Vulgar History Podcast
Author Interview: Angela Saini (The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality)
July 7, 2023
Hello and welcome to Vulgar History, a feminist women’s history comedy podcast. My name is Ann Foster and today I’m bringing you an interview with author Angela Saini. Angela is an award-winning journalist and author and her most recent book, The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, is a finalist for the 2023 Orwell Prize for political writing and one of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year So Far for 2023, amongst other accolades. It’s a really interesting book and I’m really happy that it’s getting the attention it’s receiving and I’m really happy that she was able to take the time to talk to me on Vulgar History about it.
As you know, throughout all the episodes of this show, especially when we look back at the international season, to me it started to feel like, “Wow, the patriarchy is everywhere just getting in the way of all these cool women, in all different time periods of ancient history and modern history. All different countries, every continent.” And I started to think of it as this thing, this all-encompassing single thing, “The Patriarchy.” And I have been wondering where it came from, and why, and how is it everywhere. And then when I came across this book that very much delves into those questions, and we’re going to talk about it in this interview that, spoiler, it’s not just one thing that spread around the world. It wasn’t like the world was this eutopia of women’s rights and then suddenly some guy came up and made it be a patriarchy, there’s so much more nuance to it than that. Angela’s science background I think really brings an interesting level to this book, she travelled around the world, and she talked to lots of people to really interrogate this concept of the patriarchy.
So, I hope you enjoy this interview with Angela Saini about her book, The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule.
Ann: So, I’m joined today by Angela Saini. Welcome, Angela!
Angela: Thank you for having me, it’s such a pleasure.
Ann: I’m really happy to talk to you because, well, first of all, I read your book and I found it so interesting but even the idea of your book, I was so intrigued because I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately with my podcast. I’ve been looking at different cultures through different years and to me, I was like, “Augh, the patriarchy, it’s always there!” And then I saw your book and I thought, “Ooh, has it been?” So, I’m curious to know, first of all, how did you get the idea to write this book?
Angela: Well, I do feel like you say, [laughs] it’s this big gaping question that’s been there for so long and it’s in the background all the time that whenever you read feminist literature or world history, the question I always had was, “How did men come to have so much power? How did it come to be this way? Why does the world look the way it does?” And I was a bit disappointed by the literature that we had available looking at that question. I think that’s partly because, well, it’s lots of reasons, but I think it’s partly because sometimes we naturalize it; we treat this as a form of oppression that has always been there, that women were the original oppressed group and that there is something maybe biological underpinning that. But I think also, we think that it must have started so long ago that there’s no way to trace that history. But with the information that we have now from archaeology, anthropology, and even fields like genetics, but also the different ways in which historians are writing about gender in the past really gives us an opportunity now to look at this history in far more detail than ever before.
Ann: Well, when you talk about looking back in the history, in your book, you talk about a lot of places you travelled to, a lot of people you talked to. Can you talk about the Turkish city that you visited? I don’t know how to pronounce the name of it, there are a lot of accents on almost every letter.
Angela: [laughs] Çatalhöyük. Yeah, it took me a few times before I got comfortable with it. So, this was one of the first places I visited, and I knew it had to be because Çatalhöyük is famous as being one of the oldest human settlements on the planet. And although this is pre-writing, this is thousands of years before the first pyramids in Egypt, thousands of years before Stonehenge, so unimaginably old, but it really does give us an insight into these sophisticated early human societies and how they organized themselves.
So, this is in southern Anatolia in Turkey, not very far from where the recent devastating earthquakes happened near the border with Syria. This site was occupied around 7,400 BCE and what you see is that thousands of people must have lived here and only a fraction of it has been uncovered, there is so much more excavating to do. But every single archaeological measure that we have available to us shows that men and women lived very similar lives; they ate pretty much the same foods, they did pretty much the same work as each other, they spent around the same amount of time indoors and outdoors, they were buried in similar ways, which of course is a very important measure of inequality because more high-status individuals tend to be buried in more elaborate ways. And there are lots and lots of female figurines from this time period. So, everything that we have tells us that gender didn’t really matter very much at Çatalhöyük.
Ann: And that’s, sort of, the narrative that in reading your book I was confronted by how I’ve been kind of trying to deprogram myself from thinking this way, that things were great, almost a Garden of Eden, everything was fine and then suddenly the patriarchy arrived and now we’ve been finding our way out of that but of course, there’s not one narrative for all of world history. Every country has been different, every society has been different. You also talk in your book about Indigenous people of North America. Can you talk about that side of things as well?
