Is patriarchy really to be blamed for sexism and female oppression?
I hear a lot about patriarchal oppression within feminist circles, and in my opinion, I think it’s largely a load of hooey.
This is not to say that I don’t believe that patriarchy has been around for the vast majority of our species’ time on this planet–of course it has. And this is not to say that I believe women haven’t suffered from oppression throughout the course of history, or that strict enforcement of gender roles isn’t harmful to individuals.
But the feminist interpretation of patriarchy as a system of oppression of women…it seems to be kind of wilfully detached from the reality of human history. It seems like a concerted effort to marry the idea of patriarchy with the concept of oligarchy into a single two-headed, double-penised beast known as Patriarchy Theory. This marriage of two completely disparate sociological concepts is, to feminists, a self-evident truth, simply because the majority of the agents of the oligarchy are, and always have been, male.
Oligarchy is indeed a system of oppression, where the majority of real power and influence is held by a small network of individuals and families, who depend on the subservience of everybody else. While it may not always include barbed wire, machine guns and a police state, it is designed in such a way as to suck resources from the masses and funnel them, and the power they afford, to the members of the elite.
Because those elites have such power, they are able to influence legislative policy in such a way as to maintain and increase their power. And yes, the US is an oligarchy–it may be a democracy, where individuals are able to cross lines of class between modern serfdom and the top tier, but the 500 richest individuals in the US hold as much wealth as the bottom 150 000 000 combined. That, my friends, is oligarchy.
Oligarchical power structures, by their nature, tend to be self-perpetuating. As the saying goes, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, usually until someone says something about peasants and cake, something snaps among the masses, and the pitchforks come out. Given how well off even the least wealthy members of western civilization are (children aren’t dropping like flies for lack of a loaf of bread), that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Oligarchy is the root of classism, and classism is the root of much of racism, and yes, sexism as well.
Patriarchy, however, is not an inherently oppressive idea. It is simply a way that the base-unit of society–the family–was organized. And it’s been the way that societies, large and small, have been organized pretty much since the dawn of time, and for good reason. Families were led by a male head of household, major decisions lay under the aegis of those family leaders, and lines of descent passed through males. That is, quite simply, all patriarchy is. And up until very recently on the continuum of human history, it was the most beneficial system for both men and women. And contrary to what feminists would have you believe, in the west patriarchy is mostly a dead system.
Feminists often point to capital P Patriarchy as the culprit behind all sexism, all oppression of women (though they’re finally admitting that “patriarchy harms men too”, which is something of a victory for common sense, however small), and the “Othering” of women by men. The way they approach the stark reality of most of human history is from the standpoint that men somehow consciously or willfully constructed and directed femininity for their own benefit, and that women just kind of had to go along with it because they were physically weaker. They presume that masculinity developed under the influence of men alone in such a way that it became attached to characteristics of agency, like strength, action, and virility.
Look at it this way. You have a rich man. This is his primary characteristic open for discussion, and he has all kinds of agency–he has flipping great wodges of money to purchase whatever he requires, servants to do his purchasing for him, to cook his meals, clean his house, maintain his vehicles, drive him around, and because he’s wealthy he has friends and hangers on who “bask in his glow”. Until his money is gone. And then he becomes C. Montgomery Burns on an episode of the Simpsons, unable to even dial a phone, standing in the supermarket for 15 minutes wondering if there’s a difference between ketchup and catsup. He can’t fix a doorknob. He can’t microwave a Mr. Noodles. He can’t even find his own clothes. He had agency, but it was dependent on his wealth.This is a very tempting way to live a life. It really is. If you didn’t HAVE to ever clean your own gutters or change the oil in the car or go out and risk your life killing and gutting an animal or defending your village from the assholes down the valley, why would you?Men were, in many ways, all through human history, a servant class, not a class of oppressors. This is because even in the earliest stages of human evolution, we had an instinctive understanding of the ultimate equation. 10 women + 1 man = 10 babies, and that switching the numbers around pretty much meant the end of the whole shebang for us.Dangerous work was the work of men, and it still is. Physically taxing work was the work of men, and it still is. Going out into the big bad dangerous world to get resources while women stayed safe was the work of men, and it still is. Those among our ancestors who were born without some pattern of these gender roles in their brains would have ultimately been unsuccessful wrt passing on their genes. The woman who decided to go hunt mastodon rather than staying home in the cave was much more likely to end up dying young.And as has been demonstrated through genetic research, individual women were much more successful throughout the whole of human history at passing on their genes. 80% of the females who have ever lived had children. Only 40% of the males who have ever lived have done the same.Because all those small innate gender differences feminists view as insignificant now, were generated and reinforced by one HUGE difference, and that is that females, not males, are the limiting factor in the perpetuation of any species. A human settlement survived through the toil and sacrifice (often of the lives) of its men, and through the safety of its women and children. This is simply the way things had to be throughout the majority of human evolution, and when they weren’t, natural selection selected those individuals out of the species.
It’s so easy to sit back in the comfort of our cushy lives right now and think that going outside the house to work is fulfilling, action-packed, exciting, kick-ass and an avenue to agency. But for the vast majority of our evolution, leaving home base meant taking your life in your hands–it was dangerous, physically taxing, and often ended in death. I lived in a wilderness area for 18 years. I know whereof I speak. We used to bring the dog on walks in the woods so we’d have something to throw at the cougars while the rest of us ran away.
Masculinity and femininity have indeed been bred into us, to varying degrees depending on the individual. Women developed a type of agency all through evolution. They had more reproductive agency than men have ever had (some social scientists estimate that double-digit percentages of men are raising children not their own, without their knowledge). And they had a kind of secondary agency, through the direction and manipulation of men. While a man used a scythe to get grain, the tool a woman used to get grain was…well, a man. While a man used a spear to defend his home from invaders, the weapon a woman used was–yup, you guessed it–a man.
