“Patriarchy has no gender.”
― bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom
bell hooks’ quote is a clear reminder that patriarchy does not just describe male actions of domination, but also how some organizations and cultural narratives function.
Patriarchy, like most forms of oppression, has a way of trying to convince us that, in the words of the Crunk Feminist Collective “things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change.”
From Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, people have been resisting this mentality and pointing out another path away from unjust power systems.
Through the rest of this post I’m going to summarize intersectional changemakers’ ideas on:
- The current state of patriarchy
- The frames that perpetuate the acceptance of patriarchy
- Examples of patriarchy in our current institutions
- The main long-term efforts we can take to combat patriarchy
We’re lucky that that numerous changemakers have already clearly demonstrated what we need to do to dismantle patriarchy. Now we just all have to integrate these actions into all of our organizing efforts.
The core attributes of patriarchy
Patriarchy is a system that has many elements associated with it. Below are some of the key expressions of patriarchy:
Holds up the traditional male qualities as central, while other qualities are considered subordinate. The attributes of power, control, rationality, and extreme competitiveness are examples of these traditional male qualities. Emotional expressiveness, compassion, and ability to nurture are examples of subordinate qualities in patriarchal systems.
Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles. Within this structure, men and women both have their own specific roles (e.g. men leading, and women supporting). Even though this view may appear to be fading in some areas, it’s clear that certain careers historically associated with women (e.g. childcare and teaching) have disproportionately lower salaries.
Male domination. Men often occupy the most important and visible roles (e.g. executives, politicians, public leaders, etc.). Women who do hold these positions are expected to subscribe to male norms.
Protection of traditional patriarchal social structures. If a person or group challenges patriarchy in any form, then the patriarchal response is to increase control. In particular, this means increasing control over oppressed or marginalized groups.
Reinforcement of other types of oppression. Patriarch contributes to racism, sizeism, and homophobia. Third Wave feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, are the major voices to articulate this truth. All of the manifestations of patriarchy mentioned above, magnify for those with other oppressed identities.
However, one other important point to remember is, as described on the Daily Kos, “patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”
This means, that people of all gender identities can perpetuate patriarchy, even if it is mainly male-identified individuals that reap most of the societal benefits.
For a powerful succinct description of patriarchy, check out bell hooks’ article Understanding Patriarchy.
Frames that perpetuate patriarchal ideas
“Boys will be boys.” This idea that men are biologically “programmed” to behave certain ways, against all scientific evidence, is one of the biggest cultural narratives that continues our current patriarchal systems.
Celebrating “macho” or “alpha” men.
Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, discusses how society often promotes violent and controlling aspects of male culture. From lifting up the “strong” hero to denigrating “sissies,” our language and media foster this image of what “real men” look like.
Men believing they should be silent, instead of challenging other men on patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. One of the most insidious characteristics of patriarchy, as mention above, is that it seeks to protect traditional male traits and actions. Even of some men would never subscribe to certain actions/ideas/language, they ignore when their peers commit those very same things.
While there are countless other frames that prop up patriarchy, these are a few of the most prominent.
How patriarchy manifests itself in current society
There are numerous ways the mass media accentuates patriarchal ideas and thoughts.
The media amplifies patriarchal viewpoints through:
- Negative coverage of sexual violence (e.g. the commentary of the Steubenville rape case – focused on how a guilty verdict would impact the young football players, rather than on the survivor’s life)
- Promoting gender binaries
- Unceasing discussion of women’s appearances and body image
- Objectifying “transgender women’s bodies by focusing on their physical transitions”
In addition, the journalism industry itself reserves most senior analyst and producer positions for men. Further, both men and women that do have these jobs must make sure to spin their stories that subscribe to dominant patriarchal narratives, instead of challenging them.
Men disproportionately occupy top leadership positions, often because they exhibit those very same traditional male traits (e.g. outspoken, “rational,” and individual-based leadership).
In addition women often have “lower salaries, appointments at lower ranks, slower rates of promotion and lower rates of retention, and less recognition through awards.” This trend continues despite widespread recognition, which to me indicates that we still need to address the root causes (i.e. patriarchal culture).
Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey write “Patriarchy tells men that their need for love and respect can only be met by being masculine, powerful, and ultimately violent.” This viewpoint also contributes to the high amount of male bystanders who do little or nothing to prevent sexual violence.
The traditional nuclear family, with men as the “leaders” and women as the “nurturers,” is still incredibly prevalent. This translates into male figure as the “authority” on all important decisions.
