Sociology 250

March 3, 2003


Weber on gender and patriarchy


Adams and Sydie discuss Weber’s views on gender relationships on pp. 189-192.  Weber’s views on marriage and family appear to be related to his views on rationalization of society and the protestant ethic of the “rational, self-disciplined moral individual” who could “channel his sexuality into marriage” and there was a “routinization of sex in marriage” (Adams and Sydie, p. 190).  They argue that for Weber, there was rational calculation of sex and marriage, with conflict and power involved in these relationships (p. 191).  Weber apparently considered marriage to result in routine, in contrast to eroticism, which occurs only in extramarital relations (p. 190). 


This analysis leads toward issues connected with power, legitimation, domination, and authority.  For Weber, domination is the “probability that a command … will be obeyed by a given group of persons” (Adams and Sydie, p. 181) and legitimation is where commands are accepted.  One of the earliest forms in which this appears is patriarchy, a form of traditional domination.


Patriarchy is some system or structure of oppression and domination of women by men.  It is the primary form of traditional domination.  But for Weber patriarchy is not just domination of women by men, but domination of some men by others.  For example, the male head of a clan, tribe, or nation may be a ruler who is accepted by members and is thus able to exercise absolute and legitimate authority.


Weber formally defines patriarchy:

Patriarchalism is by far the most important type of domination the legitimacy of which rests upon tradition.  Patriarchalism means the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the house, the sib elder over the members of the household and sib; the rule of the master and patron over bondsmen, serfs, freed men; of the lord over the domestic servants and household officials' of the prince over house- and court-officials, nobles of office, clients, vassals; of the patrimonial lord and sovereign prince over the 'subjects.'  (Gerth and Mills, p. 296).

This may be in a family, household, or clan or could be in society as a whole (slave society or feudalism).  In these forms, the male or patriarchal leader may emerge naturally (on the basis of age), or is selected on the basis of adherence to traditional principles.  As long as this method of selection is accepted by others in the grouping, the rule of the patriarch’s authority is accepted as legitimate.  Sydie notes that “the power of the patriarch is a personal prerogative.  He is able to exercise power without restraint, ‘unencumbered by rules,’ at least to the extent that he is not ‘limited by tradition of by competing powers.’” (Adams and Sydie, p. 182).  This type of authority has few limits to its exercise and, to those in modern societies, the means by which people are selected for positions or the practices carried out may appear irrational.


As noted earlier, for Weber, patriarchy is the most common form of traditional authority – domination legitimated by tradition, “the sanctity of age-old rules and power.”  Sydie notes that patriarchy is

a form of domination characteristic of the household group or clan organized on kinship and economic terms.  Patriarchalism means “the authority of the father, the husband, the senior of the household and sib … ”  The “founding father” or some association in the distant past with a great of even divine connection or event that generates inviolable traditions usually provided the basis of the claim to power.  If the past association is with a divinity, that divinity may be male or female, but it is the male line through which claim to power is made.  (Sydie, p. 56).

Unlike Engels, Weber argues that there never was a period of matriarchy, but that men always were able to exercise more power.  In early forms of society, Weber notes that women had considerable power, but this power tended to be restricted to the sphere of the household – based on reproduction (mother and child) and economic factors associated with producing the goods necessary for survival.  Weber considered women's power to be “secondary to that of the patriarch” who ruled the household. (Sydie, p. 60).  Weber looked on early society as practicing “household communism” a sharing of the goods necessary for survival within the household – a form of economic equality.  But even within this, Weber does not view women as being equal with men, because of the “subjection of women to one male, and the regulation of sexual relations among the members of the household.” (Sydie, p. 60).  Men enforced monogamy on women and became patriarchs of the household by laying “claim to exclusive sexual access to a female.”   So long as this male could persuade others to submit to this authority, he takes the position of patriarch.  (Sydie, pp. 59-60). 


Weber made much the same assumptions as did Marx and Engels concerning the early sexual division of labour.  Women were associated with reproductive and household tasks and men tended to be hunters, gatherers, or warriors, with patriarchal power over the household, but having to share power with other males outside the household.  Weber notes that there were societies with female chieftains alongside organizations of men, but these are merely the result of power differences based on the division of labour, and are not matriarchal in nature.  Further, matrilineal descent also does not mean matriarchy for Weber.  Finally, “there is no female equivalent of the exercise of political power by men as a group over women as a group.” (Sydie , p. 64).  These arguments would appear to be very similar to some feminist arguments that even in early forms of society, male domination was the rule, and this was the first form of inequality and domination.


On closer examination, Sydie finds that Weber’s views are built on certain untenable or questionable assumptions concerning males and females, and a particular view of society and the basis of power.  With respect to the family and household, Weber argues that the only “natural” relationship is that of the mother and child “because it is a biologically based household unit that lasts until the child is able to search for his own means of subsistence.” (Sydie, p. 57).  Weber associates this relationship with the mother bearing, feeding, and rearing the child – reproduction and socialization – and this forms the basic “natural” family.  In Weber’s view, such a relationship is not a social relationship, but is a natural one.  Hence the mother child relationship is not sociologically significant (Sydie, p. 63) – recall that Weber’s sociology is only concerned with social action, action that is not natural or reflexive, but considered actions that have meaning.   Weber considers that relationship to be natural and biologically based. 


