Writes Lindsey German in International Socialism:
The joy of the patriarchy theory is that it can be all things to all people. It thrives on the “vague feelings” so beloved by sections of the women’s movement, rather than on a materialist analysis. Consequently, even searching for a definition of the term can be difficult, since there are so many to choose from.
Patriarchy can for instance refer to a specific society where the father (the “patriarch”) ruled not only the women in the family but also the younger men. Such a society depended on peasant or artisan production based at least partly in the home. The patriarch’s power derived from his possession of the wealth produced and his ownership of land. But in most cases such an historically specific society is not what is meant by the term. Even the vaguest of patriarchy theorists can see that we do not live in such a peasant society today, and their concern is to deal with present day women’s oppression.
The prevalent versions of the theory take two forms.
First there are those who see patriarchy purely in ideological terms. Juliet Mitchell for instance, sees a strict demarcation: “We are dealing with two autonomous areas, the economic mode of capitalism and the ideological mode of patriarchy.”1 Sally Alexander and Barbara Taylor put similar arguments in In Defence of Patriarchy.2
Such a separation of the economic and ideological has to be queried. There is always a connection between the economic basis of a society and the ideas which arise within that society. The two cannot be seen as autonomous spheres. As Marx long ago pointed out, if you see history as just the result of the dominance of ideas or of a succession of ideas, then you cannot explain anything about the development of society. For why do some ideas dominate? And why do dominating ideas change?
If we reject the religious notion of women’s position as being ordained by a (male chauvinist) god, then we have to look for the material conditions that have led human beings to act in certain ways in relationship to the world and therefore to each other. The origins of women’s oppression have to be sought in these, just as the origins of any other social phenomenon. Then we can understand the way in which the ideas that justify that oppression have arisen and engage in a meaningful fightback.
The Complete article Theories of Patriarchy here.