What is Patriarchy?
Patriarchy (Greek patriarches), previously referred to as “male chauvinism” and “sexism” (1), is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege, and control of property. Feminists have identified patriarchy as being a structure in which men have power over women. Linda Napikoski explains that by a “patriarchal society,” feminists “mean that men hold the positions of power: head of the family unit, leaders of social groups, boss in the workplace and heads of government” (2).
Patriarchy, explains some feminists, is not feature that our western society outwardly promotes through its constitutions and laws although most contemporary societies are, in practice, patriarchal. According to Craig Lockard, “Today, as in the past, men generally hold political, economic, and religious power in most societies” (3). Historically, patriarchy has manifested itself in various different cultures through their legal, social, political, religious and economic organizations. For many feminists, it is the patriarchy is the central challenge to modern day feminism, for example, David Richards writes that,
“Feminism, as I understand it, arises in resistance to the gender binary enforced by the patriarchy, an injustice that is as harmful to men as it is to women, as we can see in the long history of unjust wars, rationalized by patriarchy, in which men have fought and been killed and injured and traumatized” (4).
The influential feminist writer ‘bell hook’s explains that feminism is,
“rooted in the love of male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other. The soul of feminist politics is the commitment to ending patriarchal domination of women and men, girls and boys” (5).
However, the concept of patriarchy itself is not a contribution of feminist theories (6). Rather, it was feminist theories that updated and expanded the idea of patriarchy in the second half of the 20th century. Some feminists have also highlighted the fact that patriarchy does not mean that women do not have any rights, although it does affirm that men still maintain power over women in most institutions considered important in society (7). For example, some have contended that although women are allowed access to certain institutions they seldom make it to the top or almost never become the most powerful people within those institutions. Patriarchy also doesn’t mean that all women don’t have influence or that all women have no power.
For some, the legacy of patriarchy is seen in most areas of life and society but is arguably most noticeable in male violence against women, women’s under-representation in key state institutions, in decision-making positions and in employment and industry (8). Statistics are used in support of this. For example, US women represent only 16.3% of CEO positions, 34.1% in senior management roles, and make up just 24.7% of board directors (9i). There is also the allegation of a wage gap in which women make 79.6 cents for every dollar a man makes (9ii). Moreover, some feminists have argued that patriarchy within families needs to be challenged since it is there that the beginning stages of female oppression starts to take place (10). The patriarchy is said to perpetuate oppressive and limiting gender roles, sexual assault, and the political and economic subordination of women (11).
Is Patriarchy Bad for Men Too?
Many feminists have argued that patriarchy has a harmful impact on men too (12). Shannon Ridgway explains that,
“women aren’t the only ones who suffer under this everyday patriarchy. Everyone does. Because patriarchy demands that those in power conform to a specific set of rules – ones that require the suppression of feelings, and include a lack of empathy.”
For instance, patriarchy is said to be damaging for men within the workplace. The higher a man is within the corporate world, the more pressure he experiences to conform to patriarchal expectations. This might be seen in how he must avoid showing emotion or any “weakness,” be less sensitive to his employees and coworkers, become controlling and dominant in his managerial position, and must commit 100% of himself to the job over and above other duties (13). Patriarchy also nurtures and sustains a culture that normalizes what is referred to as “toxic masculinity.” Such a culture tells boys that the worst thing they can do is act feminine (“Stop crying like a girl!,” “Man up!,” or “You hit like a girl!”) (14). This in turn puts men under a lot of pressure to lead in a specific manner and to never reveal any vulnerability. Men thus find themselves “boxed” which leaves many of them feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. Without an outlet for expressing their feelings, men end up stifling their emotions of which has led many men turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol abuse (15).
Abbie Lauten-Scrivner captures this in her piece Men’s Role in Feminism saying that patriarchy says,
“Emotion is bad. Gentleness is worse. Feminine equals weak. Always be authoritative, always be aggressive. It is feminists’ disdain for this repulsive rhetoric that breeds the label “manhater.” Feminists do not hate men. We hate toxic masculinity. It suppresses men into constricted roles, limiting the ways they can express themselves while retaining their identity as “male.” It discourages compassion. It dissuades emotion. It normalizes the aggression that feeds into rape culture. It is bad for women and it is bad for men” (16).
It is said that men have often been afraid to come forward with their stories of sexual abuse or rape because of the sense of weakness and vulnerability that accompanies these crimes. The assumption is that men are much too strong to have such things ever happen to them (17).
Feminists and commentators have contended that patriarchy limits an individual’s range of experiences and therefore diminishes his or her worth as a human being. Thus, it is because of these challenges that patriarchy confronts us with why bell hooks emphasizes the need for feminism,
“Love cannot exist in any relationship that is based on domination and coercion. Males cannot love themselves in patriarchal culture if their very self-definition relies on submission to patriarchal rules. When men embrace feminist thinking and practice, which emphasizes the value of mutual growth and self-actualization in all relationships, their emotional well-being will be enhanced” (18).
1. hooks, b. 2004. “Understanding Patriarchy”. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. p. 17–25.
2. Napikoski, L. 2017. Patriarchal Society: Feminist Theories of Patriarchy. Available.
3. Lockard, C. 2007. Societies, Networks, and Transitions: Volume 1. p. 111–114.
4. Richards. D. Resisting Injustice and the Feminist Ethics of Care in the Age of Obama: “Suddenly… All the Truth Was Coming Out,” in Routledge Research in American Politics and Governance. p. 143.
5. hooks, b. 2004. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. p. 123.
6. Facio, A. 2013. What is Patriarchy? Available.
7. Facio, A. 2013. Ibid.
8. London Feminist Network. What is patriarchy? Available.
9i. Catalyst. 2017. Quick Take: Statistical Overview of Women in the Workplace. Available.
9ii. National Committee on Pay Equity. Available.
10. Revise Sociology. 2014. Feminist Perspectives on the Family. Available.
11. Watanabe, M. 2014. What Is Patriarchy (And How Does It Hurt Us All)? Available.
12. Lauten-Scrivner, A. 2016. Men’s role in feminism. Available.
13. Ridgway, S. 2013. Patriarchy and How It Shows Up for Everyone. Available.
14. Lauten-Scrivner, A. 2016. Ibid.
15. Warner, C. 2015. 6 Ways The Patriarchy Is Harmful To Men, Because Feminism Isn’t Just For Women. Available.
16. Lauten-Scrivner, A. 2016. Ibid.
17. Hall, C. 2016. This is why we Still Need Feminism. Available.
18. hooks, b. 2004. Ibid.