Patriarchy literally means “the rule of the father” and comes from the Greek πατριάρχης (patriarkhēs), “father of a race” or “chief of a race, patriarch“, which is a compound of πατριά (patria), “lineage, descent” (from πατήρ patēr, “father”) and ἄρχω (arkhō), “I rule”.
Historically, the term patriarchy was used to refer to autocratic rule by the male head of a family. However, in modern times, it more generally refers to social systems in which power is primarily held by adult men. One example definition of patriarchy by Sylvia Walby is “a system of interrelated social structures which allow men to exploit women.”According to April A. Gordon, Walby’s definition allows for the variability and changes in women’s roles and in the order of their priority under different patriarchal systems. It also recognizes that it is the institutionalized subordination and exploitation of women by men that is the crux of patriarchy…
As an English teacher, I always discouraged my students from leading with a dictionary definition, as in “according to Webster’s…”Here I violate my own rules to open this blog entry with Wikipedia’s riff on the etymology and definition of the word patriarchy. I’ve avoided wading into this morass of alleged sexual molestation/harassment/inappropriate behavior because just thinking about living my 77 years in the body of a woman makes me tired. Several women friends have asked me to weigh in, so I can’t resist any longer. The reports that Senator Al Franken, a man I admire, has joined the long list of the accused, with a photo to prove at least part of his behavior, have pushed me out of silence. What I have to say, however, may disappoint some of my followers.
I begin with Wikipedia’s definitions because, really, this scandal is rooted securely in patriarchy, not in individual evil, as so many would have us believe. The idea of this “bad guy” or that “bad guy” is comforting because the answer involves ostracism, punishment, shaming rather than a radical change to how we see the world, how we govern our societies, how we raise our children. It’s the difference between the micro and the macro view.
As example, I refer to the number of indignant men seeking to distance themselves from the behavior of their more licentious peers. So many of them haul out their female kin, especially daughters and wives, sometimes sisters and mothers, as reasons for their horror and indignation. “As the father of a daughter…” is a preferred line. Ok, you say, what father wouldn’t want to protect his daughter from a sexual predator? Remember that not so long ago, fathers owned their daughters, married them off to men fathers chose, (a custom preserved in the ritual of fathers walking their daughters down the aisle, “giving” them away.) Patriarchal indignation speaks to the power men, abusers and saints alike, wield over the women in their lives and the larger category of women in general. Note the etymology quoted above. Invoking beloved daughters and wives speaks to a particular and personal indignation not to the need for cultural change in the way all women are viewed. And it makes man-the-protector another icon of the patriarchal structure. Wives and daughters need protection; they are objects of both male predation and protection. I will protect my own, but I can, with impunity, assault yours. As another example, think about the way rape by conquering armies is still institutionalized in the violence of war.
The #Me Too campaign, one to which I added my voice, is a victims’ rallying cry; it says that all of us walking the world in women’s bodies have experienced the feelings of victimization or powerlessness because of some man’s (or many men’s) assumption that he can do as he pleases to our bodies. Every woman I know can testify to at least the catcalls and the crude remarks that become part of daily life after puberty (and sometimes, tragically, before.) #Me Too is a wake-up call, a threat, a bonding strategy, and an important moment. Many women call it a watershed moment, claiming that men won’t get away with such behavior in the future. I say good luck with that! When the dust settles and national attention is diverted elsewhere, the behaviors will resurface. Like gun violence, sexual violence resists institutional change because those in power don’t want to give up any of their power .