I would guess that the average man has always had much less agency, even now, than most people believe. Is it agency if you HAVE to do it to survive? Is it agency if you’re doing it at the behest of another person–whether that person is partner or child? And while feminists are busy deconstructing those aspects of masculine and feminine gender norms that have been restrictive and costly for women, women, on the whole, still seem perfectly fine enforcing male gender characteristics that are of benefit to them–utility, self-sacrifice, disposability and resource acquisition–and feminists don’t seem that interested in changing this. In the advancement of women’s interests, they’ve dismantled most of the benefits men enjoyed under patriarchy, while leaving the costs and responsibilities untouched.
Feminists are infamous for looking at the past through the lens of the present. To take what the domestic and public spheres look like NOW, and apply that to their vision of history. But the nature of work outside the home was a very different beast throughout most of history than it is now. Feminists don’t ask themselves what it might have been like to hew coal out of a tunnel by hand for 12 hours a day, or to cut hay by hand for 16 hours in the August heat before mosquito repellent or sunscreen were invented, or to split an entire winter’s worth of firewood in the month before the snow fell. The majority of men’s work in our past was as different from public sphere work today as a cauldron and a laundry mangle is from a digital, front-load washing machine. And because most of the few dirty, dangerous, physical jobs left out there are still the domain of men (and one which feminists are perfectly happy leaving that way), feminists have no yardstick by which to measure what being a man might have been like in the past, or that women were privileged to not have to put their hands to men’s work.
On the microscale of society, men and women could be said to have oppressed each other–the whole concept of marriage could be considered a two-way street of oppression (if one were a “glass is half empty” kind of person, I guess) where both parties benefitted from their oppression of the other. A kind of cost/benefit arrangement where, human nature being what it was, could certainly lead to one party contributing more than the other and benefitting less. Sometimes that was the woman, but I’d have to say that it was probably just as often the man. But while marriage used to be a cost/benefit arrangement for both parties, women now reap disproportionate benefit while men pay disproportionate costs. And while women now work outside the domestic sphere, the 93% workplace death gap demonstrates that even feminists are just fine with men continuing to embody utility and disposability for the benefit of women and society.
The application of the concept of Othering to gender norms is…a wilful blindness to the reality of human evolution. Othering is the offspring of colonialism, and last I checked, women had never had their own society where they were going along minding their own business, and a bunch of men invaded and took over. This simply isn’t how it happened. Symbiotic gender roles evolved through an interaction between the importance of women as the limiting factor in reproduction, the extremely dangerous world we inhabited for the majority of our evolutionary past, and genetic paths of least resistance. Given the nature of what our world was like, patriarchy was simply the most functional, successful way humans stumbled on to deal with the world as it was, no more diabolical or purposeful than the way ant colonies or wolf packs organize themselves. Like democracy, it’s the worst possible system, except for all the others. And when you consider the nature of the labor, sacrifice and demands placed on men in the past, I would guess that most women saw male authority as a fair trade for what they got out of the deal.
Patriarchy was, essentially, a collective, evolutionary human survival strategy. Arranging society that way created stability in a turbulent world–a world where a single loaf of bread could mean survival or starvation–and allowed us all our best chance to pass on our genes. And for most of history, people were too busy just surviving to tinker with such a successful system. This, I believe, is why gender roles are typically so much more strictly enforced in places where life is hard, cheap and soon over. Those roles offer both women and men living under extremely severe conditions the best chance of surviving long enough to create another generation. In other parts of the world, our lives are safe and relatively easy, and everything is much more relaxed.
That most oligarchical oppressors have been men rather than women is a result not of men being oppressors, but rather the result of men’s gender roles, which are themselves a result of the path of least resistance in the way societies tend to organize themselves due to our biology and the fact that, up until very recently, almost no one had any time, energy, wherewithal or luxury to challenge their roles. The oligarchy does, indeed, have an interest in maintaining the status quo for as long as the status quo benefits the oligarchy. For the majority of human history, oligarchies depended on patriarchy to maintain stability and generation of resources, but any feminist who believes the world would be a kinder, gentler place under female rule would be advised to read a little about Elizabeth Bathory. Oppressors gonna oppress, no matter their gender.
If we’re going to build a better society for everyone, we’re going to have to let go of the idea of Men as the main oppressive force in Women’s lives. It simply isn’t how it was, and it isn’t how it is, either. Am I arguing for a return to patriarchy? Absolutely not. I’m a bisexual, slightly genderqueer, divorced mother of three who writes dirty books for a living. I’m not interested in having my gender enforced, thanks. I have agency (inasmuch as my children allow it :P), and I’m not prepared to hand it over to anyone, even if it means I’d have an easier life. We as a society no longer have the business of bare survival as the dominant force in our lives. In the distancing of humans from the task of basic human survival, we are freer to explore our humanity, and consider the happiness of individuals as more important than just getting by.
BUT. And this is a big but. I understand the reality of the natural world, and how different that is from what my life is like in a house, with heat, electricity, hot and cold running water, cars, frozen pizzas, toaster ovens, plastic, easy work, an overdraft and streets that are safe to walk on. I realize that in nature, life is hard, cheap and soon over, and that very, very few animals ever die of old age. And were we living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia where life outside of walls was as dangerous and brutal as most of raw nature is, and where hay would have to be cut by hand without mosquito repellent or sunscreen? I think I’d absolutely be okay with letting the men have their “agency”. Being stuck at home ain’t that bad if it means the gruelling, dirty work of survival belongs to someone else, and you get to stay alive.
Something to think about.
Originally appeared at Owning Your Shit.