Angela Saini: How Men Came to Rule
When you go to the Neolithic, you start to realise that the gendered ideas that we have about each other did not exist then. All of that came later. Where you really start to see the first roots of gendered oppression is with the development of the state.
Has the patriarchy always prevailed? We tend to see gendered oppression as a universal truth, but in her radical book, The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, Angela Saini argues that the history of this deep-rooted hierarchy is a little more complicated…
In conversation with UNSW Sydney legal expert Rosalind Dixon, journalist Angela Saini takes us on a journey through time, tracing back through the complex history of the patriarchy – from its origins in the world's earliest human settlements to its global spread across diverse societies. Drawing on the latest research findings in science, archaeology, and cultural studies, Saini dismantles the status quo to reveal how the patriarchy varies from country to country, and culture to culture.
Embrace a radical vision for tomorrow with Angela Saini as she looks to a future emancipated from the shackles of inequality.
Rosalind Dixon: Good evening and welcome to tonight's event, Angela Saini, How Men Came to Rule, presented by UNSW Centre for Ideas. My name is Rosalind Dixon, I'm a Professor at the Faculty of Law & Justice here at UNSW, and it's my great pleasure and privilege to be in conversation with Angela.
But before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge that we're here on Bidjigal land and pay respect to elders, past, present, and emerging. And to lend my voice to the cause of First Nation peoples at Uluru, for structural change to the Constitution, to entrench a First Nations Voice to Parliament.
There's going to be a lot more conversation about that topic as we lead into a referendum later this year, but tonight we're here to talk about patriarchy with Angela Saini, because her book is an important new intervention in this debate. It helps us understand the issues and either inspires or makes us despair.
As I was telling others, it's certainly a guide to understanding Ken and the Barbie movie. But before we begin, I want to introduce Angela. She's well known in the UK to audiences there for her radio and television programs because she's a British journalist who has lived in the UK for most of her life and is now based in New York.
Her writing has appeared in the leading popular and academic scientific outlets, including National Geographic, New Scientist and Wired. And prior to writing this important new book on the patriarchs, Angela was an author of two important books, Superior, The Return of Race Science, and Inferior, How Science Got Women wrong.
Her work has been recognized in the Orwell Prize for political writing, it's been translated into 14 languages and is on reading lists around the world. Angela is also the founder and chair of Challenging Pseudoscience at the Royal Institution and researches in campaigns around issues of misinformation and disinformation, which of course we'll talk about this evening.
Angela, thanks for joining us.
Angela Saini: Thank you so much for having me.
Rosalind Dixon: So patriarchy, it's a big word. It means different things to different people. What do you understand by the word patriarchy?
Angela Saini: You're right that it is a very big monolithic phrase and I feel that sometimes it feels too abstract, and that's why partly it's fallen out of favour in academic feminist circles for exactly that reason, is because what does it exactly mean?
How do you capture all the myriad different experiences of women around the world, the different ways in which oppression works, and distill it into one simple thing. So in this book, why I don't call it the origins of patriarchy, why I don't use that phrase in that same monolithic way is because I do believe that the experiences of women, while they may have something in common around the world, and there are threads that you can draw, it does differ hugely.
So I'd prefer to think about, not patriarchy as such, but patriarchies. That there were different forms that gendered oppression takes, and they're dependent on the geographical and temporal context of those places.
Rosalind Dixon: So I love it. Page 239, you express it this way, you say, “What we call patriarchy can be thought of as a set of factors in an ongoing conflict around gender. It's about people looking to assert dominance over others through their own appeals to nature, history, tradition, and the divine. Their claims are invented, adjusted, embellished, and reinvented all the time, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing”.
It's a beautiful definition. It's hard to capture to a 10-year-old audience, but that's the beauty of this book. So one of the interesting starting points for the book is, is patriarchy is a kind of version of what you just gave us inevitable, and you go back to a set of ideas and a literature that was prevalent mid century in which there was a claim that it was.
So, is it inevitable? What does the book say about that?
Angela Saini: No, definitely not. I mean, I say exactly the opposite.
Rosalind Dixon: Exactly.
Angela Saini: Patriarchy is something that we've invented and we're still working at. And while it may have deep roots, in some cultures, in some places in the world, it has very shallow roots in others.
And it's still being reinvented and reasserted, wherever you look in the world. When you look at the abortion rights battle in the US and Poland, you look at what's happening in Afghanistan or Iran, or even what's happening in Australia, the ongoing tussle about the place of women, the role of women in society.
That is patriarchy is still trying to reassert itself, reinvent itself for the 21st century. So when we talk about origins of male domination, we are still living in those origins now.
Rosalind Dixon: So one of the things that you say which I love is that, people often say we have to explain matrilineal societies as if they're a puzzle or matrilocality living with women's families as a puzzle.
And you say, well, shouldn't we reverse it and say isn't patriarchy or patrilineal reality the puzzle? And you tell in this really rich detail the stories of non-patrilineal, non-patriarchal societies and the evolutionary stories. So let's start with apes. Planet of the Apes features early on, although when you do the next edition, I really do encourage you to talk about Ken and Barbie.
But tell us about apes. I mean, the stories you tell about bonobos are so fascinating and really eye-opening to us given the genetic similarity between humans and many monkey species. So tell us about bonobos.
Angela Saini: I wasn't going to put this in the book at all, because I just assumed that most people would not still believe that patriarchy has its roots in something biological.
I thought that we were beyond that now, that nobody sincerely, genuinely believes that it is physical or biological differences between men and women that have led to what we have. But then I spoke to people, and so many people do still. And even in the feminist literature, often there's a naturalisation of this, that there is something basic that has always been there, that has always made women subordinate to men or always made men the oppressors.
