Hoisting Petards and the Patriarchy

Have you ever heard the phrase “hoist by his own petard”? As in the sentence “Newt Gingrich was hoist by his own petard: his general douchebaggery has probably cost him the presidency”?

Do you have any idea what a petard is?

Seriously. I have talked to dozens of people who have used the phrase, and not a single one of them knows what a petard is. The meaning is understood, but the words might as well just be a bunch of random syllables for all the meaning we’re getting out of them. According to Wikipedia, “hoist by his own petard” means “blown up with his own bomb,” that it derives from Hamlet, and that it was originally a fart joke, because Shakespeare.

You know what that means? The phrase “hoist by his own petard” has stuck around approximately three hundred years after anyone knew what the hell it meant.

The same thing is true with the patriarchy.

We’ve discussed in this blog before the practical problems with the term ‘patriarchy,‘ but I absolutely refuse to write an entire article using the phrase “the institutional, societal system of sexism” every two sentences, so we’ll just have to live with it. Just to be clear about my terminology use: “patriarchy” does not mean a gender system that benefits men, it means a gender system which benefits patriarchs. Men who are not hegemonically masculine get fucked over– whether they’re feminine, gay, unsuccessful, young, poor, of color, unathletic, or what.

Here’s the thing: our gender assumptions are not old. The whole “man goes to work outside the home, woman stays home” thing is not more than a few hundred years old at best– it got its start with the Industrial Revolution. Before that, the majority of people worked within the household, even if men and women tended to have different tasks; for most people, there wasn’t really an “outside the home” to go work at. (Note: I am generalizing over thousands of years of history here. The generalization usually holds true, but I don’t want to make the mistake of painting The Past as this homogeneous entity. It’s not.)

Even after the Industrial Revolution, a whole fuckload of people didn’t get to participate in the “domestic angel too pure for this sinful earth” separate spheres bullshit. Poor women, for instance, always worked. Women of color always worked. And I’m pretty sure there were a fuckload of slave women who would be quite surprised to discover how much their masters respected and honored women.

And then the Second Wave happened. I think it’s really difficult for those of us who grew up after the Second Wave to realize how much fucking changed because of it. When my mother was growing up, her teacher assigned her class to write an essay on what they wanted to be when they grew up, and told the female students they could write about how they wanted to be a teacher, nurse, or housewife. (My mother, being my mother, said that she wanted to be an acrobat.) When I was growing up, my teacher arranged for a female scientist to speak to us about how we could grow up to be whatever we wanted to be. It’s a completely different situation.

And then we get into the Petard Problem. Even though no one remembers what a petard is, we keep saying the phrase “hoist by his own petard,” because Tradition! Even though no one remembers why we’re supposed to believe all this crappy, patriarchal shit, we keep believing it, because Tradition!

Take the whole “golddigger” concept. The idea that men should pay for meals (to show off that they have money and hence are desirable). The Harlequin Romance guidelines that basically require that the hero be a member of the 1%. My grandmother’s advice that it’s as easy to fall in love with a rich man as a poor one. My father’s advice that, if I intended on being a writer, I ought to marry someone rich. I don’t think men get half this shit.

And the thing is, it makes sense! If, as a middle-class woman, you are not going to be able to work outside the home, it makes sense to select your husband as much for his earning capability as his personality, character, or forearms. Your economic stability for the rest of your life is going to depend on whether he has money. Whether you marry a rich man means the difference between going on nice European vacations and having to choose between food and rent.

But the thing is, now women can earn their own money. We don’t have to marry men to support us! We can marry men (or women, or miscellaneous) with charming personalities, good character, and nice forearms, who also happen to make poverty-level wages, and then support them! Or, more realistically, given the levels of assortative mating, make poverty-level wages together.

And the weirdest part is that as I write this I feel a kind of… instinctive revulsion. On an intellectual level, I know that a poor woman is exactly as desirable as a poor man, and yet I cannot help but think that the waitress swept away by a dashing entrepreneur is a romantic heroine, and a waiter swept away by a dashing entrepreneur is kind of a loser. This shit is buried down deep.

But that doesn’t change the fact that all this “women should marry a rich man” stuff is just… hangovers. Random detritus left over. Strategies that, in their time, were logical and helped people, but have long outlived their usefulness– just like “hoist by his own petard” was once a vivid image and apparently a fart joke, but has long outlived its meaningfulness.

About ozyfrantz

Ozy Frantz is a student at a well-respected Hippie College in the United States. Zie bases most of zir life decisions on Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and identifies more closely with Pinkie Pie than is probably necessary. Ozy can be contacted at [email protected] or on Twitter as @ozyfrantz. Writing is presently Ozy's primary means of support, so to tip the blogger, click here.


  1. @Ozy:

    Xakudo: In a certain sense, I am a radical feminist: a lot of my basic theoretical framework comes from radical feminism, I just took a left turn at Albuquerque when everyone else took the right.

    What definition of radfem are you using? Because it seems like we could just as easily say that in a certain sense you are an MRA, too.

