Feminism and the Conflation of Men and Patriarchy

Ellen Willis is one of the founding members of Redstockings, a feminist group whose rhetoric could be seen as counterproductive to gender equality, though I fully recognize the importance of the groups extreme and frankly frighteningly accurate portrayal of contemporary patriarchal society.

Ellen Willis is one of the founding members of Redstockings, a feminist group whose rhetoric could be seen as counterproductive to gender equality, though I fully recognize the importance of the groups extreme and frankly frighteningly accurate portrayal of contemporary patriarchal society.

While there are some self-proclaimed feminists who might suggest that men can’t truly be feminists, I like to consider myself one despite the fact that I have a penis.  I am all for the advancement of women, and sexual equality and all the things it stands for.  I believe, for instance, the gender roles should not be prescribed to a given sex and that people should be allowed to explore their identity without having to fear being ostracized, whether that means a man staying at home to take care of the kids, or wearing make-up, or cooking, or a woman who wants to be a carpenter or a mechanic.  Nor should people feel like they have to step outside of prescribed genders roles that they are comfortable with.  In having conversation about such things I find one of the most troubling things about being a male feminist is the language adopted by some feminists.  The issue is that feminists often conflate men with patriarchy. 

What does it mean to conflate men with patriarchy?  Well, it is like this.  When somebody claims that patriarchy, or the patriarchal system promotes oppressive or misogynist attitudes, it means that the social structure we live in perpetuates dismissive and negative stereotypes.  Often times this is not the language that feminists use.  What some say instead is that ‘men’ promote oppressive and misogynist attitudes.  The problem here is that ‘men’ is a universally inclusive term.  It implies all men when used and this is simply not true.  Ideally it should be the patriarchal system that is attributed with perpetuating these attitudes, but even if a feminist were to write that ‘some men’ promote

Canadian Shulamith Firestone, another founding member of Redstockings.

Canadian Shulamith Firestone, another founding member of Redstockings.

misogyny, that would still be problematic in that it has an absence built into the statement.  There are women who also promote patriarchal prescriptions.  This is not an issue that is perpetuated by men exclusively.  Nor are women the exclusive victims of patriarchy.  The patriarchal system is a hierarchical system that encourages class divides and emasculate a great many men for a great many reason.  Perhaps such men are subjugated based on their class/social standing, or perhaps their sexual orientation, or perhaps their adoption of characteristics prescribed as feminine by the patriarchal system.  I am not saying that the oppression endured by these men is the same as or equal to the oppression endured by women, but I am saying that people of both genders can be victims of patriarchy just as people of both genders can serve to perpetuate oppressive patriarchal stereotypes.  To claim that “men” perform a certain act that is detrimental to women is sexist and promotes stereotypes about men and ultimately encourages the type of thinking that helps to perpetuate patriarchy.   

Valerie Solanas, author of the brilliant SCUM Manifesto.  Brilliant satiric/polemic essay?  Or tragically accurate description of gender relations in the west?

Valerie Solanas, author of the brilliant SCUM Manifesto. Brilliant satiric/polemic essay? Or tragically accurate description of gender relations in the west?

Some might have an issue with attributing oppression to an ambiguous entity like ‘patriarchy’.  There are people who need to be able to point a finger at somebody, or that need to hold somebody accountable.  It is hard to attribute our social problems to a construct, but we need to recognize where the construct gets its power.  In part the construct of patriarchy gets its power from social institutions like: schools, courts, media and legislature, but perhaps more importantly it gets its power from a social collection of people.  For example, many of us often embrace or employ language that serves to perpetuate sexist ideals without realizing it.  When we tell somebody to ‘grow a pair’, we imply that the lack of testicles, a male body part, implies an inherent lacking which in turn implies that all women are lacking.  When we use a phrase like “bend over and take it”, we imply that being penetrated implies a lack of autonomy, meaning the sex act for women is in some way self-deprecating.  When we suggest that somebody is emasculated, we imply that the masculine is the preferred state of being.  More vulgar terms like: pussy, cunt, bitch and cocksucker serve to do the same.  They are words associated with women that are meant to ‘emasculate’ the person the insults are thrown at as if being emasculated were a demerit.  This is one example of how we serve to perpetuate sexist ideals either consciously or unconsciously.  While attributing oppressive ideology to an ambiguous construct like patriarchy may seem like a sure way to transfer responsibility from individuals onto something that cannot be held accountable and in turn retard the progress of gender equality, this does not have to be the case.  We simply must recognize when speaking that it is a social system which we are collectively a part of that is the source of the oppression and the examine which elements of our daily lives can be altered to encourage change while also recognizing how the institutions we interact with need to be changed to create gender equality.  What is in appropriate is to make statements suggesting that ‘men’ are responsible for one form of oppression or act in a certain way that is counterproductive to the equality of women.  Some men may be guilty of that, even a vast majority of men, but not all men are, nor are they exclusively responsible as many women perpetuate patriarchal ideals as well.  To lump all men together is to encourage the same mentality that created the disparity in equality which we have to work to correct today.  Be careful who you are pointing your finger at, because you may be alienating a person who can serve to be a great ally while failing to recognize your own complacency in the facilitation of a system that is victimizing you.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Your final paragraph is great. However I would ask why call it the patriarchy if its supposed to be a neutral term? When so many people, both self-proclaimed feminists and anti-feminists alike, confuse it as a construct describing how it’s men’s fault, is that then not a problem with using such a loaded term? I much prefer “kyriarchy” myself and I feel it seeks to describe the same thing without creating hostility.

  2. Excellent point! I have no issue using the gendered term ‘patriarchy’, because it simply implies a political/social system where men are at the top, and though women have managed in many countries to slip into the political sphere, leadership roles are still dominated by men in both the public and private realm and often times the women who do get leadership roles have to work within the frame work of the men who came before them. Great post! Thanks for taking the time to read the article!

  3. I got a bit of a lump in my throat reading this, its good to see such a clear description of these mechanisms. I think my childhood surrounded by the radical lesbian culture of the early 70’s has made me rather sensitive to peoples use of negative gender conflation to the point that I can get confused by comments like “women drivers” the feeling I get when i hear this type of comment reminds me of the feelings i got from watching old communist propergander films I saw at school. that there is a heavy set of intrinsic rules that your outside of.
    Nice article, thank you.

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