And actually, that's a really easy thing to debunk in lots of different ways. So you were talking about primates. If we look at other primates, male domination, rule of the father, which is what patriarchy means. Literally, it's defined as rule of the father, is almost unheard of among other primates.
Generally, kin relationships, so that's relationships between children and their parents are organised through mothers rather than fathers. So that already, this idea that the father rules over his family, that he is the primary kind of head of the household, is almost unheard of in other species. But also in the two closest species to us genetically, chimps and bonobos.
Chimps are male-dominated, and so there's a lot of violence between males who want to move up the hierarchies. Bonobos equally as close to us, possibly even more close to us than chimps, that's still an argument that's happening among biologists, are matriarchal, clearly matriarchal. And we've known that for a while.
In fact, I've seen for myself when I was writing my previous book, Inferior, I went to San Diego Zoo. I was there with the leading primate researcher. And just when I got there, a male had been injured by an older female in the group so viciously that he was cowering in the corner on one side.
I have a picture of it. He was kind of hiding because he seemed to be scared that it might happen again. And this is normal, this isn't unheard of.
Rosalind Dixon: And you say it's because he lacked a female protector?
Angela Saini: Yeah, so this is species in which older females tend to be the dominant ones.
And the males gain access to females, gain protection, gain food, access to food sources through their mothers, through the other females that they know. And because this bonobo happened to be nursery-reared, he didn't have that protection. He very quickly became kind of a victim within that society. But we've known for a while that bonobos are female-dominated.
It has taken a weirdly long time for primatologists to fully accept that. And in fact one of the primatologists I interviewed for the this book, Frans de Waal, he has written about how he would go to conferences and people just wouldn't believe him that they would say, what's wrong with these males?
Well, why are they not in charge? As though that should be the natural role of things.
Rosalind Dixon: The default is the assumption that primates must be male-dominated.
Angela Saini: Yeah.
Rosalind Dixon: And that had to be explained.
Angela Saini: Yeah.
Rosalind Dixon: And we're going to talk about the role of individual scientists, but it's a great kind of account and that you were there to both watch and talk to people.
You also have these wonderful anthropological accounts about societies, so small societies and parts of the world that have been matrilineal, or matrilocal, or both. So starting in India, where you tell a story both from Kerala and from the Khasi Hills of matrilineal societies going back a long way.
We're going to tell a story also about how they changed. But tell us about the moment where they weren't undergoing, if you like, patriarchal transition, but were matrilineal and egalitarian.
Angela Saini: So one thing I have to stress here is that there is not just two ways of existing. And I think when I was watching the Barbie movie, and I don't want to give any spoilers to anyone, but it kind of implies that either a society is patriarchal or it's matriarchal.
And that binary way of framing human existence is a very European one. This idea that there is no-
Rosalind Dixon: Egalitarian possibility.
Angela Saini: Complexity, yeah, there's nothing in between. But actually when you look at real life matrilineal societies of which there are many, anthropologists have documented-
Rosalind Dixon: You have this map.
Angela Saini: At least 160. It's the only illustration in the book is a map of these societies. And I'm still surprised how ordinary people when they look at that can't believe that these societies exist because they just assume that patriarchy is universal. That this is the only way that people live.
Real-life matrilineal societies all over the Americas, an entire belt across Africa, a matrilineal belt, and right across Asia, lots of matrilineal societies, each of them are slightly different from each other. And what they represent is the social diversity that would have existed even more in the past before the spread of patriarchal, kind of this flattening, homogeneous, patriarchal systems before they were spread by successive empires.
So every single one is different. So the one in Kerala, for instance, the Nairs in Kerala, lived in these beautiful huge Tharavads, these big family households, extended family households in which the senior eldest female would be kind of the head of the household. The uncle would be the most important man in that household.
Fathers were relatively peripheral to the family, it was more uncles and the eldest woman. And this wasn't a tribal society. This was a society that was royal. It had a royal family, it was incredibly influential and wealthy. So influential that to this day, Kerala still has very high rates of female education and literacy.
And a lot of this is ascribed to the fact that within the Nair community in Kerala, the matrilineal one, and that was a big thing for the families that they would educate their daughters. It was seen as incredibly important because they would inherit the property.
Rosalind Dixon: There's a beautiful image in the book of this old woman in Kerala sitting, reading the paper, having a smoke and just being totally unaware of how unusual her literacy and situation is in the broader sweep of global history but also Indian history.
And it's a beautiful image of that. And you do tell the story so richly and the account is one in which women-centred households there's a lot of sexual freedom. They have multiple partners. Often the children live with the mum and and the dad comes in and out, but it's, as you say, male relatives that sustain the family.
Completely different way of thinking about family than today. I thought one of the things that was so beautiful about the book is it tells these histories that are layered. So you tell the history of Seneca Falls where we have really famous American women's rights activism. But underneath that is this much longer Native American history of strong women and women playing an egalitarian role in agriculture and community.
Tell us the story about Native American women, and we're gonna go back to that diorama that distorts it. But the story of those strong Native American women and their role in their own societies in the 1600s, well before Seneca Falls on that same land.
Angela Saini: I think we still live under this myth that gender equality is some kind of 20th century invention and that Europe is the root of that invention.
When European settlers started to populate the United States, so I live in New York now. If you go a little bit upstate from the city, you hit Seneca Falls, which is this little town that is known popularly as the birthplace of women's rights activism in the US. Because in 1848 that's where the first Women's Rights Convention was held.
So this is a huge important event that brought together white, middle class Christian women to push for suffrage, push for emancipation and greater rights for women. But what we are not told, or if you go to Seneca Falls now, there are some-
Rosalind Dixon: There are some plaques, yeah.
Angela Saini: New things that have been introduced. But what for a long time people weren't informed is that in 1590, so this is hundreds of years before the United States was even founded, in Seneca Falls, that same region, Haudenosaunee women, indigenous women from that region came together to demand peace between their nations.
