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.