There are many people within our society who are genuinely ignorant about how patriarchy is at the core of the oppression of gender, race, and class. While many Americans believe oppression ended with women’s suffrage in 1919, and civil rights movements in 1954, closer examination evidences the patriarchy’s system of power, which established concepts of the ‘opposite sex’ and ‘others’, still oppresses many minorities in contemporary society. In honor of Women's Equality Day, as a woman, I extend the day to all gender-nonconforming individuals who are also deserving of equality. Happy Gender Equality Awareness Day. While we wait for each individual gender variance to get their own awareness day, I am happy to extend the use of Women's Equality Day as a platform for awareness.
What is Patriarchy?
Anthropologist Leacock defines patriarchy as females roles being those of the domestic household such as chores and caring for children, whereas the male responsibilities are found outside of the home in the more powerful public spheres such as politics, religious leaders, and providers for the family2. Similarly, WSU’s Anthropology Department states patriarchy is the “rigid dichotomization of genders is a means of perpetuating the domination of females by males and patriarchal institutions”1. Johnson delineates that patriarchy is a system defined as an “it,” rather than being an individual, or even a group of individuals, that dictates social rules. Such as how individuals interact with each other from the perspective of gender roles3.
The core resemblance between these individuals’ definitions, is the overall acceptance of a social structure consisting of power imbalance between men and women. Positions of privilege and domination are procured prominently by heterosexual, cis-gendered, white males, with anyone outside of that label being considered conceptually as an ‘other’ to be excluded from the benefits of patriarchy.
“Above all, patriarchal culture is about the core value of control and domination in almost every area of human existence. From the expression of emotion to economics to the natural environment, gaining and exercising control is a continuing goal”.3 This powerful quote encapsulates the very essence of patriarchy.
With a binary gender division between masculinity and femininity, there are fewer obstacles to power and control. In a patriarchal society, there are two genders: male and female. Any variances from the traditional dichotomy are considered conceptually ‘deviant.’ Men are expected to embody the ideology of masculinity. Men are to be strong physically, tough mentally, independent, and protective providers, who are in constant control of their emotions. Men who oppose the traditional depiction of masculinity are undermined and accused of being gay/homo. Conversely, women are envisaged to be weak, docile, dependent on men, their careers to be secondary to their husband’s pursuits, and domestic homemakers with aspirations of children. Women who oppose the defined roles are viewed as deviant and require education regarding their place in society.
When the concept of patriarchy is critically examined to the base desire for control and a historical standpoint is taken into perspective, the lines between oppression and the inclination of dominance become transparent.
Patriarchy Through Time
With a goal to oppress, patriarchy has constructed gender roles that permeate through time, and continue to be prevalent.
In rural Greece, men believed women are not in control of themselves. They are sexually promiscuous, emotional, irresolute decision makers, and have an overall passive demeanor.4
In the early 1600s, Lieutenant Nun was an intersexual individual who caused quite the controversy around their gender as they didn’t conform to the normal binary expectations of one gender or another. Nun is a historical example of patriarchal benefits. In the embodiment of masculine gender identity, opportunities were available to them that wouldn’t have been an option during that time. Their career in the military wouldn’t have been possible as a non-binary person, or even as a cis-gendered woman. The Pope himself gave Nun permission to live as they saw fit, but the discrimination and oppression persisted.5
Starting in the mid to late 1900s, print and film media were used to influence these prescribed rules. Historically, with European reactions to rebellion, if women had been defiant against patriarchal expectations, they likely would have been oppressed further and dominated minorities into further subjugation.5
Contextually, it is important to remember women’s suffrage was in the 1920s. Narratives of women and gender non-conforming individuals testing the social structures of power, whether fictional or historical, empower variant audiences by encouraging resistance and autonomy. Spanish colonial ideas of gender that subscribe to a patriarchal society, could be responsible for the near-erasure of non-binary people. As their ideas of gender are binary, male and female, they leave out anyone identifying as anything different from those definitions such as non-binary individuals, transgendered people, the intersexual community, and other gender non-conforming variances.