And the reason they were able to do that was because women in Haudenosaunee, or what was then known in the 19th century as Iroquois society, were incredibly powerful. Women ran agriculture, clan mothers still run local government among Haudenosaunee people. This is a matrilineal society so descent was entirely recognised through mothers and grandmothers not through fathers.
So people would know their family history only through the female line. Now in the 19th century when European missionaries and ethnologists and philosophers encountered this society in the United States, a country that had framed itself as being at the cutting edge of modernity. The most equal society that had ever been invented, here was a place where all men were considered equal.
And yet, here was another society much older in which they already had this egalitarianism that was already offering women far more rights than women in the US had. This idea of women not having agency or not having authority was just unheard of in society. So how do they reconcile them?
And that is interesting and incredibly important for our understanding of patriarchy and the way in which we've framed patriarchy since. Because the way they squared that circle Western observers was to say, that they were primitive that existing matrilineal societies were not modern like they were. They were remnants of some long gone past and that if they were to become civilised in their imagination civilised, then they would be patriarchal.
Because naturally men would understand that they would have to take charge if they were to be a civilised society. So what did they do? They tried to civilise them into patriarchy. They took young children away from their families and taught boys to do agricultural work and girls to be housewives.
They told mothers, you have to name your children after the father. There was such resistance here on the part of men and women in Haudenosaunee society against these kind of impositions. In indigenous societies across North America, women were taken out of trades. The European settlers would not do trade with women, they would only do it with the men.
So this authority legally and informally was taken away from women under the name of civilisation modernity. And that is how patriarchy was introduced to that continent. So we have to understand that yes, in Europe patriarchy is 1,000s of years old. It has its roots in ancient Mesopotamia and the development of the state.
But in other parts of the world like North America, parts of Asia, Africa, it's within living memory. There are people who can still remember the introduction of patriarchy to their societies.
Rosalind Dixon: And there's a real critique in the book of the Enlightenment Project in that sense of modernity as bringing patriarchy rather than the other way around.
I love what you say about freedom. Say on page 178, quoting Orlando Patterson, we recognise freedom as something distinct only because so many people in history have had to live in the state of not having it at all. And that's part of how that transformation happened for the worse in the United States.
But go back to that moment of the kind of, if you like the civilisation mission which did so much damage to indigenous communities around the world. I mean, here it's layers of the Stolen Generation and genocide's past, but you tell that story so powerfully. But colonialism is a big part of the story you tell in this book.
So you say, a big part of the origins of patriarchy is in a sense of colonial decision to obscure egalitarian female societal trends, but also to dominate and remove the power of women in various contexts and you give a sort of a series of reasons for that. But is it right to read the book as a deep critique of the colonial project and its influence in terms of a whole range of outcomes but gender, perhaps central in this book?
Angela Saini: Yeah, I think there are lots of overlapping systems of oppression that feed into each other, that borrow from each other. And when I talk about colonialism, I'm not just talking about European colonialism. That is the most recent manifestation of the development and spread of patriarchy, but also prior empires.
The Mongol Empire and the Greek and Roman empires, they also spread their ideas about gender and religion as well. The spread of certain religious establishments and their ideas about what is appropriate about gender. What I wanted to do with this book is go right back to the beginning.
So to do that, you have to go even further back than all of this. You have to go back to the Neolithic. When you go to the Neolithic, you very quickly start to realise that the gendered ideas that we have about each other did not exist then, which is incredibly difficult thing to get your head around to realise that the way that we think about each other now, the hierarchies and social systems, even the idea of the nuclear family did not necessarily exist then.
All of that came later. Where you really start to see the first roots of gendered oppression is with the development of the state. So this is in regions like ancient Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent. This is the first time that social elites have to start taking an interest in what happens in the family.
For understandable reasons, if you're trying to create a state, your number one preoccupation is population. How do you get people to stay there? How do you get them to produce a surplus for you? How do you get them to be so loyal to you that they will defend the state and give up their lives if necessary, for the state?
And so gradually what you see in regions like Asian Mesopotamia is that the state starts to categorise people, but in the process of that categorisation also starts to define the type of work that is appropriate for them. So this is not just about gender, this is also about social hierarchy, the division of labour.
And then also starts to put pressure on young women to have as many children as possible and young men to fight and defend the state. So that binary condition, that idea that a woman's primary job or young woman's primary job is as a producer of people. And a young man's primary job is the defender of the state.
You can see that in the modern state, still. The modern patriarchal state still works along those lines.
Rosalind Dixon: We talk about militarism and naturalism as these kinds of coexisting ideologies that underpin so much of where you trace the origins of patriarchy. I found it fascinating when you say it's still there.
You talk about Hungary, which is a region I'm interested in as a comparative constitutional lawyer and you talk about the sort of gender ideology there, which is codetermined with the sort of fascist anti democratic rise of certain kinds of liberal populism and say that in a sense, it's that sense of natalist commitment to reversing a declining population in Hungary that is one strand of many in that gender ideology and the the kind of rise of traditional patriarchal discourse, is that right?
Angela Saini: Absolutely, it's an exactly right reading and you see it everywhere where birth rates are falling, and governments get nervous. And whether this isn't a liberal authoritarian society or a very liberal democratic one. It doesn't really make any difference. It's still the fundamental concern of the state to make sure that there are enough young people to keep the state going.
Rosalind Dixon: But of course that's linked to racism and colonialism because another solution is always migration and that connects to your own book and your other work. But in terms of the militaristic dimension, you tell a number of really powerful stories. One of which is the sort of Khrushchev Nixon confrontation, am I getting that right?
Angela Saini: Yeah.