    And sure, most modern mainstream feminism has adopted certain things from radical feminist thought. The whole privilege framework derives from radical feminism, IIRC (which in turn got it from Marxism, IIRC). I hardly think that makes them equivalent, or even necessarily compatible.

    Can you clarify what the term “radical feminism” means to you?

    In any case, I kind of feel like you’re proving my point. And I don’t mean that in an under-handed way. I just… dunno.

  2. @ Patches
    I think you’re massively oversimplifying the “patriarchy” as everyone likes to do. First of all, your reasoning rests on a simplistic ruling class vs underclass model. You just presume that rising up in the ranks gives you more freedom to break from conformity. This is gravely mistaken. At best it depends on what you’re doing. In Entrepreneurship, you can SOMETIMES get away with being not quite conformist. Steve Jobs is a good example as I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in a suit. But still, his clothes were just casual. I doubt he’d have been able to get away with wearing a skirt. And we’re talking about one of the highest positions you could rise in. This would be quite different in other fields.
    Looking at politics for example things are way stricter. No politician can afford not to conform – especially those at the top. Because it is the masses that enforce conformity and those masses are what constitutes YOUR designated group of a gender oppressed underclass.

    As you can see, there is no conscious conspiracy of powerful men deciding what everyone should conform to. To those at the bottom it appears so because they see them as a monolithic group acting together. If you learn to see them as individuals however, you’ll see that nearly all of those “rulers” in the patriarchy are vulnerable to loss of power. We have seen time and time again who a mere finger pointing can bring down pretty much any man in that “ruling” class (interestingly, women in power seem relatively safe from such finger pointing).

    Oh, and I’d take women’s fashion freedom over men’s fashion oppression ANY DAY. With freedom comes more choices and they’d obviously make that more complicated. While we often hear women complaining about how much depends on their fashion sense, I doubt very much they would want to swap with men on this one. It’s always easy to take freedom for granted.

    Fact is, people care a great deal about how other people look. That is not the patriarchy doing that. If you replaced the current system with something else, we’d only (perhaps) have different looks to conform to – but the conformity requirement will be the same so long as our species is the same. That’s just how we humans are. Men didn’t do that to women and the rich didn’t do it to the poor either (as somebody else said above, it was probably the poor trying to imitate the rich which created the main driving force behind such conformity).

  3. Tom Smekens says:

    @Adi, young Steve Jobs wore a suit when he still had to rely on investors for money…but even then, his shameless casual-wearing habits could only be afforded by the 0.01% :V

  4. @ Tom Smekens
    Even Steve Jobs got called out not long ago by AT&T “suggesting” he wore a suit. While he refused dismissively, the mere attempt to make him conform is very telling. Imagine things had gotten difficult for Apple for whatever reason. We can bet the criticism of his public appearance would have grown.
    The point is that nobody is safe from the conformist crowd not even your 0.01%. In fact, they are especially restricted. I would like to postulate that, the higher up you climb in the “patriarchy”, the more you are pressured to conform. The evidence for this is ubiquitous.

    And as for the young Steve Jobs wearing a suit at times, as far as I know this was only when directly promoting at events. I don’t know much more than that (do enlighten me) but I’m certain that his famous casual outfit has been around for well over a decade and long before Apple became the cult that it is today.

  5. Oh, and I’d take women’s fashion freedom over men’s fashion oppression ANY DAY. With freedom comes more choices and they’d obviously make that more complicated. While we often hear women complaining about how much depends on their fashion sense, I doubt very much they would want to swap with men on this one. It’s always easy to take freedom for granted.

    Speaking as a woman, I’d take your trade in a heartbeat. That would mean that I could walk into any “professional wear” store and get a properly tailored suit right? And that once I knew the tailoring for my body I’d just have to decide on the color (brown, grey, navy or black / pinstripe or no)? And those suits would stay in style for years and be made out of quality material? Ya, a heartbeat or less… how long does it take the synapses to fire and get a message to the mouth? ’cause there would be no through involved before I took that deal…

  6. “Speaking as a woman, I’d take your trade in a heartbeat. ”

    I can see how life seems much easier for men but the price is lack of freedom – something one easily takes for granted when one has never experienced a life without it.

    It’s a classic reaction we can see elsewhere too. After the wall came down, a few years later, people started longing for the “good old days” and the simplicity of life under government oppression. They simply forgot what it cost them and only remembered the good things.

    A similar thing we see when people long for their childhood because life was so easy and carefree. I bet they don’t long for not being allowed to leave the house by themselves or only get pocket money and being told when to go to bed and what to eat.

    I’m not saying your desire isn’t legitimate. Only that I’m skeptical for the reasons I mentioned. If you think those analogies are bad, then ask yourself if you’d appreciate having to cut your hair down to an inch or two just so you even get considered for a job. It’s not like you can reverse that after working hours – you’re stuck with that look even when you’re off work. So perhaps you like having short hair anyway. Fine, but would you allow someone else to force it upon you? If so then perhaps you really would prefer to swap with men. Most women would not – one of very few generalizations I can make with certainty.

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