The persistence of patriarchy


If you think patriarchy is passé, think again.

Patriarchy is as current as Brexit, Donald Trump, and nationalist political parties. It is not old-fashioned; it is as hip as football millionaires and Silicon Valley start-ups.

The fact that patriarchy is a term so many shy away from using is one of the things that enables it to survive.

Patriarchy is everyday sexism, but it is more than everyday sexism. Patriarchy embraces misogyny, but relies on more than misogyny. Patriarchy produces gender inequality, but its consequences run deeper than gender inequality.

Patriarchy is a system – a dynamic web – of particular ideas and relationships. Patriarchy can be updated and modernized. It is stunningly adaptable. That is the sense in which it is useful to talk about patriarchy as ‘sustainable’.

Today, we think of ‘sustainability’ as a positive thing, as a reference point with which to measure whether any practice or policy is worthy of our support. Sustainability, however, is only as positive as the thing we choose to perpetuate. ‘Sustainable patriarchy’ simply describes how a system of ideas and relationships that so many women have risked their reputations and lives to challenge has, nonetheless, managed to survive.

Describing patriarchy’s stubborn survival and its remarkable adaptability is not to drape it in a mantle of unassailability. Exposing how patriarchal systems are being perpetuated today will enable us to more effectively challenge and dismantle them. The ideas and relationships that comprise any patriarchal system are multiple, but knowable. They are not mysterious. They are not abstracted from daily life. Patriarchy is what we live.

Patriarchal ideas include both beliefs (how we explain how the world works) and values (what we deem is worthy, good, attractive, as well as what we find unworthy, bad, distasteful). Both can be appealing – and in fact are appealing – not only to most men, but to a lot of women. That appeal is one of the things that sustains them. When we explore what persuaded so many American women to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election – or to support conservative parties in Britain, Poland, Chile, Japan or Australia – we should think seriously about the appeals and rewards of patriarchy for diverse women.

Patriarchal beliefs include understandings about whether sex is fixed at birth, whether gender is synonymous with sex, whether women and men are ‘naturally’ different; whether maleness is inherently rational, while femaleness is inherently emotional. Patriarchal beliefs also include understandings about whether humans of different races are ‘naturally’ ranked in a hierarchy, whether the core elements of human societies are biological families, and whether the world is a dangerous place that necessitates men acting as the protectors of women. Patriarchal beliefs include, as well, potent notions of fate and inevitability. A shrug of one’s shoulders can express a belief.

In other words, our beliefs are how we go about making sense of our complex surroundings and the wider universe in which we live. Patriarchal values are supported by patriarchal beliefs, but are intended more explicitly to steer behaviour. Thus we tend to make values the topics of our debates among friends, families and political parties, even if it is our differing beliefs that ignite the deepest conflicts with each other. Among the patriarchal values that have been most contentious are those assigning more worth to reason than to emotion, those that bestow inherent worth on traditions, and those which prioritize family loyalty over all other sorts of commitment.

Leaders and followers

To rank governments on the basis of whether they are militarily sophisticated and paternalistically authoritarian towards their citizens also demonstrates our absorption of patriarchal values. Patriarchal values often include admiration for what are imagined to be manly forms of leadership, and, as a patriarchal complement, admiration chiefly for women who devote themselves first and foremost to mothering. Thus, to anyone embracing such patriarchal values, hearing Leymah Gbowee praised for her successful mobilization of the Liberian women’s peace movement, without any reference to her behaviour as a wife or a mother, can feel uncomfortable. Across many cultures, leaders’ authoritarian inclinations are intertwined with their presumed manliness. Contempt for femininity – even while showing off one’s ‘winning way with women’ – is often coupled with masculinized authoritarian leadership.

Of course, women who become leaders can absorb and advocate for authoritarian values, though their gendered credentials are distinctive. Both Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi were admired for their allegedly masculinized skills. ‘The only man in the room,’ according to some of their male admirers.

