Q&A: Lynne Nielsen on Writing The First Political Order

The First Political Order’s description of the pervasive damaging social consequences of institutionalized male dominance, based on a fascinating new dataset, makes devastating reading. The authors say that their findings should be foundational for any discussion about national or international security. Their argument is lucid, hugely important, and entirely convincing.

~Richard Wrangham, author of The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution

Our Women’s History Month spotlight on The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide, by Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen, continues today with this Q&A by Nielsen in which she discusses how this project came together.

Read yesterday’s post by Valerie M. Hudson, and remember to enter our weekly drawing for your chance to win a copy of the book.

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Q: The three of you have worked together for quite some time. When and how did the basic premise for the book come about?

Lynne Nielsen: The germ for the book’s idea started with the formation of the WomanStats Project, whose aim is to make the link between the fate of nations and the status of women visible and demonstrable. As we worked together on our first journal article about the relationship between inequitable family laws and violence against women in 2012, the basic premise for the book started to take shape. The culmination was when we wrote an article on clan governance and state stability, which explored the relationship between female subordination and political order in 2015. We realized then the magnitude of the work given the dearth of data for our variables of interest, like child and cousin marriages.

Q: The book is based on research that covers a variety of disciplines and comprehensive empirical data detailing the status of women around the globe. How did you go about compiling and organizing those data? How long did it take to complete this project?

LN: It took us more than five years to complete the project with the help of the Minerva grant. We trained our student coders in compiling and scaling the empirical data necessary to examine our arguments. This took about three years. Meanwhile, the three of us read hundreds of books and articles to build the theoretical framework for our argument that the pervasive subordination of women undermined national security and stability worldwide. Once the data were collected and scaled, we performed extensive statistical analyses to evaluate our main argument. These analyses took another year to complete. The write-up, revisions, and soliciting of peer comments, took at least another year. Once the manuscript was accepted by Columbia University Press, it took another year of revising and editing.

Q: Let’s discuss the title of the book. Where did the term “first political order” originate? What does it mean?

LN: While we were doing research for our clan-governance article, we read Francis Fukuyama’s Origins of Political Order and Political Order and Political Decay. We noticed the lack of mention of women and the role they play in any political order, although Fukuyama acknowledged the sad state of women in tribal societies. There was an overall lack of awareness and recognition of the relationship between the political order of men and women in households and the political order that develops within the nation-state. If the basic unit of society is the family, then the way men and women relate to each other in families is the first political order or the sexual political order.

Q: In the book, you refer to “the Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome.” Can you tell us what the syndrome is and how you choose its indicators?

LN: The Patrilineal/Fraternal Syndrome, which refers to a sexual political order that exists around the world and throughout history, is focused on building fraternity through the systematic subordination of women, and often uses patrilineality to facilitate the creation of that fraternity. The existence of this syndrome is justified by its practitioners by the need to provide physical security for group members from external threats. This political order can be identified by the subordination of female interest to that of the fraternal alliance. From our readings and research, we identified eleven variables that are indicators of this syndrome as seen through the lens of women’s situation:

      1. Overall level of violence against women
      2. Societal sanction for the murder of women
      3. Exemption for rapists; prevalence of patrilocal marriage
      4. Prevalence of cousin marriage
      5. Preference for sons
      6. Age of first marriage for girls in law and practice
      7. Overall inequity in family law and practice
      8. Favoring males
      9. Prevalence of brideprice and dowry
      10. Prevalence of polygyny in law and practice
      11. Lack of property rights for women in law and practice.

Q: Why didn’t you include the conventional measures of female empowerment like literacy and labor participation in the syndrome?

LN: We do include these measures in our book, not as indicators of female empowerment but as outcome variables. This decision was made after it was pointed out to one of the authors that a woman might be highly educated and work as a member of parliament in certain areas of the world, like Afghanistan and Pakistan yet, because of inequitable family laws, can lose her home and children by her husband’s merely saying “I divorce you” three times.


Explore more from our feature of The First Political Order with this post by Valerie M. Hudson for an overview of this work and stay tuned for posts by Perpetua Lynne Nielsen for more information about the Syndrome.

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