Rosalind Dixon: And it what's called the Kitchen Debate in the sort of fight about which country was doing better at winning the Cold War linked to natalism actually. I thought that was a brilliant sort of drawing of that part of history. But on the military side, I mean, there's pros and cons.
So the pro that you tell is the story of when women were enlisted in various contexts and countries and served that gender relations never went back. And, of course, there's a racial analogue African Americans served in World War II and Truman desegregated the armed forces. And then their pressure was to make sure that carried over into ordinary civilian life.
So on the one hand, the military has been an equaliser for women at various times. But ultimately, I think the story you tell is that the connection between state power and militarism has been one that has sustained and propagated patriarchy.
Angela Saini: Yeah, well, it depends how it happens.
Women have always fought. There have always been women in war, there have always been female military leaders on every continent on the planet. So we have to understand that it's the way that we organise our military, and the roles that we assign to people. So in modern day Russia, for instance, just recently, the Russian government, because they don't have enough people enlisting in order to sustain the offensive in Ukraine, they put out an advertising campaign, which told young men, ‘join the army, be a man’.
That was a slogan that they used, ‘be a man’, which is very interesting. Because what it does then is appeal to this idea of masculinity being tied to warfare. At the same time, just a year ago, the Russian government announced that any woman who has more than 10 children will be awarded a Mother Heroine medal.
So this is like a state honour, akin to a military medal, but for having lots of children. So this is something for women, the analog for women. So that's a very gendered way of resolving the military demands now that the state has. Which is essentially saying, women, you produce more soldiers, and men, you become those soldiers.
But it doesn't have to be that way. You could just as easily say, women, join the army.
Rosalind Dixon: But isn't that what the Ukrainians are doing? I mean.
Angela Saini: Yeah. Exactly, that is what they're doing. So women are enlisting in Ukraine.
Rosalind Dixon: Yeah.
Angela Saini: And women are also enlisting in Russia.
Rosalind Dixon: But more in the Ukraine.
Angela Saini: Relatively speaking.
Rosalind Dixon: Yeah.
Angela Saini: Relatively, and there is this idea that women are also part of the war effort. So it's about how it's framed and how that division of labour is set up, because there's absolutely nothing to say that women can't also be fighting.
The problem is that if they're fighting, then they're not necessarily producing more children.
Rosalind Dixon: So before we get to the story about contingency and change, which is such a deep thread of the book, you'd not only talk about how colonialism distorted egalitarian or matrilineal tradition, but also how it obscured it.
So you've told this wonderful part of the history from Seneca Falls, but tell us about the diorama and the distortion, how we've obscured the history of women's power and contribution in how we've told history and the way we tell history really matters.
Angela Saini: I do think that episode in Seneca Falls is incredibly important, because what we don't realise is that encounter with the Iroquois, with the Haudenosaunee, informed not just the way that women's rights activists thought about their struggles in America.
On the one hand, they thought, wow, patriarchy does not go back into the midst of time, because here are other societies that don't live this way, we can draw inspiration from them. On the other hand, they also thought, well, they belong to the past, that we are a modern society, so how do we build our ideas of egalitarianism around this?
And other ethnologists and philosophers then borrowed from those findings, what they were learning at the time, including Friedrich Engels. So when he was writing about the family in the state, he borrowed hugely from what had been written about the Haudenosaunee, if you read his writings. I mean, it's a huge part of his work.
And it's the reason he then starts to frame this all as humans were all matriarchal bonds, and then there was this world historical defeat of women, and then we all became patriarchal. So there is this kind of inevitability to history that you start off one way and then things necessarily go in one direction
Rosalind Dixon: Until there’s revolution though.
Angela Saini: Until there’s revolution.
Yeah, I mean, that's what they're saying is that we don't go back to the beginning, but we rediscover something. And the problem with that is that history doesn't work that way. People create the societies that work for them at the time, or that those in power impose on people at the time.
Haudenosaunee people are not remnants of the past, they are modern people too. They created a society that happened to work for them just like other matrilineal societies around the world. There isn't some kind of inevitable reason why societies ever need to be patriarchy.
Rosalind Dixon: One way or the other.
Angela Saini: But that idea from the 19th century has left such a deep imprint on so many of us. And other feminist thought as well, I think, that it's so hard for us to escape that. We're stuck in this idea that we cannot have civilisation, we can't have industrialised society without patriarchy, which is just nonsense.
We can build any society that we want, and what matrilineal societies prove to us is that we can.
Rosalind Dixon: But the stories we tell matters, so these book matters, but so do all the other stories. I mean, you have an image of this diorama that's in the Museum of Natural History in New York, where there are portrayals of Haudenosaunee men and women that are just historically inaccurate, where women are submissive in those kind of sculpting.
And you tell the story of how that has been challenged in ways that are really important. There's a story that you tell about how plaques and if you like kind of commentary has been added to try and set the historical record straight and make clear the more egalitarian dimensions of Haudenosaunee history.
Are plaques enough? I mean, this plays into this big ‘roads must fall, take down the statues’, confederacy. Australia has its own version of this with colonial statues, and gendered, and racialised depictions. Do you want to have a view on that? I mean, what's your take as a scientific journalist historian telling these stories and seeing those corrections to history?
Angela Saini: I do think about this a lot, and partly, because I sit on some advisory boards and museums, so I have to think about it a lot. In fact, during the pandemic, I was on the Naming and Representation Committee at the Natural History Museum, where they were thinking, okay, in London, ‘how do we think about figures who we know from history were apologists for slavery or who supported certain racist ideas? How do we now think about them differently and frame that history?’.
And I think that American Museum of Natural History diorama is a really good example of one way in which we can take a step towards something better. So this is a life-size diorama, a real-life diorama that was made more than 100 years ago or around 100 years ago, and it shows the first encounter between the Lenape, who were the indigenous community whose territory was New York at that time, and the Dutch settlers just arriving.
