KOREA COLUMN 36
Problems of Patriarchy Theory
In every society in the world today women are socially subordinate to men. Obviously the degree of this differs from place to place, but the basic pattern is universal: the majority of top positions in business, the state and the professions are occupied by men; men, on average, own a lot more wealth and have higher earnings than women; women are subject to significant and disproportionate amounts of physical violence and sexual assault; women perform the bulk of housework and childcare, which restricts their ability to participate equally in the wider society.
What explains this state of affairs? The conservative explanation, which fundamentally remains dominant in the world, despite lip service to equality, is at the same time a justification of male domination. It is that this is the natural order of things, and therefore always has been the case and always will be the case. The very crudest versions of this explanation focus on physical differences, on alleged male superiority in physical strength, but more common is the claim that men are genetically, or in some other way, psychologically programmed to be active, aggressive, competitive and dominant, while women are programmed to be passive, and subordinate.
The main alternative i.e. the most widely known and held, to this conservative human nature view, is what is generally known as ‘patriarchy’ theory. Patriarchy theory aims and claims to be not a justification but a critique of male supremacy, and, in some form or other, is subscribed to by many, indeed probably a majority of, feminists round the world today.
There are two main problems with patriarchy theory. The first is its numerous different versions, and extreme vagueness and shapelessness, which make it very difficult to pin down. (It should be noted that in some areas of life, especially the academic world, this indeterminacy constitutes a definite advantage.) The second is that in so far as it is possible to identify in patriarchy theory certain specific propositions, they turn out to be remarkably similar to the conservative explanation – simply putting a minus sign where the conservative view put a plus.
The word ‘patriarchy’ is Ancient Greek in origin and means literally ‘father rule’. The term was first used by anthropologists to describe family structures (and thus societies) in which the father/ male head of the family held more or less absolute power over all other family members, including other adult males. But this is not how it is used in modern feminism. Rather than referring specifically to father rule, patriarchy has come to mean simply ‘rule by men’. And here we see an obvious difficulty – explaining male domination by the rule of men is hardly an advance even if you use a Greek word for the purpose. So what, according to patriarchy theory, is the cause of, the reason for, male rule?
Unfortunately there is no generally accepted answer to this question. Some feminists would undoubtedly say simply ‘Men!’ In other words they would claim that there is something inherent in the genetic or psychological make up of (all/most) men that leads them to oppress women, which is what I mean by the similarity with the conservative view. It is as if one asked why were black people enslaved in America from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century and then, faced with the answer that it was because it was in black people’s nature to be slaves, indignantly replied ‘No, it is because it is the nature of whites to be slave owners.’
At this point it is important to understand that patriarchy theory was developed, in the late sixties and seventies, largely in dialogue with and opposition to the Marxist explanation of women’s oppression. The women’s liberation movement, as it was then called, arose from within the pre existing radical movements in the US, partly in response to continued male domination in the society, but also partly in response to the sexist treatment of women within the movement itself. Many of the leading lights and theorists of the women’s movement were critical of Marxism partly because they felt that Marxism had tended to neglect the issue of women’s oppression, but also because, as middle class women aspiring to careers in the media and academia, they were instinctively uneasy about a theory that put so much emphasis on working class struggle.
The arguments went roughly like this. Marxism claims that women’s oppression is caused by capitalism and only socialism will liberate women, but in fact women’s oppression is much older than capitalism and continues in post- capitalist/ socialist societies such as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea etc. Marxism says that it is the ruling class who oppress women but in fact all women, including ruling class and middle class women are oppressed, and all men, including working class men , oppress women . Marxism explains women’s oppression in terms of economics and class exploitation but in fact there is an independent ideological element in sexism, which can be traced back to the Bible/ Confucius etc. From these arguments it followed that Marxism was not able to account for the oppression of women, that male power existed separately and independently of capitalist class power, and that therefore the struggle for women’s equality had to be waged separately from the struggle for socialism. These, or propositions like these, became the key ideas of what is now thought of as ‘patriarchy theory’.
In reality these criticisms of Marxism were largely responses to Stalinism not genuine Marxism (as in the question of Russia etc) or else based on misinterpretations of Marxist theory (e.g. Marxism never claimed women’s oppression originated with capitalism), but leaving that aside, the effect developing negatively in this way was that patriarchy theory failed to produce its own positive, coherent explanation of the root causes of women’s oppression and instead, almost without realising it, fell back in the end on the old human/male nature view.
Thus, if the ideology of sexism exists independently of class divisions and class exploitation, where does it come from? From the nature of the male priests, philosophers and scribes who wrote the old books and sacred texts. If male power exists independently of class power then, fundamentally, this is because of the power hungry nature of men. Why will the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a classless socialist society not liberate women? Because men will continue to oppress women. Why? Because they are men , it’s in their nature … and so on.
The ultimate defect of patriarchy theory is not that it maligns Marxism, or socialists, or working class men, or even men in general, but that it offers no serious prospect for women’s liberation. If male power is not only universal but historically transcendent, and if all men, more or less, are sexist, and those same men control the bulk of the world’s wealth and production, as they do, and the key positions of power, as they do, and the guns, as they do, and if working class men are not potentially the allies of women, and if even a socialist revolution won’t end male domination, then what on earth will?
This is why, in practice, patriarchy theory has so often served as a cover for accommodation to the system and acquiescence in women’s oppression., becoming a ‘radical sounding phrase bandied about by middle class feminists whose real agenda is little more than pursuing their own careers within capitalism – more women MPs, more women professors, more women executives etc – and who have abandoned any thought of real emancipation for the working class majority of women.
25 May 2008