I will also argue that the public face of the #Me Too movement is class based. The raised voices are those of famous, mostly white women about their experiences long ago. Back then they say that their fear, their youth and inexperience, kept them from reporting, seeking help, resisting their abusers. Some women did resist, walk out; others participated, albeit unwillingly, in blow jobs in hotel hallways. I don’t see the famous women now speaking truth to power as heroes; a hero takes a risk; speaking from a secure financial and social place is not risky. I admire and applaud their willingness to out the abuse, but I cannot call them heroic. I am not judging these famous actresses, but I am asking what about the waitress today, the bartender, the clerk, the nurse’s aide or the nurse herself. Are these women going to report men who pat their rear ends or grab at a breast or leer while telling a dirty joke? And if she does report, is the bar owner, the restaurant manager, the head nurse on the ward going to respond in a way that changes the work conditions? Is she going to get fired? Refused promotions? Does she even know to whom to report? If the affront is of the dirty-joke, fanny-pat variety, she will be advised to shrug it off, carry on, stay out of the “bad guy’s” way. If she is assaulted and reports the assault to authorities, what happens? Think about the huge number of rape kits languishing in storage. The difficulty of prosecuting an unwitnessed act. The tendency to think women lie. She is not rich or famous, can’t afford time off from work or a lawyer; the press is not interested in her unless the attack is vicious enough to merit column inches or a mention on CNN. She says #Me Too and then what?
The #Me Too movement, credited to actress Alyssa Milano, was actually started by a lesser known, less glamorous black woman years ago. As reported by Ebony Magazine, “A plethora of articles credited Milano with igniting the conversation. As the movement picked up speed…, journalist Britni Danielle pointed out that activist Tarana Burke, a Black woman, began the crusade 10 years ago particularly for women of color. Burke is the founder of the ‘Me Too’ movement’, which aims to do exactly what the recent trending topic has done on social media: unify those who’ve been victimized by sexual violence.” Interviewed on a recent segment of the PBS News Hour, Ms. Burke eloquently explained the need for something to happen after one discloses in a #Me Too moment. (Coincidently, a young woman close to me said she had reservations about the #Me Too movement because she feared women would feel pressured to disclose and worried about what happened afterwards by way of support.) Ms. Burke has devoted her work to helping victims of sexual violence. In the history of the United States, patriarchal institutions, particularly slavery and its aftermath, have been particularly brutal for women of color. They continue to be often marginalized by white women’s movements today, in another example of the dangerous intersections of racism and sexism. (The Black Lives Matter movement, while not directly about sexual violence, is led by women of color and is the target of Justice Department investigations as a subversive group. No surprise there. )
So much of the coverage of this scandal dwells on the salacious details of each encounter, the position and history of the rich and famous perpetrators. But two elements of the story are glossed over:
1. We need to scrutinize the flattening of time that allows reporters to apply the rules, conventions and assumptions of today, a time enlightened just a bit by feminism, to earlier time periods. I think back to the 50’s/60’s when I came into womanhood. At the time, I, now a radical feminist, then a college “girl,” joined my peers in blaming women for what happened to them. The only believable rape was perpetrated by a stranger who jumps out of darkness. As women, we were responsible for how we dressed, how much we drank, how we behaved, how far we let a guy go. I hear the echoes of myself saying to friends, “Well, she had it coming, getting drunk at the dance.” I believed that; I had been taught that men were sexually dangerous and women had to keep them in check. Men in power were protected. Remember the idealized JFK; what we now know of his predatory behavior makes Weinstein look like a choir boy…almost! Reporters, aides, everyone around him, smart, educated people, accepted his droit de seigneur casually, with no pity for his victims. Many people still live culturally in the past: fanny patters like George H.W. Bush; victims who still accept what happened to them as “boys will be boys,” as Melania Trump famously commented when interviewed about her husband’s pussy grabbing boasts; a lot of voters of my generation who distrust women who speak out and consider the behavior of men “natural” or “no big deal.” They may be the same people who protest when statues of Confederate “heroes” are taken down. We need to understand that some people get stuck in time; they act and judge actions from a perspective many of us consider outdated and uninformed. I think my late mother would have been among them because she resisted the idea of victimization, valorized individual autonomy, and resisted her daughters’ feminism.
