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The Invisible Hand of the Patriarchy

Posted by Curt on Monday, 24 May 2010

This post is the first of a series of three posts dealing with three central tenants of (third wave) feminism.  They include that of patriarchy, male privilege, and benevolent sexism (also known as “female privilege”).  These concepts are often misunderstood by non-feminists, to which feminists scoff at when presented with such a misinformed critique.  It is therefore my goal for these three posts to explain and analyze these three tenants so as to better enable myself and my readers to approach feminism fully informed and fair-mindedly.  This post will deal with patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a concept which stems back to the second wave of feminism, the wave which sought to empower women to what they believed was as an equal status with men (as opposed to only seeking to give women equal rights according to the law, as the case of the first wave).  In the process of looking at the social hierarchies and social attitudes through a gendered perspective (masculine vs. feminine), they discovered that our culture is constructed in such a way so as to influence our ideas about gender and identity with it and its connotations, which consequently leads to certain attitudes which discourages one gender from acting how the opposite gender is believed ought to (such as male from playing with Barbie dolls or women from playing football) and thus ultimately a stratification of society based on gender.  Feminists claim that this stratification reinforces male dominance and thus were created by males in the distant past – “patriarchy”.  From the Latin word patriarch, the male head of a household.

Finally Feminism 101 defines patriarchy as such:

“Patriarchy is one form of social stratification via a power/dominance hierarchy – an ancient and ongoing social system based on traditions of elitism (a ranking of inferiorities) and its privileges.”

It is notable that most feminists today do not consider patriarchy the only, or even the main, system which influences social hierarchies.  One of the biggest features of third wave feminism is its inclusion of intersectionality – racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. with sexism.  This led to a more complete picture of how these social hierarchies were formed, as they explained away nuances such as white women having more power over black men (where race, in this example, is believed to be a stronger factor of one’s place on the social hierarchy than one’s gender).  The more integrated, but still not very well known, word for all of this is “kyriarchy”, whose definition Finally Feminism 101 quoted from the book Wisdom Ways:

“A neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.”

Basically, it’s patriarchy but combined with a myriad of other “patriarchies” for race, sexuality, able-bodiedness, etc.  Although feminists, while they usually acknowledge all of these, are naturally inclined to mainly look at it as it affects gender – the traditional patriarchy.

As I’m sure you can imagine, patriarchy crosses over with male privilege heavily (which I will get into in the next post); male privilege is in fact an integral part of patriarchy.  Male privilege would probably best be seen as how patriarchy is manifested and is reinforced.  A quick example of a male privilege would be if men are regarded as the most competent on business matters, thus locking women out of higher paying positions in a company (the glass ceiling – an invisible barrier to women’s career advancement).  This would have the effect of keeping men as the wealthier gender and women as either impoverished or needing to depend on a husband for a comfortable lifestyle.

Thus if you ever see a feminist refer to something as patriarchal or a manifestation of patriarchy, they’re probably referring to a privilege or anything which reinforces this social stratification that they believe favors males.


The Glass Ceiling

One of the main things to bear in mind when thinking of patriarchy is the fact that it is a collectivist idea.  It is collectivist in that it views men and women as single, unified groups that are distinct from one another.  While we may certainly think and talk of such in this manner, it essentially disregards individual nuances.  The notion of kyriarchy was a way to compensate for some nuances (such as white women having more power over black men), but not individual nuances (such as one’s education, how articulate they are, etc.) – kyriarchy basically takes other collectives like race and does the same thing.  The underlying notion behind all of this is the idea that patriarchy acts as an invisible hand, subtly keeping men more powerful than women despite their individual ability, even when legally they are regarded as equals.

But what about these individual nuances?  When feminists talk of patriarchy, it often seems so rigid, but even many of those feminists will admit that patriarchy is far more flexible and dynamic than that.  And indeed, it’s so flexible that individual women (and not just one or two, but a number of them) are able to break through it and get themselves into engineering programs in universities, break through the glass ceiling and attain executive positions in companies, and a wide array of things.

Of course, women compose a smaller percentage of all students or workers in those positions than men do.  If all were equal, it would be evenly split between about 50-50, correct?  That is if you approach the disparity wanting equality of results as opposed to the equality of opportunity, which feminists are inclined to do.  They’ll often treat these disparities as evidence of sexism against women, patriarchy holding them back, and many people have been taught that disparities can only exist because of discrimination.  But that’s blatantly false.  Disparities are merely a symptom of discrimination, but they can exist for reasons beyond discrimination.

What other factors, then, could explain such disparities?  Let us not forget that it was only a mere 50 years ago that women were largely expected to be stay at home mothers, spending their days tending to the house’s chores and taking care of children rather than working in a paid full time position.  Feminists, to their credit, have made great strides against such societal attitudes and gave women a place in the working world.  But when compared to men, who were universally expected to work full time in well paying jobs and still are (there are very few stay at home dads today because how much a man makes is often used as a measure of his own self worth), how many women feel freer to choose not to work compared to men?  How many women feel freer to choose a liberal arts degree that pays far less money than a degree in, say, engineering than men do?  You may call it an example of “patriarchy hurts men too”, but are women not freer (and thus more empowered) in this light?  Isn’t the entire notion of “patriarchy” still in existence today undermined if women, on balance, have it better than men in any situation?

Feminists may dismiss the question all they like, but it is a fair one to ask.


7 Responses to “The Invisible Hand of the Patriarchy”

  1. Stephanie said

    You are very, very ignorant. As an engaged young woman who’s fiance is in charge, I’d love to chat with you sometime and explain my side!

    • Cowlover27 said

      Wtf seriously? U think u are so happy just because your husband is in charge? I have no objections about your opinion since in my house my dad is the one who works but that is only because my mom has to look after our baby sister and if that’s the way you choose to live, then so be it. But personally if I was in your situation I would not be happy. You should be the one to make decisions about yourself, not your fiancee. I don’t understand you mean by “in charge” but if it means your fiancee is the one making decisions for you, then are you in your right mind? I do believe that radical feminism is too much and that some women are just using feminism to completely hate men but that doesn’t mean you can’t stand up for yourself when someone is making a decision for you you don’t like, regardless of the gender.

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