It is now almost universally accepted in western countries that all societies prior to the modern age were patriarchies. It is also often believed, by both men and women, that modern western countries are still patriarchies. This may seem like a reasonable presumption on the surface, after all, men did run all societies in the past didn’t they? Not so much.
This is the first in a series of articles that will deal with different aspects of claims of patriarchy and detail different societies in different eras. They will detail how regarding these societies as patriarchies is, at best, a gross over-simplification. In reality societies have generally constrained both men and women, forcing them in to certain roles to serve the society itself.
The 16th century was a time of powerful female rulers in Western Europe. Queen Elizabeth ruled for what amounts to the second half of the 16th century. She was no figurehead either. She was the absolute ruler of England and Ireland (Britain would not arise as a state until generations later). Legally she was a ‘Queen Regnant’, meaning that she ruled in her own right and was not a ‘Queen Consort’ who is generally the wife of a King.
While it is true that the English practiced Male-preference primogeniture (preferencing inheritance by the first born son over other sons and all daughters) this did not stop many women inheriting and retaining thrones in their own right around this time.
Elizabeth I is well known throughout the English speaking world and is generally remembered as an effective leader who reformed the English state and built up a strong navy in the face of external military threats. Others show that while the early years of her reign were generally prosperous this was not so later on. What all of these sources agree on was that Elizabeth was the queen in her own right. The decisions made were made by her. It should be clear from this that she was the leader of the English and Irish states. She was no figure head.
What is generally not as well known is that there were several contemporary female monarchs in the British Isles. Immediately proceeding Elizabeth I as Queen of England and Ireland was Queen Mary I, her half sister. Queen Mary I is also known as ‘Bloody Mary’ as she had a habit of ordering the death of her subjects (usually by burning at the stake) when they didn’t agree with her religious views. Mary I didn’t reign for long (thankfully, given her penchant for violence) but was every bit as much in charge of England and Ireland as Elizabeth would be after her. Each effectively changed the national religion (Christian denomination) while reigning.
It is worth noting that Mary I’s main competition for control of England and Ireland was another woman – Lady Jane Grey. In the end Mary made sure that Jane’s head ended up rolling around in a basket rather than wearing a crown.
When Mary I married the terms of the marriage contract made her and her foreign husband joint rulers of England. He could not act without her consent. It is clear that the English nobility trusted an English woman to rule more than a foreign man. Nationality trumps gender. When Mary died in 1558 the crown did not remain with her foreign husband but rather went to her English half sister Elizabeth I. Patriarchy indeed.
To the north of England was Scotland, which was ruled by a Queen Regnant from 1542 to 1567. She is generally known as Mary Queen of Scots in English, probably to distinguish her from Mary I who was her contemporary. Her rule of Scotland overlaps that of both Mary I and Elizabeth I. The entirety of the British Isles was ruled over by female monarchs from 1553 to 1567. This period would likely have gone on much longer except that Elizabeth imprisoned and eventually executed Mary Queen of Scots after she fled south seeking Elizabeth’s protection. Elizabeth apparently viewed Mary Queen of Scots as a potential rival since Mary was her niece. Mary Queen of Scots was fleeing south to England as she was suspected, then and now, of being a tacit accomplice in the brutal murder of her second husband.
Mary Queen of Scots was an absentee monarch during her early life, having spent her youth in France. Scotland was left in the hands of another woman, her mother, Mary of Guise.
So during this period we had Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots vying for power across the British Isles. It should be clear that this was no patriarchy. These women were no ones puppets – those that were successful ruled over England, Scotland and Ireland as ruthlessly and authoritatively as any male ruler. They also demonstrated that they were quite prepared to order the torture and execution of their enemies or those they perceived as enemies. These historical events and others that occurred in many other parts of the world throughout history demonstrate that these women were not helpless pawns of the patriarchy. They were powerful monarchs and in a very real sense, they were the law in their respective countries.
Patriarchy means literally rule by fathers but it is generally intended to mean rule by men. Such a society, one in which rule was mandated by men, would not permit female rulers. Women would simply not find their way in to positions of power. Even a cursory view of history reveals that female rulers, while fairly uncommon, feature across a wide variety of societies and eras. The upshot here is that there was no patriarchy – it was a myth. The reality is that societies shape social expectations of men and women to fit their own needs. In many cases, as have been noted by men’s rights activists, men were considered disposable by society. In particular those men who were not members of the ruling class were considered disposable.
A patriarchy would not accept any female rulers by definition. The existence of even a single female ruler in a society negates the claim that that society was a patriarchy. The claim that most of human history was one continuous patriarchy is disingenuous at best.