Patriarchy is an unfashionable term. But it is also the only term that describes the oldest, most widespread and most enduring form of governance. It is much older than democracy, for example. It seems to me that patriarchy, which is the ‘system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it’ should be as central to political analysis as, say, democracy, apartheid or oligarchy. Yet while most articles about patriarchy centre on defining it, explaining how it hurts men too, and how women can also be patriarchal (yes we can), fewer discuss why it has endured century after century in every part of the world. We should think about this if we want to find a way to dismantle it. (To be sure, patriarchy is being dismantled this very moment, but we can speed up the process by addressing it clear-sightedly.)
Of course, the simple reason that patriarchy endures is because men, and some women, gain from it. What do they gain? The most obvious thing is power. No, no, patriarchy does not make every man powerful, at least not in the same way, but it reinforces the idea that men as a collective group are the more powerful gender. This in return creates a notion that men are superior to women. After all, power is authority. Thus, the main goal of patriarchy is to establish that men are inherently superior to women and so they should be in power. You with me?
Now, there are three primary ways that patriarchal rule achieves this – first and foremost by institutionalising religions that argue that god is male. Because if god is male then it follows that men are more god-like than women. Secondly, patriarchy conflates the notion of leadership (the ruler) with that of god. Have you noticed, for example, how that the traits we revere in our great leaders are remarkably similar to gods of monotheistic religions? Thirdly, patriarchy builds the law on principles that continually reflect the first two notions: that god is male and that good leaders should act like god.
But, this still does not explain what men really, deeply, collectively gain from patriarchy. After all, not all men benefit from the law, are leaders, or are religious. So what does a world where god, the ruler and the law are modeled on a male image offer men generally speaking? Here’s what: immortality. Or perhaps I should say, the illusion of immortality.
Hear me out. Since time immemorial men have been concerned with the impossible idea of being immortal. Plato said, “The soul of man is immortal and imperishable.” James Dean said, “The only greatness for man is immortality.” Woody Allen, that, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Lastly, (seriously, I found so many quotes of this nature on the Internet), “Surely God would not have created such a being as man, with an ability to grasp the infinite, to exist only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.” – Abraham Lincoln. Even Jesus Christ, as biblical mythology presents him, rose from the dead.
It struck me like a blow, this, walking the streets of central London one day, being presented with statue upon statue, building names, churches, street names… of men that had, like gods, ruled so gloriously that they eternally and immortally still shape their world.
From a man’s point of view then, to be a man in a patriarchal society, is to live in a world where indestructibility and everlasting life seem like a possible outcome, however symbolically. And this all makes patriarchy like a drug that few men easily give up. Heck, why would they eschew the high of potential timelessness? That said, many compassionate men, and women too for that matter, are patriarchy ‘addicts’. Craving deathlessness is not exactly a crime, you see. If anything, it is an understandable reaction to the fear of death. A fear, which I’m confident we all, some less/more than others, grapple with. Also, the illusion of immortality can be about justice, the sense that there is enough time for justice to be done. Yet real justice always happens in the present, here and now, not in the future.
I’m not suggesting that women do not long to be immortal, or, that women don’t fear death. Women, in the absence of a system that promises them timelessness, take to ceremony and ritual to re-member ancestresses but such acts are ephemeral. As patriarchal rule would have it, when a woman dies she dies. Period. Her birth name dies. There are no monuments of her, no street names, no governing bodies over which she rules, no D-Days, no capital, no property or land and definitely no almighty goddess to worship for ever and ever, a men. (Why would she be immortalised when she, in the form of Eve, is to blame for man’s mortality in the first place!)
Yet since we – women and men – are in fact mortal, patriarchy is not only destructive for social relations but it is a flawed form of rule, based on a fear-fuelled fallacy. We would do well to not only not shy away from discussing it but to talk about it more!
What do you think?
Kuukua Y says
I love this piece!
Wow this is incredibly poignant. Especially the ideas about immortality and being ‘godified’. I was really struck by the fact that we have almost nothing named after women. I too, have been thinking constantly about the refusal of both men and women to give up patriarchy. But it is so difficult to discuss especially when many people don’t want to educate themselves on what it is, or are really oblivious to it. From your explanation, patriarchy seems to be ingrained in our psyche, almost invisible to our eyes – hence the difficulty to bring it forward. Thank you for this article, though. So great.
Hi Debboe, thanks for sharing thoughts and for the feedback. It was a difficult post to write about such a complex issue so I appreciate your views. It does stab to witness how women are being erased from HIStory right before one’s eyes.
Karen Wako says
One day, you ladies will get what you so yearn for. It may not be in our lifetime and more the pity that is. I sincearly hope you like the taste of the porridge when that day arrives.