And it contains so many historical inaccuracies, one of which is it shows Lenape women in the distance,
Rosalind Dixon: Stooping.
Angela Saini: Stooping with loads on their back half naked. Implying that they were kind of beasts of burden within their communities, which they really weren't. There were very senior Lenape women who had a lot of authority in that community, but you would never guess that from looking at this diorama, in this major museum in the city trying to tell the story of the origins of the United States.
So what the curators did was rather than take this diorama down and put up something better, which possibly they'll do one day, but in the meantime, they've put labels on the glass correcting everything, and you can't miss those labels. You have to look at them in order to be able to see what's behind them.
And it just points out all the historical inaccuracies or racism that's embedded in all of this. And this is a much easier thing to do, I think in a city like New York, which is very progressive and liberal, in which people generally are on board with this who want that full picture.
And you can't keep it from people. I mean, you can pretend that these histories are one way that people can go online and learn the truth for themselves. So you have to be honest. Institutions have to confront these things because people will just get their information some other way.
And I think that's a good way to do it, to not kind of start again, but just say ‘look, this is where we got things wrong and we're admitting that we got things wrong’. And see what our mistakes are. And when you see those mistakes, you'll understand some of the problems that are embedded within American society.
I would love to see that happening elsewhere. I'd love to see that happening in Europe, and in Australia.
Rosalind Dixon: Yeah, more of it. I mean, the question of sort of how do we grapple but also educate people about mistakes and lessons is a very powerful one. You’ll be glad to know we've renamed a lot of our buildings with an attention to history at UNSW but there's a lot more work to do, both around race and gender in that regard.
So, the uncovering of the distortion is a big part of that story. One of the things you do delve into in the book and in other works is the importance of having diverse scientists, historians, researchers to tell the story because some of the sense of patriarchy that you're kind of challenging is its inevitability and its natural character.
So it talks about the connection between, if you like, lived experience and identity and science and history. Do, we need diverse voices in order to uncover this? Sometimes it seems that white men were on the side of uncovering truth, but also others who have reinforced the kind of inevitability narrative.
So what's the importance of lived experience and diversity in the academy and the public intellectual space?
Angela Saini: I do think representation matters. It brings different perspectives to research, and you spot things that you wouldn't spot otherwise. For example, when I was writing Inferior, which is one of my previous books looking at sex and gender research, there are passages in Charles Darwin's, A Descent of Man, The Descent of Man in which there is clear, denigration of women, this idea that women are not as evolved as men.
And I genuinely I had geneticists say to me that they had never noticed them before. Why would they have not noticed them? Because they weren't looking for that, they weren't trying to look for it.
Rosalind Dixon: And he was revered in their training and so it's that mix of,
Angela Saini: Yeah, so you notice the things you want to notice, and what having a different background gives you, or a different perspective on the world gives you is that you spot different things.
You look at things slightly differently, and that's incredibly important for research. But then again, I don't think representation is everything. We all need to be trained differently. We need to kind of be immersed in different ways of thinking because it's very possible for even a very diverse cohort of people to all think the same way, so it goes much deeper than I think their representation ultimately.
Rosalind Dixon: Necessary but not sufficient.
Angela Saini: Yeah.
Rosalind Dixon: One of the things that's brilliant about this book is its sense of the historical arc, and as you say, going all the way back to the Neolithic period in Mesopotamia. And it starts with this really bold and interesting historical timeline, which of course makes very interesting choices.
But it ends on this enormously optimistic note. So I want to read just a short passage from the end and then ask you about what the obstacles might be to that kind of optimism and how we get there. So, you say, “How can we rediscover our capacity to be socially bold?
As permanent as our ways of life appear to be, as solid as our institutions, our constitutions, our beliefs seem there was never anything fixed about them. We cooked it up almost all of it, and we can invent something else. There are no natural limits to how we make the future only our imaginations and our courage.”
And you imagine a less patriarchal world and that's one of the great calls of the book. But you also tell some stories about how women and men internalise patriarchy, how they make sense of their lives in ways that tend to create a real obstacle to change. So some of the most shocking stories in the book, I think, are the stories of women's internalisation and the need for cultural stability and structure.
So you tell the story of how some of the girls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram have chosen to stay. How some of the women and girls in the Rift Valley in Ethiopia when there have been efforts to abolish female genital mutilation have said that if others don't cut them, they'll cut themselves.
That kind of internalisation, you have a beautifully empathetic account of why people seek reassurance, culture, or stability. But it's very, very hard to imagine radical change when there's that kind of internalisation of patriarchy. So what do we make of that in terms of the optimism of the book?
Angela Saini: This is the ultimate challenge and I did equivocate towards the end of the book about whether to have an optimistic ending or a pessimistic ending. And actually what swung it for me was the last chapter is on Iran on the 1979 revolution, and I'd written that just before the recent protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini, and when that happened, I couldn't help but be optimistic.
This huge, massive political and cultural change that was happening in that country from the grass roots up. And how can you not be excited about that and have hope for the country after that in a place that for 40 years has felt so kind of hemmed in and bound by the Islamic Republic?
We are all, wherever we live, part of the culture, those cultures in patriarchal countries are shot through with patriarchal ideas so much so that we don't even think about them when we replicate them in our everyday lives when we kind of just walk through them and just keep with them because we can't imagine how our lives might be any different and they become innocuous.
So for example, Something as simple as changing your name after you get married, which so many women do, women in my family have done. And nobody these days thinks that's a particularly patriarchal thing to do. But it has its roots entirely in this idea that -
Rosalind Dixon: Ownership.
