Patriarchy. What a dirty word. I’m scared to use it in my posts because it almost guarantees a severe and mindless reaction from so many people. I would bet my first-born child that this word is only controversial and difficult to talk about because whenever the topic of patriarchy comes up, so many men in the room feel attacked. Rather than creating an atmosphere of healthy, productive discussion, it creates an atmosphere of hostility and defensiveness.
One of my readers recently made this comment in passing:
For example, the very idea of a patriarchy, one of the root tenets of feminism upon which so many of their grievances are based, can not be interpreted any other way than as a directed attack against men. So to say that feminism does not promote misandry is self-defeating.
This hurdle is catastrophic. It halts productive discourse, creates anger between men and women, and further perpetuates the problems we all want to stop. It’s also a very, very serious misunderstanding.
Is the solution to stop using the word patriarchy? To “admit” it doesn’t exist and “back off?” No, I don’t think so. That would be equally, if not more unproductive.
There is a problem with feminism in today’s cultural climate. Many women who are angry about patriarchy are blaming men; and many men who are angry about patriarchy are blaming women. It is impossible to hold an intelligent conversation and find plausible solutions to a problem if we can’t stop bickering about what the problem is! And we will never be able to stop bickering until we stop placing blame and start taking responsibility. All of us. In a defensive stance, with guards up and swords drawn, no truce, understanding, or agreement can ever be reached.
1. Patriarchy is NOBODY’S fault.
The definition of patriarchy according to Merriam Webster is, broadly:
control by men of a disproportionately large share of power.
This definition does not inherently and immediately mean “all men have better lives than women” or “all men get to do more things than women” or “all men are believed superior to women” however much it may sometimes lead to those things later. It simply means that a man, if he follows the masculine rules taught to him, can expect to have an advantage over a woman who has followed the feminine rules taught to her.
Such a definition, if acknowledged as being a problem, might seem to point to men as the source of the problem. It might even appear to blame men for the problem. For instance, you might wonder: “Why do men TAKE so much more power than they deserve, huh? Why do they have to BE like that? Why can’t they just CHANGE?” But it’s not actually that simple. Men don’t take power; it is given to them by the system.
Because of America’s patriarchal society, which highly values individualism, hard-work, and self-reliance, the idea that men have been given power without doing anything besides be born with a penis might also feel like an affront. For that I can only offer my sincerest apologies for the difficult position of privilege you are placed in as a man (I’m not even being sarcastic here. I recently discovered my privilege as a white person and it was difficult, I assure you. Lots of guilt.) As a woman who was raised in the same society and values those same things, that I have act more “manly” to be an individual, work hard and rely on myself, also feels like an affront. I try not to take it personally, as I hope you can tell by this article.
Let me emphasize my point: perpetuating patriarchy is [usually] NOT a decision anybody makes. It is nobody’s fault. As I’ve heard many men remark, “men DON’T just get together and say, ‘hey, let’s oppress women!’” Patriarchy is an age-old institution that none of us chose and has been worked into the fabric of our society so intricately that the individual threads are barely visible. It has been taught to us. Day-to-day interactions are often a symptom and a virus at the same time and the average person rarely notices when it is happening. We have all, men and women alike, been socialized into the patriarchy from younger than we can remember, just like our parents and grandparents before us, which places the responsibility on all of us to re-socialize ourselves and socialize incoming generations differently.
2. Dismantling patriarchy is EVERYBODY’S responsibility.
To be extra clear, the lack of fault does not remove us from all responsibility for this phenomenon. Men and women today do shoulder some responsibility for allowing patriarchy to continue. But how can we place or take responsibility for changing something if we can’t agree on its existence?
Before we can expect responsibility from anybody, man or woman, we must assure that an understanding is reached about what patriarchy is and the role each person plays in its persistence. As we have seen, this is where the hangup occurs. If we cannot expect someone to understand in the face of blame and defense, and we also cannot expect someone to acknowledge responsibility without first understanding, how can we be surprised that changes have been so slow?
Ever find yourself in an argument about something with somebody, spend hours or days mad about it, only to discover later that you both really agreed on the same essential points? Maybe there was confusion over language, or somebody felt misunderstood or threatened by an implication, so you weren’t able to agree. I believe this is the same thing that is happening between men and women about patriarchy.
I wouldn’t be surprised if many men hear and read feminist arguments and believe that they are being asked to take unreasonable measures for the sake of women, while women sit back and reap the benefits. This is not reality. If we are to expect men to shoulder such uncomfortable self-awareness and responsibility to make change, women have to be willing to also shoulder self-awareness and responsibility to make change, not just awareness of men and responsibility to make men change. Women have to change too.
A great example of this can be found in one of my recent posts about consent, titled “Un-Memorizing the ‘Silence is Sexy’ Date Script.” Many men commented, feeling disgruntled by the fact that the women they knew were un-enthusiastic about their attempts to get positive, active consent. The idea that men alone have to change rape culture is preposterous. Women also are hindered by patriarchal beliefs that men are only truly sexy when they are a little bit violent, risky, and controlling. If consent culture is ever going to happen, men have to be able to give and receive consent and find it sexy, and women have to be able to give and receive consent and find it sexy.
