The Rhetoric of Patriarchy

I’ve been having a bit of an argument with a Bitch about the correct use of the word “patriarchy”. She’s been very interested in arguing that patriarchy is worthless as an idea, and to present those arguments she uses “patriarchy” in the sense that radical feminists have used it, as well as people like Heidi Hartmann who tried to establish patriarchy as a parallel system to capitalism: a system of sex/gender oppression that operates according to its own rules, which are at least partly independent of the societies in which it appears. Like economics, but with more rape.

My point has been that only a minority of people actually use the word “patriarchy” in this way, and if you tell them that by “patriarchy” they actually mean “something which operates according to universal laws of gender oppression” they are quite justified in staring at you as if you are from the Moon.

I’ve also tried to make the point that “patriarchy” has a connotation of structural-level oppression that words like “sexism” lack, but I’m going to concede that one – emphasizing the structural nature of sexism without using special structural words isn’t actually that difficult. I still think “patriarchy” connotes something “sexist oppression” doesn’t, but I’m having trouble pinning it down: pervasiveness, maybe, or a personal connection to what might otherwise seem quite abstract.

When talking about what words mean, I think it’s most important to look at how they’re used in the wild. And when we’re talking about what words mean in a specific subcultural context (e.g., feminist bloggers) we need to look at examples from that subculture. One of the shiniest examples of how I see “patriarchy” used by contemporary feminists is in a post at Alas, A Blog summarizing various strands of feminism:

While libfems agree with radfems that sexual violence and exploitation are serious problems, libfems are less likely to put SVAX at the center of their analysis of patriarchy.

In this post, Ampersand is clearly not using “patriarchy” as a term that’s associated with any particular beliefs about the status or details of sexist oppression. Rather, he’s using it as a deliberately vague description of feminists’ common enemy: sexism, sex/gender oppression, systemic gender whatchamacallit, whatever. Using a term that connotes something structural and pervasive is consistent with Amp’s view that ideologies which focus on a woman’s freedom of choice, without critically examining the weight of cultural expectations and economic reality (e.g., Wendy McElroy), aren’t really feminist.

This use of the term is echoed by others:

I totally agree that neither side of the libertine – anti-sex divide answers the relevant questions, if it refuses to look at the way that sex is tied into patriarchy (and other systems of oppression), and that patriarchy (and other systems of oppression) is tied into sex.

[T]he right of men to love men is linked to the right of men to be free from the demands patriarchy places on them; gay-bashing is a crime against men who dare to be unmasculine.

And lots of people use it as an ideological black box with an extra serving of irony:

“I’m a fully entitled, blissfully unaware, card-carrying member of the Patriarchy, after all…”

“The problem with these sort of internecine conflicts is that they waste energy that could be better spent fighting your common enemy, the Judean People’s Fro-I mean, the patriarchy.”

I think this is also why the term is so popular among antifeminists: extra irony for that “no one takes these people seriously” factor – and because it’s a black box it can hold a wide variety of strawfeminisms.

Anyway, I intended to pull together all these quotes to support the idea that “patriarchy” is a convenient black box that:

  • Looks good on bumper stickers
  • Allows feminists to sweep arguments about social theory under the rug, if we deem it necessary

I still believe that, but when I went mining for supporting quotes, I noticed that this use of “patriarchy” is predominantly male. Every single one of the quotes I pulled out as serious, black box uses of the term, including a few that I pulled and then deleted later, came from men. To be fair, there were some like this one from Jill that I thought about, but didn’t think made good sound bites – even so, female authors were a minority. When I saw women using the word, it was mostly because they were either committed to a radical or quasi-radical feminism, caricaturing another school of feminism, or drenched in self-deprecating irony (most of my own use falls into this last category – I think about patriarchy as a synonym for sex/gender oppression, but apparently never get around to talking about it that way).

So instead of arguing for the place of “patriarchy” in the vernacular, I ask you: what the fuck? Am I seeing something real, or just artefacts of my own cherrypicking procedure?

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