The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, by Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen. New York: Columbia University Press. 2020. 606 pages.

Reviewed by B. Kent Harrison.

The authors of this book are, respectively: University Distinguished Professor and George H. W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University; Professor Emerita of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Brigham Young University; and Associate Teaching Professor of statistics at Brigham Young University.

The authors note (p. 5) that the academic home for this research has been the WomanStats Project (,) which holds that “The fate of nations is tied to the status of women.” Coders for this project, who include students from several universities, have assembled data on every nation with a population exceeding 300,000, currently totaling 176 nations.

The thesis of this book is that traditional clan societies have developed a “a web of practices to ensnare women as permanent subordinates.” A corollary thesis is the statement above: that the fate of nations is tied to the status of women, or in other words, that the treatment/status of women in the family is the major determiner of the relationships among the world’s nations.

The audience for the book is governments, professional persons working in political science, sociology, policy makers, and anyone concerned with the status of women. While the lay person may profit from reading this, the book is not an easy read; it is a scholarly work with fairly abstract language and detailed references.

The historical antecedent for the thesis is the work by the nineteenth century scholar, Sir Henry Sumner Maine, who identified two types of society: 1) “status societies,” or traditional societies in which family, clan, and tribal identities were the basis of social organization; 2) societies whose governance is based on contracts between the rulers and the ruled that grant and enforce rights of the individual as well as safeguard the nation—in short, many modern states. The present authors study societies which encode—employ—what they call the “Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome,” analogous to Maine’s status societies.

The Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome, which I will abbreviate as PFS, is defined by the authors as the “socially constructed system of male security alliances, united through ‘agnatic’ (male kinship) networks … over millennia.” They term it a syndrome because it is associated with a set of symptoms that characterize a particular social condition. The term “syndrome,” consisting of a set of conditions or symptoms, is often used to describe a medical situation that has not yet acquired a name as a disease; it is often pathological. The authors assert the PFS to be, indeed, pathological.

The authors explain that the PFS, in detail, is composed of an interlocking web of eleven practices which combine to form a straitjacket of female subordination: 1) physical violence against women (a major, universal contributor); 2) patrilocal marriage in which brides move to their husbands’ family compounds, 3) early marriage for girls; 4) personal status laws that benefit men and grant women few rights in the family; 5) laws and traditions restricting women from owning property; 6) practices of dowry and bride price; 7) son preference and sex ration alteration; 8) cousin marriage; 9) polygyny, 10) sanction/impunity for the killing of women, and 11) the treatment of rape as a property crime against men. The authors characterize this web as a vicious cycle, seemingly without beginning or end, like an ouroboros (snake eating its own tail). As noted above, data for these claims are supplied by the WomanStats project. A glance at its online graphs (many are reproduced in this book) provides quick and dramatic support for the claims.

Of course, mere sets of statistics do not constitute proof of the assertions. The authors know this. In Chapter 7 (page 180), they note that their research is still exploratory and they do not at present make any causal claims regarding the Syndrome and their dependent variables—only claims of association.

The background material is works of philosophers and theorists. After discussing these, the authors move to their theoretical framework and the explanation of the PFS. Following this, they discuss how the Syndrome operates, its mechanisms, and what its worldwide extent is. In Chapter 7, they introduce the empirical analysis designed to test their propositions. Finally, they discuss the possibility of change.

It will be this reviewer’s task to test their thesis—to make sure that the authors have not simply made preconceived assumptions which they then justify by the statistics. Their remarks from Chapter 7, as noted above, indicate that they have been careful not to overstate their case. Nevertheless, their case is strong. It is clear that women are indeed oppressed by men in this world. As a long-time worker on women’s issues, I tend to agree.

I give here brief outlines of the chapters, following the authors’ own outlines. Part I introduces what they call the “first political order”: the order of authority in the household that forms the basis for community and state actions. Chapter I lays out the sexual political order (the subordination of women). Chapter 2 introduces the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome and goes into detail about it, treating the components of the web it comprises, outlined above.

I pause here to express some confusion. The terms “status societies,” “first political order,” “sexual political order,” and “Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome,” all seem to refer to much the same thing, although the PFS is the primary term. The authors usually use Patrilinear/Fraternal Syndrome, or simply Syndrome.

Chapter 1 immediately makes the point that many studies of political order fail to mention women, despite the fact that they comprise half the human race. On the other hand, the authors of this book, particularly Hudson, have written extensively about the impact of world cultures’ views about women on world politics. This chapter specifically mentions “human sexual dimorphism”—the greater upper body strength of men—which makes physical violence against women possible—the first of the PFS practices listed above.

The authors characterize the first political order as having four political dimensions: 1) status as equals or unequals, 2) who makes the decisions, 3) how conflict is resolved, 4) how resources are allocated—by males or females in the community. If this is the structure of male-female relations—in particular, at the individual level and if males dominate—what is the effect on the entire community?

