Why Patriarchy Is Not about Men

In response to my recent newsletter, which I named “Tenderness, Vulnerability, and Mourning as a Response to Patriarchy”, I received two comments from men that led me to choose to write this piece. In two very different ways they pointed me to the reality that the word patriarchy is used in many ways; that some of those ways lead to a lot of misunderstanding; and that, in the process, men in particular get targeted in ways I never wish they did. In this piece I hope to rectify this a little bit. I start with pointing to what I mean by patriarchy, since I don’t yet have a definition that I am fully satisfied with. Most significantly, I speak to what patriarchy does or does not have to do with men and what it has to do with all of us. I also aim to make it clear what my very deep concerns are about continuing within the patriarchal paradigm that’s been with us, at least those of us who are part of Western civilization, for about 7,000 years. And I end by what I believe every single one of us can do about it.

What Is Patriarchy?

One of the things that make it difficult to speak about patriarchy, or any other system, to a mostly North American audience, is that the capacity to see systems as distinct from the individuals that live within and are affected by them has been systematically rooted out of most people’s awareness. Instead, everything is seen as an individual issue with only individual solutions.

This is, sadly, also the reason for why the main accomplishments of the 2nd wave of feminism (about which more below) in the US, for example, have been at the individual level, such as access to more kinds of jobs and to education, or increased reproductive choice. There has been very little change in the system that I call patriarchy, nor have the individual changes been open to women who are darker skinned and/or of limited economic means.

So, what is it that I mean by patriarchy as a system? I know that I am still carefully collecting and gathering thoughts and information, because what I have to offer for now is not yet at the level of elegance and simplicity that I like to have for concepts.

Patriarchy, as I see it, is a system that encompasses a worldview, arrangements about how we live as humans with each other on this planet, implicit blueprints for what kinds of institutions we would create, and guidelines for what to do with our young to prepare them for the system itself.

The underlying principle of patriarchy, as I understand it, is separation and control. The separation is from self, other, life, and nature. The fundamental structures we have created over these millennia are based on dominance and submission, and the worldview we have inherited justifies them as necessary to overcome both our basic nature and “Nature”, seen as separate from us. We pride self-control and frown on “emotionality”; we operate, organizationally, in command and control forms; we have been treating nature as a thing to exploit, use, subdue, and, most recently, convert to commodities for sale.

Why patriarchy and not some other word? Because, at least in the European historical lineage, which later affected many other cultures through colonial contact, the shift to separation and control coincided with making paternity central. How paternity came to be central after it wasn’t for 97% of the existence of Homo Sapiens is way beyond what a blog post can address. What is important to note, though, is that once paternity becomes important, controlling women is inevitable, because only by controlling women can it be reliably known who the father is. There is an irreducible distance between the biological father and the offspring that can only be eliminated fully by imprisoning a woman and preventing any other man from having access to her. This is why patriarchal societies by necessity become societies of control and separation. We have become so habituated to this state of affairs that most of us don’t even see that it is our own creation.

Men, Women, and Patriarchy

I have observed, learned about, engaged with, and supported countless women and men in beginning and then continuing the complicated journey of liberating themselves from the horrific effects of patriarchy on all of us. Through this process – now decades long – I now know that boys are brutalized in ways that girls are not in order to prepare them for positions of domination. As bell hooks says, “Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.” (bell hooks, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love)

In the end, patriarchy gives only a few men access to power in society, and most men some small access to power in relation to women, robbing all men of core aspects of their humanity. This is a raw deal of monumental proportions. I see this as the core source of violence: the physical, emotional, and spiritual brutalization of boys and men. Any man who knows me personally as a friend would testify that I hold infinite tenderness for what I see as the terrible plight of men. I hope that one or more of them will comment to illustrate the point I am making from their own lives.

Simply put, this is my deepest article of faith: no human being would ever, ever do anything harmful to another human being if they didn’t get brutalized first to the point of losing contact with their own natural generosity, kindness, care, and compassion. I share this faith with many who have studied violence and oppression, naming only Alice Miller and James Gilligan as key figures that have influenced me deeply.

What about women? This I know a bit more about through personal experience and much reading and conversation to know that our situation is complicated, too, to say the least. Because, for the most part, and with the notable exception of our children, we are not trained explicitly to be dominant in relation to others, we are robbed of freedom and power, and are “allowed” to retain much of our core human characteristics that are frowned upon and viciously ridiculed in a man.

All of us, men and women, have been trained into patriarchy, and all of us pass it on from generation to generation. Some of the most brutal forms of violence against girls (e.g. clitoridectomy; foot binding) are done by women, including their mothers; not necessarily by men.

I don’t blame men, nor see them as the problem. I don’t blame women, either. I don’t blame anyone, in the end.