2. There has been a kind of moral equivalency assumed between, say, the behaviors of George H. W. Bush, the fanny patter/dirty joke teller, and Harvey Weinstein, the gross abuser/molester. If I were to analyze the specific behaviors we have heard about almost daily in the last weeks, I would set up a continuum. For purposes of illustration, think of the old George H.W.Bush at one end and Weinstein and Ailes at the other. On this line. we could chart degrees of everything from casual insensitivity to vicious rape and assault. Along the way we could parse every salacious detail, compare degrees of force and resistance, judge levels of criminality. I am not interested in that detailed analysis of individual behavior, however, because, as the #Me Too campaign illustrates, this problem is not solely one of depraved individual behavior. It is a problem of a swollen patriarchy that wields its power in many ways –legal, religious, educational, social – and permits all degrees of the sexual abuse of its power to be overlooked, trivialized, facilitated, excused and ignored.
Some readers will accuse me of minimizing the individual offensive, perhaps criminal, acts of this or that man. Not so. I think they all should be held to account for their thuggish, crude, gross behavior; they should be called out, censored, and appropriately punished. I do not think, however, that crude, vulgar sexual behavior, automatically prevents a man in power from using that power also for causes in which I believe. I could not vote for a rapist; I could vote for a fanny patter if he was willing to acknowledge and mend his ways. That ethical seesaw will put me and those who agree in difficult political positions, especially on elections days. As a liberal, I am not alone; consider the ethical balancing acts that must have led Republicans of good will to put Trump in the presidency. Look at the supporters of Roy Moore who, despite a lot of evidence, remain in his camp. And, yes, you can look at me as riding this ethical seesaw because right now, knowing what we know, I would not support removing Al Franken from the Senate.
Patriarchy is not, however, a partisan issue for me. As we have seen, sexual harassment and assault know no particular political party or inclination. Conservative and liberal men (and women, I guess. It won’t be long before someone comes out of the woodwork to report harassment or inappropriate behavior by a female boss; we already have seen men behaving badly with other men/boys, i.e. Kevin Spacey.) It’s not a partisan issue because while the offenses are committed by individuals, usually men, we all live under the rules and conventions of a patriarchal society. The patriarchy shapes every institution that controls or serves us. It controls and influences women, too. Sometimes its very pervasiveness forces uncomfortable political choices that leave people on both sides open to charges of partisan hypocrisy.
The photo making the social media rounds of Al Franken leering as he gropes the breasts of a sleeping comedian travelling with him on a USO tour, is a classic example of what Laura Mulvey called the “male gaze” in action. Franken’s gaze and grope invite the culturally accepted “looking” at a woman being touched by a man without her permission or, indeed, even her knowledge. It is supposed to be funny; after all, they were both comedians whose humor was often raunchy, dependent often on the objectification of women and their bodies. Franken himself acknowledged that sexual vulgarity in his somewhat tortured apology. To Franken and those around him, it was “OK,” harmless and funny. At the time, Leeann Tweeden did not speak out or protest, even though she reports another incident in which Franken invaded her personal boundaries with an unwanted kiss. Both aggressor and victim were ensnared in the patriarchal culture that condones sexist and unwanted sexual behavior and makes the victim hesitant to report. Now, in an altered cultural consciousness, the victim speaks out, and Franken is left to acknowledge and apologize. As a “bad guy,” I’d put him somewhere in the mid-range of the continuum, neither as “bad” as Weinstein and Ailes but not as “forgivable” as old man Bush. But that’s not my point.
My point is that they –the assaulters – and we – women of the #Me Too campaign—are all participants, willing or not, in a patriarchal structure that has historically, psychologically, culturally condoned, ignored, permitted, and often facilitated such behavior on the part of those in power, usually white men. Given that assertion, can we claim, as many women have, the #Me Too movement as a turning point?
Well, in terms of elevated consciousness it should be. Knowledge is allegedly power. People, men and women who want this behavior to stop, should be working to overthrow the patriarchy by insisting through legislation, and the reform of institutions such as church and school and workplace that we must ensure equality of women with men in all arenas. But guess what? I don’t think that will happen any time soon because power is hard to give up and sharing power is regarded by those in power as losing power. So we make token gestures in the direction of equality. And then our Republican legislators (and this is partisan) demolish legal efforts to ensure reproductive freedom, equal pay, subsidized child care, Title Nine protections, etc. etc. These same conservative lawmakers will call for sexual harassment training, which in my experience usually emphasizes how harassers can protect themselves without attacking the cultural norms that preserve the objectification of women and the dominance of misogyny. It is worth noting that we have a resident president who falls pretty far along the sexual assault continuum and shows little sign of acknowledging his sins.