Chapter 2’s title refers to the “oldest security provision mechanism.” This is explained to be the PFS—in that it is supposed to supply security to the clan. The chapter begins with a rather awful quote from a woman whose family tree has been traced back thousands of years—but no women exist on it. (This is incomprehensible to me; my own family tree has equal numbers of men and women.) In other words, women are rendered practically invisible. See my review of Invisible Women in the Spring 2021 issue of SquareTwo (Volume 14, No. 1.).

The authors then treat PFS in detail. They discuss the traditional subordinate role of women in the family, including the services the men receive: maintenance of the household including the gathering of water, food, and fuel; care for the husband’s parents; bearing and rearing children; and sexual services. They support their claims by citations from a number of scholars, who provide suggestive evidence that family conflict arose early in human history, as did slavery, noting that human sexual dimorphism has been constant.

They provide a quote relating to the genealogical tree, noting that deaths resulting from “intergroup competition” (i.e., war!) are not randomly distributed but are clustered on the male part of the tree (which does acknowledge that women exist on the tree). War, of course, is a threat to males. One is reminded of the many Book of Mormon passages which speak of the loss of men to the society in warfare. The historical collapse of male lines is supported by research by a number of scholars.

The authors refer to the Syndrome as a security protection mechanism, which provides security for the group against external threats. This, in the practitioners’ view, necessitates the subjugation of women.

The authors then propose that there are two primary security mechanisms among humans: 1) the PFS, “which protects its cousins,” and 2) the formation of a “state,” “which protects its citizens.” The protection of the group—clan, family, or kin group—provides comfort, security, dignity, and personal belonging to its members. So why does this “necessitate” the subjugation of women? Logically, it should not. But it has risen historically; it is a matter of tradition.

The choice of security provision mechanism largely determines the horizon of possibility for things we value deeply, like democracy, human rights, rule of law.

The authors note that the clan structure, in which the PFS is alive and well, has contributed to the formation of the state. Clan and state may, however, become enemies, and when the state fails to protect its citizens, they take things into their own hands. The clan or tribal system exists in many modern countries like Yemen, Kenya, South Sudan, or even in the midst of more advanced democracies like India or the Philippines.

The authors contend that reliance on male kin groups for security always produces a dysfunctional, corrupt, and violent destiny for any society. They explain how the security provision mechanism arises and persists over space and time and examine the law and customs about male-female interaction, especially those concerning marriage. Marriage is the first social contract struck within any human society. It is the “bedrock of family structure, and thus the foundation of national political unity, in essentially every country in the world.” The authors argue that the marriage contract is a strong determinant of societal governance, consistent with their thesis that the treatment of women at the family level affects the entire nation. They lament the fact that marital laws and customs may be enforced through coercion.

They argue that, in order to provide long-term support for society, the first political order—the sexual political order—must be enforced. “… [F]raternity is created from a deep sense of belonging to that agnatic line, or what would be termed ‘patrilineality.’” In a simpler but less precise term, this is male bonding.

“Thus, clans can reproduce themselves only in a relatively exclusionary manner emphasizing the male line or else the fraternity will wither.” The most vulnerable family members … are the women … the subordination of female interests … is how patrilineal clans are formed in the first place.” This seems to illustrate the illustration the authors use of the ouroboros—the vicious circle.

In discussion of the PFS, the authors note its primary feature: human sexual dimorphism. Men are stronger than women; they have a larger upper body. This simple fact, the use of physical force, is the main feature in the degradation of women. They note its presence, not only in humans, but also in most primates. Often the females must protect themselves and their children from male violence. Men feel entitled to love, affection, sex, caregiving labor … and if they don’t receive these things voluntarily, they take them by force.

A man may need to insure his safety against other men. This may be done by showing ferocity towards women. Robin Morgan: “Whatever cruelties men visit upon one another they have first tested and refined on women.” Males may need, for security, to form alliances. Historically these have been those related by kinship ties. The relationships may follow the pattern of an old Bedouin saying: “I against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”

Exogamy, marrying outside one’s clan, is a genetic imperative (to avoid incest), known for “at least thirty-four thousand years.” (Source for this figure is not provided.) For preservation of the fraternal alliance, men stay in the collective and women leave. This, of course, results in a weakening of women’s power—they lose their kin networks and the power that goes with them. They may travel long distances to marry patrilocally—settling in the husband’s community.