Angela Saini: Ownership that once a woman becomes married, she becomes a property of her husband in the same way that historically a slave would be the property of his master. He would take on his master's name, a woman then takes on her husband's name. It is entirely about ownership, and yet we've divorced it from that, and so we keep doing it, and we never question it.
We don't ever challenge women who do this and even think about challenging women, we wouldn't think that's a fair thing to ever say to a woman. And yet we have to interrogate these things that we do. We have to ask ourselves, in what way are we still committed to gendered oppression in the way that we live our everyday lives?
And that is the sharp end of smashing the patriarchy. It's very easy to go out there and march, and ask for the state to change things. It's much harder to look at ourselves in our own families and start to change things. Even now I hear people saying that we need to make accommodation in workplaces for the fact that women do more housework.
Why do we never ask, ‘well, how do we take that housework away from women then? How do we redistribute what happens in the home?’ We don't challenge what happens in the home, we only challenge what happens outside it.
Rosalind Dixon: One of the stories in the book I loved was this Eastern European scholar who, when she visited the US for the first time, was shocked that women would actually cook dinner and was like, but it's so foreign.
Because she'd always grown up eating in canteens and then taking sandwiches home at dinner and had a totally different experience of housework and cooking. As someone who's terrible at cooking, I love that story. But sort of so to drill down and this language of smashing the patriarchy comes up in the book, but I also loved how you talked about denting it in sort of the Eastern Bloc.
But so, there are a few ideas that you've talked about in the book and touched on, so one is about modelling change in our families, questioning and challenging. There's a lovely quote in the book where you say page 239, “Liberation starts with images dancing in your little head”.
So the power of sort of giving people an alternative way of seeing things. So how much does that need to come from popular culture, formal education, the family? Is it all of it? Where do you think we start planting those seeds? I mean, sitting here, we've just seen the Matildas have this amazing victory where there's just no doubt in anyone's mind that women and girls are going to think about sport and soccer in particular, but sport differently.
And boys and non-binary kids are also going to see it in different terms. So there are cultural moments where you can just see it happening, it's exciting. A bit the way you had that moment with you and things are shifting. But if we're trying to create this rather than just see it serendipitously happen, what's the role of the family versus if you like popular culture and books like this versus formal education?
Angela Saini: I think that has to happen on every front. The problem is that we assume that everybody wants equality, and we don't interrogate what does equality actually mean for everyone. I think there's a large part of the feminist movement for whom equality means that women at every class and of every race have the same rights and opportunities and wealth as the men at every class and every race on the same level as them.
Does that really fix anything? I do corporate events as well, I meet women in law and in banking who want to know how they can earn the big salaries that their cohorts, that their male colleagues are earning. What they never ask is ‘how do I do the same for that woman who comes into my office every night and has to clear up that office after me, and is on subsistence wages, and is struggling to feed her family?’.
We only think about the men relative to us, we don't think about the women in every stage of that. That's where the feminist movement has the hardest work to do, I think.
Rosalind Dixon: Well, you tackle class really head on in ways that are really powerful in the book and I think that is part of the message of the book is this deep connection between race, colonialism, gender, and class.
And it's why it resonates, I think, with so many people. But in sort of lifting class up into our view, as you say, it's about solidarity for women across socioeconomic lines. I loved some of the stories you told about women, communist and socialist feminists, and how they saw things is class first, gender second.
And some of their struggles where you talk about the fact that there was a lot of progress made. They didn't smash the patriarchy as you say, but they dented it. And some of the stories about in 1932, and then onwards in the socialist period about feminist leadership and challenging, the rise of fascism but also calling class and gender into view in ways that were very powerful.
Tell us that story.
Angela Saini: I don't want to whitewash communism with people and I'm very careful about that in the book that these authoritarian regimes in the Soviet Union, we can see exactly why they collapsed in the end, there was so much willingness for them to collapse in the end and how brutal they were, especially Soviet Russia under Stalin was incredibly brutal and was not good for women.
He repealed many of the laws that were intended to help women at the beginning. But right at the start when the Russian Revolution first happened, gender was very much bound into it. It was about class first, so there was this idea and that many of the leaders of the Communist Revolution were men, but women were there too.
There were women like Alexandra Kollontai , like Clara Zetkin, who were pushing for gender to be included as part of that project. And they agreed, the male leaders agreed. The Soviet Union was the first modern state to legalise abortion that was in 1920. Immediately, they rolled out education, higher education, and everyday education for women and girls everywhere.
They pushed women into the same work as men, made it easier to get divorces, made it easier to manage kind of on a social level the household. You would see women smoking in the streets in Soviet Russia, which in other countries would not happen around that time. There was a wholesale change in gender norms that happened within a couple of generations in the Soviet Union.
Because smashing the patriarchy was part of that project, very much so. In fact, you could argue in modern times that was the biggest global attempt to smash the patriarchy that we have ever seen and it left a permanent imprint on Central and Eastern Europe. To this day, the rates of women in STEM in Central and Eastern European are higher than they are in Western Europe.
And some of the most outstanding women mathematicians, and scientists, and engineers come from Eastern and Central Europe. And the norm of working is so deeply ingrained that even today in countries like Poland and Hungary, where, which have become very traditional, it's very religious, the government still can't make the case to women that they should stay at home and be housewives.
The best that they can do is say that, if you go to work and you have lots of children, we will give you financial incentives like nursing income tax, which is what they're doing in Hungary.
Rosalind Dixon: I mean, it tells the story about past dependence good and bad, right?
So the hard part for your optimistic story is how much culture is sticky and how hard it is to change. But the positive is the ways in which having had decades of women in STEM and in the workforce has continued well after the sort of systems that kind of created it.
It does, I think give one some optimism that generational change, and seeing role models, and being exposed, and being educated can have a powerful effect on how people are sort of perceiving certain occupations. And as you say, the perception of higher-level mathematics in Russia is very much one that it's a career for women as much as for men and non-binary folks.