Many American Women’s March participants voiced alarm at Donald Trump’s apparent efforts to transform the US presidency into an authoritarian post. They saw evidence of his valuing a sort of leadership that was dismissive of the presidency’s relationships with co-equal legislative and court branches. He appeared to value a sort of masculinized authority that would not be constrained by the deliberately complex system of American constitutionalism. To accept such structural constraints, in his mind, it seemed, bordered on becoming feminized.

It is a mistake, however, to think of authoritarian values as adhering just to a certain kind of leader. Authoritarian values are also embraced by those men and women far from the centres of power who, nonetheless, admire the type of manly leader who presents himself as ‘strong’. That is, among its followers, authoritarianism can take the form of submissiveness. Versions of masculinized submission to an authoritarian leader come in the form of the ‘loyal lieutenant’, the fawning courtier, the self-interested crony, the aspiring wannabe, the proverbial ‘foot soldier’. To be an authoritarian voter is to be someone – of any gender – who yearns for a manly man (or a suitably masculinized woman) to take firm hold on the reins of power and sweep away all the frustrating complexities of constitutional checks and balances. Such a voter hopes that this leader will eschew the time-consuming give and take of democratic debate and compromise. To absorb authoritarian values in one’s role as citizen fosters admiration for a leader who dismisses the constraints of law and the messiness that is the characteristic of a genuinely open public arena. Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump each have had their fervent admirers, even when those admirers do not garner direct benefits from that leader’s rule. Though they might imagine themselves to be defiantly individualistic, these admirers are authoritarian in both the values they espouse and the submissive relationships in which they take comfort.

The constant challenge

To say that patriarchy has proved remarkably adaptable is not to argue that there have been no significant successes in challenging it. Patriarchy would not need to constantly adapt if those anti-patriarchal successes had not been achieved. The forcing of men by women to accept their casting ballots on equal terms, in countries as different as Sweden, South Africa and Brazil, has compelled patriarchal men and women to find new ways to ensure the privileging of masculinity in governance. Similarly, women in countries as disparate as Samoa, Turkey and Britain who have managed to drag the practice of wife-beating out of the domestic shadows, and compel reluctant governments to treat it as a crime, have motivated patriarchy’s adherents to craft new strategies for intimidating women.

This combination of feminists’ achievements and patriarchy’s adaptability has required women’s movements all over the world to keep reinventing themselves. To grapple with an adaptable patriarchy takes time, energy, and ever more diverse alliances. Patriarchy’s beneficiaries count on us getting tired.

Patriarchal systems – those dynamic webs of beliefs, values and relationships – have to be able to adapt in ways that make them look new, reformed, ‘up-to-date’, occasionally even revolutionary. Their advocates have to perform these repeated facelifts while sustaining patriarchy’s essential core: the privileging of particular forms of masculinity over despised masculinities and over all forms of femininity. A few select women can be let into the boardroom – or onto the television sportscast or into the law school – but on (usually unwritten and denied) conditions: that those few women do not insist that many more women of diverse races join them; that those allowed inside internalize masculinized ways of thinking (about profits, war, sexuality, inequality); or, by contrast, that those few selected women act out a form of patriarchal femininity that complements but does not supplant masculinized privilege.

Updating patriarchy requires more than perpetuating domination, intimidation and submission. It also requires reproducing certain relationships that on the surface look benign: gratitude, attachment, dependence, competition, suspicion, trust, loyalty and even compassion. That can make it easy to slip into patriarchal complicity without intending to or even realizing what are the implications of one’s feelings and actions. Marching in creative, energizing, inclusive protests matters. The experience can remind participants who are trying to resist patriarchy in all its guises that they are not alone. If such public demonstrations against patriarchy stem from authentically grassroots initiatives, they can also simultaneously remind participants of the full array of issues, fears, identities and aspirations that have to be acknowledged in order to effectively stymie the updating of patriarchy. Everyone has to join in everyone else’s chants.

However, it will take more than public demonstrations to stop patriarchy in its tracks. It will take humble, clear-eyed reflections on one’s own possible complicities in its perpetuation.

Cynthia Enloe is a feminist writer, teacher and activist, and the author of 15 books. This article is an extract from her latest book The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy published in the UK (by Myriad/New Internationalist) and in the US (by University of California Press) this month.

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