Tag Archives: patriarchy

The Walking Skirt

Skirts are not inherently impractical. For much of history, men have worn skirts – they may be called robes, or tunics, but they are basically a loose bit of fabric draped over the thighs. Longer, if you happen to be a Viking. However, all too often, modern skirts designed for the female body are inherently impractical. It encourages us to believe that being feminine also means being impractical.

If a skirt is made of delicate fabric, you can’t go through a bramble patch in it. If the fabric is light, it won’t keep you warm for being active outside. If the skirt is tight, it won’t let you move – no climbing stiles or getting on bicycles in that! If the important thing about the skirt is that it looks pretty and you are to look pretty wearing it, you can’t risk accident or dirt. How many girls are told not to do things because keeping the skirt looking nice is deemed to be the most important thing?

When it comes to making skirts for women, clothes designers usually focus on what is attractive – especially what is sexually attractive to the male gaze. This does not result in practical or useful clothing, and there tend not to be pockets.

I find that in cold weather, a skirt over leggings or trousers is the warmest option. I can move the bulk out of the way if I need to. The fabric keeps my thighs warm, but if the skirt is about knee length, it doesn’t get caught on things and the hem doesn’t get muddy. If the skirt is made of a substantial, heavy fabric, it really helps. However, the right fabric and the right weight is hard to find. So I made a walking skirt out of dead hoodies. It is warm, and practical, and allows me to do stuff.

Skirts are not gender identity. Lots of men have, historically, worn skirts. Some still do. If you want to wear a skirt as an expression of femininity, the skirt does not have to be limiting, or useless, or make you vulnerable or fragile. The skirt can be your friend. Clothes have a huge impact on sense of self, and when they limit what we can do, that impact really isn’t helping. Interrogate your wardrobe. Ask who your clothes are really serving. Learn to sew as an act of revolution, and make the clothes that serve you! Or modify the clothes you buy so that they work for you. Put pretty decoration on the practical stuff if you fancy that. Sew on extra pockets. Cut out the patriarchal bullshit hiding in your wardrobe.

Heroic Romance

Last week while hanging out with Meredith Debonnaire, we got talking about the lack of pragmatism in love stories. Especially in terms of how this applies to women. I went away and pondered – as I like to do, and a thing struck me.

Western patriarchal societies have not given actual or fictional women much scope in their lives. Mostly, the role of women has been to be prizes to win, or defend, or capture or the harming of women has been a motivation for male characters to do stuff. There are odd exceptions – Lady Macbeth springs to mind, but mostly women in stories aren’t like her. Women in stories are passive. Their job is to be beautiful and to inspire the men to do things, one way or another.

Only when it comes to love are women reliably allowed to do more dramatic things. Women are allowed to die for love, like Juliet. They’re allowed to throw their lives away waiting years to see if the man comes back, like Penelope. They’re allowed to ruin their lives, like Isolde. The can be dramatically murdered by their menfolk, like Desdemona, and so on and so forth. When you look at the dramatic things women are allowed to do for love, it’s clear this doesn’t benefit the women much.

As I was pondering this, it struck me that we have the word ‘heroic’ to indicate the stand out stuff that heroes do. We have heroines, but there is no ‘heroinic’. Heroines just are, it’s not about what they do. If we want to talk about women doing dramatic, brave, important things, it can only be called heroic, because they’re doing guy stuff.

If wrecking your life for love is the only kind of heroism you’re offered, it’s easy to see why women keep telling these kinds of stories, too. But, if you think that taking damage in the name of love is the best and most noble thing you can do, it has consequences. It might make you more willing to put up with violence, jealousy and mistreatment. It might leave you feeling there’s something heroic about standing by your man, no matter what he does. It might encourage you to feel that your worth is defined by what big gestures you can make for the man in your life. It’s a very narrow field to operate in, and it props up ideas about women not having lives separate from the lives of their men.

How many famous historical stories do we have in which women save women? I’ve counted Goblin Market so far. How many historical female heroes do we know of who get to act dramatically and it not be for the sake of a man? There’s Boudicca. There are probably others that I’ve not remembered, but on the whole these kinds of stories are in short supply in terms of the back catalogue.  I can think of modern examples, but what we’re steeped in has a very different flavour.

What if we could be pragmatic about love? What if we didn’t tell each other that love is enough and will overcome all obstacles – because life demonstrates routinely that love does not in fact fix everything. What if we don’t celebrate putting your life on hold for a man or sacrificing yourself for a man? What if we stop telling stories that make romantic love the centre of women’s lives and the primary focus for any heroism we might go in for? What if we make it equally ok for male heroism to revolve around sacrifice for love, rather than violent responses to love thwarted?

Gods, feudalism and power over

It isn’t an accident that so much traditional spiritual language has a feudal tone to it. Lord and Lady are terms of nobility. Christianity is full of the language of kings, sovereignty and power over. Pagans use ‘Queen’ as a term for Goddess. For a good chunk of European history those who had taken power and wealth by force of arms were keen to create the impression of divine sanction for it. The King in his castle, sucking up the bounty, is God’s representative on Earth. God the Uber-King looks down on all from Heaven – a very literal expression of being over the top of the rest of us.