Under paternal leadership (patrilineality), resources pass from father to son to son. Women often have no property rights. This “… differential inheritance and [lack of] property rights become the hallmark of patrilineality…”

The authors delineate an important effect of patrilocal marriage—a devaluation of daughters and a deep suspicion of wives. Sons are valued because they can contribute to the defense of the family and because they help with the family food production. The researcher Peggy Sanday notes: “Cross-cultural research demonstrates that whenever men build and give allegiance to a mystical, enduring all-male social group, the disparagement of women is, invariably, an important ingredient of the mystical bond …The degradation of women [is] a prerequisite for masculinity … Compassion for women implies castration.”

Daughters are not considered kin, but burdens, guests who will leave the family within a few years. They may not even be considered in the family genealogy. Furthermore, a woman’s future husband’s family may not view her as kin, but as a threat to the established social order within the home. The devaluation of daughters and wives is correlated with female infanticide and sex-selective abortion—which can be found in at least 19 nation-states today.

Rights of wives in marriage are severely circumscribed—e.g., they have no rights for divorce while husbands may divorce wives without cause. Wives may have no access to their children after a divorce. If the husband dies, his property goes to his family, not to her. Adultery is a capital crime if committed by the wife; a husband receives no penalty. Husbands may control the property and the movements of their wives. Wife battering may be considered a man’s property right. The result is a host of dependent, unproductive women, limited in education and the possibility of employment.

The sexual order can evolve two different ways depending on whether a woman’s labor is considered essential for food production. If it is, she is a valuable commodity and the husband pays the father a bride price for her. If not, she is a liability and must pay the groom’s family a dowry to take her off her family’s hands. (Daughters who are liabilities may be eliminated or prevented through infanticide or abortion.)

All of this, in a nutshell, constitutes the major features of the PFS. The authors characterize the situation as a tragedy for both the men and women. Men know that in several ways they are dependent on that inferior being, a woman, and so they take it out on wives to make sure they don’t forget their inferior status.

Chapter 3 is a long chapter, focusing on PFS today. It promises to study male-bonded kin groups. One author speaks of a range of clan societies beginning with stateless societies known as “segmentary lineage systems” to those with a weak government. The present authors probe how “the reliance on extended male-bonded kin groups as a security provision mechanism” is linked to worse outcomes for nation-states. The text does not say worse than what?

The situation varies from nation to nation. In some societies the prominence of PFS is open and overt, such as in Afghanistan (even more so now), South Sudan, China, Bosnia, Egypt, the post-Soviet Caucasus. South Korea, on the other hand, is moving away from PFS, as explained later. The WomanStats data is helpful in such classifications. One of its maps, shown in the text, specifically shows countries where the PFS is present and dominant; they are the African and Middle Eastern nations, India, Afghanistan, and a few in the East Indies. Other maps detail various parts of the PFS.

Societies that practice bride price and dowry represent almost half of the world’s countries. Bride price occurs on all continents except America. Extensive discussion of bride price is given. It may not go to the woman but to the groom’s family. Poorer men who must delay marriage in order to earn enough for the bride price run into the problem of inflation of the standard bride price, and it is impossible to catch up.

The practice of dowry is different from bride price. Families can be bankrupted by the dowries they pay, so in those cases female infanticide and sex-selective abortion are common. Large dowries can enhance a bride’s social standing, but small ones can lead to ridicule, which sometimes leads to murder or suicide of the unfortunate woman.

Polygyny is commonly practiced, in the typical countries—Islamic Africa and the Middle East, most of Russia, Indonesia. For CofJC members, who practiced it to raise up seed to the Lord, the current reasons may come as a surprise: it is a marker of elite status, and it cements alliances among various male kin groups. No benefit to the woman is mentioned, of course.

There is a host of negative consequences to polygyny: unequal family law, higher birth rates, HIV infection, low marriage age for girls, higher maternal mortality, lower life expectancy, higher levels of sex trafficking, and higher levels of domestic violence, and for the women and children, anxiety and depression.

Patrilocality: women must move to another family group for marriage, thus losing contact with her own family. Sons stay in the family for defense. The effects on the women are detrimental. She has little status in her husbands’ family, especially if she doesn’t produce sons. If she is widowed or divorced she may even be cast out. Son preference is likewise difficult for women. An example from the text: a woman had eight children; her in-laws forced her to continue to become pregnant. She had been beaten. If the next child is not a boy she and her daughters will be cast out.

Families may engage in cousin marriage to keep assets within the family. This, of course, produces the danger of inherited diseases; an example from Pakistan says that in such marriages, the children’s death rate from inherited diseases was 38 times that of a control group. The authors’ research showed that cousin marriage also produced detrimental effects for the women.

Inequity in family law and practice concerns the relationships between men and women in the family. In the authors’ model, the male-bonded kin group made family law in the image of its own interests. Clan law often trumps state law.

Property and inheritance rights for women are few. The existence of such rights is an indication of women’s rights in relation to the male-bonded kin group.

