Communicating Feminism: Letting Go of the Patriarchy?

In addition to making me want to repeatedly bash my head against some hard surface, this infuriating reddit thread got me thinking about how the language that we sometimes use in feminism might be holding us back. In this case, I am thinking specifically of the word patriarchy.

The frustrating thing about this thread is that MsNomer and SLAPtheSASSYbitch (a “charming” username that will be referred to as STSB from here on out because it’s pretty damn offensive) were saying essentially the same thing – that gender has no bearing on a person’s aptitude towards parenting, yet American court systems tend to skew towards the mother in custody cases simply because gender norms dictate that women are better caregivers.

MsNomer realizes that they are saying the exact same thing, but no matter how hard they try, STSB does not hear it. See for yourself:

The Original Point [MsNomer]: I’m sure any sane, reasonable person would agree that the parent who is most fit to take custody of the child should do so. That there is sexism in this process is not the fault of women as such, but rather it’s probably – ironically enough – the deeply entrenched patriarchal sexism that dictates mothers are better carers than fathers. Change that, and the system will follow.

The Misconception [STSB]: THIS IS FEMINISM! First, you say that the most fit parent must have the kid, so than any argument against the status quo will appear to be an argument in favor of giving custody to a less fit parent. Then you define fitness in a way that leaves no choice but to find the mother more fit. You do NOT consider 50-50. Then you say that this discrimination against men is not the fault of women, that they are just innocent victims of it. If that is not enough, you say that the reason the government destroys relationships between men and their children is because the system is biased toward men (patriarchy)! Then you propose as a remedy giving MORE advantages to women in order to ease the disadvantages of men. Fucking BRILLIANT! If you disagree, you are insane and unreasonable!

Patriarchy, in this scenario, is understood by MsNomer as a systemic bias that stands to keep powerful men in power by enforcing gender roles and social/economic/etc. limitations on the people who try to challenge them. STSB sees patriarchy as a society that always lets all men have whatever they want, no matter what. By this logic, when a woman has what he sees as an unfair advantage, it is because of a matriarchy. A little more from their conversation:

The Second Attempt [MsNomer]: It’s not necessarily true at all (I’ve known women who shouldn’t be within a 10km radius of children), but it’s the prevailing perception, not so? BECAUSE PATRIARCHY IS STILL PRETTY MUCH THE RULING PARTY JUST ABOUT EVERYWHERE.

I can’t remember when last I saw a nappy ad that showed a man changing a baby – wait, I know, it’s because I’ve never actually seen one. There’s still a stigma around men being “househusbands,” and while I shouldn’t presume to claim that some women aren’t responsible for deriding them, I can only imagine the overwhelming majority of scorn comes from other men.

As I suggested in my original post – which you apparently read through a filter designed to transform everything I say according to your own prejudice – it’s this erroneous attitude that must change. And because I obviously need to repeat things for you – by “erroneous attitude”, I do mean this idea that women are better carers. Do you understand now?

The Response [STSB]: Women are not better carers, and you are sexist for saying so regardless of why you think it is true. There is no patriarchal sexism. I agree that there is a prevailing perception that men are inferior carers. There is also a prevailing perception that gay men are pedophiles who recruit children to their lifestyle. Both are equally as credible. You know why you don’t see nappy ads featuring men? Because matriarchy is still pretty much the ruling party just about everywhere and men are kept at a distance from their children.

This is an extreme example, and the more cynical piece of me can’t help but wonder if STSB is simply being dense on purpose to get a rise out of MsNomer. However, for the sake of this post, I am going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that his reading comprehension really is that bad (which isn’t hard, since I’ve found in my own life that feminism has a tendency to drive some people to exactly this level of stubborn ignorance.)

Lets break this down: What STSB doesn’t seem to get is that patriarchy sometimes does give some women an edge in some situations (rarely, but still), like when child custody comes into question. This is because those rich men who have been influencing our opinions through laws, the media, etc. for centuries benefit from the idea that women are better caregivers and, therefore, should be obligated to say at home. Additionally, feminism doesn’t deny that patriarchy often screws over men, too, like male victims of sexual assault who are often not believed because, again, those rich men in power benefit from living in a society that believes women, as a class, are weak, and men, as a class, are strong… therefore no real man could be raped. In short, patriarchy screws all but the most privileged few over.

I get that, you likely get that… but if someone is coming to the conversation from a hostile (or even indifferent) perspective, well, they are likely to have a few STSB moments before they get it.

Which leads me to… maybe we need a new approach?

My first thought is to switch to using the (more accurate) term “kyriarchy” instead. However, field-testing has lead me to believe that trading in a highly-charged word for an academic-sounding, obscure phrase is likely to take some of the anger out of the conversation, but replace it with indifference rather than passion and interest.

Nowadays I tend to go the route of talking about gender roles and avoiding the use of shorthand, like patriarchy, to refer to systemic power structures. As in, “This is a feminist issue because feminists are interested in breaking down the stereotypical gender roles that our society enforces, gender roles that make people assume a woman will be a better parent simply because she is a woman.” I find, personally at least, it is much harder to twist this and this kind of explanation doesn’t tend to put people on the defensive. It sometimes frustrates me to have to focus so hard on stripping out all of the fun feminist phrases and terms that I have come to love… but the resulting conversations tend to be much less infuriating. (Baby steps and whatnot.)

I am really interested in hearing your approach to the confusion over patriarchyI’d love it if you’d hang out with me in the comments, and we can discuss the frustrations and successes in “communicating feminism” further!

9 replies on “Communicating Feminism: Letting Go of the Patriarchy?”