I have no idea how I would go about tracing my matrilineal lineage. I know my maternal grandmother’s last name, which came from her father. After that, I’m just tracing her father’s lineage, right?
I’ve never thought about the fear of mortality being a reason for patriarchy enduring, but it makes sense. And it makes it all the more baffling why women are so invested in the system that actively erases them. Women berate me for saying I wouldn’t take my husband’s name if I got married. They berate me for refusing to “let a man lead.” They berate me for being childfree. They berate me for making decisions. (I’m not exaggerating.) And for what? Because it’s such a priority to allow men to use their lives and their bodies and their energy and their work to erase them?
This is a great point – it’s something so tangible in many of our lives. I’ve sat with the elders in my family to discuss our family tree in detail. It’s a well documented, intriguing and captivating document that I feel privileged to have had explained to me and it is also strikingly patrilineal. I yearn to trace down my grandmother’s lineage but it would be very difficult to do.
Regarding being berated for not extending the patriarchy, I know you’re not exaggerating. I truly, sadly, do. I have a motto of sorts – “I will live but that I all that I will do for patriarchy”.
Thanks for sharing.
I do not think the main drivers of patriarchy can be found in religion, though, by God, religion does help it along. I suspect the acclaimed maleness of God distracts from the real culprits. For me the real impetus is to be found in property relations and how these are regulated through marriage and broader economic life and socialisation. By this I mean patriarchy is built into law of inheritance, employment, marriage, education and social relationships. The rest of is mere ideology which needs a solid everyday practice to stay relevant.
Patriarchy is not just about governance but the privilege of the male principal in all social and economic relations.
Patriarchy does not, in my view, favour most men. It is the seat of much oppression, exclusion and violence, which is as visited on men as women.
Thanks for the great discussion Ebele!
I see your point, and it is important to concretise how patriarchy operates, but I was suggesting something similar by saying that patriarchy (simply put) is maintained through the treble manifestation of the male as God + the leader + the law. This includes property law and the idea that supports men owning more property.
If I may draw on Thomas Sankara to respond to the following comment you made: “Patriarchy does not, in my view, favour most men. It is the seat of much oppression, exclusion and violence, which is as visited on men as women.”
Sankara said namely, more succinctly than I can, that, “Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others.”
Bearing this in mind, you’re right that patriarchy does not favour most men. But it does favour all men (unless they seek to undo the damage of it) with the assumption (somewhat related to the question of immortality) that men have the right to dominate “by ‘divine rights.”
Does this address your point or do you disagree? I ask earnestly, as I think getting to the root of the psyche of patriarchy is the key that will unlock many of our feminist conundrums.
Thank you Minna for your reply
I think what I am saying is that patriarchy is not something rooted in the male psyche or God & mythology but in the everyday material organisation of life. I take my cue from a Marxist analysis rather than a purely psychological view. Which is not to dismiss the psyche but to give it is proper place.
It is a complex, evolving problem which I struggle to understand. I find Sankara’s analysis you quote compelling ( though ‘the worker husband’ and ‘worker wife’ feels a little dated) yet I cannot help asking myself if ‘the slave of a slave’ is doubly enslaved? Or merely a slave further down the pecking order in a big system of oppression that links all men and women.
Nice picture Frida Kahlo picture! ( no Diego Rivera to grace it).
A bit late, but thanks for expanding Ebele. It makes sense, I reckon both the capital-analyses as well as the psycho-spiritual ones helps us to gain understanding of male dominance. Yes, worker husband/wife a bit dated but not perhaps if we think of worker as one who works for the patriarchy rather than the hands-on-type worker Sankara referred to.
“I cannot help asking myself if ‘the slave of a slave’ is doubly enslaved? Or merely a slave further down the pecking order in a big system of oppression that links all men and women.”
Very good question, food for thought. I’m leaning toward the latter (big system of oppression) but I would argue that the term slave here, however metaphoric, presents a linguistic barrier as there is (or should not be) no hierarchy of oppression within slavery. It is always a violation of rights. But there are hierarchies in both the public and private spheres of ‘the slave’, and it feels to me that those particularly are rooted in this idea of eternal life. Hmm rambling. Thanks for the discussion.
Lamont Cranston says
Men have the power. Sure. Yet no one likes to go into the most obvious concept that goes along with it. Responsibility. You don’t get the crown without it’s duties. Sure, you could be a petty tyrant. Though history tells how fast that goes bad for everyone involved in the end. So as a man society grants me more privilege than an average woman. In turn it demands more of me than an average woman.
This is an interesting observation, Lamont. Power does come with responsibility. However, it would be inaccurate to assume that responsibility is not bestowed upon those who are not granted power due to their gender. Or that women may not wish for more responsibility in society. Furthermore, responsibility, however tasking, adds to a meaningful life don’t you think? Otherwise men would be more willing to share power.
