Patriarchy- is the concept still relevant to feminism?

First published on The Quail Pipe on 25th June 2013.

 

The Patriarchy – a fundamental tenet of feminism, right? If you’re for gender equality then you’ve got to be against The Patriarchy because it’s the elite men who run society that are stopping women from achieving equality. I’m not for a moment suggesting that it isn’t men who usually get into positions of power or that this status quo isn’t something women should be challenging. But what I am saying is that the term “patriarchy” isn’t essential or even that relevant to feminism. And you don’t have to believe in The Patriarchy to be a feminist.

And here’s why: All of society – including women – are culpable on issues of intersectionality. Single mums, female sex workers, coloured women and trans women receive stigma – and much worse- from women as well as men. In a 2010 article Vicki Harman stated that white single mothers of mixed race children were seen as a threat by other women and isolated by them. Radical feminists do not regard trans women as real women, thereby misgendering them. Julie Burchill famously declared that all sex workers should be shot as “traitors”.

Even on non-intersectional issues, women can still oppress other women. Nadine Dorries MP has repeatedly tried to limit abortion and has attempted to make schools teach abstinence to girls only.

And you don’t have to be elite to oppress women, either. Homophobia and transphobia are committed even by those who are oppressed themselves; racism is prevalent even in deprived neighbourhoods. For lots of women, the harassment they get actually comes from those around them and not from a patriarchal elite.

It’s important to remember that roughly half of all victims of racism, homophobia, whorephobia (and the ‘phobias that are as yet unnamed) are women. Intersectionality is something feminism has to recognise in order for it to be relevant to women. I’m sure some feminists will say “But it’s the patriarchy that makes all that ‘phobia stuff exist!” But I don’t think we can just blame it on the patriarchy any more. Radical feminists are the ones being transphobic and whorephobic. And girls in high school who slut shame their peers, or women who look down on young mothers -don’t they have to take some responsibility? Women as well as men victim-blame and police other women’s sexual behaviour. Even if “The Patriarchy Made Me Do It” sounds like a good defence to you, these women are still guilty of colluding with ‘the patriarchy’ to slut shame their sisters.

In my view, they’re not just colluding with the patriarchy – they’re responsible for their behaviour. The patriarchy makes rape possible and encourages men to rape, but rapists are still responsible for their crimes. So if men can’t use the “The Patriarchy Made Me Do It” defence, why should women be able to use it? (Not that I’m comparing slut shaming or anything else to rape). The patriarchy is not the enemy, or at least not the only enemy. The enemy here is social attitudes which stigmatise certain groups of people. We’re taught these attitudes from our parents, peers and teachers – the people who make up our society and our social circles. Not the patriarchy. We’re all responsible. Sure, the elites might be more culpable than the rest of us – because they’ve got more power over society and failed to fix it (or in many cases the white straight rich men caused the attitudes long ago and we’re living with the consequences).

Some of these harmful social attitudes are themselves misogynistic and/or dependent on the sexual double standard (slut shaming, shaming teen and lone mothers, whorephobia). The problem is (what amounts to) effective control of career, reproductive, family and gender choice. And women can cause as much harm in this regard as men.

So, viewing The Patriarchy as the enemy is no longer crucial to the feminist agenda. A trans women isn’t going to have equal protection from the authorities until there’s no transphobia. A black woman isn’t going to have equal job opportunities until there’s no racism. If feminism is all about women being equal to men, then intersectionality is essential. By focussing too heavily on the patriarchy there is a risk of ignoring intersectionality and fighting for middle-class straight white women’s rights while larger issues go unaddressed and many women benefit much less from the achievements of feminism.

Describing something as “patriarchal” makes sense – you’re saying that it carries connotations of men controlling women or specific sexist ideas and traditions. But patriarchy itself is not a useful term. We’re in danger of lumping all problems together under an umbrella term, just like right-wingers blame “sexual permissiveness” or “multiculturalism” for all the ills of society.

Though the term “patriarchy” has little meaning for me, I respect those who see it as a meaningful term or a concept that’s crucial to feminism. I’m not suggesting that feminists should definitely ignore the existence of the patriarchy or not believe in it. I’m saying there needs to be balance and we should view societal attitudes as being barriers to women’s equality.

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4 thoughts on “Patriarchy- is the concept still relevant to feminism?

  1. karlssonkelly July 25, 2013 at 9:41 pm Reply

    An interesting read… You’re absolutely right that feminism is nothing without intersectionality – but I think there’s some confusion as to what patriarchy means. Patriarchy isn’t only referring to elite straight white dudes at the top of the social ladder: it’s a term which refers to the society on the whole. When we use “patriarchy” as shorthand, we tend to mean the social construct which leads to those problems you’ve outlined, from sexism to transphobia to racism to ableism and on.

