As part of his ‘New Left’ series, Dan Fisher explores how we can define sexism and patriarchy and how these forces have shaped and continue to shape our world.
Many people are familiar with the term ‘patriarchy’, whether it is used seriously to describe the various systems of male domination that exist across the world, or used ironically to mock feminist concerns.
Although the western world is still largely male dominated, we should be able to make a distinction between circumstances in which women are not legally equal to men, and circumstances in which we have achieved legal equality, but widespread prejudice allows discrimination to remain regardless.
I therefore recommend we reserve the term patriarchy for the legal and economic institutions which oppress women, and use terms such as sexism, misogyny and so on to describe social discrimination. Since rights as discussed in previous articles remain unrecognised throughout the western world, many women are still compelled to participate in patriarchal systems, though the vast majority merely suffer from social discrimination. As before, we can analyse this in terms of ignorance, fear, ideology and institution.
The purpose of patriarchy, much the same as with capitalism and imperialism, is to extract physical and social labour, or inherent value, from the female body. All those without the land and resources to sustain themselves face exploitation, but women, due to the physical reality of their bodies, may suffer this in unique ways.
Patriarchal systems work by allowing men to have some degree of control over women’s bodies. By defining the rules by which men can ‘access’ the bodies of women, the rulers control women’s bodies in order to control men as well. This control manifests in several ways. It works in part by exploiting the differences in strength and size between many men and women. In order for men and women to be equal, women must be able to fully trust men to never use that inherent power differential to coerce them. Even if the man ultimately possesses only good intentions, a tiny amount of fear can be enough to make the interactions between a man and woman potentially unequal. The awareness that the man could potentially do her harm may affect the way she approaches the interaction, even between equals or subordinates. As long as a woman believes she does not enjoy full, unconditionally guaranteed rights to her own bodily autonomy, she is vulnerable to potential exploitation.
“The awareness that the man could potentially do her harm may affect the way she approaches the interaction, even between equals or subordinates. As long as a woman believes she does not enjoy full, unconditionally guaranteed rights to her own bodily autonomy, she is vulnerable to potential exploitation.”
And this is the case in other ways as well. Old forms of patriarchy relied partially on women’s ability to get pregnant and give birth. This was connected to old forms of imperialism, both in aristocracy and slavery. The control of women is necessary to ensure that the bloodlines are pure – her children must be ‘legitimate’, so that the distinction between rulers and subjects is maintained. Women become subject to control in order to ensure this.
One way of maintaining this control is through financial dependence. In some cases, women were prevented or discouraged from entering the workforce, in order to ‘look after the home and the children’. In the case of working class women, because their labour was necessary to support a family, they would also work outside the home–but being paid less for the same work would in itself tip the balance towards dependency on men. A woman would therefore face potential destitution even if she were legally, socially and physically able to leave her husband.
Since this kind of patriarchy rests upon the ability of the female body to produce and breastfeed children, men must necessarily be at least physically close to a woman in order to extract that value. Furthermore, the very institution of the nuclear family brings women and men into coexistence as wife and husband, sister and brother, daughter and son. Therefore patriarchy must work particularly hard to segregate men and women in other areas of life. The most patriarchal societies are the ones which most successfully cut off women from wider society.
Although this kind of scenario is still present in the western world, the establishment itself has moved on. Modern western patriarchy focuses on women’s bodies not as a fundamental element of male property but as a good or service to be ‘rented’. In much the same way as old patriarchal societies allowed men to own a woman only if they followed religious rules and certain laws, modern forms of patriarchy portray women’s bodies as a reward for appropriate masculine behaviour, or even simple financial wealth.
” In much the same way as old patriarchal societies allowed men to own a woman only if they followed religious rules and certain laws, modern forms of patriarchy portray women’s bodies as a reward for appropriate masculine behaviour, or even simple financial wealth.”
Men are sold products to enhance their ability to obtain a woman’s body (or are simply sold access to a woman’s body directly), and women are sold products to enhance the value of their body. The social control is still present but more subtle. Men are encouraged to demand the most physically appealing and feminine woman, and women are encouraged to demand men of highest social status, which does include physical features but also factors in many other elements. This serves to bring patriarchy into line with modern capitalism in which aristocracy is maintained through means other than simple male line descent.
The enforcement of social norms still goes beyond simple sexual selection, however. Harassment and even physical violence is still experienced amongst those who choose to defy gender roles. In a similar way to the maintenance of social status under capitalism, everyone under patriarchy experiences a form of anxiety due to the expectations placed on them by the gender assigned to their sex. This anxiety causes a form of backlash when exposed to those who defy their appointed roles, threatening to disrupt the established order and potentially impacting on their own social status. In fact, in hierarchical systems, one way of maintaining social status in itself is to mete out punishment to those of lower status.