Violence against women: a “good” wife beating—possible through sexual dimorphism—provides stability to the family and the community. Women’s physical insecurity is viewed as the norm. This includes rape. An example from the text: a three-year old boy threatens to rape his grandmother. The authors look at 1) overall prevalence of violence against women; 2) impunity for those who harm or kill women under certain circumstances; 3) the construction of rape, not as a crime against the woman, but as a property crime against the man. The abuse of women is a means to renew fraternal bonds and assert power as a brotherhood.

This chapter explained how PFS affects many local parts of men and women’s lives. Later chapters explore its effect on the larger society.

Chapter 4 begins with the observation that PFS “breeds a fragile societal peace” in that it is based on a combination of dominance and rewards, and its subordination of women does not produce healthy nation-states. If that combination fails, the stable PFS begins to crumble and things get even worse for women.

It then moves to the question of state security. The Princeton Project on State Security lists a number of criteria for security. These authors ask about the possibility of degradation of security because of the influence of male-bonded kin networks. Clan politics may capture some of the functions of the state.

The rest of the chapter details how this happens. Force against women is detailed, e.g., rape as a weapon in war. “… [S]cholars have noted that the first sign of dehumanization of a group is its feminization.” (Italics in the original.) “… [T]o be called a ‘woman’ is an insult for men across nearly all cultures …” One Islamic fighter was asked how he would feel if his own mother were raped, and he replied, “… [T]hat is Islamic sharia law and I would not mind because it would be for the jihad.” (I am glad I don’t live under sharia law!)

One scholarly study suggests some linkages from male dominance to the use of force as a preferred method of [state] dispute resolution. This, of course, is exactly the point these authors are trying to make. They cite the researchers Bjarnegard and Melander, who found that individuals with strong sexist beliefs are “far more hostile toward other nations as well as toward minorities within their own society.” A quote from Sanday: “In an all-male social group, the disparagement of women is, invariably, an important ingredient of the mystical bond, and sexual aggression the means by which the bond is renewed.” Mystical bond, indeed! I am reminded of the line from the movie Dr. Strangelove: “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! You can’t fight here! This is the war room!”

The authors discuss “rents.” Here, this term has a broader and more unfamiliar meaning than the usual one. A quote from an economist: “There are two ways to make a living—producing things or appropriating what others have produced …” Rents are the latter. “Givers” are always inferior to “takers.” A man “takes” a wife and sires children upon her; they then belong to the patriline and not to the mother. He “owns” her as property; marital rape is an oxymoron and is not illegal. A woman’s dowry or earnings from the labor force belong to her husband.

Such “raiding” to obtain rents applies to more than male-female relations; it becomes part of the larger economy. An Arab proverb states: “Raids are our agriculture.”

In the patrilineal network, the dispersal of rents tends to dampen grievances and is thus a stabilizer. This may be complicated, since the relative power of different clans may determine the allocation of posts in the civil government. This is particularly true in the Middle East. The Saudi family in Arabia has maintained stability by spreading its wealth and top government posts among branches of the family.

Patrilineal networks have political power in that they can influence distribution and exchange. This is actually dysfunctional, “just as the exploitation of women on which it is based is dysfunctional.” In one study, it was found that women are more subordinated in economies focused largely on oil rents. I suggest that this is not causal, but coincidental, since this occurs largely in the Middle East states.

Governance-through-rents is not a foundation for good government; it is particularly susceptible to clan-based corruption. Where the Syndrome is operative, corruption is simply the means of governance. “Corruption has a deeply corrosive effect on trust in government and contributes to crime and political disorder.” It is destructive to innovation. Where the state government is weak, clans strip assets from it. Incompetent government officials cannot be fired because they are kinsmen. The discussion in the text is extensive—more than can be treated here.

All of this is related to impunity instead of the rule of law. The rule of law is usually enforced through state governments, but if they are ineffective, anything goes. Clan rule instead of the rule of law governs.

Consistent with the earlier claim made by the authors, they note that the unequal contract between a husband and wife undermines the rule of law in the larger society. In the marriage, there is impunity for the man and harsh punishment for the wife. It is a little jaw-dropping that this extends to the entire society, but there it is. It happens. Under the legal principles of the clan, “… [P]eople are valued less as individuals per se than as members of their extended families.” The authors quote an Iraqi saying, “Support your brother even though he is wrong,” indicating the importance of tribal law. (Nothing here about, “Support your wife even though she is wrong!”)

They give a quote about shame and guilt: Shame results when the community has witnessed or learns of an individual’s bad behavior. Guilt is solitary, resulting from a bad conscience. PFS societies are decidedly shame-based. States in such societies “may have elections but they do not have extensive systems of rights of rule of law for most citizens.” How sad! Another quote: “[T]he elevation of family and kinship ties above other sorts of social obligations … produces a two-level morality, wherein the level of moral obligation to public authority of all sorts is weaker than that reserved for kin. That this two-level morality is corrosive to the nation-state is readily understandable.”

