You Say Patriarchy, I Say Pahtriarchy

I won’t be participating in Blog Against Sexism Day, because I need no such kicks in the pants to rail against the form of oppression that happens to affect me most. But I’m looking forward to Bitch | Lab’s promised entry on why “patriarchy” is a dumb word:

I’m sitting here this morning drinking my joe and reading Rubin’s The Traffic In Women wherein she explains why the term is anlaytically useless:

“(A)ny society will have some systematic ways to deal with sex, gender, and babies. Such a system may be sexually egalitarian, at least in theory, or it may be ‘gender stratified,’ as seems to be the case for most or all of the known examples. But it is important — even in the face of a depressing history — to maintain a distinction between the human capacity and necessity to create a sexual world, and the empirically oppressive ways in which sexual worlds have been organized. Patriarchy subsumes both meanings into the same term. Sex/gender system, on the other hand, is a neutral term which refers to the domain and indicates the domain and indicates that oppression is not inevitable in that domain, but is the product of the specific social relations which organize it.”

I like the term “sex/gender system”, but I find it odd that Rubin is asking us to use a neutral, generic term for systems which, generally speaking, aren’t neutral. Oppression in the sex/gender domain may not be inevitable, but it’s pretty damn common. And when the stick-ends are uneven, women get the short one; to treat this as a series of specificities is misleading, or at least missing something.

In casual parlance I use “patriarchy” to mean, loosely, “a sex/gender system with men on top”, hoping it’ll be clear from context whether I’m talking about one specific system, or properties of such systems generally. If I’m being a little more careful, I’ll note that under patriarchy, the men on top are the patriarchs, which is not the same as the class of all men or the generic concept of male domination. This is still sloppy usage, I admit, and my biggest qualm with it is also why I heart it so much: blaming a nebulous “patriarchy” allows me to avoid attributing sexist oppression to specific individual or cultural agents.

The short answer to “why not sexism or sexist oppression?” is that neither term, to me, adequately conveys the pervasiveness of said oppression. I typically reserve the word “sexism” for concrete examples of how a patriarchal sex/gender system fucks us over. I don’t think patriarchy is a particularly special or fundamental form of oppression, but I do see it as structural and pervasive in a way that demands recognition. In a way, I’m appropriating the work radical feminists have done to imbue the word with a sense of pervasiveness, while sticking my fingers in my ears and singing “la la la la la” whenever they associate it with their ideas on how patriarchy is historically privileged, or indistinguishable from other zero-sum power games, or whatever.

I’ve never been much for the idea that etymology is destiny. If past feminists tried to overdefine The Patriarchy to mean more than just the rule of old farty guys, that’s their problem, not mine. If people use the word patriarchy to avoid concrete arguments or the basic requirements of competent social analysis, that’s still their problem, not mine. If one particular tradition of feminist thought has picked up on the word patriarchy, and has also been largely full of shit, well, correlation and causation, isn’t it? Arguments against that tradition’s ideas are not persuasive arguments against the words they chose to use.

Also, I would dearly love to live in a schmatriarchal society. I’m pretty sure the experience of systemic schmoppression would teach us new and interesting things about human nature.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Bitch | Lab » Because oppression already refers to social structure :) on 31 Oct 2006 at 10:34 am

    […] Greengabbro saw my rant about the use of the word Patriarchy. ha! […]


  1. greengirl29 wrote:


  2. yami wrote:

    You commenters. You get more erudite by the day!

  3. Rex Ferric wrote:

    Can’t fault the enthusiasm level, tho’…

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