The word “patriarchy” is used by many feminists to refer to the system of gender (the differences in status, condition, and treatment that depend on whether you’re a man or a woman) in our society. This page is a short explanation of why I don’t use the term, with reference both to stronger definitions and weaker definitions of it.
(Length: 1,200 words)
1. Stronger Definitions of Patriarchy
1.1 Overview & Problem
Stronger definitions of the term make very bold claims about women’s position in our society. These definitions often have a laundry list of things that “men” apparently do to “women” (e.g. men exploit, oppress, rule over, subjugate, and terrorize women). They’re usually based on a view of gender that sees women as a down-trodden and oppressed underclass and men as a powerful oppressor class.
I reject these stronger definitions because I don’t think they actually apply to our system of gender (in the present-day Western world). They sound much more applicable to a place like Saudi Arabia than to the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, etc. My reasons for rejecting this view of our society are mostly covered in the Non-Feminist FAQ so there’s no reason to repeat them here.
1.2 Examples of Stronger Definitions
- In a handout called “Understanding Patriarchy”, renowned feminist author bell hooks (she intentionally writes her name in lower-case) describes patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence”.
- In her book Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (page ix), hooks says that “[i]n return for all the goodies men receive from patriarchy, they are required to dominate women, to exploit and oppress us, using violence if they must to keep patriarchy intact”. Although “[m]ost men find it difficult to be patriarchs” and are “disturbed by hatred and fear of women, by male violence against women, even the men who perpetuate this violence”, men “fear letting go of the benefits”.
- The London Feminist Network says that patriarchy is the system we currently live in, “characterized by current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed” in “almost every sphere of life”.
- Rebecca Reilly-Cooper (political philosopher at the University of Warwick) calls patriarchy a “social order organised to perpetuate male dominance and supremacy and female passivity and subordination”.
- Sylvia Walby calls patriarchy “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women” (in her 1990 book Theorizing Patriarchy).
- Michael Kaufman says that patriarchy is a “system of men’s power over women” (and “hierarchies of power among different groups of men and between different masculinities”, but we’re interested here in the dynamic between men and women).
2. Weaker Definitions of Patriarchy
2.1 Overview & Problem
Weaker definitions don’t make the more extreme claims about men as a group “having power” (or being awful people to women, etc.). Instead, they point out the disparity that the most powerful individuals tend to be men, which is true even in the Western world. Still, this improvement is not enough for me to use the term.
Referring to our system as a patriarchy could be interpreted as using or endorsing the stronger definitions. And although it’s true that most of those in the top positions of power are men, using the term “patriarchy” as the word for our system suggests that this is the defining or most important feature of our system, which I don’t agree with. It’s one relevant feature but I think the effect of men being more common in positions of power is overstated. There are many other relevant features that could be mentioned, like that men are more likely to be in the underclass of society (murdered, incarcerated, homeless), and as a societal attitude that we tend to care more about the safety and well-being of women than men (male disposability).
Male disposability is no less important than the fact that the most powerful tend to be men. Instead of saying we live in a patriarchy, we could say we live in a “system of male disposability” to emphasize that aspect, and it would be just as valid. Or another option is a more neutral description like “our system of gender”.
Why does this matter? It’s common to respond to men’s issues (like higher rates of homelessness, murder victimization, and incarceration, and lower life expectancy) and say “that’s just because of patriarchy”. In the sense of “that’s just because of our system of gender (or gender roles)” then it’s true, but it comes across as “that’s just because men are more common in positions of power”, which I really disagree with (or even worse: “that’s just because we live in a society of male domination where men as a class have power over women as a class”, to use the stronger definition). It’s quite a stretch to say that men are over-represented among the homeless, murdered, incarcerated, and early deaths because they’re over-represented in positions of power. Even if men being more common in positions of power is related to seeing them as more capable, and seeing them as more capable is one factor constributing to male disposability, it’s certainly not the only factor. We could take that away and still have male disposability (see discussion here). Also, for what it’s worth, black people are also over-represented among the homeless, murdered, incarcerated, and early deaths without being over-represented in positions of power or being seen as more capable.
2.2 Examples of Weaker Definitions
- The FinallyFeminism101 FAQ uses “patriarchy” to refer to the fact that most of the elites and business magnates are men: “The male elites, the magnates (currently white, but who knows what the next century will bring?), continue to wield disproportionate influence and power over the situations of other men and especially women”. It’s unclear how the elites have more power over non-elite women than non-elite men, but this is still improvement from the last set of definitions. They’re explicit that “not all men are patriarchs”.
- In the article “Patriarchy and How It Shows Up for Everyone” on EverydayFeminism, Shannon Ridgway calls patriarchy “a system of domination by which the wealthy, white, male ruling class has authority over everyone else”. This at least narrows the “ruling class” down from men to wealthy, white men (wealth matters more for being in the ruling class than gender or race, although I’ll grant that gender and race affect likelihood of having wealth).
- One of the definitions of patriarchy in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a family, group, or government controlled by a man or a group of men”. This is reasonable because the government and most businesses are controlled by groups of primarily men. (Although the government is indirectly controlled by the voting population, which has somewhat more women than men.)