No, this post isn’t calling anyone a dummy any more than the series of books of the same name does. It is simply taking a similar approach to describing the fundamentals of the topic without assuming any background knowledge. I’ve seen too many people railing against discussing patriarchy, and I want to lay this out so I can ask where exactly they think the problem is.
Let’s start with definitions. “-archy” is a suffix meaning overarching rule, similar to “-cracy” but without the same implication that the structure is a formal one. So, to mix my roots abominably, a household in which the dog dictates priorities and schedules could reasonably (if unseriously) be called a “caniarchy”.
Practically, this means that we can recognize both formal and informal influence in government. For example, while the U.S. is mostly a representational democracy and the UK is a constitutional monarchy, they are both functionally oligarchies. Government service is restricted to a small percentage of the population, and the requirements of education and networking for appointed posts and mounting campaigns for elected posts mean that the monied, educated classes are highly overrepresented in government. They have a strongly disproportional influence on how each country functions.
In addition, both of these governments, and the overwhelming majority of other governments around the world are patriarchies.
Historically, men have held nearly all government positions due to rules of law that excluded women from office and, generally, from having much influence over what choice existed for leadership.* This hasn’t entirely kept women from positions of power, but the women or the circumstances of the exceptions have tended to be remarkable.
This history comes with a couple of consequences. First of all, justifications were created to explain these patriarchal systems. Saying, “We’re in power because we said so, so nyah”, wasn’t going to provide much satisfaction to anyone who conceived of a different way to run things. These justifications ranged from complimentary (women are the only people who can possibly raise children well; women are so attractive that men can’t function when they’re working together) to defamatory (women are intellectually inferior/emotionally fragile/power mad/untrustworthy/sinful/unclean).
These justifications were not necessarily created or spread with any malice in mind on the part of any one individual any more than the creation and spread of any other explanatory myth. A situation had come to exist. Explanations made life simpler. Still, they served to reinforce the status quo.
The other major consequence of patriarchy is that the interests of men were codified into law and into societal norms. Again, this required no particular malice. That’s exactly what we’d expect when a government consists largely of a group of people with common outlooks. When talk among themselves to decide what to do, they hear interests like theirs reflected back at them.
This happens in any homogenous group. They don’t hear conflicting opinions because the people with conflicting opinions aren’t present. This group simply happened to have the power to put their interests first.
These days, patriarchy is not as absolute as it once was. Laws that directly restrict the participation of women in governance have fallen in many places. Women still don’t have equal representation in the overwhelming majority of places of power, but they do participate. They have established a record of participation, and their participation has generally been growing.
Patriarchy is diminished, but it isn’t gone. Unequal representation still means unequal power in voting bodies.
Additionally, we still have that dual legacy of strong patriarchy to contend with. The myths that explained patriarchy are still with us. They still serve to keep women from power. We still hear questions about how female politicians will balance raising their families with their work. We still hear angry women dismissed as “emotional” where angry men are not. Women are still viewed and discussed as objects of sexual desire rather than agents of political power. Women are still viewed as less trustworthy and less expert than similarly situated men.
We must also still cope with the laws and norms that have been handed down to us out of the days of full legal patriarchy. We still navigate definitions of career success that rely on hours put in rather than results received. We still see more legal interference in women’s reproductive health care than we do in men’s. We are still determining what obstacles exist to equal access to education and fighting to have them recognized legally. We still, in the U.S., do not have any guarantee of gender equity in our constitution.
Once again, no malice is required (though it obviously exists in places), just inertia. A bias for the status quo is completely sufficient to maintain the inequities that are our heritage of patriarchy, even when the unequal influence of men in government is less than it was, even when the voices and interests of women are no longer unheard in the halls of government.
That, in a nutshell, is what we mean when we talk about patriarchy. Accepting the existence and continued influence of patriarchy doesn’t put an end to arguments about what is or is not part of patriarchy’s legacy, of course. However, the concepts involved in explaining what patriarchy is and how it works in the general sense seem noncontroversial from start to finish.
So, which part of this explanation is the sticking point?
*This isn’t the only historical inequality, by any means. The recognition that multiple inequalities have been encoded into our laws and social structures is called kyriarchy. I’m just talking about patriarchy here because people have been telling me not to.