Angela: Well, it’s been interesting, I moved to the US just under two years ago and it’s been enlightening for me because I know a lot about colonial histories in Europe and in Asia; I grew up in London, my family is of Indian heritage, and I used to work in in India. I knew a lot less about the colonial impact on Indigenous societies in North America and what’s interesting is it’s very important in the intellectual history of how Western scholars understand patriarchy because when settler colonialists first came to the US in regions like New York, a territory which at that time was occupied largely by the Haudenosaunee, here was a society that was democratic, very egalitarian, in which women had an enormous amount of authority and power. Clan Mothers predate the Founding Fathers of the US by centuries. Here are societies in which women are in charge of agriculture, that are matrilineal, so descent is recognized from mother to her children rather than father to his children; the fathers are not as important as mothers within families.
This was a real shock to European settler colonialists because they had imagined that male domination was, in a biblical sense, almost hard-wired into us, that this was the divine order, that men had always been in charge, that fathers had always been at the heads of their families. So, to encounter societies in which that wasn’t the case, not just in North American Indigenous societies but all over the world, there are matrilineal societies all over the world, and they didn’t know what to make of it.
So, what was interesting is that in the middle of the 19th century, at the same time that philosophers and anthropologists were grappling with the fact that social revolutions had been happening in Europe, the French Revolution, the foundation of America, this pushing back at established hierarchies and social orders, they looked at gender inequality and they started to think for the first time, at least in western literature, “Well, how natural is this? Is there some divine order behind this or actually is it constructed? Is it something that we’ve invented?” And encountering people and societies like the Haudenosaunee and seeing how differently people might live, they had to square that circle, that their vision of how history worked was actually not how it worked for other people.
And the way they squared that circle was to say to themselves, “Well, these people are primitive. We are modern and they are primitive. In their societies, men just haven’t figured out that they should be in charge yet. We are civilized and that’s why we have the family structures that we do, that’s why we have the marriage customs that we do. That’s why women are domesticated, and men have public-facing roles because that’s what happens in civilized societies.”
So, of course, the devastating repercussion of that is that they tried to civilize Indigenous communities into patriarchy. And they did this very systematically, it’s there right throughout the literature, this way of thinking that for example in Indigenous boarding schools, young girls would be taught to be housewives, and this was very much a foundational philosophy of the United States that women should be domesticated, this is why women were denied the vote when and after the United States was founded. Boys were taught to do agricultural work and to be the heads of their households. Christianity and Christian missionaries undermined ways of organizing people and ways of marriage that had existed for centuries. It was devastating.
It was a real undermining of culture and not without resistance. Men and women in Indigenous communities really pushed back against all of this. And they found it so barbaric, the way the European settlers would treat women, just found it so strange, this idea that women would be treated as property because it was so antithetical to the way that their own families were organized. But of course, that bit-by-bit piecemeal, pushing and tearing apart of customs did have an effect. Although a lot of it was retained, so Haudenosaunee society today remains matrilineal; women still have a lot of power, and Clan Mothers still have a lot of power. So, a lot was retained but at the same time, a lot was lost.
Ann: And that’s part of what you talk about this quite a bit in your book and I just find it such an interesting thing to think about, the concept of what naturally are humans like, naturally is patriarchy what human societies would be like when evidence of what you were saying in Turkey and in Indigenous groups in the United States, they show that that’s not inherently what people are like. So, that push and pull, saying, I think you mentioned this a few times in the book but about, “If this is how people naturally are, then why are women fighting back? Why are women fighting for the vote? Why does it have to be enforced with laws if this is how people naturally are?”
Angela: Yeah, exactly. If anything is deeply rooted and biological, if this is a pattern that we follow without thinking about it, then why do we feel uncomfortable in these deeply patriarchal societies? Why do we push back? Why has there always been resistance? From the beginning, as soon as you see gender depression emerge, you see pushback immediately and you see this real desperation on the part of patriarchal elites to cast people in a way that makes them seem inferior or makes them seem subordinate.
