Defining Patriarchy

Patriarchal FamilyI was introduced to the word and the concept behind it as a teen by my mentor slash “guru” and “feminist aunt” Mary Jane. She was (and still is) a brilliant and radical feminist, disguised in the muggle world as a cookie-baking mom of four kids who befriended my mother in the late 1960s through a mutual friend. I recall Mary Jane, ever the provocateur, showing up at some of my mom’s numerous and boisterous parties dressed in a maroon monk’s robe wearing a large women’s liberation medallion (the women’s symbol with a clenched fist inside the circle) hanging from her neck where one might expect to see the Christian cross on a real monk. The words she made up to convey her arguments were just as calculatingly provocative, including her term, “patriarchal pimperialism” to describe male control of women’s sexual lives and behavior.

I throw the term “patriarchy” around a lot in my blog posts and face-to-face discussions and it often feels like most people can’t even process the word, don’t even want to attempt to go there. Comments on my blog posts and Daily KOS diary, both agreeing and disagreeing with my statements, rarely include the term as if the commenter is politely censoring my politically incorrect word even if they are agreeing with all the points I built around it.

Patriarchy, and the male privilege that emanates from it, seems to still be something that people either don’t want to acknowledge, or if acknowledged, don’t want to talk about.

According to Allan Johnson, the author of “The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy”, a society is patriarchal “to the degree that it is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered.” Despite, let’s call it the “old husbands’ tale”, that women really run everything behind the scenes, the reality of male dominance is clearly seen in the fact that positions of authority are generally held by men or even reserved for men only. In our secular, democratic society, male dominance is no longer official policy, women are enfranchised to vote, own property and otherwise participate fully in business ventures and the work-for-pay world. But still in virtually any venue, or by viewing any amount of media, it is quickly and abundantly clear that it’s still “a man’s world”, where the majority of the positions of authority, in every institution, are held by men.

In many parts of the world positions of political and economic authority, by official policy (backed up by the coercive authority of the state), can only be held by men. Vestiges of this complete and unmitigated patriarchy can be found even in American society in some religious denominations, including Catholicism, Orthodox Judaism, and most sects within Islam that I am aware of.

Johnson says that, “Patriarchal societies are male-identified in that the core cultural ideas about what is good, desirable, preferable or normal are associated with how we think about men and masculinity”. He cites the ubiquitous example in our language of the use of the word “man” and male pronouns to encompass both men and women.

I think about our movies (one of our best ongoing sources of cultural mythology) and how we still like our heroic characters to be tough, steely loners, whether in 20th Century westerns or 21st Century sci-fi epics. Both John Wayne and Sigourney Weaver personify these qualities which are generally associated with masculinity rather than femininity. Women increasingly are rising to positions of leadership in our country, but to do so they generally need to display those characteristics of toughness traditionally associated with masculinity; think Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.

Though things have changed a lot for the better, still in many circumstances displaying traditionally female characteristics risks rebuke. Being sensitive risks being labeled as a “wuss” (or worse) and being relational risks being “all talk”.

The third aspect that Johnson calls out is that patriarchal society is male-centered, focusing on the experience of men as the human experience. He says, “Pick up any newspaper or go to any movie theater and you’ll find stories primarily about men and what they’ve done or haven’t done or what they have to say about either”. Even many of the most successful “chick flicks”, like “Sleepless in Seattle” or “Pretty Women” are still built around a male protagonist, while movies where all the key characters are female, like “Thelma and Louise” or “Fried Green Tomatoes” generally have less broad appeal. Until recently, most medical research was done on men, with the assumption that the results would equally apply to women, which more recently is proving not always to be true. And try looking around the room the next time you are at a restaurant or in a meeting at work. Even when there is a fairly even mix of women and men around the table, in most (though not all) instances the men do more of the talking. Also notice how often when women begin to dominate a conversation, men tend to drift off.

A key point here is that 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. It is like a game where we quickly learn to internalize and then stop thinking about the rules. Those “rules” are reinforced by the simplest of unconscious acts, like men and women separating into different rooms at a family gathering, or roughhousing with young male children while cooing and complimenting the looks of their female counterparts.

That patriarchal system invariably exhibits a hierarchical structure or “pecking order” (either formally set or informally agreed to) where people are ranked and slotted at different levels of the hierarchy. The hierarchy generally sorts people by type, with children and youth at the bottom, men at the top, and women and “out group” men (however that gets defined) somewhere in the middle. People tend to focus on the notable exceptions, the few women that outdo the guys at their own game, the “iron maidens”, “steal magnolias”, etc, that “claw their way to the top”. But at the top of the pyramid, almost invariably, the “alpha” males fight it out for dominance.

Dominance… that’s what it’s all about. Riane Eisler calls the patriarchal system the “dominator model”, which features “power over” (rather than “power with”) others. You fight to stay on top or you’re a loser. The sports we love are the perfect metaphor. People love the teams that routinely win, that “crush” their opponents to assert their dominance. We hate losers… part of the unwritten rules of the patriarchal paradigm.

Perhaps the darkest facet of patriarchy is that even many of the men caught up in its highly ranked structures, though perhaps unthinking beneficiaries of male privilege feel constrained and even powerless. But an acceptable escape valve in many patriarchal structures is to express frustration and anger towards those “under” your authority in the pecking order, often expressed as coercion or even violence. The perfect metaphor here is “the belt” that the archetypal angry father threatens his kids with, even if it is rarely used. In my own family of origin, and many others that I have heard about, there is generally that male family “tyrant”, that everyone feared.

