Patriarchy: penis not required.

A Mumsnetter shared Fear of Women, Attachment to Schooling on the Mumsnet feminist theory page, and it resulted in quite an interesting thread. There was plenty of interesting criticism, but I’m going to focus one one element, which I think was a misunderstanding.

While the original poster understood the references I was making to patriarchy and power dynamics within schooling (as a teacher they were familiar from their own experience with what I was talking about regarding the inherent patriarchal nature of school), there seemed to be a lot of confusion in the thread from other posters around my use of the term ‘patriarchy’ to describe something that didn’t refer to the behaviour of ‘men’ specifically.

I thought I would write about what I mean when I use the term ‘patriarchy’ to clear that up.

Patriarchy isn’t something ‘men’ do. 

When I say patriarchy, I am using it as short hand for a power dynamic. I am not using it to describe men, or suggesting that patriarchy is something enacted only by people who identify as male.

People of any gender identity can behave in a patriarchal way. It literally doesn’t matter at all what form their genitals take, anyone can reinforce, normalise and/or behave in patriarchal ways.

So what is patriarchy then?

I use the term patriarchy to describe:

  1. A type of oppressive power dynamic in relationships.
  2. A type of oppressive power dynamic informing the structure of institutions/systems.

Relationships

Patriarchy is enacted in a relationship when a person believes that they are fundamentally more entitled to their human rights than the other person/people that they are in the relationship with.

Patriarchal behaviour diminishes the experience, voice and agency of the other person. It renders them as less of a person than the person behaving patriarchally.

A person behaving patriarchally acts as if their opinion matters more, that they are entitled to do things to the other person/people without their consent. They believe themselves to be a fundamentally more important person, to be superior to the others. Their behaviour diminishes the autonomy and status of the people they in relationship with.

Institutions/systems

Patriarchal systems reinforce the concept of patriarchy, by creating an environment in which some people are treated as people more than others.

If we take the school environment as an example, one manifestation of patriarchy is students having to use sub standard toilet facilities, while the adults in the space are afforded higher quality toilets and privacy.

Patriarchy is visible in school when teachers assume privilege and authority over their students which requires that students are restricted to a submissive and inferior role.

Patriarchy in relationships and systems is in no way limited to school environments or teacher student relationships. The patriarchal model for relationships and systems is normalised and well embedded across virtually all of society, particularly in the family and in the relationships between parents and children, but also in work environments, and in Government. We live within a patriarchal system – schooling is one aspect and manifestation of that.

Why use ‘patriarchy’ if you aren’t talking about men specifically?

Historically, patriarchal behaviour has been seen as a key characteristic of male identity. Traditionally men performed patriarchy.

Now, patriarchy is not owned by men. It is a power game that can be played regardless of gender. Take Miss Trunchbull for example. It’s the action of oppression that identifies patriarchy, not whether someone has a penis or not. So, regardless of any perceived progress in terms of gender equality or any other social equality, the dynamic of ‘power over’ – patriarchy – remains, and continues to be normalised and perpetuated across society from birth, into infinity and beyond.

To deconstruct patriarchy,  we first need to recognise it as being, fundamentally, the misuse of power over others. We then need to deconstruct that misuse of power from our relationships and systems, and replace it with something rooted in mutual respect and dignity.

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