Another example is gender socialization. Mothers, aunts, counselors, teachers, and other female role models all play a huge part in how boys and girls understand what is expected of them. It is not just men who have to think about these things. We all have to be conscientious about what we teach the younger generations, not just when we are actively advising them, but in the examples that we set in our daily lives:
How do we talk about men and women? What catch-phrases do we use? What do the things that go unsaid mean to children who are paying attention? How does our use of language have an impact? How do the traits we value in people have an impact? These are all things that both men and women can take responsibility to think about.
3. Dismantling patriarchy will help EVERYBODY.
So what are all these things we’ve been too busy arguing about to realize we agree on?
I recently read an excellent article on Jezebal about this very topic. The author made a list of several arguments often made when men cry “Misandry!” as if it is a synonym for feminism. She also explained quite concisely some of the things men have to gain from the abolition of patriarchy. You can read the entire list here, but I will include a handful:
Feminists do not want you to lose custody of your children. The assumption that women are naturally better caregivers is part of patriarchy.
Feminists do not want anyone to be falsely accused of rape. False rape accusations discredit rape victims, which reinforces rape culture, which is part of patriarchy.
Feminists do not want you to be viewed with suspicion when you take your child to the park (men frequently insist that this is a serious issue, so I will take them at their word). The assumption that men are insatiable sexual animals, combined with the idea that it’s unnatural for men to care for children, is part of patriarchy.
Feminists do not want women to escape prosecution on legitimate domestic violence charges, nor do we want men to be ridiculed for being raped or abused. The idea that women are naturally gentle and compliant and that victimhood is inherently feminine is part of patriarchy.
Getting the idea? Patriarchy hurts men as well as women (albeit in very different and arguably un-equal ways), and feminism (as I lovingly refer to as “patriarchy-bashing”) wants to make life better for men as well as women. So let’s get back on the same team!
4. This has to be about equal socialization before equal treatment.
A common misconception is that dismantling patriarchy is about making individual men give up power to individual women, or about men as a group (as if the world works that way) giving more power to women as a group. Honestly, I don’t believe that’s the case. I believe the only way to destroy patriarchy is to re-consider the things we value and find important in our lives.
That men and women are socialized to join one of two separate and mutually exclusive clubs is what makes it hard to change how we treat each other. If men are socialized to look and behave in ways which earn them respect and fair treatment from society, and women are socialized to look and behave in ways which earn them disdain and disregard, there is something wrong with how we are socializing men and women.
If in order to independently succeed financially and earn respect equal to that of a man, a woman must have traits that are “un-feminine,” then we’re doing and teaching femininity wrong. If in order to be mentally and emotionally healthy (and not just independently financially successful) a man must behave in ways that are “un-masculine,” then we’re doing and teaching masculinity wrong. Never mind the fact that the rules of each club are internally restricting and can limit personal happiness!
Romance novels and movies would have us believe that “opposites attract” and that finding your true love means finding your “other half.” This is a whimsically appealing idea because we live in a culture which cuts us off from the “other half” within ourselves. Provided nothing goes wrong, we are all born as full and complete human beings equipped to create the success, stability, and happiness we deserve. It is the way we are raised and the beliefs instilled in us about ourselves and others which limit those abilities and resources, and the society we live in reinforces these beliefs with its laws and practices.
There are certainly many laws and practices we can and should change by focusing on issues of fair and equal treatment, but in addition, fair and equal socialization is key. Think rehabilitation instead of prison or pre-emptive measures instead of consequences. Let’s start teaching fairness and equality before (and in addition to) expecting it.
5. All together now…
Such intangible concepts like patriarchy are extremely frustrating to encounter no matter what, but they are even more frustrating when you are being blamed for them and feel tons of immediate pressure to fix them single-handedly. Nobody likes to feel such pressure to solve seemingly unsolvable problems! So let’s please stop placing pressure on men to do all this work alone.
As my mother used to say when I got in an argument with my sister: not “who started it?” but “who’s going to finish it?” Let’s pick ourselves up off the ground, dust ourselves off, and decide how to move on from here. This doesn’t have to be give or take; it can be a mutual sharing of resources, respect, and power. As we all learned in kindergarten, the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated, and my own addition, expect from others what you would expect from yourself.
Neither of those rules will work if we don’t socialize everyone, regardless of gender, to expect, seek, feel worthy of, and extend towards themselves equally superb treatment. Changing laws and practices will only go so far if we cannot mend the inequality in our hearts and minds.
So yes, patriarchy is dirty and crude, but the word is not. Patriarchy is dirty because it tears us apart, pits us against each other, and stops us from speaking civilly and solving problems. The word, if we consider it rather than rolling our eyes or raising our fists, can help us transcend the problems it represents. So let’s stop using it as a weapon and start using it as a tool for honest and respectful communication.
- Hating on Feminism? I get that. (queerguesscode.wordpress.com)
- If I Admit That ‘Hating Men’ Is a Thing… (jezebel.com)
*Sorry, I couldn’t find a picture with racially diverse hands.