Patriarchy 101 – A quick review

Why is patriarchy still an issue today? Because it still exists! Yes, there have been many more advancements in working towards an egalitarian society around the world – yet there are still so many discrepancies in what is considered egalitarian. Throughout the this month I want to explore patriarchy in politics and government, in the church, in relationships, in marriage, and in the family – many of my perspectives are western and based upon my own journey. I welcome other perspectives, other approaches, and other stories. I do hope, however, that from my time living, studying and working in a place like South Africa, I have some ability to see patriarchy in a more universal light – one not just centered on my western roots.

Let’s look at a general definition of patriarchy, complements of  Wikipedia: patriarchy is a social system in which the male gender role acts as the primary authority figure central to social organization, and where fathers hold authority over women, children, and property. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination.

Through understanding patriarchy we can begin to view all of life through a new lens, one that begins to deconstruct the patriarchal foundations that have been placed around all that encompasses life as we know it.

On a personal note, the first time I truly began to understand the extent of influence patriarchy had in my life, I felt betrayed. How did I not know this? Everything that I held as “true” actually was just one version of the story. Jacobs, in her book Gender, Power, and Persuasion, reminds us all that we must be “cognizant of the point of view that is encoded in the narratives and not take lightly the fact that language is power used to create and destroy perception. Those who control the use and normative formulation of language control the perception of reality of any linguistic representation.”

My interpretation: words are powerful symbols that influence our behaviors. If I grew up seeing and hearing that Father was the head of the household; that the President was a Man; that Government was ruled by men; that the word “men” in the bible could also include women but the original text was only for men; that God was male; that He was a powerful, and at times angry God; that the U.S. was a country Under God, and therefore could justify war based upon that; that a woman’s role was to be second to man; that my job as a wife was to serve my husband, to respect him, and that every relationship must have one authority – ie: my husband… these words, the narrative of the bible, the narrative of my life, would be centered around my being second to all men. I would live my life trying to please man, please God, in order to get ahead in life. I would live my life waiting on the God-Father upstairs to see all the good things I was doing and in return would be pleased with me. I would flounder in trying to understand what my role in life was to be, what I should do in my career, and I would battle to find something I was passionate about – that wasn’t linked to serving a man. The narrative that was played out for me early in my life would interpret how I lived for 30 years, taking the passenger seat second to every man I would encounter.

However, once I began to read and listen to other narratives, other words, the narratives of what I was taught began to crumble, and could not stand up against an egalitarian approach to life. I began to see the power and possibilities that I had within me; the Self strength that didn’t need man’s approval; I began to understand that a relationship actually functions perfectly when both partners participate equally and openly with each other; that a spiritual life based upon a commandment that would start with loving Self as I loved others was much more freeing, because I had to learn to love me first (and that has been quite a journey in itself – the first time you ask yourself, Who Am I? without the parameters of what others have put on you can be quite a scary question). I began to see and understand the roots of injustice lie in the patriarchal approach to life. And I also began to see my part in perpetuating patriarchy. I began to see another world. And I have come to the conclusion that patriarchy is everywhere and it is destructive for everyone involved.

I believe that the only way to really breakdown patriarchy in society today  is to first know what it is and how it influences our lives. It’s not just about sexism, or God being male or female, it’s about structures and narratives – and who is creating both. We each must see the one-sidedness of our own personal world we live in first to be able to know how to participate outside of patriarchy and to challenge it.

Joan Chittister, in her book Heart of Flesh paints a picture which highlights the great impact of patriarchy upon society:

The patriarchal society is an essentially violent thing. The patriarchal society – any society in which men, the males of the system, own, administer, shape, or control all the major facets of the culture – is a stifling thing. Not only the intellectual life of a woman is cut off by it, not simply the economic life of a woman is deterred by it, not just the political life of a woman is restricted by it, but the spiritual life of a women – and of men, as well – is also corrupted by it. We make ourselves prisoners of a one-sided world. For centuries, women artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and philosophers were excluded from academic life, the public arena, the males-only world stage. We say that women are different from men, and we use those differences to perpetuate society, but we do not engage women in serious ways in order to enrich society.

Patriarchy is more than a set of social structures. It is a cluster of values, a mindset, a way of looking at life, a worldview based on superiority, domination, effectiveness, and conformity. Its effectiveness is not in question. It has consolidated power, raised great monuments, created massive systems, organized whole peoples, girdled the globe, and conquered the world. It has, at the same time, handicapped and corrupted everything it touched, male and female alike. Women had no resources to transform it, and men saw no reason to change it.

Even though some women have profited from the patriarchal system, even as they paid the price of their lives to do it, and even though men have done great good with it as well as evil, patriarchy is essentially wrong, wrong at its roots, and potentially destructive, whatever its effectiveness. The system as system is inadequate.

Patriarchy privileges men, but to talk about patriarchy is not to talk about maleness as such. To be opposed to patriarchy is not to be opposed to men…

Patriarchy is theologically incongruent. The image of God has become totally male though God in Scripture said it was otherwise. Patriarchy is psychologically unsound. It leads to unbalanced development in both men and women. Patriarchy is socially destructive. It separates the sexes and deprives the world of a total worldview. And consequently, the spirituality it spawns is deficient.

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