Misinterpreting Patriarchy

April 21st, 2010 by Pelle Billing

The gender discourse of today is ripe with words such as “patriarchy” and “structural oppression”, words that are meant to convey that men as a group hold power over women as a group. At the same time, more and more people are starting to question whether these terms can be said to accurately describe reality. Some even go as far as to claim that “the patriarchy” is a fantasy that has no correlate in real life.

Personally, I don’t believe that the word patriarchy is a fantasy, but I do believe that it has been misinterpreted–or misconstrued–more or less beyond recognition.

So what is the patriarchy, in the true sense of the word? Patriarchy is a system where men work in the public sphere and women work in the private sphere. No more, no less.

The contemporary gender discourse, however, tends to focus exclusively on the fact that important and influential roles in society are filled by men in a patriarchy, and use this observation to conclude that patriarchy is about male dominance and male power. Through this generalization, the power of a small subset of men, is taken to represent all men, without investigating whether other men really have any power. Another factor that also isn’t investigated is whether the small subset of men with power use their power to help other men. If not, it cannot really be said to be a male power.

Yet another example of how the concept of patriarchy is misunderstood, was given to me through a press release of a Swedish book investigating closed networks of men with power between the years 1890 and 1960. The focus of the author is how these networks were explicitly closed to women, through jargon and invisible codes. In other words, there is an assumption that the jargon was used to keep women out of the boardrooms and other seats of power. In my opinion, however, this is a clear misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the workings of patriarchy.

The jargon and invisible codes of these powerful Swedish men of the past were not mean to shut out women, they were meant to shut out everyone who wasn’t part of the group–men and women alike. Furthermore, the women who were married to these men were likely very happy with their situation, and not at all looking to take over their husbands’ jobs. This was at a time when biological sex and gender roles had yet to be differentiated.

Today’s gender experts therefore misinterpret patriarchal societies in a number of ways:

  • The power of a tiny subset of men is taken to represent all men, instead of seeing the powerlessness of most men.
  • It is assumed that the men at the top helped other men, but in reality they used other men for wars, mining, construction, etc. There is no evidence that the men in power were reluctant to use other men to build society, regardless of the hardships, injuries and deaths that were required.
  • So called male networks were really networks for the rich and powerful. Women didn’t ask to be part of these networks, since gender roles were still fused with biological sex in the cultural awareness.

My take on the word “patriarchy” is that it was once an adequate term for describing traditional societies that had agrarian farming as their base. However, through repeated misuse of the word, it has been hijacked and misconstrued to mean something very different. At this point in time, there’s not much point in using the word at all, since there is no longer a clear definition.

12 Responses to “Misinterpreting Patriarchy”

  1. BostonLogic Says:

    Men’s answer to Feminism: http://manhood101.com/principles101.pdf

  2. Danny Says:

    I totally agree with you. One could say that there are patriarchal structures in place perhaps but to simply call The System a patriarchy is misleading at best (ignores the fact that the vast majority of men do not hold power) and dishonest (the hijackers you speak of use the word to point blame at the male gender of the those elite when it is very clear that the male gender of those few elites at the top is not the reason they are taking part in The System) at worst. I personally call it “The System” or kyriarchy.

    The System’s goal is to maintain it own power now and forever and will mow down anyone, man, woman, or child that tries to stand up to it and change it. In fact you could argue that those that hijack the term as a way to simply blame men for everything are actually serving to divide us even further (despite their own claims) when we should be joining forces. I mean who wants to work with someone who blames one of your characteristics for everything when its very clear that said characteristic is not to blame for everything?

  3. hopeless_case Says:

    I think a more accurate term for describing a society run by closed networks of powerful people who callously use and risk the lives of millions of innocents would be: the Heirarchy.

    Using that term is not much better than Patriarchy, though, as you find closed networks of people all over the place, not just among the powerful. It’s a very successful organizing principal.

    The real problem here is that everyone wants a term to refer to a small number of people whose continued posession of their power is the main obstacle preventing the larger population from inhabiting paradise.

    The problem with the ruling heirarchy is that society in general actively participates in granting them their power.

    If you did manage to knock out the present heirarchy, society would immediately appoint another which would be no better.

  4. Pat Kibbon Says:

    Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.

  5. Mark Davenport Says:

    Hierarchy? OK. But not ALL hierarchies are oppressive. At earlier stages of development, they are. But they are less oppressive as we climb out of the earlier ooze and expand our awareness to include others in our circles of care, even if those “others” would oppress us if they could. Surprise, but there is real progress over time. A “better” hierarchy is just about inevitable.

    And to recognize that the agrarian patriarchy is dead will allow that better hierarchy to emerge.

  6. Danny Says:

    hopeless:

    The real problem here is that everyone wants a term to refer to a small number of people whose continued posession of their power is the main obstacle preventing the larger population from inhabiting paradise.

    That’s because when people rise up they need an enemy. It gives them something to focus their rage, anger, and hatred (justified or not).

  7. David Says:

    Another great post, Pelle. I found this particularly interesting:

    “The power of a tiny subset of men is taken to represent all men, instead of seeing the powerlessness of most men.”

    What it reminds me of is one way that Ken Wilber has discussed the magic worldview, of the kind of whole/part confusion we see there. If these men are oppressive and dictatorial, men everywhere are oppressive and dictatorial, according to the magic worldview.

    So, as a result of this whole/part confusion, men everywhere and even boys are held responsible for the behavior of a few men or thought inevitably to have the same nature.

    And I think we see some men making the same whole/part confusion, getting down on their sex and themselves because some men have behaved in a pathological or oppressive nature.