You see this in all different types of human oppression. I’ve written books on race as well as gender and you see this all over the world that as soon as you get a dominant hierarchical group, that group inevitably, even though its power is always socially formed or politically formed, they will pretend and try to impose this idea that they are naturally more powerful, that they have some qualities that the subordinate group does not have and that’s why they have this power. And of course, patriarchal elites have been masterful at doing this over the centuries although it does happen falteringly and sometimes it does look very desperate. If you look in ancient Athens for instance, ancient Greek literature is deeply misogynistic, [laughs] it’s famously misogynistic. It’s full of this hatred of women from Pandora’s Box onwards, this idea that women are the source of evil, that they need to be controlled, they need to be curtailed somehow, that if we’re not careful, they will rise up against us. Legends of the Amazons, which again reinforces this idea that again, if we’re not careful, women will rebel. Why would you express these kinds of misogynistic fears, why would you harbour them, if you weren’t afraid that your power rested on something far more precarious than it actually did?
Ann: And that’s where too in your book you talk about, perhaps, in cultures like that, it could come from the history of slavery. So, if a lot of people, women were being taken and forced into roles in the household, then of course they would not take to that happily or naturally and there would have to be rules to enforce that. Can you talk about that side of things as well?
Angela: This idea of the domesticated woman is actually relatively recent in human history, and we first see examples of it in ancient Athens in the idea of the oikos and the polis. The polis, the public space; the oikos, the domestic space. The woman belongs to the oikos, and the man belongs to the polis. But even in early Athens, the oikos was not this kind of hidden away, cloistered area, the home was – and I’m talking upper-class homes here because poorer people would not have that division, they wouldn’t be able to afford that kind of division, everybody worked including children among less wealthy families – but in wealthier households, the oikos was a centre of production and industry, it had to be. It was part of the vibrant economy of Athens, this is where food was produced, where clothes were produced. There would be an army of people working within the home because that is where production and industry happened.
What you see very slowly is that that power that resides within the home slowly starts to cede and with it, the power of women then within wider society because they are seen to be, that is seen to be their appropriate space. And ironically, one of the big spurs for that is the advent of democracy. So here, we see democracy as today we associate it with freedom and liberty and this idea of egalitarianism. But when democracy was first introduced in ancient Athens, women didn’t have the vote, neither did slaves or certain categories of people who were not wealthy enough, not considered citizens in the same way. And what that did was essentially, move a lot of power within society out of the oikos, into the polis, so into the hands of men. So ironically, democracy was what undermined a lot of women’s authority in those early societies.
And we forget this, we forget how the levers of power are exercised in sometimes quite subtle ways but sometimes quite overt ones, in different societies at different points in time, in order for a small elite of people at the top, the men at the top, to grab power.
Ann: And then I think the example of ancient Greece is so valuable in a Western European sense because then the Romans were inspired by them and then people in all kinds of European countries were inspired by the Romans and then when England and Portugal started colonizing, then they brought that message to the places they were going. So, it really, it’s not just that this came out of nowhere, it was a message that was created and then intentionally spread.
Angela: Yeah, absolutely. What we have to remember is that there is no necessarily unbroken line between antiquity and the present. As much as Western philosophers would like to pretend that Western Europe is just a continuation of what was happening in ancient Greece and Rome, actually, it was all very deliberate. The creation of the modern nation-state in regions like western Europe, borrowed heavily from that particular period of time rather than others because it served them so well. When they created their own democracies, they also didn’t give women the vote. How convenient to be able to have a historical precedent in which women didn’t have the vote for you to then create your own societies in which women don’t have the vote, in which slaves also don’t have the vote, which only a certain group of people have the power.
We can see this so clearly in modern-day Western societies. I live in New York, you only have to go downtown, it’s full of these neoclassical buildings, just one after another, column after column after column. That is a testament to how much we have borrowed as humans from a period of time that even in its own time was seen as particularly weird and misogynistic. Ancient Athens was not typical of the world, of gender relations across the world, at that period of time. It was strange. Even neighbouring Sparta had very different rules around how men and women lived, and how boys and girls behaved. In ancient Egypt at the same time, women were working in the professions, there were women pharaohs and women rulers. So, the fact that we chose ancient Athens rather than anywhere else says a lot about the type of societies modern nation-builders were trying to create.
Ann: You mentioned in your book, and I thought this was interesting, you gave an example that I was familiar with from Star Trek where the way that people imagine what a matrilineal society would look like and in the Star Trek example, it’s a planet where women are taller than men. And it’s basically patriarchy but gender-reversed. I think that’s an example of how I think when people try to think, “What’s the opposite of patriarchy? Well, it’s women doing the exact same thing, in reverse!” But in your book, you explain that that’s not necessarily how matrilineal society would have worked.