Male-bonded kin groups fissure—or split—easily, perhaps as a matter of honor or pride. Men used to duel all the time. The authors state, “… [W]hen patrilineal clans engage in conflict, swift and dangerous escalation often ensues. The threat of the feud … keeps the peace, until one day it doesn’t and the apocalypse is unleashed.” These episodes of feuding are the “Achilles heel” of clan-based government. The authors note that local violence can broaden to encompass whole peoples, such as the Rwandan genocide, or even global militancy. “Tribes are always in constant competition”; every injury must be avenged. Clans are willing to perish and let everyone else perish. “The logic of honor can easily outweigh the logic of survival.”

Apart from the question of state-to-state conflict (world war)—what do states do to control their aggressive clans? They can 1) let the clans have their autonomy and rule the country indirectly—which typically results in violence escalation, or 2) forcibly suppress the clans to the power of the state—which also results in violence. The authors suggest the alternate 3): break the power of the clans by building equality between men and women. What a concept! This of course is difficult. The authors note that altered sex ratios may cause sexual frustration, jealousy, and a tendency to go to war. Sigh.

Chapter 5 speaks about “obstructed marriage markets.” Since there is an excess of young men, with consequent shortage of young women, there is competition among the men for wives. Sanday notes that there is a “causal relationship between scarce resources and the oppression of women.” War between the clans may result from scarcity of resources and of women.

PFS creates at least three “goads” to the obstruction of marriage markets. These make arranging a marriage more difficult: 1) the elimination of females because of selective abortion, female infanticide, or other culling practices; 2) polygyny, which takes females out of the market; 3) high bride price and wedding costs, because these raise ages for potential grooms, who must earn enough money for these expenses. All of these tend to delay marriage. The system is inherently unstable. Younger females will be more in demand for marriage than older ones, who are vulnerable to sale, assault, or even suicide. The differential sex ratios are clearly shown in the WomanStats maps. South Korea, however, has normalized its sex ratios by undermining the influence of the nation’s clans. The excess young men are known, in the Chinese vernacular, as “bare branches”; they will never bear fruit. The percentage of excess males may be 12% in India and 15% in China. They will feel some grievance at being excluded and may contribute to the instability of the national society in relation to others, or they may contribute to crime or gang violence.

Societies that practice polygyny, such as in much of Africa, effectively produce a differential sex ratio because women are taken out of circulation. Unmarried, low-status men may engage in risky, antisocial behavior. There may be warfare with other societies. The authors note that the ancient Greeks recognized the destabilizing nature of polygyny and took steps to enforce monogamy.

Rising wedding costs contribute to societal instability. Young men found it difficult to get the money for bride price and marriage-associated costs. Some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, assist their young men to meet the marriage costs.

The “youth bulge”—excess numbers of young males—often render countries politically unstable. And of course, it affects the marriage situation as well. Young men without wives often turn violent, occasionally engaging in assassinations. This instability could lead to crumbling of democratic institutions, particularly in countries like Libya, Egypt, Nigeria, Syria, Gulf countries, and Afghanistan.

Some youth migrate or serve as mercenaries to earn money for marriage. That often contributes to their status in their home nations. They may also kidnap girls for brides during their time away. Inflation in wedding costs has contributed to the problem—from only 12 cows to more than 50, plus goats and money. Men may often marry only in their late twenties or mid-thirties.

Chapter 6 considers effects of PFS at some length. First of all, in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, women may have married late and may have had property rights. On the other hand, in countries where PFS is alive and well, one of the effects is the fact that husbands often desire many children, because that makes them powerful, especially if they have sons. They may have many wives so they can have more children. The authors comment that households may have 25 children or so. Their wives may be young. But young wives—in their teens—know essentially nothing about sex. They don’t know about contraception, and they are subject to diseases and problems like fistula. Teen-aged wives have a high mortality rate. Their husbands, concerned with having more children, often neglect their wives, who may not have enough food, education, or proper medical care. The wives usually have little to say in the governance of the household. Household size and a woman’s number of births are positively correlated with domestic violence.

Another concern for women is that they may labor in the fields, in addition to having children. Their income goes to their husbands. This may contribute to poor health. They may be malnourished and usually have no land of their own. By cultural imperative, discriminatory practices towards women—concerning property rights, land rights, inheritance rights, etc.—must be maintained even if that means a sacrifice of greater prosperity for the family and the nation.

The conclusion of all this is that human security, human development, and economic development are stunted in Syndrome countries. Those countries typically have a parasitical rent-based government structure. The authors supply a diagram showing the many effects of PFS on families and nations: child marriage and ill health, illiteracy, poverty, violence, instability, etc. The US interest in foreign policy mandates that we take an interest in such nations.