Currently, there are an estimated 1 in 100 births that result in an intersexual birth where the infant possesses genitals that deviate from the binary gender norms. Doctors are quick to surgically alter these infants and assign them a gender in an attempt to keep their adherence to ‘normal genitals’6 obviously in an attempt to eliminate ‘others’. This is a perfect example of the exclusion of anyone that doesn't fit into the binary system.
Religion’s Place in Patriarchy
When considering the historical aspects of an anthropological framework, religion is a contributing factor. The arrival of Spanish colonialism brought disease and warfare, but they also brought their way of doing things. The two main institutions the Spanish colonials used were the Crown and the Catholic church. Both of them had patriarchal views supported by the gender norms they were instilling in various indigenous cultures.
Without a separation of church and state, the Spanish government instilled laws that served their own purposes of converting people to Catholicism. One law described migrating people from their homes into towns so preachers could have easier access to teach them their ways. The villages were conveniently placed in areas where Europeans could use them as laborers.
In the Christian and Catholic religions, there is one deity, which is male. There is no female presence, and in the story of the creation of man, women are depicted as having been created as a “helper” to man. The indigenous people the Spanish were spreading Catholicism to were from various religious backgrounds, most of which had both female and male deities that didn’t subscribe to the patriarchal view of gender.5 Through colonialism, these views were pushed and eventually accepted as 'natural.'
It’s not just the Christians and Catholics that share these oppressive views. In rural Turkey, their god is also male and similar to contemporary American ideologies, men are the cause of life, while women are the vessels that give birth to the life men provide.7
Perspectives Can Shift
There is evidence ideologies are adjusting and deviations from the binary structure are becoming more accepted. “Modern sexuality has become something to be managed not merely by the Catholic church or by the state, but by individuals themselves”.8 This author was before their time when they wrote this as homosexuality wasn’t removed from the Diagnostic Statistic Manual until 2013.
Before that time, homosexuality was seen as a mental health disorder. Contemporarily, transgendered and non-binary individuals struggle with this same dilemma of their gender variance being classified as an illness suggesting they can be cured, despite that not being a desire gender non-conforming individuals generally face.
While ideologies are adjusting and becoming more accepting, they have a long way to go before equality, awareness, and acceptance are common occurrences in the typical American community.
It can be difficult to break the indoctrinated beliefs of what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural,’ accepting a general viewpoint of one way being ‘right’ or ‘good’ and another being ‘wrong’ or ‘bad,’ allows the archaic system to persist in which the only people who truly benefit from this hierarchy are cis-gendered, heterosexual, white males. Everyone else gets trickle benefits when it is convenient and advantageous for men.
If a community free of the crippling effects of patriarchy is desired, these principles need to be examined and challenged. Accepting something as ‘natural’ is acceptance of something else as ‘unnatural,’ causing division and oppression. Anytime something is categorized, in essence, it’s being labeled, and essentially a rating of desirability. When things are labeled and judgments are created, ostracism of minorities falls outside of the ‘in-group’ and is deemed, by no individual in particular, as the societal norm.
Once the system has been created, as the system of patriarchy has been, it is difficult to dismantle. “In the context of European racial and class-based masculinity, where only financially independent white men had full citizenship rights and everyone else was a legal and political dependent, even allowing slave men entry into the category of manhood could be a radical act [in the 1800s]”.5 This reference depicts a historical pattern where masculinity was challenged, and the notion wasn’t accepted by the dominant culture.
A modern example of this was when Roe vs. Wade was overturned. The supreme court claimed that the basis on which Roe vs Wade was passed, that a woman has the right to abort a fetus, wasn’t founded in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The 14th Amendment states that all people born in America are to be given rights as citizens. The claim is that women are removing these rights from fetuses before they are born. However, the act of granting the embryo rights denies the mother the same rights, and more, which she has already been granted.9 By infringing on the autonomous decision-making of women, there continue to be inequities and oppression created across gender and ethnicity.