Angela: Yeah, we see a lot more social variation between matrilineal societies. Anthropologists have catalogued at least 160. There’s only one illustration in my book, it’s a map of existing, current-day matrilineal societies and each of them are very different. There are some that worship goddesses, many that have very different ideas around marriage customs, some that are hunter-gatherer societies, others that have been very influential, wealthy, royal societies, hierarchical in their own ways but also continuing matriliny. So, every single one is different. And the further you go back into the past actually, the more social variation you see in how people live.
Patriarchies are not all the same, even they show huge variation between them, we just don’t recognize it that way because the way in which we use the word patriarchy feels so flat. It’s almost as though this is the same thing, and it exists all over the world, and it was invented at one point in time and we’re just all living with its effects now. In reality, it’s not like that, of course, you only have to look at the history of the Americas to know that’s not true. Patriarchy might be thousands of years old in Europe, but it’s only a couple of hundred years old in North America because Indigenous societies just didn’t organize themselves that way.
There are huge differences and what I wanted to do with this book is not present the case of the matrilineal society or the matrilocal society as the only alternative to patriarchy, like this kind of binary opposition, and you know, “We could live this way instead,” but just to show people that there is no natural reason why we have to live in male-dominated communities because lots of people don’t and haven’t, we have created things the way they are and we can invent something else. There’s nothing stopping us from inventing something else. I wonder if sometimes we’re constrained by this idea that there’s something natural about it, we’ve become so resigned to it, but there really isn’t.
Ann: And I think that’s an argument, in your book you mentioned that “Political leaders routinely invoke tradition and nature when clamping down on women’s rights,” so there’s this concept that is weaponized to say, “This is just how things are, so stop fighting it because that’s how things have always been. It’s nature.”
Angela: Yeah. And it’s in their interest to do that and I’ve seen that also in my previous work, looking at things like caste and race, they do exactly the same, the elites do exactly the same; they try and frame things as natural. But you see this recognition of fatalism around patriarchy. Even in feminist literature, remarkably, it still surprises me how often I will read books that will say, “It has been like this since the dawn of time and now we’re fighting back.” Or implying that gender equality is something new that we’re now inventing, and it’s never existed before. Nothing could be further from the truth, nothing.
Humans have always experimented with how they live, have always switched things around and tried different things. What makes societies now feel so monolithic and unchangeable is the fact that we have created establishments, institutions, and states that are so rigid in the way they operate, so bureaucratic, that even small amounts of change take a huge amount of effort. Especially in societies like the US where vested powerful interests have a huge role to play in lobbying, in getting people into power, pushing back against them comes even harder then. So, you feel hopeless after a while, it feels that, you know, nothing you do will ever be able to fix this, that you always seem to go back to the beginning; however, many steps you take forward, there always seems to be a few steps back. But that’s just because those in power have designed things this way, it has always been in their interest to do it.
To move forward, what I would love, and maybe I’m too radical in trying to imagine this, what I would love is that we rediscover that ability to be socially nimble, that we can somehow lose a few layers of this strangulating bureaucracy and just find a way to get things done faster, get change to where we want it more quickly.
Ann: And I think for me, what I found really eye-opening about the way you lay out everything in your book is what you were just saying that this was invented. It’s like someone, people intentionally, the people in Athens decided to do this and then the people who were inspired by them chose that. It’s not just, “Well this is how human society is; women are nurturing, and men are warriors and that’s just how society is.” Your book really breaks down why that’s not true and why that can’t be true because of the ancient cultures that you look at but also looking at the exceptions that there have always been. In every culture, there have been women who fight back where it’s like, “Oh yeah, where men are inherently better except for Elizabeth I, she was different, that’s okay. Victoria, that’s cool. But otherwise, women are not capable.” So, the argument falls apart when you start examining it, which is what your book very artfully does, really looks at these sorts of things.
Angela: Well, I just think it’s important to remember that there have always been powerful women throughout history. There is a huge and growing literature examining those women and the power that they had. But what never happens is the underlying narrative that we’ve always been patriarchal never changes, that always stays the same. All that happens is that these women become footnotes. There have been millions of women throughout history who have fought in wars, on the frontline, who have fought in wars, been part of guerrilla armies as well as standing armies defending nations. There have been queens and kings and pharaohs and had very high status, who have run societies, who have taken the reins of power, who have led in their own right, not just because they are the wives or daughters of someone important. We have loads of examples of this. Why are they always only ever footnotes to that main story? Why does our main story never change?
