What is Patriarchy?
If you're familiar with feminism, you've undoubtably heard of The Patriarchy -- the sort of omnipresent boogieman that feminists claim to be dismantling or overthrowing. But what is it?
A patriarchy is essentially a social structure that places men in the primary position of power. This means men predominantly govern, own property and dictate moral authority. I'm not going to go into the history of patriarchy because you can do that yourself on Wikipedia. In feminist theory, patriarchy is the power structure that oppresses and enforces gender: male supremacy.
Roots in Essentialism
Within feminism, there are many ways to interpret patriarchy. Initially, patriarchy was thought of as sex-based oppression: members of the male sex exerted domination over members of the female sex. This examination placed a lot of emphasis on what is called biological essentialism or biological reasons for the strict differences between males and females. Bio essentialism was used for a long time to argue for the oppression of women: for example, because women had smaller brains on average, they were less intelligent. As research developed over time, these claims were found to be groundless. However, essentialism remained in feminist theory as gender essentialism.
Traditionally, feminist theory has seen womanhood as a fixed entity with prescribed characteristics. Often these characteristics include personality traits like nurturing, feminine and empathetic. Historically, they have also included biological traits like two x-chromosomes, a uterus, vagina and other "female" body parts. Then radfem Judith Butler came alone and turned all of this gender essentialism on its head.
"One is not born, but, rather becomes a woman"
(Quote by Simone de Beauvoir.) Womanhood isn't something that is inherent, it is something that is learned and created. Gender performativity is this idea that gender is theatrical. Gender is socially and culturally constructed; everyone puts on their genders every day through clothes, body language and mannerisms. Sex and gender are separate entities. Sex includes biological traits and things like genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. Gender includes socially constructed traits centered around how someone chooses to express their identity. If this is accepted then essentialism falls flat. Why is this important?
Many radical feminists still hold on to the idea that patriarchy is sex-based oppression. As gender becomes more widely accepted as a separate entity from sex, gender and biological essentialism grow increasingly old fashioned. If feminism is to take a more intersectional approach to its analyses, then it must acknowledge gender in male supremacy. This is by no means omitting sex-based discrimination. Our society puts a great emphasis on a binary sex system. To only examine gender oppression would be counter productive to the sex-based oppression female bodies face with regards to reproductive health and even inter-sexed individuals face in being required to conform their bodies to a binary system.
Patriarchy is more than sex-based oppression, it must include gender-based oppression.
With Regards to the Left
Like I discussed in my last post, What's Up Radical Feminist, radical feminism aims to dismantle patriarchy (both sex and gender-based oppression) in society. Marxist feminism see women's oppression linked to the class struggle. My view is a combination of both:
In more marxist and socialist veins, the patriarchy has come to exist in duality with capitalistic oppression. Capitalism is inline with hegemonic masculinity. It operates under the masculine traits of hard-work, self-centeredness, and power. For capitalism to succeed, there must be someone under to exploit -- the same goes for patriarchy. In Europe, prior to the rise of capitalism, women were given more freedoms, but they were still enslaved by the patriarchal system of the Catholic Church. When the capitalist class rose out of feudalism, they adopted many of the Church's techniques to control women. Through the rise of capitalism, work became gendered. Men were allowed to join the capitalist class and women were assigned to unpaid reproductive labor -- domestic housework and sex work. Male supremacy came first but it was co-opted by capitalism to further exploit female bodies and female labor.
Today, the patriarchy rears its ugly head in countless ways: In the workplace where women are often talked over and belittled for their achievements and men are, historically and currently, more likely to be the capitalists controlling the means of production and exploiting workers. In female-to-female relationships where internalized misogyny causes some women to be unjustly critical of their female peers. In religious establishments where in the Catholic Church women are barred from ministry. In class systems where poor women are judged more harshly. In the family where the majority of the child rearing and house work are expected to fall on the mothers. In racism, where black women experience discrimination for both being black and being a woman. In medicine where most drugs are tested on white, adult male bodies so female bodies are more likely to experience adverse side effects. In vehicle safety where most crash testing is done with adult male bodies women have higher mortality rates in car accidents. In society's binary gender and sex structure the male establishment is required to have an opposite: females.
Let me reiterate: Patriarchy is more than sex-based oppression, it must include gender-based oppression, too.
Feminism is a continual practice of questioning motives, questioning implicit sexism: Why do I have this opinion? Why do I experience this? Why do I call myself a woman? Through asking ourselves these difficult questions, we can better understand the world around us and better confront and dismantle male supremacy.
Back to the basics is a mini-series that addresses the fundamentals of radical feminist theory. Here is a link to the master post.
Rebekah L. Markillie
a PDX based creative who enjoys reading books, contemplating the oxford comma and rolling for initiative.
What's Up Radical Feminist