Patriarchal power as a conceptual tool for gender history

The concept ‘patriarchy’ has endured decline in use by historians despite calls for its redemption. One of the main reasons is that uses of ‘patriarchy’ fall into potentially clashing categories: There are theories of ‘patriarchy’ as hierarchical authority in the family and there are theories of ‘patriarchy’ as a ubiquitous or universal structure through which men dominate women. I suggest that the first is more useful because it allows for a better historically situated understanding of patriarchal power. Yet, patriarchy as hierarchical authority is less applicable as a toolbox to understand gender history diachronically, something patriarchy as universal structure aspired to, and a project that we should not abandon along with the abandonment of patriarchy as universal structure. Instead, I argue for an understanding of patriarchal power as something that can help us think about how gendered bodies move through time. By turning more explicitly to the way in which patriarchal power appropriates the body and claims natural and universal status, it can be a potential conceptual tool in the historian’s toolbox that helps us address the challenge of diachronic history of gendered bodies without resorting to a biological essentialism.