I think that’s what needs to happen now. We need to be able to incorporate that women’s history into bigger history and say, how is it that we have come to imagine that societies right throughout history in every part of the world have always been as gendered as they are now? That just doesn’t make any sense, there’s no reason to assume that. There’s a trajectory here and it’s complex, there’s no doubt. I wish this story was simple and I sometimes do wonder if readers would prefer it to be simple, that they want there to have been one moment 5,000 years ago in which everything changed and now we’re living with the effects of it and that’s just not how it is. This is a slow grift depending on where you are in the world, and it is still happening. The origins of patriarchy are something we are still living through because people are still reasserting it, still recreating it. Look at Iran, look at Afghanistan; here are societies in which patriarchy is being reasserted and recreated for the 21st century, not reaching back into some imagined past and then, you know, “This is how we’re supposed to be.” They are making it anew; they’re creating this fresh and that’s the way I think we need to imagine this.
Ann: Just as a final thing, at the very, very end of your book, I think it’s the end of your epilogue where you were kind of talking about… You say, “I’m left wondering if the radical societies we create now could someday form the basis of tomorrow’s habits and customs?” And I find that a hopeful note to end your book on, thinking, “We’re not powerless in this situation.” I mean, societies, there’s always been, even within a culture, not everyone in that culture accepts that culture and acts the same way. So, just becoming aware of it, I find a useful way to think about things that perhaps we could find a new way or people in the future could look back and choose a different inspiration.
When you were writing the book, were you thinking, I don’t know, were there points where you just thought, “This is a depressing thesis, how am I going to… [laughs] How am I going to find hope in this story?”
Angela: I actually found it very optimistic throughout because every time I expected to see no resistance or things were really bad, I found examples of people pushing back, always, in every single society, and of things being more precarious than we imagine, of negotiation within marriages, within families, but also within societies between people. The story that emerges is one of social conflict, eternal social conflict almost. Different people have different ideas of how we should live, there is no one way. As much as we might fall back on this aphorism that everybody wants an equal society, what does equal actually mean? What do we actually think that means?
It means different things to different people and there are many people in society who don’t really want an equal society, they just want a bit more power for themselves ultimately, because they haven’t had it historically. And is that an equal society or is that just a redistribution of power? What would a truly equal society look like? One in which nobody has more power than everybody else, one in which there are no hierarchies, in which nobody is vulnerable, nobody has to need anything or want anything because society provides for them, and cares for them, and looks after them. We’re not going to get to that kind of society just by taking turns to elevate groups of people. We’re only going to get there if we have really wide scale change in how we think about our values, the kind of world we want to live in, and also through love.
We’ve kind of forgotten that this is also an essential human quality. The fact that we, as a species, are able to care for others, even for those who we’re not related to, is quite remarkable, it is such an important part of who we are, that we can have empathy with someone on the other side of the world in a warzone or suffering hunger and we can want to help them. That is the quality within ourselves that we need to reclaim if we’re going to build the, kind of, truly equal society.
Ann: Well, thank you so, so much for joining me today, I think your book is so… Well, you were saying, it’s filling a gap in the scholarly record. There wasn’t a book like this before that I’ve encountered, so I’m really grateful that it exists and thank you so much for joining me today.
Angela: Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.
So again, the book that we were talking about is Angela Saini’s book The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, which should be available everywhere, all around the world, all different countries. And if you want to keep up with her and her work, where she is, and where she’ll be appearing doing talk and things, she has a website which is AngelaSaini.co.uk.
My name is Ann Foster. I don’t know if you’ve been hearing, my cat Hepburn has been really enthusiastic while I’m recording this introduction and extro. Anyway, you can keep up with me on Instagram @VulgarHistoryPod, on TikTok @VulgarHistory. If you go to VulgarHistory.com as well, there are links there to the store and you can also look there, we’ve got transcripts rolling in from Aveline Malek at The Wordary. So, if you prefer to read or after you’ve heard a podcast you want to go back and read it in words, you can find that all on VulgarHistory.com. I also have a Patreon at Patreon.com/AnnFosterWriter where if you subscribe you can get access to early and ad-free versions of all episodes of Vulgar History.
Anyway, I hope you’re all doing really well, I hope the patriarchy is not getting in your way too much today and I’ll talk to you all next time. Until next time, keep your pants on and your tits out!
Vulgar History is hosted, written, and researched by Ann Foster and edited by Cristina Lumague.
Transcribed by Aveline Malek at TheWordary.com
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