Chapter 7 explores the relation between national outcomes and PFS; the authors have explored the outcome variables for nine dimensions of national stability. I will address those briefly in my remarks on this chapter.

The authors address a matter I have been concerned with in this review. They do not make any causal claims regarding PFS and their “dependent variables,” only regarding association. However, they do anticipate that further research will advance those claims.

They speak of “contextual variables,” which relate to the ability of PFS to self-replicate, and, as I understand it, they also relate to the effects of PFS on women both at the domestic level, and upon political matters at the national level.

First of all, the authors note the effect of urbanization. In this case, women are more likely to be integrated into the labor force, they have more control over their lives and PFS has less control. Women may have more control over their inheritance, and the changing nature of society may dampen the desire for sons. So, the authors treat this as a control variable “that mediates the relationship between the Syndrome and the dependent variables we wish to investigate.”

The next effect is whether the society provides a pension for the elderly. In the absence of such, patrilines retain their relevance. The third effect is the availability of mass media; this spreads ideas about women’s equality that reduce the impact of PFS. “Shocks” in the society—unusual events like natural disasters—constitute a fourth contextual variable. As an example, the authors note that the devasting drought in India has increased the rates of child marriage, polygyny, prostitution, and dowry deaths. In fearful times, people turn to PFS for security. Since the end of the Cold War, many people have felt a greater sense of insecurity in the face of international threats, and the importance of sons increases. Hence, since that time, the number of countries with abnormal sex ratios has increased.

A search for control variables that could be used in the authors’ regression analysis was complicated by the fact that the effects of PFS are broad. They do settle on several, including percent urban population, civilization identification, percent arable land, and on others. The rest of the chapter is a detailed statistical analysis of their hypotheses that “nations with higher Syndrome scores will have lower levels of political stability, higher levels of corruption, lower levels of democracy and civil rights, and lower levels of government effectiveness and the rule of law” (p. 190). I will not attempt to explain the analysis except to review the conclusions at the end of the chapter.

A major conclusion is that that the Syndrome matters—it is a “consistent and useful predictor of national outcome measures.” This statement struck me forcibly. Most people do not realize that attitudes toward women and girls play such a role in world affairs. They are just accustomed to the fact that they play a secondary role. Even in modern societies like the United States, this practice is ingrained.

A second, important conclusion is that if a group—a “collective”—chooses to subordinate women to build up male-bonded kin networks, it will likely face poor outcomes in a number of areas—like increased hunger, underweight children, lower GDP, political violence, and others. Again, this fact is not realized by most people; it has escaped their awareness.

The statements made in these conclusions are backed up by the statistical analysis. Extensive tables of the statistical results are provided.

The authors rank the importance of the control variables: urbanization, ethnic fractionalization, number of land neighbors, and so on. They then observe that wealth sometimes mitigates bad outcomes even in high-Syndrome countries. These include many Persian Gulf nations but also Malaysia and Botswana. In a final statement to the chapter, they note that high PFS is strongly associated with poor governance, low levels of being for its citizens [men as well as women], etc. Can the system be changed?

Chapter 8 addresses the possibility. In an introductory paragraph the authors supply a quote: “…The original survival advantage enjoyed by individual males with a predisposition for team aggression has long since been replaced by a major, verging on suicidal, disadvantage for our species as a whole … the natural tendencies of men are not consistent with the survival and well-being of their partners, their children, and future generations to come” (emphasis added). That says it in a nutshell.

PFS is dominant in 120 of the 176 countries studied. But the authors take hope in the fact that it is not in 56 countries. But male upper body strength occurs in all countries and so we may expect that violence against women will continue to occur.

For the 120, what can be done? Rather surprisingly, Genghis Khan attempted to create a new form of fraternal alliance, based not on blood but allegiance to him as a ruler. Men were organized into groups of ten, non-kin based. By forcing them into this system, he broke the power of the old. In about 600 B.C., Cleisthenes abolished the clans, assigned everyone to units of ten, and created the Athenian city-state. So the corrosive effects of PFS have long been recognized. When these charismatic rulers died, of course, the system reverted to the PFS-dominant one.

But perhaps the first large scale progression past PFS took place in northwestern Europe. Church changes in marriage and inheritance law in the early seventh century facilitated movement away from the old family tradition in which PFS was dominant: Pope Gregory, an enlightened man for his time, forbade close kin marriages, forced marriage, polygyny, the disinheritance of widows, and such matters. By the time of Charlemagne, close kin marriages warranted excommunication and confiscation of property. Some PFS practices were banned early; by the twelfth century, European women no longer had to obtain parental consent to marry. Polygyny was forbidden. This was the doing of the church, the most powerful entity in Europe. The authors make the rather astounding statement, “Without the Christian teaching on monogamy, Western civilization might not have emerged in its current form.” They justify it by noting polygyny’s “devastating” effects on stability, human capital investment, and economics performance. They quote an author who attributes the rise of the nuclear family to church policies in the medieval period.

