How patriarchy continues

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How patriarchy continues


US feminist Cynthia Enloe writes about how patriarchy continues and how we can challenge it .

Patriarchy is not a thing of the past.

Patriarchy is here now like Brexit, Donald Trump, and nationalist political parties. It is not old-fashioned; it is as cool as football millionaires and Silicon Valley new businesses.

People try not to use the word patriarchy and this helps it to continue.

Patriarchy is everyday sexism, but it is more than everyday sexism. Patriarchy includes misogyny, but is more than misogyny. Patriarchy makes gender inequality, but it is deeper than gender inequality.

Patriarchy is a system of ideas and relationships. People make patriarchy modern. It is easy to adapt. It is sustainable.

Today, we think ‘sustainability’ is a positive thing. But ‘sustainable patriarchy’ describes how a system of ideas and relationships continues after so many women risked their good names and their lives to challenge it. Patriarchy is what we live.

Patriarchy ideas include what we believe, how we explain how the world works and what we think is good and attractive, as well as what we find bad. Most men and a lot of women find these ideas attractive. That is why they continue. When we think about why so many American women voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election or why so many women supported conservative parties in Britain, Poland, Chile, Japan, and Australia, we need to think seriously about why patriarchy is attractive to many different women. Patriarchy ideas include what we understand about whether sex is fixed at birth, whether gender is the same as sex, whether women and men are ‘naturally’ different, whether males are really rational, and females are really emotional. Patriarchy ideas also include what we understand about whether people of different races are ‘naturally’ in a hierarchy, whether societies are biological families, and whether the world is a dangerous place that makes men want to protect women. Patriarchy ideas include powerful ideas about what we cannot change and must accept.

Some of the patriarchy ideas that are problems are those that think reason is more important than emotion, those that give value to traditions, and those which make family more important than other kinds of commitment.

Leaders and followers

When we think about governments having a strong military or how authoritarian they are to their people, also shows our patriarchy values. Patriarchy values often include liking what we imagine are manly forms of leadership, and liking women who spend their time mostly as mothers. So if we support these patriarchy values, when we hear people praise Leymah Gbowee for her success with the Liberian women’s peace movement, without thinking about her as a wife or a mother, it can feel uncomfortable. In many cultures, they think that when leaders are authoritarian, they are also manly.

Of course, women leaders can support authoritarian ideas. People liked Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi for what seemed their manly skills. ‘The only man in the room,’ said some men who liked Thatcher.

Many people on the American Women’s March were unhappy when it seemed that Donald Trump wanted to make the US presidency authoritarian. But it is a mistake to think of authoritarian values as values of a certain kind of leader. Men and women far from the centres of power like authoritarian values and like manly leaders who show they are ‘strong’. To be an authoritarian voter is to be a man or a woman who wants a manly man or a manly woman to be powerful and not listen to constitutional checks and balances and compromise. Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Donald Trump are examples of these leaders.

The challenge

There have been important successes in challenging patriarchy. And this is why patriarchy needs to continue to adapt. When women forced men to accept equality in voting in countries as different as Sweden, South Africa, and Brazil, it made patriarchal men and women find new ways to ensure masculinity in government. When women in countries as different as Samoa, Turkey, and Britain made governments see wife-beating as a crime, patriarchy had to find new ways to control women. And this means women’s movements have to find time and energy to fight new kinds of patriarchy Patriarchy systems have to adapt to make them look new and, reformed, ‘up-to-date’, and even revolutionary. They can allow a few women into the company boardroom or onto television sports programmes or into the law school. But those few women must not want many more women of different races to join them. Those few women must show masculine ways of thinking about profits, war, sexuality, or inequality. Or those few women must show a patriarchal femininity that does not challenge masculine power.

Adapting patriarchy means more than continuing to be powerful. It also means seeming to be thankful and even kind and understanding. Marching in protests is important. It shows we are not alone. It reminds us of the problems and fears we need to know about to stop the updating of patriarchy.

But, it will need more than marches to stop patriarchy. We will need to look at ourselves to make sure we are not in some way helping patriarchy to continue.

Cynthia Enloe is a feminist writer, teacher and activist, and the author of 15 books. This article is from her latest book The Big Push: Exposing and Challenging the Persistence of Patriarchy published in the UK (by Myriad/New Internationalist) and in the US (by University of California Press) this month.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).