Last Updated: 2012-09-28
Patriarchy: one of the most misunderstood critical-theory concepts ever, often wilfully misunderstood. Patriarchy is one form of social stratification via a power/dominance hierarchy – an ancient and ongoing social system based on traditions of elitism (a ranking of inferiorities) and its privileges. Societies can be (and usually are) patriarchal, oligarchal and plutocratic all at the same time, complicated by current and/or legacy features of sectarianism, imperialism and colonialism, so the gender hierarchy is only one source of social disparity. Because of the limited capacity of the word “patriarchy” to describe the full operation of intersecting oppressions, some now prefer to use the word “kyriarchy” instead, but it is not yet in common use.
Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
Patriarchy – Literally means the rule of the father and is generally understood within feminist discourses in a dualistic sense as asserting the domination of all men over all women in equal terms. The theoretical adequacy of patriarchy has been challenged because, for instance, black men to not have control over white wo/men and some women (slave/mistresses) have power over subaltern women and men (slaves).
- Glossary, Wisdom Ways, Orbis Books New York 2001
Historically, patriarchy operates through the disproportionate (sometimes exclusive) conferring of leadership status (and formal titles indicating that status) on men, a tradition characterised by casting all women as naturally unsuited to lead men, no matter what talents and expertise they might possess (unless there are exceptional circumstances resulting from intersections with other social hierarchies conferring high status that gives rare women political authority e.g. the royal lineage of Elizabeth I, or the divine claim to authority of Joan of Arc). This view of women normalises the restriction of women’s opportunities and choices throughout the whole of society via strict gender expectations which constrain individualist expressions.
Some societies are more patriarchal than others, but patriarchal social traditions are universal in human societies, taking the physical strength disparity between the sexes as signs of a general female inferiority, a “natural order” that indicates women are meant to be subordinate.
Not all men are Patriarchs. A Patriarch is a man who has special power and influence over not just his family but also in society, due to privileges gathered through intersections of age, wealth, achievement, lineage, patronage and the exploitation of others as these attributes add to his place in the elite social hierarchy.
Non-elite men do not generally actively conspire with Patriarchs (although they may aspire to become one): the patriarchal pattern however means that subordinate men are ranked above subordinate women in the traditional socioeconomic hierarchy from which Patriarchs skim the cream, meaning that men (as a group) benefit more from the injustices of Patriarchy than women do (as a group). This does not mean that superordinate women (by virtue of lineage/wealth) do not have concrete advantages and social privileges compared to subordinate men – this is where the intersecting rankings and dominations of the kyriarchy come in.
In some pre-industrial or autocratic societies rigid patriarchal organisation has survival benefits for women and children, at a price: subjugation and often misogynistic abuse. Polygamy for the plutarchs and categorising surplus subordinate men as disposable pawns often goes hand in hand with the sequestration of women in these cultures. Societies (generally) have advanced a long way from the days of the ancient ruthless patriarchs who held the power of life and death over their extended families/clans, and survival is (generally) no longer dependant on formal subjugation to a Patriarch, either for men or women.
However, despite other circles of superordination, society is still structured along patriarchal lines of subordination in nearly all forms of organisations, to the great benefit of those at the top. The male elites, the magnates (currently white, but who knows what the next century will bring?), continue to wield disproportionate influence and power over the situations of other men and especially women.
“So, there is no one Patriarch, leastaways not outside of Constantinople. There’s no single dude in a nifty hat (or not) at the top of the power structure, surrounded by scantily clad women whom he feeds to tigers for his kicks and giggles. If it were only that simple, we could off the old wanker, free the women and give them some trousers, find loving homes for the tigers, and have a great party around the bonfire of his palace (after salvaging all the good art, books, and chocolate). Alas, because the patriarchy is instead a very very old system that has warped everyone’s thinking right down to the sub-rational, axiomatic, non-verbal ideological level, it’s much more difficult to overthrow. (We’ve seen how well wars against ideas work.)”
Extra-Credit Reading (not a feminist primer):
“patriarchy is a violently tyrannical but nearly invisible social order based on an oppressive paradigm of class and status fetishizing dominance and submission. Patriarchy’s benefits are accrued according to a rigid hierarchy at the top of which are rich honky males and at the bottom of which are poor women of color.”
Even in modern-rule-of-law countries with full legal sexual equality, there are still many patriarchal remnants in the way that men (as a group) seek to discourage women (as a group) from social independence and independent financial security. These remnant patriarchal traditions do more harm to women, on balance, than good.
The continuing subjugation and abuse of women in more traditional societies, along with the continued inequity even in rule-of-law societies, is why feminism seeks to dismantle patriarchy. Which is why some of those who are privileged under Patriarchy are so antagonistic towards feminism:
Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.
[Pat Robertson, multi-millionaire televangelist and former presidential candidate, 1992]
- Patriarchy and sexism intersect and buttress each other:
“It’s using a male default as the standard and then because (well, duh) women are different from that standard, we are found lacking.”
- High Status Women defending the Patriarchy [emphasis added]:This phenomenon doesn’t mean that Patriarchy isn’t unjust, it only means that such women like the benefits they derive from high status and wish to keep them.
“student, it seems to many of us that the people you mention are actually anti-feminists in feminist clothing. essentially they say they care about equality in the workplace, and that we’ve already gotten there; and that all the other stuff is not important because the sex-differences there are meant to be. frequently they dismiss feminist concerns about sexual harrassment, about women being forced out of their careers and back into the home, or about date-rape, saying that these things are not about equality and are oppressive to MEN. it’s frustrating for these women to call themselves feminists because it seems like they’re just trying to dismantle what many of us think are legitimate equality-related concerns “from the inside”.”
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