Another author asks why the church should institute so many practices contrary to the well-established PFS and concludes the answer lay in the disposition of inheritances. This is related to the major shift of property from private ownership into the hands of the church. In the process it strengthened the hand of women, exalting the equality of the sexes. Besides having property rights and improved marriages, women also benefitted from the rule of law. The old impunity for men and lack of impunity for women were worn down.

Another factor in causing a divergence from PFS domination may be the increased age of marriage of women. Furthermore, the nature of marriage changed once the woman’s age increased and polygyny was abandoned. Men and women saw each other differently, as persons rather than objects.

A leader in the emancipation of women was the Netherlands. The authors supply quotes from the 16th century from admiring travelers about women’s freedom.

A significant remark: Capitalism is the result rather than the cause of the changes in social relationships. (This is somewhat of an assumption.) An even more astonishing one from another author suggests that the development of democracy is traceable to the late-marriage pattern of Western Europe. (It is not said whether that author supplies any connection to the historical development of democracy in Greece.) Other factors are the rise of literacy and the consequent ability of women to participate in their husbands’ and their own business affairs.

The researcher Mary Hartman, whose work supplied much of these pages of the text, has supplied a table, reproduced in the text, contrasting the traditional marriage pattern with the “aberrant” pattern (which “arose first among nonelites in northwest Europe.”) The traditional pattern list sounds very much like the features of PFS. Other researchers note that change in the family is the key to modernization of society.

The lands of the Byzantine Empire took very divergent paths from those of the Roman Catholic Church. Tightly knit kin communities persisted in Byzantium. State governments in China, India, and Middle Eastern countries attempted to regulate kin-based societies but found that the top-down approach did not work. The Soviet Union was another example of the failure of top-down enforcement of the equality of women. China’s efforts to regulate marriage were met with violent opposition in the early 1950s.

The chapter then presents a discussion of extremely abnormal birth ratios, favoring males, as mentioned earlier. In 1990, only five countries had such ratios; by 2015, surprisingly, that number had increased to 15. It would seem that efforts to value females equally had failed in these countries. The map on page 70 shows the detailed variation among the world’s nations. Even in countries like the US, it is common to prefer sons. Only one country in the last seventy years has moved in the opposite direction: South Korea—and it changed rapidly. Inequality existed even into the 1970s. How did this come about? In a nutshell, the authors say, the South Korean government, supported by the courts, stripped men of privilege in inheritance, control of assets and children and even the ability to create lineage. Several UN groups and NGOs helped engineer the transition; the state ratified the CEDAW convention, leading to a revision of family law beginning in 1989. But the most significant change occurred in 2003 as a result of pressure from the alliance The Citizens for the Abolition of the Head of Family System, which was organized in 2000 by a feminist activist. That year, the government revised laws permitting women to head households. This was accompanied by a decline in the abnormal sex ratio until it reached normalcy in 2007. Further changes came about after continuing pressure from the alliance. All of this undermined patrilineality.

The chapter concludes with a brief note that the work of the researchers mentioned indicates that improvement in women’s status is possible. The main consideration seems to be the structure of marriage. The Roman Catholic Church began in the seventh century to assert its authority to declare what was a legitimate marriage and what was not, and that made the difference.

Chapter 9, the conclusion, begins with the description of a 1996 experiment by William Rice. He engineered female fruit flies—the perpetual species used for genetic experiments—to be genetically static, while male flies were allowed to evolve. In 50 generations, the males had evolved to a “hyper-male” that caused physical damage to the female flies in coitus. The damage resulted in lower offspring viability and thus cancelled out any advantage through natural selection. One researcher termed the paper (a rather overstated conclusion) the most important [genetics] paper of the twentieth century because “when experimental manipulation allows one sex to dominate completely the interests of the other sex, there is catastrophe.”

The present authors suggest that the fruit fly results can be extended to humans (it is well known that fruit fly genetics are somewhat of a predictor for human genetics). They have attempted to show in this book links between women’s domestic situation and broader national interests. They have described a syndrome (PFS) which shows the widespread effects of the devaluation of women, such as unstable and poorly governed societies.

What to do? There are 120 countries that still adhere to PFS. The previous chapter showed that education, economic participation, and political representation are not enough to dismantle it. The most important determiner in dismantling PFS is the improvement of family law and practices. “Dismantling the Syndrome profoundly undercuts the dominance of extended male kin groups.”

The authors assign a point system to countries depending on their adherence to PFS. (Appendix I briefly describes the method of calculating the scores and gives the scores for each country.) Those with points 0 to 5 have largely left it behind; those with points 10–16 are still in its throes. Transition countries are those with points 6–9 (for example, Mexico has a score of 6 while China has a score of 9).

