Patriarchy is from the Greek for "the rule of the father", but has taken on the meaning of general domination, bodily and otherwise, that men have over women. Juliet Mitchell qualifies this trend in stating that "(w)hether or not the actual father is there does not affect the perpetration of the patriarchal culture within the psychology of the individual." Patriarchy in Western societies stems from the twofold influence of Natural Law, physiologically justifying female inferiority, and Divine Law, interpreting religious texts to the same end.

Patriarchy affects the structures of power, the institutions, before it affects the people. In patriarchal cultures, the every avenue of power within the society, including education, finance, politics, and the military, is created by males to favour the male population, and by extension, disfavour the female population. Patriarchy affects individual women by making constraints on their involvement in education, finance, politics, and culture, and leaves them vulnerable to attitudes which lead to their sexual exploitation.

Historically, individual women supported patriarchal structures to meet their own ends, or to advance other individuals, perhaps female, but these reinforce the exceptionality of women, and thereby further justify general female subordination.

Often confused with patriarchy, patrilinearity is the tracing of descent through the line of the father.