SOC 320 UCSD Patriarchal Domination Essay

SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Instructor’s Comments
Topic 10: The Women-Centered Sociology of Marianne Weber
Although her husband Max got most of the credit and accolades, Marianne Weber was
a profound sociological theorist in her own right. The L&N chapter does a good job
describing Marianne’s life and contributions to Max’s work. My intent here is to
highlight how Marianne Weber’s insights moved along and extended the work of
Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In so doing, Marianne Weber helped to lay the groundwork
for later theories that took the standpoint of marginalized groups as a starting point.
Her analysis of the how modern legal systems were used to perpetuate women’s
marginalization and oppression in society is an especially strong model of this
approach to sociological theorizing.
Women’s Experience and Sociological Theory
Marianne Weber’s theorizing takes women’s experiences as the starting point.
Because of this, she provides an alternative perspective on social life compared to the
views of the middle-class male academics that promoted Structural-Functionalism.
She disagreed with their positivist/objectivist tendency to view “social action” as a
neutral activity, following the same logic whether one were male or female.
Marianne Weber argued that men and women held different social statuses and thus
enjoyed different levels of power and privilege in life. Echoing Cooper and WellsBarnett, Marianne argued that women theorists were privy to different kinds of
insights than were their male colleagues, again reflecting their differential social
statuses. Therefore, for Marianne, it was important for her to draw her theoretical
insights from her experiences as a woman living in a male-centered world.
One insight that clearly distinguishes Marianne Weber’s theorizing is the greater
weighting she gives to structural forces relative to the power of ideas in shaping social
action. Recall that Max Weber argued (in contrast to Marx) that ideas were the
primary catalysts of historical change. His theorized that new ideas emerge that then
lead to the creation of new patterns of action, interactions, and social structures.
Applying an evolutionary argument (often used in functionalist theories), one might
expect the strongest ideas, over time, to win out over weaker ones, and be reflected
in the society’s progression toward ideal functioning. Marianne, on the other hand,
argued that structural forces often worked to limit the extent to which ideas could
produce change. For example, the ideas of someone with low social status, no matter
how brilliant, would not likely find their way in the larger cultural consciousness.
Marianne Weber saw at close range how seemingly good ideas developed by women
were stifled by a disapproving or ignoring male power structure. In Marianne’s mind,
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
ideas could only lead to change if the most powerful members of society promoted
Marianne Weber also disagreed with some of early theorists’ (e.g., Marx and
Durkheim) infatuation with grand theories and the search for “natural” laws that
could explain social life across all time and space (nomothetic explanation). Like
Max, Marianne believed that social actions are unique and thus must be explained in
their own unique terms (ideographic understanding). Thus, Marianne Weber believed
it would be impossible to develop a single theory that held true across time and
place. Rather, she believed social theories must be historically and situationally
Marriage as the Linchpin of Patriarchal Domination
Marianne Weber was keenly aware of the limits placed on women living in a
patriarchal culture. She drew from this awareness in theorizing about women’s
domination, and pathways for liberation. Like Gilman, Marianne Weber saw intimate
relations between women and men as the central site for the reproduction of women’s
domination. The central problem, for Weber, was the fact that women were seen as
the property of men, a view that was institutionalized in legal codes, political process
(e.g., voting), religion, and the economy. You can get a sense of the legal status of
women in Europe from an important pamphlet written by Barbara Bodichon in 1854
entitled: A Brief Summary of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women: Together
with A Few Observations thereon. It focuses on laws in Britain, but is applicable to
similar legal statutes in Europe at the time. You can read a transcription of the
pamphlet by clicking here. The laws pertaining to married women appear about
halfway through the document. Here is one section of the legal summary that is
particularly relevant to Weber’s argument (Bodichon, 1854):
“Married women no legal existence.
A man and wife are one person in law; the wife loses all her rights as a
single woman, and her existence is entirely absorbed in that of her husband. He
is civilly responsible for her acts; she lives under his protection or cover, and
her condition is called coverture.
A husband has a right to the person of his wife.
A woman’s body belongs to her husband; she is in his custody, and he can
enforce his right by a writ of habeas corpus.”
In this context, Marianne Weber believed that women’s liberation from the constraints
of patriarchy would only come when the social structure (including the economy,
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
politics, and laws) changed enough to allow it. Looking at the interlocking systems
that perpetuated women’s subordinate social status, Marianne Weber saw economic
relations as the most important. She believed that changes in the economy were
necessary before the idea that women were the legitimate property of men could be
eradicated. As long as women depended on men for their economic survival, women
were vulnerable to continued lower social standing relative to men. Following
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Weber argued that if employment opportunities (outside
the home) for women increased, male domination of women in marriage would
decrease. Her thinking was that women who had a predictable external money supply
would be less dependent on men. This independence, then, would serve to subvert
the legitimacy of legal and religious statutes that reinforced male “ownership” of
Sociology of Everyday Survival
One last insight that we will see echoed later this semester when we consider the
work of Dorothy Smith: Marianne Weber argued that sociological analysis should have
its primary focus on the work of everyday survival. In other words, we sociologists
should target our analysis on the social actions and processes that encompass the
things we do each day to survive (cook, care, clean, manage interpersonal
relationships, etc.). Clearly, such a focus brings domestic activity to the center of
sociological analysis, a domain that was largely the province of women in Weber’s day
(and remains so for many women today), and ignored by male sociologists who
focused their analyses primarily on male-dominated activities such as paid
employment and politics). Weber argued that bringing sociological analysis “closer to
home” would unveil deeper levels of understanding about social action than could
ever be achieved by solely focusing on men’s activities outside the home.
Discussion Questions
(1) Marianne Weber argued that marriage was the linchpin of patriarchal domination
(note: a “linchpin” is something that holds parts together; if removed, the system of
interdependent parts falls apart). What was her rationale? How well do you think her
arguments apply to contemporary U.S. society? Give examples in support of your
(2) One of Marianne Weber’s insights was that patterns of oppression result from and
are maintained by the creation of rules/laws that guide civil society. One example
was the fact that married women were granted no legal status within Britain at one
time. What might be some ways in which a contemporary pattern of social dominance
of one or more groups relative to others is perpetuated/supported by social rules
and/or more formal laws?
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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