And I think about my own parenting and how small choices that we don't always think about can be powerful. So my son, when he was very little said to me once, ‘mum, can boys be doctors?’, because the only doctors he ever saw were women. And it's just those small ways in which people socialise can be very, very powerful.
One of the other stories you do tell though when it comes to this integration of patriarchy is how much culture matters to us, tradition, religion, culture, and how we hold on to it because it can be a psychologically stabilising force in our world. And in that sense, one of the things I thought was really interesting was to hear you write about Islamic feminism and other forms of feminism.
They've tried to take really seriously the importance of culture and religion for people, and to reinterpret them in ways that make equality more salient and at the forefront, but allows space for tradition and culture. Tell us a bit more about that.
Angela Saini: We have to ask ourselves, why is it that revolutions that try to achieve greater equality at least in modern recent history have very rarely done so?
Usually, you get something even worse afterwards or very often you get something even worse. What has been more successful as reform, is the slow piecemeal change, which isn't ideal, because nobody wants to have to wait generations for equality, nobody wants to do that. But the difference is, with reform, what you're also doing is creating cultural change along the way and carrying people along with you.
It is not this big shock to the system like the Soviet Union was. That was a huge shock for people. And part of the reason they rebelled against it is because they were losing so much in the process. They were losing religion, and culture, and their ideas about themselves, their idea of identity, where they belong, the sense of who they were as a nation, which is part of the problem now in places like Russia and Eastern Europe.
Is that in trying to reclaim that idea of who we were and this idea of identity and culture that often they go back to something that was more patriarchal, so they end up with something that's worse for women afterwards, which is what we have in places like Poland, and Hungary, and in Russia. So then the challenge for all of us is, how do we create meaningful change at a good pace that carries everybody along? And I think, for that, we have to understand that we can't ditch everything immediately. That there are things that we are committed to as women, as men, and non-binary people, all of us committed to that means something to us, sometimes over and above our gender, above gender equality.
Whether that is our religion, or our traditions, or our sense of identity, or that sense of what it means to belong to a place. How do we change the meaning of those things so that they can incorporate gender equality? And women have always worked hard at doing that.
That happened in 19th century, America women's rights activists, they very quickly realised that in a country as religious in the United States, you will not be able to make the case for gender equality unless you work with religion. And so what did they do? They rewrote the Bible.
They wrote the Woman’s Bible, which was a way of looking at their religion in a way that allowed for them to have suffrage and emancipation, allowed for them to have more rights. And the same with Islamic feminism, which has a very long tradition. Here is a way of looking at faith in a way that reframes it and offers women that freedom and agency that the scholars who interpreted it a different way didn't allow women.
And there is that leeway within culture, there is that leeway within religion. If the pope is able to interpret his faith one way, why can other people not do that as well?
Rosalind Dixon: It's about there being interpretive space and that sort of incremental struggle. So one of the things that you're interested in, you have a chapter called revolution, but also transformation and it's an argument in a sense for a more incremental internal path to change, which brings people and their whole selves along.
But one of the things that you do say is, well, that gives one some pause, I suppose, about faith in reform is what Frances Hasso calls the ‘devil's bargain’. So the idea that patriarchal leaders at various points in history have offered women rights of the incremental kind. So the Shah in Iran offered women voting rights, the right to drive, etc, but as a means of diffusing more radical challenges to not only patriarchy but their…
More generally, some of my own research on constitutional democracy, I have an article called ‘Rights as Bribes’, where there is a sense in which reformist impulses can be diffusing of this broader political struggle. So that word you used before was meaningful. So how do we tell the kind of meaningful change from this more legitimation or defusing type politics, which is the patriarchal devil's bargain?
Angela Saini: It's so hard, and it's hard to recognise as well sometimes. It comes in such subtle forms, whether it is big cosmetic corporations telling us that to be the best versions of ourselves, that we should buy their products, and in the process, just recreating this idea of a certain type of woman.
That you have to look a certain way, that you have to maintain youth in order to be an empowered woman, if you like. And there is so much of that now. A lot has been written on the way that capitalism has co-opted feminism. Without a doubt, we live in the generation of that.
That even feminist icons are shilling for all these big brands now. We can't escape it. How do we get past that? For me, I grew up in the 80s and 90s, this was unheard of. I grew up in the generation of Naomi Klein's ‘No Logo’ in which just the idea of selling out in that way was just unthinkable.
And yet, now, I see a younger generation for whom this is completely normal and natural. In fact, they are winning if they are making money from their politics. If they can get their politics into the mainstream through capitalism or through some other means, which to my generation would have felt like selling out.
That's completely acceptable, and that is a real shame to me that we have not married, those anti-capitalist impulses, those ideas about class and race and feminism all together and recognise that this is all part of a system that's trying to keep, ultimately, the status quo, that we have to push against that.
And you're right. I mean, I would love for that to be radical, quick radical change, for us to be able to ditch us all immediately. I just know realistically as a journalist that's not how people work.
Rosalind Dixon: History has been complicated. So one of the things about this book is you said to quote a long-term and it built on previous war.
But you talked to lots of interesting people, you read all this kind of science in a way that makes it so accessible to a general audience which is part of the brilliance of the book. Tell us a little bit about the writing process, who you talked to? What did you read?
Where did you go? Was it during COVID, so you were grounded?
Angela Saini: It was, I started it. I mean, I've been thinking about it for many years, but I started writing it properly just at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, which is very hard for me cause as a journalist, I like to do all my work firsthand, so I always travel and meet everybody firsthand.