Before continuing, it is vitally important to me to complexify everything I’ve said so far, because both boys and girls have other dimensions to their social location. Within a racial order such as the one in the US, for example, white girls are trained to see themselves as superior to people of color, both women and men, even as they are prepared for secondary roles as women; while boys born into racially marginalized groups are trained for subordinate positions within society while also being raised with the strictures of modern masculinity. It is impossible in a short piece like this to attend to these complexities, though not acknowledging them is entirely out of integrity for me.

I am in agonizing grief and anguish about what has been done to all of us and to our beautiful planet, and how little time it has taken to create so much destruction – 7,000 years for some effects, and only decades for others. In some parts of the world, contact with European colonizers took only decades to decimate whole populations, for example. In Hispaniola, the population declined from hundreds of thousands of inhabitants upon contact in 1492, to 14,000 in 1517 because of enslavement and redirection of resources. (See The Other Slavery by Andrés Reséndez for much more information.)

Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Future of Humanity

I see every system of oppression as sitting on top of patriarchy as the original blueprint of relationships of dominance and submission that now affect almost all living humans on the planet and untold other species that no longer exist to even suffer at our hands. Patriarchal societies, utilizing the capacity to store dry goods that agriculture made possible, began the process of accumulation and hoarding that has reached unprecedented proportions in our times. Its latest incarnation, spiraling rapidly and dangerously out of control since we learned to use fossil fuels, is destroying more than the ecosystems within which we live. Capitalism, the system of accumulation, greed, competition, and exploitation that is now dominant on the planet, is also destroying us, its creators. If you want to grasp how, listen to Dr. Gabor Mate, Canadian-based physician from Hungary, speak about how capitalism makes us crazy.

Within this context, I want to speak to how I am affected by the idea in one of the comments that led me to write this piece. The writer urged me to embrace patriarchy as what it is; as a strategy that that exists because it meets some needs; and then to support and encourage humans in growing and learning towards more healthy ways of living. When I read this I experienced a strong wave of fear and despair. This wave helped me focus my attention on what matters to me: I want to have so much more companionship and to mobilize with others to take on the task of thinking, speaking, and acting to transform the relations of dominance and submission and the separation, control, and scarcity that are at their root. In other words: I want togetherness in overcoming the legacy and effects of patriarchy, including all its offspring: capitalism, white supremacy, child trafficking, etc.

Yes, of course patriarchy, like everything else that humans have created, is a strategy designed to attend to needs. So is murder. Just because something, perhaps, meets some needs is no reason to embrace it; it’s the people I want to embrace, not the phenomenon of patriarchy as a system. Because I don’t see that patriarchy can be accommodated and lived with peacefully any more than cancer can. Like cancer, it spreads and metastasizes. Like cancer, it has no capacity to care for the healthy cells that want to continue to live and die in peace. Like cancer, it is ultimately unsustainable. Patriarchy will end. The only question is: will we all die with it, or will we manage to free ourselves soon enough that we can peacefully put patriarchy to death and return to the task of living interdependently with the rest of the magic on this planet?

So What Can We Do?

Now I come to the question of what each of us can do, from wherever we are, to transform the conditions that sustain patriarchy. The very short answer: embrace nonviolence, and do it fully. Fully means not just the aspects of nonviolence that happen to be easy, or easier, for each of us. Because that tends to reproduce patterns of privilege and separation. Here’s just one example of how this can happen without any ill intent. For those with privilege, it’s far easier to believe in oneness for all than in challenging one’s comfort. This partial embrace of nonviolence reproduces privilege because it doesn’t challenge the source of the comfort of the privileged, nor its relationship with the hardship of the marginalized. It results, for example, in so many white people saying “All lives matter” – asserting the oneness of all, superficially – without awareness that the very act of saying this erases and dismisses the way that so many people’s lives at present don’t matter within our system. Paradoxically and painfully: denying the existence of structural difference deepens divisions.

I do not want to presume that I know the particular ways in which embracing the fullness of nonviolence could be challenging for the marginalized. Even more importantly, given where I am positioned in society, I very explicitly do not want to tell people who’ve been systematically marginalized for centuries what to do with their lives, as that in itself would be another form of continuing patterns of separation and domination, regardless of my intent.

What I do want to do is to speak to anyone, wherever you are in the world and in the society in which you live, if you are inspired and moved by the enormity of the task, and want so badly to contribute to transformation, that you are willing to take on whatever it would take as a personal commitment. To you, and only to you, I issue this invitation.

Begin by dis-identifying yourself with everything that you have been trained to think, be, and do. Examine everything that you’ve been given, so you can see what truly serves the needs of life – yours, those around you, and as far as you can see beyond; most emphatically not only yours; most emphatically not without yours being part of the picture. By everything I mean everything: how to interact with others; how to motivate yourself; how to engage with money; how to approach work; how to think about your relationship to politics; what your training has been around gender; how you respond to people different from you; how you speak to your children if you have them. It includes, once again and in a new way, celebrating and affirming what are now subjugated aspects of being human that have been associated with women, such as care, vulnerability, and attention to relationships, thereby restoring fullness to all of us. Truly everything. It’s a lifelong project, and it’s intoxicatingly liberating. Undo your socialization, if you can do it, and re-choose who you really want to be and how you really want to show up in the world, when you imagine what it might be like to be free of fear, obligation, should, must, habits, and impulses, and able to choose everything from within your values and vision. Tall order? From experience, there’s no better game in town.