The stories modern Pagans turn to were recorded, for the greater part, by people who were part of that power-over arrangement. God the Uber-King in league with the physical monarch bestowed a lot of power on the church, giving the church every reason to support the logic of the system. Plus, in a less cynical way, we tend to make sense of things through the filters of our own experience. There are reasons to think that some mythology may have grown out of the deeds of actual people, actual Kings, Queens and rulers. It may be that much of Paganism itself is rooted in monarchic cultures.

The language of democracy doesn’t really work for religion. Any notion of elected to power seems a bit odd when talking about beings who have more power than us. Chairman of the Gods is funny, but lacks a certain swing. Perhaps this is in part because one of the key things we want from Gods, is that they be bigger and more powerful than us and therefore able to protect us from terrible things. Powerful enough to protect you from other things – ie other Kings, has always been part of the marketing for feudalism.

There are other languages out there although I can’t claim deep familiarity with them. From what I’ve read, a lot of indigenous people use the language of family to talk about the spirit powers they encounter. Grandfathers and grandmothers. Brothers and sisters. If you aren’t operating in a patriarchal/feudal structure to begin with, God the father has a very different feel to it.

The language of monarchy and feudalism tends to give humans a sense of power over the non-human world, which is doing us and the world no good at all. Perhaps it is time to start questioning our word choices and habits of thinking. I don’t have any suggestions for word replacements at the moment, except to acknowledge that I find the language of monarchy and feudalism really uncomfortable and I wish we didn’t use it.

Parenting without (much) authority

I’ve never liked arbitrary authority, and so I came to parenting determined that ‘because I said so’ wasn’t going to be part of my repertoire. Also, I had a theory that the more arbitrary authority there is in childhood, the less able parent and child are to adapt to the teenage years, or to relate to each other well beyond that point. I wanted to raise an autonomous human capable of thinking for themselves, and that doesn’t go with being their authority figure either.

I remember the point at which I finally realised that my parents didn’t know everything. It came as a shock, rocking my little world to its core. My trust in their authority had been founded in no small part on a belief in their infinite knowledge and insight. So as a parent I made sure my child was aware of my limits from early on. As a small chap interested in dinosaurs, he knew that he could pass me in dinosaur knowledge if he put in the time, and that it was fine to do so. As I’m not interested in power-over I’ve never felt any need to try and keep him smaller than me.

We’ve always negotiated. I’ve always explained my position and reasoning so that he could see why I thought a course of action was preferable. I’ve aimed to persuade rather than force. We have an understanding that if I do issue an order, it is to be followed without question or hesitation because I’ll only do that in an emergency. We can talk about it afterwards. Driving me round the bend does count as an emergency!

Alongside this, he’s always had the option that if he could make a case for something, I’d take him seriously. We talk about the implications, the responsibilities, the possible consequences. Now he’s a teen, we carry that on to talk about relationship dynamics, consent culture, the implications of drugs and porn and all the other things out there he might run into and need to deal with. I think we have a pattern that means he’s always going to feel able to ask for my advice, but never obliged to act on it.

This all makes my life easier. I have room to say ‘yeah, I cocked that up,’ and to be honest about getting things wrong, making bad calls – because I have no authority to undermine. As yet, there’s been no sign of teenage rebellion – occasional non-cooperation, but that’s fine. He doesn’t have to fight off my authority in order to establish himself as a person in his own right because he’s always been respected as a person in his own right.

For me, authoritarian models within the family are an aspect of patriarchal society that we can do without. Children who are taught to obey are taught that power is what gets things done. You can’t have consent culture and obedience. You can’t have equality if you raise people inside models based on hierarchy, power-over and authority. There is a power balance necessary and inherent in raising a child, but so long as the child has the right to express opinions, and be taken seriously, that power balance can gently fall away over the years, allowing them to stand in their own power in the context of the family.

(And yes, I did ask him if it was ok to write about this.)

Valuing women

Yesterday, the Church of England appointed Libby Lane as its first female bishop. Excellent news! I wish her the very best of luck and joy in what she does. I can only hope that this late introduction of gender equality in the Church of England will help reduce its patriarchal role and increase the respect shown to women generally. I can hope. I need to hope, because we have a long way to go on that score.

Then I got on to twitter, and one of the first things I saw on the subject was @susanhillwriter. “Pleased abt 1st woman Bishop but WHY can’t women priests use some make-up and a nice lipstick and get decent haircuts ?” I got into a conversation about this, of course. She went on to say that presenting well – ie wearing makeup and conforming to certain, narrow assumptions about what beauty means, is an act of respect to all the people looking at you.