I stand sadly in front of my bookshelves, looking at titles by Simone de Beauvoir, Adrienne Rich, Gerda Lerner and so many other scholars and activists who have eloquently unveiled the history, psychology, and religion of patriarchal sexism. Writers of color such as Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Audre Lorde who have sought to explain the tragic intersections of racism and sexism. And then I run my mind over the names of the famously accused: Cosby, Weinstein, Moore, Ailes, Weiner, Clinton, Franken, Bush, et. al. I remember my idealization of the Kennedy men and how the press protected them. I look back over my #Me Too moments, remembering that white women got credit for inventing this form of protest in which I, a white woman, participated. I think of Paul Ryan, still in thrall to the cruel and crude ideas of Ayn Rand, whose books’ heroines idealize rape as a natural and potent expression of love and power; I think of what we know now of the Kennedy “boys’” predatory behavior… and my mind sighs. Yes, it’s complicated.
Do I think that revealing the names of men behaving badly on a continuum that stretches from nasty words to actual rape will result in the destruction of patriarchal institutions? Ask me if now I think that high schools will stop imposing dress codes that problematize women’s bodies, allegedly to prevent men from distraction and bad behavior? Will the Catholic Church ordain women? Will other conservative denominations cease citing the Bible as the reason women must be subject to men? Will legislators stop passing laws that control women’s bodies by denying them reproductive freedom? Will we see laws that guarantee equal pay, decent child care, accessible and affordable medical care that erases the disgrace of the Unites States’ high maternal mortality rate? Will we allow attacks on Title Nine because we assume that many women lie about sexual assault? Will convicted rapists receive shorter jail sentences than black men convicted with scant legal representation of drug possession? Will we see equal representation by women elected to our local, state and national legislatures? Will we elect a woman to the presidency any time soon?
I think not.
#Me Too is important; consciousness raising is always important. But what happens next is more important. Yes, let’s punish the “bad guys” in a non-partisan way, especially those whose actions broke laws. If we elected them to office, let’s demand that they go beyond apology and use their power to help move us toward the erasure of patriarchy as the (largely) unwritten law of the land. Let’s not make moral equivalencies that conflate a pat on the ass with a rape in a hotel room. At the same time, let’s acknowledge that all such behaviors are rooted in the abuse of patriarchal power, male hierarchies and Capitalist conflations of fame and fortune with sexual impunity. Let’s change the assumption that they [the white patriarchs] rule to we [women and men, white and of color] rule/govern equally.
I watched the nightly news on CNN and PBS. Wolf Blitzer was busily validating my critique by asking Sen Blumenthal if the charges against Al Franken equaled those against Judge Moore; if Franken should be expelled from the Senate, if the charges against him were true, etc. (Since then the drama heated up as allegations surfaced that Roger Stone has something to do with charges against Franken. Convenient distractions. What no one is talking about is the systemic, institutionalized patriarchal culture that seeks to avoid scrutiny by dwelling in the devilish details of each alleged affront. I am pretty sure that many male senators, congresspersons, their staffs and aides are on their metaphorical knees praying that their transgressions on the playing fields of sexual intimidation, harassment and assault are not #Me Too’ed by some emboldened woman out there. And their more virtuous or controlled or courteous colleagues are, I am sure, bathing in smug self-congratulation, pretty certain there is nothing lurking to dirty their linen in public. I also imagine a few lonely voices crying in the patriarchal wilderness, mine I hope included, saying that the bigger issue is not the individual offender. (Remember: I am not suggesting said offender is not responsible for his actions.) The bigger issue is the culture that allows offenses to occur, followed by complicit silence sponsored by fear or boys’-club loyalty. We need to change the institutions, the systems, the whole damn white-male dominated culture!!!! It is the patriarchy, stupid!!!