    Basically what I’m suggesting is that intersectionality and patriarchy aren’t somehow interchangeable terms but rather in fighting for intersectionality, we are fighting the patriarchy. It’s also true we all participate in patriarchal society – it surrounds Western culture and so we each have to acknowledge the inherent bigotry in society and actively counter it. But the thing we are countering is the patriarchy, as that social/cultural build is what teaches and perpetuates all the issues which fall under the umbrella of feminism.

    Good read re: intersectionality and definite food for thought 🙂

  2. Bearded Bow Tie Guy July 25, 2013 at 11:48 pm Reply

    ‘if men can’t use the “The Patriarchy Made Me Do It” defence, why should women be able to use it?” ‘

    I was thinking about that the other day, though I feel like men have to be careful with such thoughts. Really what I was thinking about was how various groups have their archnemesis: libertarians have the government, atheists have Christians and Christians have secular humanists, Marxists have capitalism, and so on. But life is complex, and finger pointing becomes an easy way to avoid looking deeper.

  3. markpostgate October 16, 2014 at 10:16 pm Reply

    “The patriarchy makes rape possible and encourages men to rape”

    No it doesn’t. That’s an absurd suggestion. Rape didn’t suddenly become unacceptable because of the women’s movement, rape has always been unacceptable. Or certainly violent rape has always been unacceptable. Have you read Titus Andronicus?!

    Titus’ speech to the rapists of his daughter:

    O villains, Chiron and Demetrius!
    Here stands the spring whom you have stain’d with mud,
    This goodly summer with your winter mix’d.
    You kill’d her husband, and for that vile fault
    Two of her brothers were condemn’d to death,
    My hand cut off and made a merry jest;
    Both her sweet hands, her tongue, and that more dear
    Than hands or tongue, her spotless chastity,
    Inhuman traitors, you constrain’d and forced.
    What would you say, if I should let you speak?
    Villains, for shame you could not beg for grace.
    Hark, wretches! how I mean to martyr you.
    This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,
    Whilst that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold
    The basin that receives your guilty blood.
    You know your mother means to feast with me,
    And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad:
    Hark, villains! I will grind your bones to dust
    And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,
    And of the paste a coffin I will rear
    And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
    And bid that strumpet, your unhallow’d dam,
    Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
    This is the feast that I have bid her to,
    And this the banquet she shall surfeit on;
    For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,
    And worse than Progne I will be revenged:
    And now prepare your throats.

    Worse than cutting out her tongue and off her hands, was taking her “spotless chastity” by constraint and force. “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,
    And worse than Progne I will be revenged” in mythology Tereus was the husband of Procne, and Philomel her sister. Tereus raped Philomel and to prevent her from letting on he too cut out her tongue (in fact Titus is a complete rip off of the legend of Philomel, so Shakespeare is only confessing his sources). Learning of his crime, Procne disowns her husband, kills their son, boils him and feeds him to Tereus. Explain to me again how the Patriarchy encourages rape.

    If on the other hand we mean opportunistic or coercion rape then I suppose we could say that the pursuer pursued dichotomy of courtship made rape more likely, or rewards behaviours that are on a continuum in which rape exists as an extreme end so that’s possibly something that needs deconstructing and talking about, but expecting men to “make an effort” and not be too easily disheartened by apparent disinterest is a power game that women play their part in, in order to wheedle out half-hearted wooers that don’t mean what they say. For the most part the pursuer pursued dichotomy maximises the woman’s power unless the man in question takes it too far. Now you might say, “well that’s a dangerous game that no sensible woman should be taking part in.” but you must be aware that there are books like “the rules” that positively encourage women to take part in these behaviours in order to bag a husband. To address only the one side of that dichotomy – to say “men don’t pursue” but not address the other side and say “women, don’t expect to be pursued” just leaves a lot of people failing to get together at all.

    Otherwise I was pretty supportive of the idea of dropping “patriarchy” as a theoretical concept. It doesn’t promote an egalitarian perspective on approaching equality. A better perspective was offered by Karen De Crow: “When she got married and started to cook, she would always chop off the ends of a meatloaf before putting it in the oven, as she’d seen her mother do. When her husband asked why, she was at a loss; she had simply assumed that was the proper way to bake meatloaf. Her mother didn’t know either: She had always seen her mother do it the same way. The grandmother’s explanation turned out to be very simple: “Because our oven was so small, that was the only way it could fit in!”” – as recounted by Cathy Young in The Atlantic.

    De Crow’s view of traditionalism was just that there was a way we used to do things and we kept doing them that way even though there was no longer any rational reason for doing so. Society had advanced to a point where equality was possible so why continue with traditional roles that didn’t make people happy?

    • Slutocrat October 18, 2014 at 12:19 am Reply

      Thanks for commenting. May I point out though that the rape was seen as bad because a woman’s ‘purity’ was commodified. It’s her oh-so-valuable *chastity* that was lost, not her autonomy or free will. The references to being ‘muddied’ “mix’d” and her “spotless” chastity also call to mind the slut-shaming of women as “dirty” if they don’t adhere to prescriptive sexual gender roles.

      That’s a great analogy at the end 🙂

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