Weber also notes that “the woman is dependent because of the normal superiority of the physical and intellectual energies of the male” (Sydie, quoting Weber, p. 59).  Again, this is a natural and biologically based form of dependence, one that does not require sociological analysis.  While the mother-child form is basic and natural, Weber looks on patriarchy as subverting this, so that women and children become the property of males.  It is this natural, biological, physical superiority and practical knowledge and experience (Sydie, p. 58) of the male that forms the basis for this domination.  Once established, this form of domination is continued through socialization of children.  Sydie argues that this means that in the household “the differentiation among the members is through nature for women and children, but through nurture or socialization and experience for others.” (Sydie, p. 59).


Adams and Sydie note

The mother-child relationship was, in Weber’s view, simply a natural, presocial relationship that only became a social relationship when men organized households and acquired control over women’s sexuality so that the connection between (male) parent and child could be legally established.  (p. 183).

In contrast to these natural relationships in the household between men, women and children, relationships among males also exist outside the household, with other males.  Males may relate to each other as hunters, warriors, in agriculture, or in kinship and neighbourhood groups.  While the male exercises patriarchal power over the household, outside the household men have quite a different form of relationship with each other.  Each man cannot exert patriarchal power over others, and some men will be in a subordinate position with respect to other forms of domination.  This may be to the group, to a master, a lord, a king, etc.  It is these forms of domination that become legitimized through means such as tradition, charisma, legal or political rule, the various forms of authority.  These latter relationships among men are what constitute society, social relationships, and social action for Weber.  It is these that Weber investigates and that form the basis for his analysis of power, domination and authority.  Adams and Sydie note “the extension of patriarchal domination from the household is found in various forms of patrimonial domination, including feudalism” (p. 182).  As a result “patriarchal power is pure male power and derives from the bases for household authority – superior strength and practical knowledge and experience” (Adams and Sydie, p. 183). 


Weber’s analysis of political power, authority, and legitimation, appear to be sex neutral, and applicable to any human relationship, including analysis of the inequalities between men and women.  However, Weber models these forms on relationships among men, ignoring male-female inequalities, and viewing this type of domination and subordination as natural.


One example of the effect of Weber's analysis is that the natural mother-child relationship is not sociologically significant, and thus is not worth examining.  This means that it is fathers, not mothers, who civilize or legalize the mother-child relationship.  The natural relationship is not a social one, so that society does not legitimize this relationship socially.  The relationship is legitimized by the father rather than the mother in the sense that by the father establishing power over the mother and child, this removes the relationship from the natural form and becomes a legitimate form of domination.  It is thus the father who makes the parent-child connection legal. 


Further, by considering the mother-child relationship as natural, Weber does not feel that analysis of socialization is necessary.  While women must obviously bear children, there is no natural reason why the natural mother need nurture and socialize the child.  In many societies these latter tasks are undertaken by siblings and other relatives.  Weber makes the assumption that because women have the biological responsibility for bearing children, they also have the responsibility for nurturing the child.  In doing this, Weber reduces socialization to a natural feature – something that Weber warns should not be done in other areas. 


Another problem is that despite all his discussion of patriarchy and power, Weber does not examine the real source of domination within household.  He regards this as natural and has no model of “compliance or obedience.”  Weber's model cannot explain differences in male/female power or the sexual division of labour at different times and places (women sometimes dominate in certain areas of life and can exert considerable power).  


Finally, Weber argued that patrimony and feudalism developed out of the patriarchal household.  Weber extends the ideal-type patriarchal rule of the male in the household to the society at large, explaining hierarchies, organizations, administration and power.  Sydie shows though how patriarchal power is often modified in these structures and institutions, with women exercising considerable power in certain circumstances.  In order to preserve status or property of a family or group, women may take on responsibilities with considerable power.  These important bases of power may have meant that considerations of sex were less important than preserving property in the family, so that some females were able to exercise power. 


3. Summary.  In summary, Weber’s model of power and authority are male models.  He assumed that the male-female division of labour was natural, the mother-child relationship was natural, and that most of the male-female relationships could be explained on the basis of biological factors.  As such these relationships were not really worthy of sociological investigation, and Weber has little to say about the form these were structured or how they changed.  As a result, Sydie considers that Weber's model of patriarchy is flawed and not all that useful.  There were few societies where patriarchal power of this type was exercised without modification, and this household based patriarchal power is not really the basis for explaining larger social structures.  Weber's analysis obscures the nature of power in sex relations and reinforces the idea that patriarchal forms are natural and historically inevitable and unchangeable (Sydie, p. 87).


While Sydie does not attempt to find useful elements from Weber, if Weber's writings are looked upon as a method of analysis, there are many useful concepts for analyzing male-female inequalities.  Even though these concepts may have been derived from analysis of male social structures, the ideas of domination, power, and authority can all be applied to relationships between males and females.  Class situation, status honour, and party would all seem to be useful in examining the situation of women in society, the relationships between men and women, and changes in all of these over time.  Class situation would have to be expanded to include some non-market situations.  Status honour and dishonour could be used to explain ways in which women form groups to exercise power or exclude males from some decisions.  Sydie quotes Hartmann as saying “Though patriarchy is hierarchical and men of different classes, races, or ethnic groups have different places in the patriarchy, they are also united in their shared relationship of dominance over their women; they are dependent on each other to maintain that domination.” (p. 87)  This would seem very akin to Weber's idea of status honour and dishonour among men.  Patriarchy could be considered to be a very powerful status structure, and analysis could be devoted to examining the different ways men maintain power at different times and places, and how these forms of status honour and dishonour change over time. 



Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2001

Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Sydie, R., Natural Women, Cultured Men: A Feminist Perspective on Sociological Theory, Toronto, Methuen, 1987.  HM51 S97 1987.



Last edited on March 3, 2003