We do it to ourselves. It’s a fine case in point of why patriarchal oppression is not simply something men do to women. It is a whole system of logic around how we value and treat women, and a big part of what keeps it going is that there are plenty of women like Susan Hill (writer) who are happy to act in this way in response to women like Libby Lane who are out there doing truly important things. We’ve just seen a historic moment, and the first female bishop and the first thing you have to say on the subject is that you want her to wear lipstick and get a haircut that you’d like?

Having had a look at Libby Lane, she looks like a person to me. She has her own face, and a practical haircut. Of course what lipstick and makeup does is mimic the signs of sexual arousal a woman might get in her face at key moments – blood to lips, wide eyes, flushed cheeks… forgive me if looking aroused is not a quality I seek in religious leadership of any gender or faith. It’s a very modern fashion to equate the wearing of makeup with looking smart. Go back just a few generations and makeup meant you were probably a women of saleable virtue. Add to that the way Christianity deems vanity to be sinful, and isn’t in favour of people offering themselves as sexual objects, and you might possibly have a whole array of reasons why a woman bishop might not want to face the cameras looking like a magazine cover model.

Let’s not talk about her values, her experiences, her interests. Let’s not talk about who she reads or what charities she supports. Let’s get on social media and discuss her makeup choices, and carefully reduce her down to the status of object for looking at. Because we wouldn’t want women thinking they could be valued for their minds, skills, knowledge, ability, compassion or experience. That way lies anarchy!

Why are women so willing to value and devalue other women based on appearance? Why does conformity to the current fashion for attractiveness play such a role in how we see people whose jobs really have nothing to do with how pretty they are? The point of religious leaders is not to look at them, but to listen. We don’t give a hoot what male priests look like, in fact we may tolerate a fair amount of eccentricity and lack of attention to fashion and desirability, so why does a woman who takes on this most unworldly of work get expected to conform to the most worldly of visual standards?

You can’t see much of @susanhillwriter on her twitter profile, and there’s only one picture of her face on her homepage. She doesn’t appear to be wearing makeup, and has a short hairstyle not so very far, to my eye, to that worn by Libby Lane. Now, there’s a puzzle! But why shouldn’t she look that way if she likes?

Cultural power games

It can be tempting to think of patriarchy as a system that benefits all men at the expense of all women. This itself is a line of thought that benefits patriarchy, because the more you entrench ideas of gender division, the easier it is for the patriarchy to stay in place. Most men do not benefit from this system, but by creating the illusion that they could be winners, they are encouraged to play along, and have been for hundreds of years. There are also women who play along, who seek ease through complicity, seek to win on the terms patriarchy lays out, and who are happy to denigrate other women to make a position for themselves.

Patriarchy can be really shitty to many of its male participants. In unbalancing gender relationships, it undermines what relationships you can have. Just as there are limits on what you can do as a nice slave owner, there are limits on what you can do as a nice guy in a heavily patriarchal culture. If you do not match how the culture defines masculinity – maybe you are gay, non-violent, not ambitious, not hungry for power over others – then you will be labelled as feminine and the culture will denigrate you that same way it does its women. If women are cast as inferior, then a woman being better than you at something is really threatening. Patriarchal cultures put most men in positions where they do not get to feel superior, but are forever watching their backs, and are as limited in their identity options as their womenfolk are. Culture is people, so this only works because the majority are willing to participate or do not notice what they are upholding. (Consider ‘throws like a girl’.)

The important question to ask, is who wins this game? Who benefits?

Patriarchy is a system of power-over. It gives men power over women, but it also gives men power over each other. Physical power, financial power, ownership of resources, and that more ephemeral notion of ‘authority’. It is a system that encourages all participants to let the people (mostly men) and institutions (mostly run by men) that are in charge, to stay in charge, because they have authority and authority should be respected. If that upsets you, then in a patriarchal culture, the answer isn’t to challenge those above you, but to kick an inferior so as to achieve catharsis (UKIP in a nutshell, most forms of fascism in fact). Inferiority is constructed along lines of gender, race, poverty and lack of power. Only a handful of people really benefit in a system of this shape, and they get to sit at the top of the heap, wielding authority because that’s what they’ve always done, because they have more money and habits of power than anyone else.

If you like having power over people and you want the freedom to use other people as objects, then patriarchy is a system that will suit you well. If, regardless of gender, you don’t enjoy using or being used, this is not a system you are ever going to be happy in. What enables it to survive is that patriarchy does not present itself as a system, it has always offered itself as an unassailable reality. Of course it’s just natural that these are the people who end up in power making all the decisions. And now, cleverly, they have us largely convinced that we pick them by voting, and not looking hard enough at how many of them went through the same elite educational institutions.

Gender conflict is a symptom, not an underlying cause. It is a consequence of a system that fundamentally believes in power-over and the use of resources, where other people’s lives, bodies, minds, health and existence most certainly do count as a resource to be used. My feeling is that we are only going to sort out issues of gender politics when enough of us stop being enthusiastic players of the power-over game which has been set up explicitly such that none of us can win it. This is basically feudalism with a new hat, and we have been persuaded to do it to ourselves.