Challenging Patriarchy

Coop Headshot 1So once you define the contemporary manifestation of this ancient way of being, and maybe understand how it has managed to perpetuate itself through a couple hundred generations of parents to children, how then do we address challenging and working towards ending this (what I would call) perpetuated vestige of an archaic system for organizing society?

Allan Johnson, in his book The Gender Knot, says the solution starts with acknowledging patriarchy exists as a collective system with its own internal logic, conventional wisdom and “paths of least resistance”, rather than as bad behavior by a bunch of individual men towards women. A systemic problem is not resolved by trying to identify “bad apples” and somehow weed them out or limit their influence. Most men and women participate in this system without consciously intending to oppress or be oppressed, without even being aware perhaps that the system exists.

The idea of “paths of least resistance” is critical here. When I’m part of say a discussion with only males present, particularly people I may not know well or that have some authority over me, and someone makes a sexist joke about women, the easiest and perhaps safest thing to do is to laugh along (for show) or at least shut up. Or when you are put in a situation of acknowledging maybe some inadvertent, insensitive behavior on your part towards one or more women, not to resort to saying something like, “Well you know how we men are!” and just laugh it off. Another example would be acknowledging that your daughter is “daddy’s girl” even if you don’t define your relationship with your daughter in those terms.

Based on the understanding of this oppressive system, Johnson says that it is important to take responsibility for patriarchy and your role in it without accepting the guilt or blame for the creation of the system. This gets back to the idea of a bad system versus bad behavior by individual men. To take on all that guilt and blame is too heavy and overwhelming a load, and if anything, generally makes you less effective in doing anything about it. Yet it is important to understand that even passive participation in patriarchal conventional wisdom and its paths of least resistance perpetuates the ideology.

Finally, after acknowledging patriarchy and taking responsibility for our part in it (without guilt or shame), it is important to muster the courage when we can to take little risks to challenge those conventions, including facing the discomfort of others if we rock the boat. “Pick your battles when you can be most effective”, as my mother would say. Here are some of Johnson’s suggestions, along with his basic advice to “think small, humble, and doable rather than large, heroic, and impossible”, but given that, “Don’t let other people set the standard for us”…

1. Find little ways to withdraw support from paths of least resistance and people’s choices to follow them, including our own.

Whenever I walk into a party or some other social situation with several circles of people, if all the men are in one grouping and all the women in another, I will generally break the “gender barrier” and go join the group of women. I find it so interesting how the dynamics of a group change (generally from my experience for the better) when the group transitions from single gender to mixed, even with a single individual of the other gender. Breaking that gender barrier reduces the tendency for normative statements about a gulf between men and women akin to the “men are from Mars and women from Venus” idea, which I believe to be a key premise that perpetuates this ancient ideology.

2. Dare to make people feel uncomfortable, beginning with ourselves.

The classic situation is being in a group of men when someone tells a sexist joke that disparages women or men that are not behaving in a traditionally masculine way. Depending on the joke and the spirit in which it was delivered, I might acknowledge that it is funny, but then add, “but you got to admit its kind of sexist”. The joke teller may then acknowledge that and perhaps apologize, or maybe argue the point or political correctness generally. All these scenarios, if handled with sensitivity can lead to make implicit patriarchal conventions more explicit and acknowledged.

3. Openly choose and model alternative paths.

When I am in a casual discussion with other men, I often try to lead the discussion away from talking about inanimate objects and their attributes, including cars, computers and other high-value possessions, and towards talking about people, relationships and feelings. At a minimum, a great entrée with guys you don’t know very well is to ask, “So how do you know so-and-so?” or “how did you meet?”

4. Actively promote change in how systems are organized around patriarchal values and male privilege.

When you are out in the larger community maybe volunteering within a religious congregation or some other community group, and the need arises to form a committee and designate a chair for that committee, be proactive to suggest a woman in the group, that you think would do a good job, be the chair. If you encounter a leadership or other decision-making group that is all men (or even all women), publicly note that you are surprised the group is single gender and ask the members if they have any thoughts on that.

5. Rally men along with women to challenge patriarchal practices, since men generally wield more collective control over the social systems that need to change.

It is not fair and generally not as effective to expect members of the unprivileged group to do all the heavy lifting of challenging that privilege. Again, when the “gender barrier” is broken and men join women in challenging a particular item of male privilege (like watching the football game rather than helping clear the dishes), there is a paradigm shift away from any women’s sphere versus men’s sphere or any (even playful) talk of the battle between the sexes. As long as only women are complaining it is much easier for men to be in denial about their behavior or claim some sort of prerogative to “be one of the guys”.

It is most often just the little things that I have grown to find fairly easy to do, without risking too much embarrassment of myself or others. But every little “picked battle” is important, and if you are smart like a good army general, you will learn to fight your battles on favorable ground, when you have it, but then keep your powder dry for another day, when you don’t. (So there I go making a military analogy which may resonate more with the men reading this piece than some of the women!) Hopefully you get my meaning.

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