I think people get very hung up on language frequently when ‘issues’ are involved. I agree with Selena where she says “they were arguing in different worlds”. Language is so fluid and the speakers bring their own perspectives, agendas and baggage to the table that often times the language can become an obstacle for the actual discourse. I try my best not to become offended by other peoples word choice or turn of phrase (unless its downright insulting). But then I also sometimes hedge my words trying not to inadvertently insult others that I end up diluting my ideas in political correctness. It’s hard to find the balance.

I can’t say how much I appreciate this post! I agree that language can be a huge problem when trying to convert people, or trying to talk to people who aren’t as well-versed in gender studies terminology as Persephone readers are (honestly, even some of my lefty friends would roll their eyes if I started using “kyriarchy” in casual conversation). I sometimes think that third-or-whatever-wave feminism is not focused enough on WINNING–we are too focused on living up to some ideal of Truth and Rightness, which is important, but not as important as trying to make real and concrete changes happen.

It would be nice to use a new term, but chances are that anyone who is familiar with the term probably wouldn’t be defining patriarchy in completely different way than you are, thus making the new word less necessary.

I like the idea of continuing to use the term patriarchy enough in the hopes of restoring its intended meaning. But I’m not sure its worth the time it would take to peel away the stubborn layers of charged meaning. So to be realistic, I’m in favor of avoiding the term if it looks like the other person/people in the discussion are likely to have a different definition. It takes more words, but it helps clear up confusion and cut down on miscommunication. Furthermore it’s beneficial to me if I have to continually explain my views with precision rather than shorthand.

What’s interesting is that two people who agree on the problem and causes of it still manage to completely offend the other.

I think that there is a fundamental divide of language because many more women are educated formally about feminism and patriarchy and gender bias than men. I know that I’m used to hearing and thinking about the issues using the terms and ideas that MsNomer uses, because I’ve studied it in several classes (including a women’s studies class) whereas I feel that men don’t gravitate to those subjects to begin with (because they are “women’s issues”), and therefore don’t get the same primer of vocabulary and meaning that a lot of women who talk about these things work with.

As to a practical solution for the problem, I don’t know. I try to avoid getting into discussions about it with people that I don’t know well, in large part because it is so easy to offend or alienate someone, even someone who might agree with you if approached in different terms. Plus, I’m reluctant to re-define my arguments to better align with another person’s terms, because I am concerned that someone who, for example, is a virulent men’s rights (at the expense of women’s rights) activist would take it as a sign that I am conforming to the rest of their ideas and beliefs as well.

I think the crux of this particular argument is that MsN and StSB were arguing in different worlds. MsN’s talking about the big picture, StSB seems to be talking about a situation he’s going through individually. Anger, defensiveness and selective hearing aren’t gender specific, but I don’t think there’s any way she was going to change hearts and minds in that particular conversation.

I think the term “patriarchy” does trigger a lot of defensiveness to a segment of fellas, partly because they’ve never really thought about privilege, partly because they don’t feel like they have any power. Which I think we can see across all sorts of intersections in discussions about gender, sexuality, race, ability, socio-economic status and all the other ways we keep each other in boxes.

StSB is clearly an angry guy, and it seems like he’s taking his own experience with one woman to paint all women with the biggest brush he can find, I don’t know that engaging him in topics about social justice is going to do any good.

In general, I don’t know. People tend to think less the more defensive they get, in my experience. I don’t know if that changes anything for anybody.

Long comment is long, and a little disorderly.

I prefer “kyriarchy” to “patriarchy” (as TERMS, of course!) when I’m talking to people who have a shared idea of those terms. I try to stay away from either or them, though, when I’m talking to someone with whom I don’t quite see eye to eye, or I don’t know very well. I’ve found jargon-y words can make people defensive, like you’re talking down to them. I just try to talk as simply as possible. Even “feminism” and “feminist” can be charged terms, for countless reasons. I’ve found that to be true places where I wouldn’t expect (like this site, even). Why waste time arguing over the words when you can just talk about the ideas?

So basically, I’m with ya.

I completely agree that it often seems to be better to avoid jargon as much as possible when talking to people with whom you might not agree completely about issues like this one. All too often, it seems like terms like “feminist/m”, “patriarchy”, even “male-dominated” become all a person hears and provokes a reaction based on their feelings toward their perceptions of the meaning of those words rather than their actual meaning (that was convoluted! I’m sure there’s a better way to structure that sentence but I haven’t had any coffee yet).

As I was reading this piece and thinking about how it’s best to avoid these hot-button terms, though, I couldn’t help but feel that avoiding them is also problematic–how are those of us who want to communicate a better understanding of the meaning of these terms supposed to do it if we only ever use them among like-minded people? Part of the problem is that they’ve been assigned a false meaning–is this something we need to (or even can) combat by using them correctly in circles where their use may not initially appear to be productive? I’m not sure what the answer to these questions is, but it seems to me like an interesting thing to consider: to what degree to we, as feminists, have a responsibility to continue using these terms as they should be used, in order to preserve and (hopefully) share their meaning?

The best I can come up with is having a conversation without jargon, and if a considerable degree of understanding and agreement has arisen from that conversation, then introducing the word in question (e.g., patriarchy) with an explanation of how you interpret that word. If the person with whom you are speaking doesn’t like how you use that word, they’re more likely to be receptive to you explaining your definition of the word and why you use it than if you introduce the word at the start of the conversation, because if you’re already had the bulk of the conversation then they already know that you’re a reasonable person and that you share some ideological ground. That’s what I hope, at least.

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