How We All Participate in Patriarchy
The insidious nature of patriarchy is that individuals are indoctrinated into the cultural belief system prior to gaining awareness of the system. “To argue that women or workers do not participate is to render them powerless and irrelevant to patriarchy’s and capitalism’s past and future, for it is only as participants that people can affect anything”.3
Once participation activities are identified, the behaviors can be changed which over time, leads to the path of least resistance adjusting. Modern patriarchal participation examples include gender reveal parties, subscribing to gendered chores around the house and with the family, gender presentation, and calling out anything that is different than the perceived ‘normal.’
By participating in a societal ‘normal,’ women, gender non-conforming individuals, racial minorities, disabled individuals, and neurodivergents are all oppressed creating a sense of ‘others.’
Prison is another system that perpetuates the greater system of patriarchy. It is designed to oppress and enslave (free labor in prisons and prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color). Given that most rich white people get out of punishments by the incarceration system, it is clearly designed to subdue the very people the patriarchy wishes to control.
Similarly, patriotism was taught in schools to encourage loyalty to the state during the land grab before World War I, the individuals feeling justified in their brutal acts are using the patriarchal ideology imparted to them by patriotism, both in the carceral world and in war10. Within the context that laws are created with power and control in mind, that patriotism is taught in schools, and wars are started for national power gains, changes can only be made if the path of least resistance is continually challenged and therefore changed slowly over time.
The antiquated notions behind patriarchy are allowed to persist over time as a result of limited education regarding why the system exists. The patriarchal beliefs are ingrained so firmly that there are people who oppose the notion of equality with a perception that people seeking equality are jealous and that their actions are built out of envy. This theory dismisses all egalitarian theories and places the blame of action against oppression on psychological motivation. This theory also evidences one of the consequences of the patriarchal hierarchy and how it oppresses minorities.
In order to effectively enact change in a patriarchal society, more education needs to be disseminated regarding the detrimental effects of the patriarchy and informed courses of action need to be taken. Additionally, increasing education regarding colonialism will allow individuals to witness how the patriarchy has robbed numerous cultures of any aspect of the culture that did not fit into the patriarchal beliefs. Any campaign that is created to address the effects of the patriarchy does need to contest individuals who fear losing the system and those who benefit from the system. The abolishment of oppression and the formation of true equality requires the deconstruction of the patriarchy.
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9. Coen-Sanchez, K., Ebenso, B., El-Mowafi, I. M., Berghs, M., Idriss-Wheeler, D., & Yaya, S. Repercussions of overturning Roe v. Wade for women across systems and beyond borders. Reproductive Health 19, 184 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12978-022-01490-y
7. Delaney C. (1991). The seed and the soil: Gender and cosmology in Turkish village society. University California Press.
6. Fausto-Sterling, A. (1993). The 5 sexes: Why male and female are not enough. The Sciences, 20-24.
4. Herzfeld, M. (1991). Silence, Submission, and Subversion: Toward a Poetics of Womanhood. In P. Loizos & E. Papataxiarchis (Ed.), Contested Identities: Gender and Kinship in Modern Greece. Princeton: Princeton University Press. https://doi.org/10.1515/9781400884384-005
3. Johnson, A. G. (2010). Patriarchy, the system: An it, not a he, a them, or an us. Iowa State University ILL 68-76.
8. Parker S., & Parker H.(1992). Male gender identity in the Israeli Kibbutz: Reflections on protest masculinity. Ethos 20(3) 340-57.
5. Phoenix, K. (2021). Gender rules: Identity and empire in historical perspective. Oxford University Press.
10. Spohnholz, J. (2021). Ruptured lives: Refugee crisis in historical perspective. Oxford University Press.
1. Washington State University Anthropology Department. (n.d.). Anthropology of gender and age.
2. Washington State University Anthropology Department. (n.d.). Gender and sexuality as history.