The first place I was able to go was Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia and this was there were tiny windows in the UK during which we were allowed to travel so I went straight there nobody was there it was completely empty. And I wish I could have done more, but I learnt in this book, this is a much more academic book, I think, than some of my others because I relied also on academic sources and I really did a deep dive into the history.
Rosalind Dixon: You read Darwin?
Angela Saini: It was hard. It was harder to write this one because it's not just a science book, it's actually more of a history book, and history is not my background, it's not academically where I come from, but so I was very careful throughout.
Rosalind Dixon: And I asked you off-screen and wanted to get the audience to hear you talk about how you came to write this book because it is such an amazing blend of radical, historical, scientific, pragmatic, and at the same time realist, but optimistic.
So tell us a little bit about the academic and intellectual journey, but also how does one become the kind of person who says contingency patriarchy can go away as quickly as it was introduced by colonial nationalist militaristic state forces. So tell us a bit about the immediate origins of the book, but also the early origins in your own childhood and growing up.
Angela Saini: I was very lucky to grow up in a household, I have two sisters, no brothers, in which we were, we never had any sense that there was such a thing as women's work, comments work. My parents did everything, they both worked, and I never felt that there was any, there was in distinction between women's work and men's work, I always saw them do everything.
And to this day, I do the DIY at home. In fact, even when I'm visiting my parents-in-law, they get me to do the DIY that they've been saving.
Rosalind Dixon: You are an engineer. They're very smart.
Angela Saini: Yes, but, that upbringing was crucial to me deciding to do engineering as an undergraduate.
Because I was not getting, I only realised this much later, I wasn't getting the message that other girls were getting, that there are women's jobs and there are men's jobs, it never occurred to me that there was such a thing and so I just did what I wanted and my sister's the same, they did what they wanted, it's the real world outside my home.
That kind of was the rude awakening in which I realised that I would sometimes go to friends’ houses, and their mum would be cooking the dad would be sitting reading the paper, asking for his wife to bring him a cup of tea. I have never in my life seen my dad asked my mum for a cup of tea.
He will always get up and just make it himself. It was just unbelievable to me that things could be any different. And I think that has guided my work all the time. The reason I became a journalist at all was because I got involved in political activism when I was at university and I started writing.
But I think that's a thread throughout this is that I was raised in a way to always challenge authority and believe that the way we live is just the way that we make it. And that's a lesson that I want people to get from the book.
Rosalind Dixon: And what about education?
I mean, it's a great story about feminist or anti-patriarchal parenting and the power it has to launch boys and girls and non-binary children into the world in a way that just allows them to be them and not have any preconception. But what about when you went to school or university, was that the real world or somewhere in between?
What can we do to make people want to write books like this in their sense of being able to challenge what for most people is a really deeply held orthodoxy about patriarchy?
Angela Saini: When I got to school, again, it didn't occur to me until much later, when we started streaming into different subjects because I was taking physics and chemistry rather than biology and chemistry which a lot of the girls who were into science were doing because they were gonna go into medicine and I was going down the engineering route.
I was the only girl in a lot of my classes. And that was the first time at which I started to ask myself, why is it this way? Why am I making different choices from other people? I knew it wasn't because the girls were any worse at physics.
In fact, the girls, in the UK, girls do better at GCSE level in pretty much all the subjects than boys now, and at A level, so it wasn't an ability thing. It was much later that I understood that the messages that we were getting were very different. And my life has been unpicking all of that, trying to understand why is it that we choose different ways in which we live?
Why can't we radically transform the way that the family is organised and just do things differently? I mean you were saying let our children be themselves. That is the hardest thing to do as a parent. Most parents want their kids to fit into society. And I think this is part of the problem that we have around gender at the moment is that people are terrified that their kids won't fit in, that they won't be comfortable in society because they're being themselves, they're daring to live their own way.
What are we so frightened of? Why can't we just let people be themselves? Why can't we just let them express who they are, the way they are? As it is, it's because we are so conditioned to believe that there is only one way to live. Like I said, we imagine patriarchy to have started in the family and then radiate upwards.
Historical evidence shows exactly the opposite that this started in the state and radiated into the family. The most rebellious act then we can do as individuals, the most anti-patriarchal thing we can do is live our own way, to say this to the state, I'm not going to follow your rules.
I'm not going to follow this gendered order that you've created, I'm going to do things my way. And that starts, we can do that right now. Every single one of us can live our own way right now, raise our children to just be themselves right now. However difficult we imagine that might be, this generation is already doing it.
Rosalind Dixon: So, fighting words, keep Ken out of Barbie land, dent the patriarchy and just be you and live your own life. Hard things to achieve in practice but great rallying cries. Thank you so much Angela for such an interesting and stimulating conversation of variety in this wonderful book.
Angela Saini: Thank you so much.
Rosalind Dixon: It's been a pleasure having you online this evening with the Centre for Ideas. We encourage you to go to our website and see all of the wonderful other conversations that are available there.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. For more information, visit centreforideas.com, and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Angela Saini is an award-winning British journalist and author based in New York. She presents radio and television programmes, and her writing has appeared in National Geographic, New Scientist, and Wired. Her latest book The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule was published in 2023, and is a finalist for the Orwell Prize for Political Writing. Her last two books Superior: The Return of Race Science and Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong have been translated into 14 languages and are on university reading lists across the world. As the founder and chair of the 'Challenging Pseudoscience' group at the Royal Institution, Angela researches and campaigns around issues of misinformation and disinformation.
Rosalind Dixon is a Professor of Law and Director of the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at UNSW Sydney. She is a graduate of UNSW and Harvard, and has taught at law schools around the world – including Harvard, Columbia, the University of Chicago and the National University Singapore, and is the author of the book, with Richard Holden, From Free to Fair Markets: Liberalism after COVID. She is passionate about law and politics, and currently Director of the Pathways to Politics for Women Program at NSW.