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Australia as a patriarchal society Essay Sample

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Australia as a patriarchal society Essay Sample

For centuries, the role of women in society has been carefully defined by a patriarchal sociological system. Up until the 1960’s it was considered a woman’s national duty to reproduce and her primary function in life. To consciously limit the number of children that they had meant not only were women going against their natural function, but failing in that national duty (Currie & Adamson, 1977). Women have had to fight for the right to vote, which only occurred in Australia in 1902 (Currie & Adamson, 1977), and were denied the right to education, especially tertiary education. Even after this right was won, there were still fears being voiced about the bad effects on girls at school from bending over desks and being strained by thinking (Currie & Adamson, 1977). This strength should be saved for motherhood. Even today, women are still a disadvantaged group. Expectations on what a woman’s role should be, especially in the family unit, still influence choices that women make, and the importance of their personal preferences are diminished.

In Australia, women were brought to essentially service the sexual needs of the males in the colony, and were then condemned for their behaviour (Summers, 1975). In the 19th century, debates continued over whether women were legal ‘persons’, able to own property, have custody of children, or receive formal education. Many of these arguments reflected specific Western assumptions that to be a ‘person’, was to be a ‘rational’ individual, and women were seen as essentially emotional (Reiger, cf. Kellehear, 1995). Women were then compelled to rely for their social status on the position of husband’s and fathers in society. Still, women receive 30-40% less pay than men if employed (Doyal, 1996) and remain unpaid for work within the family unit. Women may be revered as mothers, or as guardians of morality, while also being regarded as ‘sickly’, neurotic, polluted, or just fundamentally less valued than men.

According to functionalist theory, women are constrained by a set of ‘social facts’. These facts can be interpreted in the traditional role of woman as housewife and mother. Functionalist theory sees society as an organism which has specific needs for it to survive, mainly being the establishment of social order, and each individual is subject to the social facts that are necessary to maintain this social order. Functionalists believe that within societies there is a broad agreement or value consensus on the main norms governing human behaviour, which is backed up by positive and negative sanctions (Krieken et al, 2000). In relation to women, norms accompany gender status which define how people occupying that status are expected to act, generating a specific role for them to perform. This role is reinforced by social institutions, in the case of women, mainly by the institution of family. In a functionalist society, the woman becomes a mother, and stays at home to care for her children. The man works to support his family, and this system reproduces children with the same prerequisites to carry on to their own children (Krieken et al, 2000). This is a system which is based on the social agreement that has been passed down through the generations as a successful means for solidarity within society and therefore its ultimate survival.

In a very contrasting view, radical feminists have claimed that society is divided into two classes, male, being the ruling class, and women who are the subject class (Krieken et al, 2000). Radical feminists define society as patriarchal, or dominated by men, and as a result of this, women are exploited because they undertake free labour for men in the form of childcare, housework, and emotional and sexual ‘servicing’ and are denied access to positions of power (Krieken et al, 2000). According to Kate Millet (1970) political relationships of dominated subordination can exist at work where a man instructs his secretary to make a cup of tea, or in the family when a husband’s meal is cooked by his wife. Family life maintains patriarchy across generations, socialising children into having different temperaments and leading them to expect and accept different roles in later life. Ever since birth, children have been raised into societies view of their sex. Boys are taught to be aggressive, while girls are shown subservience, and passivity. Girls are taught how to act, how to be ‘feminine’ and told who their superiors are, that is the male population. It is through these prerequisites of behaviour that radical feminists quote the threat and the action of rape and physical violence as a means of maintaining this superior/inferior status of men and women.

According to some radical feminists, the heterosexual relationship, and the presumption of this as a ‘norm’ is a patriarchal system in itself. Adrienne Rich (1980) claimed that the assumption of a mystical/biological heterosexual inclination, a ‘preference’ or ‘choice’ which draws women towards men, obscures the covert socialisations and the overt forces which have channeled women into marriage and heterosexual romance (cf. Krieken et al, 2000). She claimed that this social arrangement emerges to enforce women’s total emotional, erotic loyalty and subservience to men.

In regards to employment, women today can do paid work, but their work is usually menial, badly paid and lacking in status (Krieken et al, 2000). Kate Millet (1970) saw women as a reserve labour force who are made use of when they are needed (for example in war time) but are discarded when not required (Krieken et al, 2000). Economic inequalities are reinforced by educational ones. Women tend to study the humanities, which have a lower status than the sciences. Women are confined, or feel trapped by, occupations and areas of study which are seen as ‘traditionally female’. Heidi Hartman (1976), a radical feminist, wrote, ‘job segregation by sex?is the primary mechanism in capitalist society that maintains the superiority of men over women, because it enforces lower wages for women in the labour market. Low wages keep women dependent on men because they encourage women to marry. Married women must perform domestic chores for their husbands. Men benefit then, from both higher wages and the domestic division of labour. This domestic division of labour, in turn, acts to weaken women’s position in the labour market. Thus, the hierarchical domestic division of labour is perpetuated by the labour market, and vice versa (cf. Encel & Campbell, 1991).

