Old words for old problems

I have problems with the term ‘patriarchy’ because it’s part of a dialogue that pits men against women. It’s very difficult to talk usefully about feminism, when feminism has been structured by some people as an assault on men. Yes, there’s a whole issue here around privilege, and the need to recognise that not having all the advantages any more is about fairness, not attack, but it’s hard work making that argument in face of constant hostility, and the hostile people are the ones who most need to hear something different. I’ve seen too much on social media of a certain flavour of male entitlement, and the resentment of women asking for an equal space in society, and I think we may be trying to have the wrong conversation here.

While historically women have, overall, been more vulnerable to the problems in our culture than men, most men don’t really benefit from it, and some women do – it’s never been a simple gender divide, an us versus them. The sense of being more important than the women in their lives may serve to help keep a certain kind of guy comfortable with his position in the status quo. Sure, he’s kicked from above, but he feels he’s better than someone – his wife, his mother, his daughter, and traditionally this makes his position more tolerable. That’s hideous, when you stop to think about it. A sense of privilege seems to depend on having someone to look down on, and that in turn helps us not to mind being looked down upon by others. Women do this too, and slut shaming is part of it. So much for dignity and self esteem.

The mistreatment of women is underpinned by a number of really nasty ideas. There’s hierarchy – that some people are worth more than others. The people at the top matter, the people at the bottom do not. Men matter more than women. There’s ownership issues – the idea that people can be property, in slavery, in serfdom, in poverty so abject that they must do your bidding. In obedient marriage. The idea that using people to achieve your goals is fine. This is the same system that for hundreds of years has cheerfully sent men to die for the sake of a land grab, a bigger title for the man in charge, and for the man who would be king.

It’s a system that cheerfully kills men in dangerous industries. Mining, fishing. The death and maiming rates of the industrial revolution were huge, and the canals cost about a life per yard, on average, I have been told. And when they have no use for you, they’ll leave you and your children to die by starvation.

I’ve long felt that if we want to tackle the huge international issue of the mistreatment of women, we have to tackle the culture that holds it together. Many of us officially no longer live in feudal monarchy systems, but the same logic applies. The same sense of worth attached to the few, and the disposable quality of the many. We don’t see life as equal. The life of a wealthy ‘important’ person is not considered in the same way as the life of a refugee, a sweat shop labourer, a subsistence farmer. Anyone whose position depends on looking down, must bow their head to someone else, until we get to the top of the feudal pyramid, and the few who bow to no one. The lure of moving up the food chain keeps us in the system. The feeling of being better than someone else helps us tolerate where we are. It’s a way of being in the world that turns us into users, standing on other people to get an advantage, pushing them down that we might stay above them. Anyone, regardless of gender, who engages in this does so at a cost to their humanity.

You can have gender equality and still have feudalism, you just need to find a different reason to pick on people, one that isn’t about what’s in your pants (say, money). But you have a much harder time of it maintaining sexism, or for that matter racism or any other us and them based prejudice, if you don’t have a feudalistic mindset.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “Old words for old problems

  • Bill Watson

    Once upon a time we were ruled by a “matriarchy”, back in the days of the Great Mother. I don’t have a problem with either term because they describe perfectly who is running society at a particular time. It’s like arguing the terms “actor” and “actress” which are gender specific and accurate. And, if you speak a Roman language, everything is clearly masculine or feminine – no neuter. So what’s wrong with that? There is no implicit denigration of one or the other.

    • Nimue Brown

      to talk about the Romans or the ancient Greeks in terms of patriarchy makes perfect sense to me, but in a modern context I think it’s tripping us up. Taking that word out to go after the underlying structures and assumptions makes more sense to me. I float it out to see if anyone else wants to work that way – if it doesn’t work for you, not a problem, its all about who can use which tools to do what they need to do, really.

  • helenjnoble

    To me, the use of the word patriarchy connotes the fact that in most aspects of society, men are more ‘visible’ in public roles, and therefore, collectively, seem to wield more power than women. For example there are far more male MPs in the Houses of Parliament; there are also far more men in jail, as compared to the number of incarcerated women. Men and women operate differently in society – whether this is down to the social and economic structure of opportunities, personal choice, or biological drive is unclear, in my mind. I guess it’s a mixture of man, constantly changing factors.

