1) A system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Patriarchy also refers to a system of government by males, and to the dominance of men in social or cultural systems.
2) A society or community organized in this way.
This is the social system feminism set out to bring down decades ago--a system where women's interests were subordinated to men's interests. For feminism to have an excuse for its existence, patriarchy must also exist. But does it anymore in the West? Really?
Feminists will point to the underrepresentation of women (therefore the overrepresentation of men) in top positions in commerce, business, and politics and claim that this means patriarchy still exists. At the same time, when someone points out that most of the homeless are also men, their response is usually that "homeless men are not all men", and that you can't dismiss the concept of patriarchy based on a small subset of men who are grossly disadvantaged. But it logically follows that you cannot, in turn, prove the concept of patriarchy based on a small subset of men who are grossly privileged, does it not? Not all men are CEOs of fortune 500 companies, senators, media moguls and heads of state.
Feminists will claim that men as a group are privileged, and therefore their enemy patriarchy is still going strong. However, this statement--even if true--is also a logical fallacy. To claim male privilege translates into systematic patriarchy is to claim that female privilege indicates a pervasive system of matriarchy.
And women are indeed privileged--in different ways men are, sure, but still privileged. The smallest examination of history tells us this is so--women have always been seen as innately more valuable than men. It was men who were sent to war, while women remained safe on friendly soil. It was men who were expected to go down with the ship, while women and children were loaded onto lifeboats. It was men who were expected to work dangerous, physically gruelling jobs in coal mines and on oil rigs and on fishing boats, while the arguably more boring but unarguably safer occupations of housewife, schoolteacher, sales clerk were the domains of women. While men were indeed placed in authority over their wives and children, they were also saddled with the burden of protection and provision, and responsibility for any failures in that regard. It was men who stood in front of the homestead with a shotgun, determining whether approaching strangers were friend or foe, while women and children waited inside.
The privilege women have is based in our biological underpinnings, and as long as we remain subject to that biology female privilege will exist. A species that sees its females--the carriers of its offspring--as expendable enough to be sent to war, to be forced into dangerous jobs, to go down with the ship, to have no entitlement to provision and protection, and to hold a shotgun and stand between children and possible marauders is a species that is doomed to die out.
One might look at patriarchy from the feminist perspective that it is a system of keeping women down and giving men "power".
One could also argue, however, that for a group of people who'd always been seen as expendable, placing authority and control over money and lines of descent in the hands of men was the only way to make them...well, worth keeping around. If men control the means of production, it is women who control the means of reproduction--and this is why they are in the simplest of biological terms, more valuable than men. One man + twenty women = twenty babies. Switch the equation around, and see where that leads you.
One could look at patriarchy as a lopsided system that gives all the power to men. But if you consider the biological basis of female privilege--and indeed, female power--one could see patriarchy in an entirely different light, as a balancing of that very lopsided biological power differential. Of what use would a man be if he didn't inherit his family's wealth, have legally and socially sanctioned control of the finances and decisions of his household, or have some form of ownership of his children? In a system that is not patriarchal, men would be little more than beasts of burden, cannon fodder and sperm donors.
That society still sees women as more valuable than men is without question. There's a reason why more men are homeless than women--it is because society has a vested interest in keeping women alive, while it does not have the same interest in regard to men, and social programs reflect this. There's a reason why a grossly disproportionate percentage of domestic violence services and shelters serve women--it is because society believes women deserve protection, while men should be able to protect themselves. The mere suggestion of women in combat roles in the military induces a visceral negative response in most people, even when we logically know that many women would be more than capable of the job and have a desire to serve their country.
Feminism has largely achieved its goal of dismantling the legal framework of patriarchy. Men no longer own their wives or children, men no longer wield financial power to the exclusion of women, women have equal opportunities to pursue their chosen careers, they can vote, own property, obtain divorces, and even have sex and children outside of marriage without social stigma.
That women still earn less, on average, than men is not something I will dispute. But women financially dominate in other areas--they control 60% of the wealth in the United States, and 83% of consumer spending decisions. 45% of America's millionaires are women, and there are more multi-million dollar estates controlled solely by women (48%) than men (35%).
More women are gainfully employed than men right now (only 66.8% of American men had jobs last year). Of people already in the workforce, more women graduated from high school than men, and more women hold bachelor's degrees, than men. Soon, more women will hold advanced degrees than men, as for the first time in history last year, more advanced degrees were earned by women than men.
Where does this leave men? Where will it leave them in 10 years? For millennia, human biological necessity held women as more important than men in almost every respect. So if patriarchy was a system of checks and balances to prevent men from becoming entirely irrelevant, where is society headed now that patriarchy is being so effectively dismantled?
We've already begun to see it in a family court system that now largely considers children the sole property of their mothers, and a father's role immaterial beyond forced financial support. From per capita health care spending, health research spending, social safety nets, education, anti-discrimination laws, erosion of due process when due process is seen to "harm" women...our social and legal framework has become almost entirely matriarchal.
Under today's system, fatherhood is all burden and no power. Under today's system, 40% of American children are being raised without their fathers. Under today's system, a man can be ruined by a mere accusation by an anonymous woman. Under today's system, women are routinely handed lighter sentences than men for the same crimes. Under today's system, female sexuality is unrestrained, while male sexuality is burdened with an unfair expectation of restraint. Under today's system, men's rights under the law are almost always subordinated in favor of women's rights.
If this is patriarchy, I'd hate to see what matriarchy would look like.
Society is arranged by checks and balances, rights and responsibilities. At the moment, women have the same rights as men, but they are rarely held to the same level of personal responsibility--if they were, 50% of the homeless would be women. Patriarchy was an answer to the grossly disproportionate biologically grounded power women wield just by being women, a way of artificially evening the playing field by granting men similar levels of different privileges.
A few people are looking into a future where women as a group hold most of the power, and where the top 10-20% of men in real positions of privilege (and who will always hold that privilege, because that's where women seem to want the top men to be) have little interest in helping their "brothers" because they don't see them as brothers--they see them as, at best, competition, and at worst, disposable. And that's a consequence of our biology, too.
I'm not sure what society is going to look like in another couple of decades. Whatever it does end up looking like, I've never been so glad that I'm not a man.