A Misunderstanding about "Patriarchy"

by John Spritzler

May 27, 2013

We need to talk about this word "patriarchy" because it's a loaded word that affects one's thinking about how to resist the forces of inequality and oppression and make a more equal and democratic world. I will focus on the word as it is applied to the contemporary United States. A good place to start is by taking a close look at an article in the Atlantic titled "America Is Still a Patriarchy." The author is Philip Cohen. Cohen apparently enjoys a reputation as a feminist in good standing. In his article he writes, "I have been described as part of a 'feminist academic establishment' that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in 'data wars' over the details of gender inequality." Cohen's feminist credentials also include the fact that the feminist blog "Man boobz" promoted him, writing on May 11, "In addition, here are some posts by sociologist Philip Cohen challenging many of Rosin’s claims, as well as more general posts of his on gender inequality." Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, and seems to pay a lot of attention to the actual data. For all of these reasons I think it is reasonable to take Cohen's claim that "America is Still a Patriarchy" and the arguments he makes for it as fairly representative of a viewpoint that many other feminists, who use the word "patriarchy" to describe American society, share.

Cohen's argument for why America is still a patriarchy is essentially as follows:

  1. The United States is ruled by men. Top economic and political leaders are men and "the higher you look the maler it gets."
  2. "Among U.S.-born married women, only 6 percent had a surname that differed from their husband's in 2004 (it was not until the 1970s that married women could even function legally using their 'maiden' names)." [Cohen offers this as the only evidence for his statement that "I'm confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal," which comes immediately after this sentence: "In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held."]

The interesting thing about Cohen's argument is how brief it is (and Atlantic articles are not generally so brief) considering that Cohen is a professional sociologist with access to lots and lots of relevant data about American society. Yet the two points above are the only ones he makes to establish that America is still a patriarchy. The rest of his article gives illustrations of how the patriarchy is indeed weakening (more women than men vote, and the candidates who win are those favored by women and opposed by men, and more women are single mothers independent of men) with his claim that it's still a patriarchy.

Clearly the only relevant point in Cohen's argument is his first one, because even Cohen himself admits that "If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy." In other words the mere fact that most women take the surname of their husband would, by itself, hardly justify calling a society a patriarchy.


The Big Misunderstanding

Here's where the misunderstanding about "patriarchy" comes in. It has a slippery meaning. Does it mean a) "a society ruled by men" or b) "a society ruled by men for the benefit of men--all men"? Notice that Cohen provides evidence for the former being a proper description of the United States, but absolutely no evidence for the latter. Is Cohen the feminist saying merely the former and denying the latter? Or is he saying that if the former is true it follows authomatically that the latter must also be true? What if Cohen knows that the former is true but the latter is NOT true, but he is willing to let his readers misunderstand him and conclude that his evidence for the former also should be taken as evidence for the latter? That would be a big misunderstanding, no? But that is exactly the big misunderstanding that prevails when the word "patriarchy is used."

Practically everybody today in the United States who uses the word "patriarchy," and practically everybody who hears the word being used even if they don't use the word themself, interprets it to mean not just a society "ruled by men" but a society ruled by men "for the benefit of men--all men." The word also conveys to practically everybody today that in a patriarchy men--all men--benefit at the expense of the wrongful oppression of women. This part of the meaning of "patriarchy" is understood, as implied by the word, without it being necessary for the person using the word to say it explicitly. It is entirely to be expected that people would take this meaning from the word because the word is used to characterize the fundamental nature of power in society and because the word is all about gender, based on combining the Greek words for "father" and "rule."

There is a big muddle of thinking that envelops the word "patriarchy." To see the muddle clearly, do this little thought experiment. Imagine a slave society. Except for a small class of slave owners, everybody--regardless of their gender--is a slave. The slaves are all oppressed horribly, whipped to make them slave all day, fed scraps of garbage, sexually assaulted by the slave owners, terrible terrible. The slave owners, interestingly, are all men. Is this a "patriarchy"? It meets all the requirements that Cohen requires for it to be called a patriarchy. But would it be a good idea to call it a patriarchy, with the implied meaning that it is a society in which "men--all men" benefit from the fact that "men rule the society"? Obviously not!

So why then does the Atlantic publish an article with the title "America Is Still a Patriarchy" that does not even make an effort to show that "men--all men" (or even "most men") benefit from the fact that "men rule the society"? I discuss the answer to this question elsewhere here, where I provide evidence that most men in the United States do NOT benefit from the fact that power in the United States is held by the "powers that be," regardless of the fact that it is mostly men at the top of the power structure. And I discuss how the oppressive ruling class in the United States uses divide and rule to strengthen its power over and oppression of both ordinary men and women, and specifically uses, among other forms of divide and rule, a form called "misandry," which pits men and women against each other by persuading women that "men--all men" are their enemy, the cause of all the injustices they experience.

The problem with power in the United States is that ordinary people--men and women both--do not have the real power in society. In the United States money is power and most people don't have any (or enough to matter.) The reason most good and decent people don't like patriarchy is a good reason; it isn't because they want a ruling class that is all (or more) female but still dominating other people in a very unequal society. And it isn't because they want a society of haves and have-nots where each of these groups is half men and half women. No, it is because they want genuine equality among all people, without some being rich and others poor--an egalitarian society. To make our society egalitarian we need to start Thinking about Revolution.