Educational institutions have continued this division in the labour force by reflecting societal expectations in the accessibility of their resources to women. Continued debate over the necessity of education for girls illustrates these attitudes. It was argued that girl’s education should be directed toward being a good housewife and mother, and maintained that this should be designed to enable them to carry out their ‘key role’ in establishing the standards of the home and in educating their children (Encel & Campbell, 1991). Criticism of education for women continued, with attacks made on their physical wellbeing, and threats of the effects of education on physical appearance. It became a considered opinion that women who wanted to be educated must have something wrong with their ‘sexual apparatus’, while feelings were prolonged on the assumption that study desiccates women, and renders them ugly, bespectacled, and angular (Encel & Campbell, 1991). All qualities, of course that makes a woman ‘less’ of a woman in conservative sociological eyes.

Within school systems, a report dealing with sexism in education (1977) by the NSW government, refers to inadequacy of career advice, reflecting stereotyped attitudes amoung teachers and parents (cf. Encel & Campbell, 1991). In 1965 a Headmaster of a school in Melbourne stated, “hairdressing and office work, that’s all the parents are interested in. In this district, they put all the money into the education of boys” (Encel & Campbell, 1991, p.47). Girls are sociologically confined to areas such as art, fashion, commercial secretarial courses and hairdressing. By 1986, within TAFE courses, female interests had spread to podiatry, travel, tourism and welfare, but enrolments in applied science and engineering remained insignificant (Encel & Campbell, 1991).

Images portrayed within the institution of media reinforce stereotypes and expectations which assist patriarchal domination of women. The image of the beautiful ‘feminine’ woman who keeps a clean house, raises gorgeous children and has dinner on the table when her husband arrives home from work, remains the ideal image of woman portrayed on television through TV dramas and especially advertising. Ads for cleaning products for example, are always demonstrated by women. For example the Ajax Spray ‘n’ Wipe television ad which states “boys will be boys!” The remaining message of this ad is that a good woman will always be there to clean up after the men in her life, because that is her position, and men hold no household responsibilities!

Children are subject to stereotyping in their choice of toys ? girls with dolls and particularly Barbie, and boys with guns, tools and other ‘male’ toys. Beryl Langer in Kellehear (1996) speaks of Barbie’s influence in a girl’s life. She talks of Barbie’s existence as an object of play revolving around the right clothes for the leisure activities in her repertoire. Barbie is thus to embark on an infinite series of further purchases of clothing and ‘lifestyle’ props. Barbie serves to socialise girls into a version of femininity organised around consumption and display. Along with her image of ‘Hangin’out! Shopping! Glamorous Party! Great Date!’ Barbie projects a body image to which girls can strive towards, but may never achieve (without major surgery!). She has become societies ideal woman. She is white, blonde, tall, large breasted and small waisted. She takes care of her Barbie mansion while waiting for her perfect husband Ken to arrive home from work to service his needs. She is the perfect role model to perpetuate the patriarchal ideal of what it is to be a woman.

Also within the media issues of research assist in the maintenance of patriarchal views. For example, studies on the effects of childcare that does not involve the mother prompt debate ultimately about women going into the workplace to the detriment of their children. There is never any mention of the absence of the father in any of these cases, but only negligence of selfish mothers who want to further their careers. After this research has been undertaken, even when results towards childcare has been positive, the ultimate outcome of the ensuing debate reflects conservative attitudes concerning the ‘best thing’ for the child being the mother at home. A woman is persecuted for wanting more for her life than what society expects of her, while the man in the situation doesn’t even get a mention. Also portrayed in the media is the ‘bizarre’ women who don’t want to have children! They are presented as a novelty, and questioned for their motivation for defying their natural function. They follow a path which men have been following for centuries without question, and yet are presented by the media as exception to the rule that women must bear children because they have a uterus.

Within the role of wife and mother, and with restrictions on women for outside employment, come health issues which are rarely addressed within the health field. The reality of daily child care can be both physically and emotionally demanding, especially where there is little support from partner, friends or kin (Doyal, 1995). Especially for first time mothers , the responsibility of a tiny baby can be onerous, and nights without sleep exhausting and demoralising. Studies have shown that full-time ‘housewives’ are particularly prone to depression, especially if they are at home with young children. Many women staying at home experience intense frustration, expressed in emptiness, sadness, and worthlessness. Too often these feelings go unacknowledged; women are said to be ‘like that’ and the front door closes on a great deal of misery and distress (Doyal, 1995).

Even though attitudes towards women are changing, traditional views still dominate concerning a woman’s role in society, especially when it concerns children or household duties. A woman is judged if she chooses not to bear children, if she dresses or acts in an ‘unfeminine’ manner, or if she chooses a profession which is not traditionally female. Society is still structured as a patriarchal system, in which women still struggle to gain the recognition as individuals without being subject to sociological labeling and expectations.


Doyal, Lesley. (1995) What Makes Women Sick: Gender and the Political Economy of Health. Macmillan Press Pty. Limited.

Currie, Wendy., & Adamson, Margaret. (1977) Women of Australia ? Shaping our History. Macmillan Education Australia, Pty Limited

Encel, Sol., & Campbell, Dorothy. (1991) Out of the Doll’s House: Women in the Public Sphere. Longman Cheshire Pty Limited.

.Kellehear, Allan. Ed. (1996) Social Self, Global Culture; An Introduction to Sociological Ideas. Oxford University Press Australia

Krieken, Robert Van., Smith, Philip., Habibis, Daphne., McDonald, Kevin., Haralambos, Michael., & Holborn, Martin. (2000) Sociology, Themes and Perspectives. Pearson Education Australia Pty Limited.

Summers, Anne. (1975) Damn Whores and Gods Police ? The colonization of women
in Australia. Penguin Books Limited.

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