Gender Roles in Hereditary Aristocracies

Updated on March 20, 2019
Yamuna Hrodvitnir profile image

Yamuna is an avid reader, a writer, and an absurdity enthusiast.

Each culture throughout the history of the world has had its own customs and traditions in reference to the roles one would play in society. Every culture has been different in this sense, but almost all have shared the idea of gender roles: certain roles in the family and in society were to be played by women, and certain roles were to be played by men.

There has been great discussion among scholars of various backgrounds concerning why these gender roles were started in different cultures, why they evolved how they did, and why they persist even now. The general consensus is that there are many variables which complicate this question including things like religious beliefs and regional geography which influenced the way that early small communities functioned. It seems apparent however that gender roles first became of huge significance around the time of the agricultural revolution. Because wealth was most often measured in land at this time, most aspects of daily life started to revolve around working the land. Aside from in times of emergency or desperate need for hands, agricultural work was most often done by men. Land was passed down to the sons of a family, so it was the responsibility of the men to physically work and tend to the land. Women became responsible for domestic tasks and caring for the family because the men of the household would be out in the fields most of the time. This explains the start of gender roles in villages and families. As communities grew into cities, and states and nations, these roles expanded and adapted to suit the more vast societies and the world.

Power structures started out with the family. Before modern political structures, the authority of the individual was determined by their relationships among their family. The details of which family role held which powers in relation to the others varied from culture to culture, but were in general always gendered with emphasis on mother vs. father or sister vs brother (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). Later on, with the development of agriculture, people from different families would marry with each other and form a village. At this point, a political structure formed to make decisions concerning everyone in the village. These would vary and could be democratic or aristocratic. (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). In democratic political structures, power would be shared among the population and decisions would be made by general agreement. In aristocratic power structures, decision making was the responsibility of certain socially high-ranking families who were trusted to make judgments which would benefit everyone.

In an aristocratic political structure, power was given to the kinship or family with the most wealth or with certain religious or military ties. It is difficult to determine how exactly these families gained their aristocratic power because it happened before recorded history in most cases, but it was hereditary, and power was passed down through the family (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). After one family was recognized as the one to which power would be given, the children would inherit the wealth and power. This continued on for generations until in most cases, the original reason for that family's power was all but forgotten.

The development of hereditary aristocracies changed the social and familial roles of both women and men. In most cases, women would lose power or become less important (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). Because of the significance placed on inheritance, it was considered necessary that families begot sons, and that those sons were definitely those of the patriarch. This caused the imposition of harsh rules against adultery. Women’s family ties were less important than those of the men. Due to inheritance laws which usually left wealth to the eldest son, the wife or mother in the family took on a more submissive role overall (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). The land was the most important possession that a family could have, and because it almost always belonged to the patriarch, the activities and roles designated to the women were often considered less important.

This was not always the case however, and as with previous power structures, it did vary between cultures. A notable exception to this is that there were many cases when being part of an elite family offered women the opportunity to have a lot of political power or even to rule. Oftentimes, if a son were to inherit his place as ruler while he was a child, the mother would actually wield most of the power and hold responsibility for the decision making. These queen mothers were generally well respected (Weisner-Hanks, 2011). There is little evidence as to why some queen mothers were revered and recognized as an authority while others were less respected. It may simply be a case of the women's personalities and ability to rule.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I

One particularly recognized example of hereditary aristocracy leading a woman into power is that of Queen Elizabeth I, of England. She Became the queen at age 25, although her claim to the throne was complicated. She happened to be the only heir when her mother died, and continued to rule alone for 45 years (Levin, 2013). While her rule was very controversial due to the strong beliefs enforced by the church, she was ultimately accepted as ruler. She suffered great resistance from the church because it was believed that women could not hold a place of leadership, as God created men with the intention that they be the more powerful gender (Levin, 2013). The church was arguably more powerful than the throne at man points throughout history. While the people recognized royalty as their political leaders, most still considered the church to be the highest authority. So long as the church insisted that a woman could not rule, the people as a whole were inclined to agree and to disregard or disrespect Elizabeth I.

Ultimately her acceptance came when during her reign, the archbishop of York, Nicholas Heath announced that while Elizabeth I had the body of a woman, she held the power of a man and had a right to the throne. According to Carole Levin, he “stated that by the ‘appointment of God she [is] our sovaraigne lord and ladie, our kinge and quene, our emperor and empresse,'" (Levin, 2013). This was explained by the religious belief in the dual nature of monarchs, and it was said that she was simultaneously queen and rightful king. Her reign is still controversial to this day, but she was a strong leader who did eventually gain favor from a lot of her subjects despite being a woman. She just happened to gain her position through complicated family ties, and I believe this to be a both tragic and inspiring part of history.


Levin, C. 2013. The Heart and Stomach of a King: Elizabeth I and the Politics of Sex and Power. Pennsylvania, University of Pennsylvania Press. Retrieved from

Wiesner-Hanks, M. 2011. Gender in History: Global Perspectives. Malden, MA. Wiley-Blackwell

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