In parallel, with as much gentleness towards yourself as you possibly can see, ask yourself what your sphere of influence is in the world. It may be only your family, or it may be that you are the CEO of a company, a politician, or a university professor. You are the only one who knows. Within your sphere of influence, begin to act based on your vision and values, taking the risks that you can digest and continue to move with, not more. If you are from the comfortable classes, I would add: not less, either. Risking losing what we cherish, risking losing the comforts we have become accustomed to, is liberating even if initially it feels scary and overwhelming. Because it gives us choice back.

Commit yourself to the liberation of all, starting with where you are all the way to all of life. And take whatever steps you are able to. Lest you think that parenting is only a small part, I am once again coming back to my awe at what my deceased sister Inbal focused on in her few years of creative output: parenting as social change. Some months ago, I was talking with a participant in a class; a single mother who has three children. She said that her sphere of influence was very small, only her family, and that her relationships with her children were wonderful, so she didn’t see that she could do anything. When I asked her if she was training her children to be disobedient, she got it. For as long as we are not actively training our children to be able to stand up to authority and live with the courage to speak truth with love, the basis of all nonviolence, we run the risk of passing on to the next generation the very same struggles we have inherited, and to do so in a world that’s nearer to extinction with every passing year.

What I am asking me, you, and all who are open to it to do is an all-out commitment to transformation. There are no truly revolutionary movements that I am aware of, though there are incredibly many individuals and social movements that are taking steps in the direction of a world that works for all. Whether or not the movement that you would wish to join exists, don’t wait for the “right” movement to form. I used to do this for years, without quite being aware I was. I no longer believe we have the planetary spaciousness to do that kind of waiting. I now want to act. All day. Every day. Wherever I am. With whoever is there. And learn along the way how to get more and more effective. We may still succeed.

INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
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This is a space for discussing tough subjects: both personal experiences and the massive challenges in the wider world. The culture of this blog is one of looking for the possibility of forward movement through loving engagement, even, and especially, in times of disagreement. Please practice nonviolence in your comments by combining truth and courage with care for me and others you’re in dialogue with.

Image Credits: all Flickr: Top:  This is what a feminist looks like. million women rise march against male violence, london, england. by Tamara Craiu (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Next: end patriarchy, by istolethetv, (CC BY 2.0). Next: the boys don’t cry by Esteban (CC BY-NC 2.0). Bottom: Women’s march, London January 2017, Three Wise Men, by Kathryn Alkins (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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3 thoughts on “Why Patriarchy Is Not about Men

  1. G Michael Moore

    Including by marriage, I am the father of five. I am the grandfather of seven (six of them girls) and plan on knowing seven generations in my lifetime. I consider myself to be a patriarch and hold this as one of the most important roles in my life. I did not anticipate having this responsibility and it took me a while to understand and embrace its importance. I am still working to comprehend the full extent of what this means. It includes being a holder of historical male experience, being an advocate for children of all genders, which includes providing them with emotional and material support, acceptance and challenge in equal measure, and somehow honorably occupying this mythic place that the nurturing and mysterious old hold in the minds of the young. I am far from mastery in this, but have come to recognize that it is a job to which I must rise if my family is to thrive. In some sense these people are, indeed, mine. This is not about genetics. It is about nurture. I experience the word “matriarch” landing easily on older women who fulfill a similar role. “Patriarch” and “patriarchy,” on the other hand, are almost exclusively associated with the toxic effects of domination behaviors by privileged elites (including their ancient roots). I guess it is unlikely that this word can be rescued from such a hell, but I wish a distinction between the abusive version, and the genuinely helpful and vitally important one could be made. If the term is now irredeemable as something positive then we need to find a new one, because unless we can easily and honorably name the role I am describing, I believe things are a lot less likely to get better.

    1. David Belden

      Michael, This is a great question that you raise. Grandfathers and great grandfathers who are in full partnership with their families and who nurture them will always be loved and respected by those who know them. For myself, I think they deserve better than a word with “arch” or “archy” in it, which always signifies rule and power over. I wonder why any word other than grandfather is needed. The same goes for female elders. Would a child be better off with a grandmother or a matriarch? I think the latter adds too much of the flavor of fear, obedience and submission to the child’s life.

      I’m intrigued to know how my comment sits with you.

  2. Melanie

    David, I just wanted to let you know that you echoed exactly my thoughts here in response to Michael. Thank you.


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