I’d like to start with saying thank you for your incredible blog. It has been so educational and inspirational.
Also, I can’t believe that someone had exactly the same idea! I think you are absolutely right, and I’d maybe even take it further:
I think that men craving immortality is linked with them being envious of not being able to have babies.
This may sound a little freudian (penis envy, anyone?), because on the surface the female part of reproduction is seen as disgusting and frightening- from period to childbirth, there is a heavy taboo on it. But hear me out: Why should a women, opposite to a man, need to make a big statue of herself, leave her mark in world history or create monuments- when she has in herself the most natural form of immortality? If she has children, a part of herself will- genetically and symbolically- live through them, and more: Through raising their children, women are used to having absolute power, physical- if they do not look after it, their offspring dies- as well as psychological- she is the one who will most likely influence her child the most, and install powerful ideas in their heads. (It is interesting to note that this “natural” power has not been abused as much and as ruthlessly as political or economical power has -although I’m not completely buying into the “universal mother love” myth.)
So on top of being able to create a new human being and traditionally being the one to shape their characters considerably, they also get to chose who is going to make up the other part of the genes, and who will be another important role model for the child- this is the only point were the uterus-envious male can “intervene” violently- through rape. I mean, rape has a lot of causes, but manly we agree that it is about power, and power over women and their bodies. Rapists almost never wear condoms, and I think a part of it is the ultimate humiliation of claiming their “rightful” part in history through womens’ bodies. Ew. Trying to understand rapists always makes me want to wash my brain.
+++++++++++ TW end
(In my family, we believe that child-raising is also a form of political activism and important for democracy- even if the child may grow up to have different opinions to their family, they come from a unique experience that let them develop as an individual. It is a task of the whole family, rather than just the mother. By ensuring that the development of political ideas is not supervised and influenced by state institutions solely, but rather something private, we ensure the diversity of opinions nessecary for a functioning democracy. History has tought us that toxic ideas spread faster in systems where the education is taken away completely from the family and made a one-fits-all, almost like pests spreading faster in monocultural plantations. Albeit patriarchial, this family recognizes women as prestigeous for taking care of all long-term decisions, while men take care of short-term issues.)
I mean, this uterus-envy is just an idea and to think that it covers the whole complexity of sexism would be more than naive. But considering this rather psychoanalytical view could uncover another dimension of it (I’m sorry if this comment sounded heteronormative and trans-exclusive, I did not intend that! I’m not a native speaker, so I’m not as adept in expressing my opinions in an inclusive way as in my first language- if anyone has something to add or an improvement to make, I’d be glad for the advice.)
Oh, and of course, there would also be an easy solution to this “uterus-envy-complex”: Splitting up works and making childraising a typical womens’ issue may have been logical a few thousand years ago, but now it is of course completely outdated. Instead of degrading motherhood and child-raising and making it a women’s task- which resemble kindergarten strategies like “If I can’t have the toy, then it’s a stupid toy and you can keep it, it’s only for stupid kids”, men can participate in child-raising and the partners can both make short-term and long-term plans. I would find it interesting if men who have been active in raising a child have had as much of a midlife-crisis (“What have I really done with my life? Did I waste it? Did I really live fully?”) as those who just concentrated on their carreers.
Ok, sorry for this rant- I guess it just shows that you really inspire me a lot!
Please lets exchange the words men and women with the two other word:
“Why should a “W” men , opposite to an “N” need to make a big statue of himself, leave his mark in world history or create monuments- when he has in himself the most natural form of immortality?
How does this sound like? I thinks we should carefully have a look where the discussion is leading to. Or I, as a men, have to be afraid to end up in prison for being born as a men.
Especially if women claim to be so much better than we, they should open a new way and not only exchange the positions or the words.
All humans are equal.
(English is not my fist language)
Catharine, please do not apologise for the comment, I enjoyed it a lot.
“Why should a women, opposite to a man, need to make a big statue of herself, leave her mark in world history or create monuments- when she has in herself the most natural form of immortality?”
– this is true and a crucial psychological factor to examine, however, I would like to see more statues by women of women about the woman experience. Particularly in patriarchal society, to see such can be healing.
Like your approach to child raising!
Hagrid Dog says
Another interesting thing to do is compare male icons/celebrities and compare how they’re treated to how females in the same line of work and ‘celebrity points’ are treated. I tried it even by looking up male icons’ mediocre performances and reading the comments section and all comments were good. I did the same with a female except I chose a much more impressive performance of hers (due to the patriarchy I made sure to raise the bar for her and make it more difficult), and sadly comments like “talent-less whore” and “try hard slut” come up even though there were no grounds for it. 🙁