    • Nimue Brown

      I do totally agree with this, I just find it gets in the way when working with guys who have no desire to be part of this, and there are many such chaps out there who hate these systems as much as feminists do, and there are far too many women keen to engage with the feudalism or bash women who aren’t knuckling under. The way in which too many women actively uphold ‘patriarchal’ systems has me wondering whether gender dividing is right. Chinese foot binding was invented by a woman, slut shaming and fat shaming are often done to women by other women…

      • helenjnoble

        Yes that’s true. I have crossed paths with many women who are keen to put other women down. I feel it’s a case of survival of the fittest – the strong turn on the weak, especially when the ‘strong’ already perceive themselves as the ‘weaker’ sex. However, I can’t ignore the fact that women in the UK were enfranchised only 100 years ago, that rape in marriage was legal until 1992, and that the people behind page three, pornography industry, were/are still, largely, groups of men. Which brings me to the point about positive discrimination. Is it necessary to readdress the balance of power? Personally, I have experienced prejudice (for being a girl) from my own family, the workplace and society in general. When I answer the door at home during the daytime the caller often assumes I’m a housewife. When I answer the telephone in the office, one caller actually announced to his wife ‘she’s just the receptionist.’ I always seem to be viewed someone’s wife/mother/daughter before being seen as a lawyer, or a writer. These gender-based assumptions appear deep-rooted in a cultural sense.

      • Nimue Brown

        Those are definitely very real issues that need taking seriously. I wouldn’t dispute any of that. On the history front, of course not all men raped their wives when they legally could, and there are plenty of women who will have trained their daughters to accept that happening to them and to co-operate with it. Queen Victoria’s lie back and think of England being the most obvious.

  • Leeby Geeby

    Very articulate arguments here. Something I have not considered so much from a specifically female perspective. I was wondering if the doors to gender equality were thrown wide open, would society change as much as we think? For example, I worked in a beer factory in Australia which had a very strict policy of gender equality in it’s hiring practices. There were a couple of females in the management out of a predominantly male staff. There was one female on the factory floor, she was a machinist and out of the seasonal staff that I worked with there was one other female. Despite a long standing policy of hiring females there were so few females in the place that it made me wonder wether it was simply that they felt alienated by the macho culture, or that it was the nature of the work was unattractive, or a little of both. There tends to be more females in the white collar jobs, so I’m guessing that the nature of certain kinds of work is a factor, even when gender equality is afforded. With regards to politicians again I think the nature of the occupation is a factor, I believe that men by their nature are more prone to the kind of masculine ego-centered power seeking than women, and find politics more attractive, of course the dominant male culture creates female exclusion, no disagreements there, but something I have noticed even of female politicians is that they frequently display (some would say are forced to express) the same kind of masculine power seeking personality traits as the male ones. The question for me is to what extent is that a factor of the dominant male culture as opposed to the natural demands of the occupation or women’s interest in certain kinds of power roles. To what extent do some of those fundamental biological differences play a role in women’s motivation to seek out certain kinds of work or power roles? This is a thorny question for feminists, because it might pre-suppose aptitudes for certain kind of work skills possessed or not possessed by either gender. For example there is a reason why you see far fewer males in the childcare sector, and thats because they predominantly lack a certain level of neural processing that women have which makes it easier to stay focused on the numerous fine details of childcare without straining the nervous system.

    • angharadlois

      I’m pretty sure I lack the level of neural processing which makes it easier to stay focused on the numerous fine details of childcare without straining the nervous system – and I have lady parts. There is actually very little verified evidence for women being ‘good at multitasking’ in the way that popular stereotypes have it, and much of what there is has been interpreted that way to suit a theory of social evolution. Women may be traditionally better at switching rapidly between a number of different tasks, but this is what our culture and society regularly expects, which raises the question of what comes first: the aptitude, or the social expectations which shape the development of aptitudes?

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