Some of the chapter gives the details of the calculation of the status of the individual countries. The authors conclude that dismantling even a part of PFS vastly improves the outcomes for the entire nation. They found from their research that the disempowerment of women is not just idiosyncratic but is universal—the first political order of the title. The true clash of civilizations is not West versus East … it is the subordination of women versus their insubordination. Each people face a test on how they treat their women. It seems to me, reading the extensive analysis done by the authors, that the critical one-word description of what makes the difference is desire—that of the people themselves. External pressures won’t do it. I am reminded of the abolition of apartheid in South Africa—there was tremendous pressure on it from other nations, but in the end, South Africa solved the problem itself.

The chapter then lists weak points in PFS. There is a diagram showing these. It seemed to me that most of the aspects of the Syndrome were listed. In various countries, groups have been formed to address particular problems, such as marriage age, and then they affect the change. An example of improvement in child marriage age is Malawi (although it is still rated at 13). Other weak spots are polygyny (the authors cite researchers who found that women are far less supportive of polygyny than men. Surprise!), and property rights for women in practice and in law. The authors explore the effect of changes of context, such as in urbanization, the existence of pension systems, attempts to improve judicial recognition of women, increasing capital investment in women, and greater investment in their health. Better education, labor force representation, and governmental participation are insufficient to overcome the effects of PFS, as noted before, but they are still important.

All of that said, domestic violence remains the worst problem. In addition to its effects on individual families, it undermines the stability and security of the nation-state. It needs to be treated as terrorism. We have become more aware of it, to be sure, but we have a long way to go.

A point to watch is immigration from PFS countries to those who have overcome it. The problem is not so much religion but extended kinship. Some countries have developed orientation courses for new immigrants to make sure they understand that certain practices, like polygyny and domestic violence, are forbidden. Religious considerations like Shariah law must be subordinate to national laws.

The remainder of the chapter treats the costs of having PFS be the security mechanism and how states can deal with that. One study examined three states—Morocco, Tunisia, and Iraq—and how they handled the clans. Tunisia, which attempted to eradicate them, was most successful, while Morocco tried to accommodate them. Iraq vacillated. The lesson from this is that ruling “through” clans, or ignoring them, does not work. It is appeasement.

A paradoxical note is that sometimes dictators, less subject to public opinion, are more successful than democrats in championing women’s empowerment. So maybe strong transitional leaders are needed to establish the rule of law. Sometimes political considerations get in the way; Hudson recalls Gloria Steinem asking whether the US was supporting the wrong side when it sided with Afghanistan in the 1979 Soviet invasion; the national leaders wanted to drive the Soviets out because (gasp!) they were allowing girls to go to school, girls and women could no longer be married without [the leaders’ consent], and women were invited to political meetings. These leaders spawned groups such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The authors suggest the establishment of an R2PW, Responsibility to Protect Women principle for the international community, perhaps accomplished through organizations like the United Nations.

A section observes that religion, unfortunately, has often been seen as supportive of the subordination of women. But God certainly cannot be expected to view women as less than men.

Programs, groups, are needed to “wake” men and women up to the dangers of PFS. One effective group is Promundo, which has groups on every continent. It explores the links between traditional masculinity norms and the propensity for violence against women and tries to help men escape these norms. The most effective mechanisms are male groups formed to explore just what it means to be a man. Promundo has inaugurated a survey, the International Men and Gender Equality Survey, which has been implemented in almost 40 countries with more than 60,000 interviews.

Men need to wake up to the damage of PFS. But women need to wake up too. They are sometimes complicit in allowing it to continue. This is understandable, given their usual economic dependence on men.

Some implications: 1) Path dependencies—toward or away from PFS—matter. 2) The principle of freedom must respect limits placed on it by sexual equality. 3) Attempts to move toward electoral democracy must recognize the importance of breaking the power of the clans. 4) If the US is not tracking the situation of women, how can it expect to have an effective foreign policy? 5) Finally, any sort of catastrophe is likely to lead to subjugation of women, since fearful men are likely to seek security among their brothers.

The findings of the authors are buttressed by more than 100 pages in five appendices. Notes, a bibliography, and an index complete the volume.

As I said near the beginning of this review, I was predisposed to accept the thesis of this volume. The authors have provided a mountain of evidence in support of their theses, and I consider them essentially proved—although as I noted above, they are cautious about inferring this (Chapter 7.) I looked for the possibility that their argument was based on preconception, but the evidence definitely supported their conclusions.

Full Citation for this Article: Harrison, B. Kent (2021) "The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide Review," SquareTwo, Vol. 14 No. 3 (Fall 2021),, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome.