our ‘recognition of necessity’: we are life made self-conscious. Our cultural creations were once our objectified consciousness of this historical process, but under Patriarchy a discontinuous and paradoxical male experience stands in for humanity’s understanding of reproduction and thus, the world has been turned on its head.

Key Points:

  • Patriarchy is praxis: the unification of theory and practice. The theory is that men create life. The practice is the oppression and disenfranchisement of women.
  • Their core problem is a distorted sense of what is right and wrong.
  • The word “arche” (ἀρχή) means “beginning, origin, source of action, start” etc. Patriarchy (made of the words “pater” and “arche”) directly translates to “Father Origin” and is a parasitic form of social organization based on the belief that Fathers are somehow Mothers too. It is the product of an alienated male reproductive consciousness.
  • Maternity, in contrast to paternity, is praxis: women unify knowing and doing.
  • Things tend to manifest as their opposite. Men are arguing that despite not being physically equal to women, they can count the same as parents. In this, they insist that we are the one sex but they are superior versions of us.
  • Men seek to master women in order to master themselves; however, it is not possible to transcend nature. Men are chasing a mirage.


[1] Mary O’Brien, The Politics of Reproduction (1981), p.23-24.

[2] Claudia von Werlhof, The Failure of Modern Civilization & The Struggle for a “Deep” Alternative: On “Critical Theory of Patriarchy” as a New Paradigm (2011)

[3] It is worth noting that “Men’s Rights” groups in the Western world were originally “Father’s Rights” groups, made up of abusers who fought women for custody of the children after divorce.

[4] Lundy Bancroft at EADV event speaking on “Domestic Violence in Popular Culture” (until 3:15).

[5] Mary O’Brien, Reproducing the World: Essays in Feminist Theory (1989)

[6] Margaret Simons, The Meeting of the Waters: The Hindmarsh Island Affair (2003)


[8] Evelyn Fox Keller, The Gender/Science System: Or, Is Sex to Gender as Nature is to Science? Hypatia Vol. 2, No. 3, Feminism & Science, 1 (Autumn, 1987), pp. 37-49. [x]

[9] Lundy Bancroft, “Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry & Controlling Men” speaking for the Network For Women’s Lives.

[10] Amanda Marcotte, Blog For Choice Day: Why Misogyny? | Pandagon (Jan. 22, 2009). “What they fail to understand is that “life begins at conception” is a misogynist statement. It’s the erasure of a woman’s role in making new people, and a claim that the only effort that counts is the effort a man put into ejaculating. Abortion is horrifying because it’s a reminder that men do not actually make babies, but that women do through a 9 month process, and that if a woman chooses to interrupt that process, there will not be a baby. Which is pretty conclusive proof that men don’t make babies. Which directly contradicts the misogynist belief that only men are capable of really doing jobs worth doing.”

[11] See: Loosing Faith in Progress: Capitalist Patriarchy as an „Alchemical System“ by Claudia von Werlhof in There is an Alternative. Subsistence and Worldwide Resistance to Corporate Globalization by Veronika Bennhold6t-Thomsen, Nicholas Faraclas and Claudia von Werlhof (Eds.), London 2001, zedpress, pp 15-40.

[12] Catharine MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), pp. 54-55.

[13] Preformation theory (as pictured), flourished from the 16th until the 18th century following the Aristotelian-inspired belief system that the male of the species is the one who generates humanity. For more, see: Nancy Tuana, The Weaker Seed: The Sexist Bias of Reproductive Theory, Hypatia, Volume 3, Issue 1, Special Issue: Feminism & Science Part 2,  (1988), p.35–59

[14] Catharine MacKinnon, Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination. This essay should be required reading for all women, Radical Feminists especially.

[15] Maria Mies, “The Social Origins of the Sexual Division of Labour” in Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (1986)

[16] Karl Marx, (A Critique of) The German Ideology. (Written 1846. Published 1932)

[17] Frederick Engels, II: Dialectics – Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) [x]

[18] Mary O’Brien, “The Dialectics of Reproduction”, Women’s Studies International Quarterly, Volume 1, Issue 3, (1978), p.233-239


5 thoughts on “Towards a Critical Theory of Patriarchy: Origins of Women’s Oppression – Part 1

  1. Hi, this is so exciting. I’m repeating myself here but this is so similar to the things I have been thinking, but much more comprehensive and articulate, I am not well read at all lol(not even in feminist literature) but this is so similar to the things I thought about(conceptualization of parenthood, reproduction and such) I do not think I am unique, there are probably women all over the world and throughout the past who have thought this, non English speaking, not white, no internet access etc. I think I’ve secretly thought this since I was little like 12 years old, I remember thinking “crazy thoughts” and how the world made no sense. I’ll go read the other posts now.


  2. Also I think “morality” is a male invention. This whole thing of being “moral/good” being difficult, hard, etc, being “good” involving having to “fight your base urges aka nature” yeah ok. sounds like bs to me. Of course there’s no way to prove this but really I think female-centeredness(aka no patriarchy) is natural and therefore good, good because it’s natural, natural because it’s good etc etc. We wouldn’t “need” morality. I hope this makes sense.


  3. Awe inspiring. How much we, as men, have to unlearn, and relearn. Self-respect could be a honest start.
    Thank you.
    Antonio Damarko
    Australian-Chilean Social Scientist and Author


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