    For anyone who isn’t familiar with the idea, Wilber discusses the whole/part confusion at the magic level of consciousness (very young children, generally, but something adults occasionally slip into) in a talk with Corey DeVos about synchronicity at the following link, beginning at about 27:10:

    http://coreywdevos.wordpress.com/tag/synchronicity/

  8. Bulletin Board v77 « Toy Soldiers Says:

    [...] Misinterpreting Patriarchy — The gender discourse of today is ripe with words such as “patriarchy” and “structural oppression”, words that are meant to convey that men as a group hold power over women as a group. At the same time, more and more people are starting to question whether these terms can be said to accurately describe reality. Some even go as far as to claim that “the patriarchy” is a fantasy that has no correlate in real life. Personally, I don’t believe that the word patriarchy is a fantasy, but I do believe that it has been misinterpreted–or misconstrued–more or less beyond recognition. [...]

  9. hopeless_case Says:

    It is amazing to me how far people with go to interpret male disadvantages as evidence of priviledge and patriarchy.

    In this article:

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-hope-preventing-suicide/201004/no-country-old-men

    the author is wondering why older white men are at such greater risk for suicide and proposes:

    Suicide is seen as an act of power for older White men, a way to exercise control over life, even at its end.

    Nowhere in the article, which is clearly written for people who are not familiar with suicide research, is the fact that men overall are 4 times as likely to commit suicide mentioned.

    How could you write an article on the issue of male suicide and not mention that fact, unless you were trying to suppress it’s importance?

    If suicide were seen by someone about to commit it as a way of exerting control over their life, doesn’t that show how desperately powerless they must feel if they have to resort to killing themselves to feel powerful?

    The article, as I read it, was suppressing rather than underlining that interpretation.

  10. Jane McGillivray Says:

    here is an awesome link to Tim Wards sight and an amazing book he has written:
    http://www.savagebreastbook.com/excerpts-intro.php

  11. Betsy Says:

    Jane,
    I loved reading the Savage Breast Book Excerpts!
    Tim Ward’s search and conclusions really resonate with this bit of wisdom:

    The House of Fortune

    My wearied heart bade me farewell and left for the House of Fortune. As he reached that holy city which the soul had blessed and worshipped, he commenced wondering, for he could not find what he had always imagined would be there. The city was empty of power, money, and authority.
    And my heart spoke to the daughter of Love saying, “Oh Love, where can I find Contentment? I heard that she had come here to join you.”
    And the daughter of Love responded, “Contentment has already gone to preach her gospel in the city, where greed and corruption are paramount; we are not in need of her.”
    Fortune craves not Contentment, for it is an earthly hope, and its desires are embraced by union with objects, while Contentment is naught but heartfelt.
    The eternal soul is never contented; it ever seeks exaltation. Then my heart looked upon Life of Beauty and said: “Thou art all knowledge; enlighten me as to the mystery of Woman.” And he answered, “Oh human heart, woman is your own reflection, and whatever you are, she is; wherever you live, she lives; she is like religion if not interpreted by the ignorant, and like a moon, if not veiled with clouds, and like a breeze, if not poisoned with impurities.”
    And my heart walked toward Knowledge, the daughter of Love and Beauty, and said, “Bestow upon me wisdom, that I might share it with the people.” And she responded, “Say not wisdom, but rather fortune, for real fortune comes not from outside, but begins in the Holy of Holies of life. Share of thyself with the people.”

     ~Kahlil Gibran A TREASURY OF KAHLIL GIBRAN, The House of Fortune p92-93
    web source: http://www.terebess.hu/english/gibran7.html

    More wisdom to consider regarding any sort of liberation:
    Tyranny and blind submission…which one of these gave birth to the other?
    ~Kahlil Gibran A TREASURY OF KAHLIL GIBRAN, John The Madman p79-80

  12. Betsy Says:

    Jane,
    I loved reading the Savage Breast Book Excerpts!
    Tim Ward’s search and conclusions really resonate with this bit of wisdom:

    The House of Fortune

    My wearied heart bade me farewell and left for the House of Fortune. As he reached that holy city which the soul had blessed and worshipped, he commenced wondering, for he could not find what he had always imagined would be there. The city was empty of power, money, and authority.
    And my heart spoke to the daughter of Love saying, “Oh Love, where can I find Contentment? I heard that she had come here to join you.”
    And the daughter of Love responded, “Contentment has already gone to preach her gospel in the city, where greed and corruption are paramount; we are not in need of her.”
    Fortune craves not Contentment, for it is an earthly hope, and its desires are embraced by union with objects, while Contentment is naught but heartfelt.
    The eternal soul is never contented; it ever seeks exaltation. Then my heart looked upon Life of Beauty and said: “Thou art all knowledge; enlighten me as to the mystery of Woman.” And he answered, “Oh human heart, woman is your own reflection, and whatever you are, she is; wherever you live, she lives; she is like religion if not interpreted by the ignorant, and like a moon, if not veiled with clouds, and like a breeze, if not poisoned with impurities.”
    And my heart walked toward Knowledge, the daughter of Love and Beauty, and said, “Bestow upon me wisdom, that I might share it with the people.” And she responded, “Say not wisdom, but rather fortune, for real fortune comes not from outside, but begins in the Holy of Holies of life. Share of thyself with the people.”

     ~Kahlil Gibran A TREASURY OF KAHLIL GIBRAN, The House of Fortune p92-93
    web source: http://www.terebess.hu/english/gibran7.html

    More wisdom to consider regarding any sort of liberation:
    Tyranny and blind submission…which one of these gave birth to the other?
    ~Kahlil Gibran A TREASURY OF KAHLIL GIBRAN, John The Madman p79-80


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