"The patriarchy" or "patriarchal society" is the name feminists have settled on for the dominant Western, Democratic paradigm. It is not an individual accusation leveled at individual males, or even individual institutions. It is important to realize that anyone living in our culture can be an agent of the patriarchy - nay, must by definition be an agent of the patriarchy. In the same way that even Swampy the eco-warrior was a member of a consumer society, and that even those most deprived of actual capital are agents in a capitalist society, we are all participants in the patriarchy by default.
The patriarchy is all around us and, like fish in water, most of the time we are not aware of its presence. It is not a small aspect of our culture that occasionally rears its ugly head. It is our culture. It operates by means so transparent to our accustomed eyes that except in moments of blinding clarity we are not able to perceive its presence. And at the base of it is the assumption that "women" and "people" are not fully fungible terms. This is no rhetorical flourish: the separation of women from the universal polity of humankind was an explicit tenet held by our ideological forefathers, the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
When Thomas Paine wrote the document that went on to inform the ideology of the two great revolutions of the 18th century, he didn't just call it "Rights of Man" because "Rights of Human Being" sounded clunky. He was quite deliberately excluding women from the main thrust of his arguments. When the US Declaration of Independence said that "all men were created equal" it wasn't just being politically incorrect; it really did quite sincerely mean that, self evidently, women were not so created. They were not equal as members of the electorate, and therefore were not offered the suffrage; they were not equal economic agents, and so were not granted property ownership in their own right.
At the same time that the Founding Fathers were unselfconsciously limiting the remit of the new "universal" Liberties to one half - at best, if you discount slavery of course - of the universe, over the pond in France Rousseau was exhorting women, by definition excluded from the "fraternity" of the Revolution, to cleave to the "natural" sphere ordained to them by Nature (a handy stand-in for God) - motherhood, domesticity, and ignorance. These ideas quickly became fashionable in England and beyond, and informed much of what we have come to think of as Victorian belittlement of women; consequently when Parliament was debating "Universal Suffrage", as it did for decades and decades in the eighteen hundreds, women were never considered to be a legitimate candidate for inclusion. The very idea was laughable.
I hope to make plain that I am not just complaining about "Rights of Man", "Brotherhood of Man" etc. in that postmodern "manhole cover" way of the recent past (itself mostly a convenient fiction embroidered around a few marginal instances of radical discourse). These were real ideas, and they meant what they said, and they were backed up with legislation and with action – and the society produced by that legislation and that action is still with us today.
It didn’t take very long - in fact it didn’t take any time at all - for someone to stand up and say "hang on a minute!". That someone, famously, was Mary Wollstonecraft. However, much in the same way as happened after WWII, the reaction to a major social cataclysm in one area was an increased conservatism in another, and so Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, Ada Lovelace and the many feminists and suffragettes who weren't buying any of this for even one second, thankyouverymuch, were not heard. They were demonized, they were branded unfeminine and unnatural, they were later arrested, accused of indecency, publically ridiculed, and ideologically marginalized.
The ideology of Man as default and woman as other is not, therefore, an ancient, ancestral ideology, inherited by an unsuspecting modern audience; it was not just a loose end from the Middle Ages that the great liberalizers of the 18th century forgot to tie up. It was a fully formed belief shared by those towering intellects, and, much as it may chagrin their admirers, it was knowingly written into the new system of the world that they helped to bring into being. The dissenting voices, few and already disempowered, were easily drowned out at the start, and more easily erased from memory thereafter, which is why the popular image of feminism is of something new, radical, untested, dangerous, and abrupt. In that sense feminism has existed exactly as long as Enlightenment ethics have, the flip side to its smug coin; but at every stage of its evolution was branded as a subversive moral threat coming out of the blue from hysterical, hate filled, unnatural, or frankly power hungry women.
That is why, ironically, it is so hard for us to rise above patriarchal thinking and see the damaging aspects of it (damaging to all, not just to one sex or the other): the ideology that contains the patriarchal imperative of the woman as other is still quite vibrant and vital, and has many other components - liberalism, democracy, human rights etc. - that we definitely aren't done with and still want to keep actively promoting and spreading. Patriarchy is unfortunately the dark side of these good things, and rooting it out from the inside is a tough fight to fight.
As a result of this ongoing struggle against the effects of the patriarchal imperative on the lives of women, many of the explicit and implicit judgments underpinning it have gradually had to go underground. It's not longer acceptable to say outright, for example, that women are incapable of the higher faculties, or openly debar them from education or power; more subtle, "economic", "biological" etc. reasons need to be found, and are. The current vogue for "gender differences" being "hard-wired" and "evolutionary", about the biological clock, the maternal instinct (lifted straight out of Rousseau), is the contemporary incarnation of the "women's brains would overheat of you taught them math" propaganda of the 19th century.
While it's true that we have made some significant material gains over the last 250 years, we still haven't uprooted the fundamental precept that the default state of the human condition is male. Nor have we been able to make credible the seemingly self evident truth that women, as fully fledged humans, are exactly and in every way created equal with men. Distracted by the existence of secondary sexual characteristics and beguiled by the seductive Panglossianism of the “natural”, the very idea of perfect and all embracing equality remains, centuries after the abolition of all other types of slavery by the Enlightened states, a rarely sought goal for the majority of their female citizens.