Where the sexes are still segregated in social situations, ignorance will inevitably develop. This segregation can happen due to strongly gendered marketing and unspoken assumptions and social expectations, or can be directly enforced by legal or religious structures. A strong distinction between the culture experienced by men and that experienced by women will create a social divide that fosters ignorance. We should encourage safe and positive mixing of the sexes, bearing in mind situations that require their separation, especially while men present a greater threat to women than vice versa. Where men and women do already interact in these societies, particularly in relationships, we should make sure that people have access to sex education and helpful relationship advice. Criticising and challenging the depictions of men and women both separately and while together is necessary to help break out of our negative social attitudes.
“A strong distinction between the culture experienced by men and that experienced by women will create a social divide that fosters ignorance.”
It would be remiss to discuss the impact of fear in maintaining hierarchy without again mentioning the very rational fears that many women have about men, since men pose a far greater danger. However, since this is rational or at least understandable, what we must tackle first is that danger which men pose to women, rather than encouraging women to get over their fears.
Given that, we must focus on, surprisingly enough, the fear which women cause in men.
“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” – Margaret Atwood
This relates back to the previous sections in which we talked about social status and the system of exploitation. Since the purpose of patriarchy is to extract labour and materials from women, a man’s status at least partially depends upon what he can extract from women. Therefore, in a society in which women have at least some power of choice and decision making, one of the greatest fears a man can have for his social standing is to face rejection from women, and thus be unable to achieve social status as an exploiter.
As long as men crave social status from the submission of women, they will continue to fear them, and in fearing them, seek to control and cause violence to them as a way of mitigating that fear. Therefore it is imperative that allied men build a new social culture which rejects the domination of women and instead celebrates mutual respect, equality, friendship and love. Not only will this serve to help liberate women from male violence, but it also frees men from at least the internal pressures to conform to their expected social roles.
“As long as men crave social status from the submission of women, they will continue to fear them, and in fearing them, seek to control and cause violence to them as a way of mitigating that fear.”
The ideology of sexism is a belief in fundamental irreconcilable behavioural differences between male and female brains, which naturally justify a segregated society–in general, the one that currently exists or a more severe version thereof. In recent times this has been elaborated on via the concept of ‘gender’; rather than explaining this difference purely in terms of biology, postmodern interpretations rely on the invention of some kind of male & female ‘essence’ which can, though an accident of birth, be transferred into the ‘opposite’ kind of body. This is a very standard way in which ideologies become more flexible in order to maintain their hegemony– the creation of release valves which justify the existence of people outside common social norms. This is so common that it can be found in cultures all over the world–a box in which to put people who do not neatly fit into the ordinary boxes. For some reason, this approach, including the examples from other cultures, is being touted as the progressive solution to sexism, whereas in reality it is merely sexism’s response to progressive critique.
“This is a very standard way in which ideologies become more flexible in order to maintain their hegemony– the creation of release valves which justify the existence of people outside common social norms.”
As in the previous article on racism, we can again divide sexism into two forms, benevolent and malevolent. As before, we should remember that such classifications represent the way they are presented and do not reflect their impact on the individuals who experience them.
‘Benevolent’ sexism argues that the two sexes are simply naturally suited towards different social roles, and that everyone should accept this and take their appropriate place in the hierarchy. ‘Malevolent’ sexism argues that one of the sexes is fundamentally evil or ‘lesser’ in nature and must be subject to coercion to suppress their nature. This can also be referred to as ‘misogyny’. The old, conservative form of sexism was a combination of both malevolent and benevolent forms. This is otherwise known as ‘the virgin-whore’ dichotomy. Women are either pure, delicate beings who must be protected, or vile seductresses who use men’s desire for their bodies as a weapon. Modern forms of sexism also come in both benevolent and malevolent varieties. The benevolent assumption is that men and women inherently prefer different things, including products and social roles. The malevolent version is, unfortunately, much the same as it was in centuries past, but given new life amongst socially alienated men who give themselves such names as ‘Men Going Their Own Way’, ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ or even ‘Incels‘.
The ideology of sexism is spread through the media, social pressure and many forms of religious preaching. In order to counter all kinds of sexism we must reinforce the notion that women’s bodies exist to serve the purposes of the women inhabiting them and nobody else. Encouraging communities of women who support each other against male supremacy, men who support each other in resisting the pressure to subjugate women, and healthy intermingling between the sexes–along with jointly fighting back against the forces which would propagate oppression–will continue the momentum already established by the many brave and brilliant feminist activists and writers of the past and present.
The oppression of women can only be overcome when power has been redistributed in society in such a way that nobody’s socioeconomic status depends on maintaining inequality between the sexes.