While most people in a patriarchal hierarchy accept their place in the pecking order, those that do not are generally dealt with by ridicule, coercion and even violence where necessary. Men often deny the existence or at least the power of patriarchy because they do not feel a sense of freedom, a sense of real powerfulness within the system. The truth is that it constricts and restrains everyone, not just the people at the very bottom of its hierarchy. The “fathers” or “bosses” are often held too accountable for the behavior and performance of their charges, to the point that they are overwhelmed by the stress and responsibility of this control. They are expected to take great care of the people beneath them in the hierarchy and work diligently to engineer (not merely help facilitate) their charges support, comfort, safety and success.

Like any other “command and control” system, it tends too readily to corruption, alienation and lack of ownership, particularly by the people who find themselves toward the bottom of the pyramid. In my opinion, to the extent in recent years (or centuries) that our families and larger institutions have moved away from this model, these institutions have become more supportive of the continuing development of society and the human race.

I continue this thread with “Perpetuating Patriarchy” and “Challenging Patriarchy”.

Also see other pieces I have written on patriarchy.

14 replies on “Defining Patriarchy”

  1. i am here to thank you again for your very interesting article, it was and is very inspiring for me and i am researching more on this topic. i wonder if i could ask you for any historical references that discribe the Axial Age and its features it regarding patriarchy? i am very eager to search more with historical evidences and would appreciate if you help me with it.
    Thanks again and again for your article,

  2. I have spent a fair amount of time on the Web looking for an article that boils down Johnson’s definition of patriarchy to a few paragraphs without losing its salient points. I keep coming back to this post. Your insights, examples, and explanations are spot on. I don’t know how many times I’ve shared it. Thank you.

  3. Vicky… I appreciate your comment and am thrilled that I have been able to capture a concise definition of this very big and profound concept in a way that other people can understand!

    I was first introduced to this concept over forty years ago and have wrestled with it and witnessed it for real for those four decades, which has helped me, along with Johnson’s great book, try and boil it down to the essence.

  4. Privilege comes with wealth. Nothing to do with race or gender. White males have been exploited as anyone by the system. Go to northern France and see the war graves of mainly white males.

  5. The feminists wish to replace their mythical patriarchy with a matriarchy. A fascist authoritarian state ruled by political correctness. Bad news for them is that it will never happen . Our culture is male dominated for the simple reason that male dominance stems from their biology . And millions of years of evolution cannot be reverse engineered . Changes can be made in pursuit of fairness which i fully support . But a state run by militant feminists would not function without tyranny. Something that would destroy itself as all tyrannies do

  6. Gary… I would agree that a great deal of privilege comes with wealth and the appearance of being at least middle class. And I would also agree that within a patriarchal society, with its propensity for fighting wars to reinforce the “us vs them” framing of things and to use raw power to decide who it “top dog”, that the powerful male elite has sent millions of its young adults, male and mostly white, to be slaughtered on the battlefields, particularly in WWI, which is a war, in my opinion, that had not purpose other than to flex the muscles of raw power.

    But I would disagree that there is not privilege in being male and being white. It is a privilege of being taken more seriously, particularly among people who don’t know you. Male privilege allows us to feel more comfortable going out, particularly at night, unaccompanied. White privilege means we are far less likely to be stopped by police and more able to approach and interact with people we don’t know without them having feelings of fear about us. But again, I would agree with you that i is all wrapped up with economic privilege as well.

  7. Gary… I have been involved in the feminist movement in one way or another for more than 40 years and I have not seen evidence of your concern among the overwhelming majority of people who espouse a feminist worldview. As with any broad spectrum movement to transform society, there is a small extremist group that might call for a matriarchy to replace patriarchy, but generally I see that called out more for shock value than anything else.

    My reading of history is that for the first 200,000 years that humans have lived on this planet, our hunter-gatherer societies were not male dominated, but as many contemporary anthropologists are finding in their research, were and are very egalitarian, including in the relations between women and men. IMO it was the component of organized violence and coercion, introduced with more settled “civilizations” some 5000 years ago, that featured a controlling elite of men.

  8. A good argument requires logic & reason.
    According to Plato & Sacrates, the masses fall for rhetoric & emotional drama rather than logic & reason, mostly because they haven’t been educated on what makes a logical argument. Using a fantasy story of feminist extremist matriarchy taking over the world is rhetoric. That men are doing what’s natural is humorous. Humans are all driven by conditioning unless they develop themselves. To be certain is to be dead already. Patriarchy shuts down any new ideas, very narcissistic. Father knows best. uncertainty is the human condition, we know not why we’re here or what happens after death, when or how we die. U can’t protect urself or anyone from dying, it’s a fantasy to help u feel better & powerful.
    War is a male issue, power trips. An evolved society w good leaders doesn’t get off on war. Males unchecked in a patriarchy are Hitler, Middle East. Low developed greedy societies thrive on violence & war. That’s all they understand & think everyone is on that level. many peacemakers have been assassinated by deranged males. They crucified Jesus & anyone who threatens their views they feel entitled to kill. This is the program/brainwashing.

  9. Diego… thanks for your comment. You are very thoughtful!

    I agree with you that “an evolved society with good leaders doesn’t get off on war”. In fact, I believe that a natural human society, which I believe existed for 200K years before our species’ experiment with “civilization”, was mostly peaceful and egalitarian hunter-gatherers. It was only with gathering large numbers of people and resources together to make cities and control territory that humans experimented with allowing a controlling “elite” to be in charge of it all, thinking there were some efficiencies there, thus the beginning’s of patriarchy and a hierarchical society. It really hasn’t worked, but at this point, we also can’t go back to being hunter-gatherers again, so we need to create a “civilization 2.0” that weaves in our more egalitarian nature into our society!

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