In October 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee to recount the sexual assault she experienced decades earlier at the hands of soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She delivered a clear, detailed testimony, and multiple accounts pointed toward her story's credibility. Kavanaugh hysterically rebutted her claims, and there was documented evidence of his rowdy history of drinking at the time of the alleged assault. Nevertheless, the ruling that subsequently placed Kavanaugh in the highest position in his field delivered a verdict loud and clear: a man's word, and a man's life, is worth more than a woman's.
The system that allowed this scenario — among countless others — to take place, is patriarchy. Feminists today have targeted the patriarchy as the system to dismantle when working towards equal rights for all genders. The term describes a system of social structure in which men – in a society in which people are categorized into a male/female gender binary — hold power over women. Patriarchy is upheld on many levels, from laws or physical structures benefiting men to less apparent ways that culture enforces the idea that men are superior. Essentially, it describes an intricate system of interconnected ways that men are considered the standard and in which the world is built by, for and around them.
This doesn't mean that only men perpetuate patriarchy. Like any social system, it is held in place by a series of patterns, customs, learned behaviors, and institutions that all members of society take part in. Gendered inequality is the bedrock of a patriarchal society, and changing it takes calculated, conscious, and coordinated effort.
What is patriarchy theory?
A patriarchy traditionally refers to a society in which the power is held by men. Men are the ruling class, to borrow Marxist theory. They head the household, occupy the highest position in a workplace, lead the social groups and run the government. Historically, men that are older, wealthy and white have had the most power. In more than one society, including in this country, the first and only people allowed to vote, for many years, were white, land-owning men. All other categories gained citizenship, voting rights and personhood later.
Within feminist theory, patriarchy describes the way in which women are structurally and systematically disadvantaged within a society that ascribes clear roles and rules of behavior for them. We might see mothers heading households today, or you might have a female boss leading a large company, but women in power are still (often subconsciously) seen as diversions from the norm.
Many people think of doctors, lawyers and CEOs as male by default. The opinions of men generally hold more weight than those of women. This is patriarchy. Rather than the idea that sexism something that happens when individual men who actively oppress women, patriarchy provides a concept by which the expanse of gender oppression can be understood, as a series of defined roles, norms, traditions and patterns of thinking that empower and privilege men.
What are patriarchal ideologies?
It's important to emphasize that patriarchy is a social construction, not an organic or natural system, and it relies on other gendered systems to remain in place. Like gender itself, patriarchy is built and perpetuated through our culture, behaviors and media. Patriarchy and the gender binary are inextricably linked. The patriarchy rests on the assumption that gender is divided into a binary of male and female; these genders have clear roles and characteristics, and the male half of this binary is dominant.
Patriarchal ideas are infused in the way we see the world. The underlying rhetoric is that men are biologically superior in some way and have natural capabilities that women do not. This leads to discrepancies in the ways in which we perceive men and women. For example, we view strong, outspoken men as "powerful" and strong, powerful women are often called "bossy" or "cold."
What does a patriarchal society look like?
A society built upon patriarchy is one in which men are structurally advantaged, at the disadvantage of women. But what does this look like in practice? The effects of this system can be seen in many different ways and on many different levels, in varying degrees of tangibility. Some societies have laws or practices that are blatantly cruel or discriminatory toward women, while other effects are more insidious.
In Saudi Arabia, women were not allowed to drive until very recently. In some countries, women face physical abuse and retaliation for seeking an education or for getting out of a harmful relationship. In the U.S., trans women of color are murdered at alarming rates. Maybe there is a clear gender pay gap, like in the U.S. and in most other countries.
Maybe there are laws passed that can convict a doctor who performs an abortion for a woman for decades longer than the man who raped her. Maybe women are routinely harassed when walking or existing in public. Maybe there's a cultural system of higher education in which 1 in 5 women on college campuses is a victim of sexual assault.
There are many, many patriarchal societies, with different manifestations of patriarchal ideology. These societies may have different laws, religions or customs, but they often share clear commonalities that hold women at a lesser value in some way than men.
What is an example of a patriarchy?
The United States is an example of a patriarchal society. Originally founded by and for white men, this country has historically been organized in a way that awards men greater rights and privileges. Women were not able to vote until over a century after the country's inception, and they remained excluded from the workforce intermittently until the late twentieth century. Patriarchy in the United States has a long, deeply rooted history, and the perpetuation of patriarchal ideology into modern society takes conscious effort to disrupt and dismantle.
Women still face extremely high levels of sexual assault, a reality the #MeToo movement has just recently brought to widespread discourse. We have still yet to see a female president in over 2.5 centuries, with one of the country's most qualified politicians losing last election cycle to a reality TV star who boasted about sexually harassing women on tape and has been accused of sexual assault by 23 women. Mere weeks ago, lawmakers in Alabama, the majority of which were white men, passed the strictest abortion legislation in the country, effectively outlawing abortion with no exceptions n cases of rape or incest, and setting up a case that could potentially challenge the ruling in Roe vs. Wade. These realities are symptoms of patriarchy and evidence that we still have much work to do in taking apart this harmful system.
Modern feminism and the patriarchy
Patriarchy has become a bit of a buzz word today in feminist discourse, which is a positive step toward recognizing the manifestations of patriarchal ideas in ways we might not have questioned before. Again, patriarchy is ingrained in our socialization and takes conscious effort on a personal and political level to counteract. Modern feminism now centers patriarchy as a concept through which to understand the different ways gendered oppression can be understood as a system and be dismantled as such. The patriarchy is a tool of organization — it helps us trace back a history of sexism and discrimination and identify common factors that exist today.
Many feminists today consider dismantling the patriarchy as the main goal of the movement, one that requires active effort. From calling out everyday acts of discrimination, to helping more women run for office, to questioning the different standards we have for male and female presidential candidates: this dismantling takes time and constant work. But recognizing the system we're all fighting against is the first step to change.
Haley Riemer is a multimedia writer and performer interested in telling stories that are important to women. She's a recent graduate of Tulane University, and her current hobbies include drinking too much iced coffee and talking about feminist political theory at parties.