George Lakoff writes of the “strict father model” as the dominant conservative worldview, which he uses to explain why many conservatives pursue the “war on women.”
How to start ending patriarchy
Now challenging patriarchy is something that has been ongoing for countless generations, and it will take many more before it can finally be eliminated. This is essential for those of all gender identities.
However, there are numerous options all of us can take to push back against the system of patriarchy, no matter what field or time of life we may be in.
Changing the patriarchal narrative
Action 1: Push for a culture of excellence to hold men/boys accountable for their language and actions where all people can make positive influences on the world. This means countering the “boys will be boys” idea.
We shouldn’t discount men and their ability to be upstanding individuals, we just have to keep high expectations.
Action 2: Support a spectrum of ideas of what a “real man” looks like, such as those that are compassionate and responsible. We need to stop holding up “macho” or the “tough, silent type” as the gold standard for maleness.
Action 3: Reframe patriarchy as an issue for everyone (not just “a women’s issue”). Jackson Katz writes on how this is also a men’s issue, since men should take responsibility for altering both themselves and challenging men around them.
As bell hooks’ quote from the beginning of this post reminds us, “Patriarchy has no gender,” thus it’s going to take all people to combat it.
Action 4: End the viewpoint that the traditional nuclear family as the ideal. Instead, we should accept and encourage loving, compassionate families of any style and form.
Altering how we approach sexual violence prevention
Action 5: Advocate for a definition of consent based on “Yes” rather than “No.” One common phrase in sexual violence prevention is “No means no.” However, Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti’s anthology Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape reframes this to be “Yes means Yes!”
The anthology describes how consent should be “given freely and enthusiastically,” rather than making assumptions based on silence or passivity. Also, they write “men need to feel empowered to say no also.”
One necessity for this is that men need to be able to effectively ask and listen, which leads directly to the next action.
Action 6: Teach boys and men how to authentically communicate their emotions and listen empathetically to others. From an early age, few people encourage boys to express their emotions, and many try to encourage boys to “hide their emotions.”
So whether you work with kids, have a child, or want to contribute to reducing sexual violence, we need to train males how to express themselves.
Action 7: Implement comprehensive sex education. Cara Kulwicki in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes “teaches that sex is more than heterosexual intercourse and should be consensual and pleasurable for all participants.”
This type of education also includes how to talk about sex. If more men have knowledge of how to talk about consent, contraception, and sex in general, and understand what rape actually is then there is much more potential for healthy relationships.
Action 8: Create collective accountability systems for handling sexual violence. The current criminal “justice” system exacerbates injustices based on race, sexual orientation, and ability. Thus, we need an alternate system that gives survivors the choice of whether to pursue the current legal system or a framework based on community accountability.
Cristina Meztli Tzintzun, in her essay in Yes Means Yes writes that we need “collective accountability based on love, support, forgiveness, transformation, and consequence.”
Action 9: Train men and foster the attitude that men should be proactive in addressing patriarchy. Men need to challenge other men on their patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. So it seems to me that it is a much better mentality to stand up to your friends and community in order to help make them more conscientious people.
As long as men standby when these patriarchal events take place, they prop up the oppressive frame they “must be silent.” I know it may be difficult to challenge every single instance, since it’s all around us, but taking action should be the norm rather than “that one time I stood up.”
Challenge existing institutions that contribute to patriarchy
Action 10: Ending conservatives’ war on women. Many conservative politicians try to say their policies are “not a war on women,” but the record levels of legislation limiting women’s rights and the impact says otherwise.
Elizabeth Martinez notes, this war on women has been a frequent effort by the conservative leadership over the past decades. Now it has ramped up, in particular at the state-level. We have to keep up the pressure on these regressive policies and highlight the implications of this conservative war.
Action 11: Hold the media accountable. Whether this is for for male-dominated journalism/movies, or for victim-blaming in cases involving sexual violence, we have to stop the media’s focus on dominant culture and instead reflect its viewers with all types of relationships and backgrounds.
Also, if you’re not already, start reading the works of those combating patriarchy and it’s connections to other forms of oppression. Here’s a great list to start with.
For more ways to challenge patriarchy, check out Harsha Walia’s great summary at Beautiful Trouble.
This fight is for everyone
Ending patriarchy is about removing barriers for people of all gender identities. It ties directly to our work addressing white privilege, homophobia, sizisim, etc.
I started this post with a bell hooks quote, and I believe her following words capture the world we should all seek to create.
“The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys. Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced. A genuine feminist politics always brings us from bondage to freedom, from lovelessness to loving.” ― bell hooks