Jan 052013
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I want to ask a radical question, what if the patriarchal society of our time was a female invention ? Imagine for a second the world of our ancestors a long time ago – a few hundred thousand years in fact – before the first of us ever left the African continent. The usual assumption is that these societies became patriarchal due to the physical dominance of men (on average), but what if it was the other way around ?  What if women, the objects of desire and veneration (for their ability to bear children – something that survived until quite recently in paganist societies) had demanded the men take the roles of guardians  ? The world was a very dangerous place back then, the vast majority of children born did not survive infancy, predators roamed around and even the prey humans themselves fed on was dangerous as most of it was much larger than we were and well armed (it's a documented fact that Neanderthal people hunted mammoths – probably by using fire to scare the herds into a panic and chase them over cliff faces. I don't know about you but I think a herd of panicking mammoths is a pretty damn scary sight !)

What if it was the women back then who declared that they need to stay behind and watch the children – so the men, stronger (and more readily replaced from the children's point of view as they don't breast-feed) had to become both protectors and providers. This probably makes brilliant evolutionary sense too (by providing and protecting the men were improving the likelihood of their offspring surviving) -and thus was laid the foundation of gender roles, not by oppressive men but by scared women (who were, objectively speaking, making a very logical and smart move) !

The point of this question is not paleontological conjecture, frankly we know so very little of history from what we can piece together even 3000 years ago that to suggest we could ever answer this question with the few fossils in the world is outright ludicrous. The point is to question something else entirely – a growing and concerning trend in feminist writing to declare the misandry cannot exist at all (apparently it's impossible to hate men – as if neither women nor men could ever be capable of hating men or acting hateful toward men). I state outright that in our society the privilege of men cannot be denied (though to pretend it has not been reduced at all as many feminists are wont to do is to deny the massive achievements of their forebears and frankly quite dis-ingenious for their own cause), it's nothing like what it once was, but there are still very true and legitimate complaints from women that must be resolved (the pay-gap between men and women is a major and undeniable example).

But I think the assault on the patriarchy approach being taken is, well not to put too fine a point on it, very bad marketing. This immediately casts feminism as a war between the genders, which only creates new gender expectations and stereotypes. The real problem with gender roles isn't that there is a vast majority of men in power who are maliciously doing all in they can to oppress women so they can retain their own privilege (while I definitely don't deny that such men exist, I think they are a shrinking minority and have ever less real power in the world, their position of privilege is shrinking along with their numbers). This gender-war is counter-productive to the ideal of equality for the sexes because it reinforces the very concept that ones gender is a defining attribute of one-self (it's for this reason that individualist-feminists have largely rejected this approach as the idea of strong group-identity goes utterly against their individualist beliefs).

The real problem is that we have been saddled by gender roles which were programmed into our society (not our genes – I completely reject the thoroughly debunked pseudo-scientific claptrap that is neurosexism) by the world as it once was (for a very long time – hundreds of thousands of years). It's not some vast conspiracy of evil men and weak-minded women who are keeping things messed up – it's a much more basic problem than that. The problem is that gender-roles as a very concept is outdated at best. It is doubtful if it ever served a true purpose (rather than an imagined one) but it certainly doesn't now.

The sex-positive movement has the right idea about sex: the right sexual decisions for a given individual is the ones chosen by THAT individual. Whether this person chooses promiscuity or lifelong virginity is their own business. We need to move to the same thing in terms of equality in general  - and that means away from group identity and towards self-identity. The limitations of gender based group identity is well known (western society is unique among all known cultures today and in recorded history for having only TWO genders – nearly all others have at least 3 gender roles) but they are more dangerous than that- they inherently limit individuals.

A woman who chooses to stay home and care for her kids is not less than one who chooses a career over having kids at all, and the one who chooses both is not superior to either of them, the question to ask is only: are you, the person, happy with that choice ? Is this individual being treated fairly ? Are they given a fair assessment of ability when they reach for their dreams ? 

When this is not the case, that is sexism and it doesn't matter if the person involved is a woman, a man or one of the other genders which exists in other cultures (Maori's have quite an interesting third gender – look it up sometime), or even some entirely new gender-identification which this person chose for h??self which nobody else has ever been, ever. Then we are making progress toward equality, only by moving beyond group identity can we achieve the liberal ideal of true equality. Only then can we judge a man rather than judging a black man. Only then can we see somebody and not make assumptions about their character and behaviour based on our external view of their identity – which may well (I would argue almost never will) be applicable to this particular individual.

I reject the notion that individualism somehow is the birth-right of conservatives. Conservatives speak of individualism but only when it suits their ends. They only talk of individualism when they want to deny privilege or attempt to preserve it. When I speak of individualism I do not deny that group identities exist, I do not deny that they have caused massive harm (nor do I deny that "white male" is winning the lottery and getting to do life at the easiest setting available), denying these things is not individualism as it denies the very problems that stand in the way of an individualist society. We can only embrace individualism if we admit to the existence of group-identity, acknowledge the harms it cause and actively work to undo it. For me affirmative action is a required step toward an individualist society. Only in a society where workplaces and government is representative of the society as a whole can individual merit actually be deemed to be the measuring stone of personal performance. 

In a society without group privilege – representative workplaces would require no laws, they would just happen as individuals of merit exist in all groups, but because of group privilege many are denied the capacity to develop their talents. This is not only philosophically but economically stupid, if we are to achieve greater prosperity and solve the problems of the twenty-first century then we will required all the talent we have working towards that goal, as long as group privilege exists there are talents we as a society and an economy need which are going to waste. We are losing our best female scientists by never giving our girls a chance to excel at science. We are losing our best black engineers by not giving our black children the same quality schooling as our whites.

So indeed, I see affirmative action as an intensely individualist position – only by breaking down group privilege can we allow individuals to reach their full potential, can we undo the harm that group identity does to individual liberties and opportunities – can we become an individual-merit based society. So I must oppose all that serves to re-engender group stereotypes, whether this is vilifying men as "more violent than women", painting most men as rapists (when in fact it's a case of a few rapists who do it a lot) and return the focus to the individual.  That approach can be solidly stretched into all walks of life – as the following example shows:

A lot of American feminists complain about the lack of legally protected paid-maternity leave in their country, rightfully stating that this is an unfair discrimination against women. On the other hand a lot of people in the USA argue that giving them legally protected maternity leave is discriminating against men. Other critics argue that doing so makes them less attractive to hire by companies and would contribute to increasing the pay-gap and decreasing female hiring – which would harm two other major feminist goals. 

But all these groups fail to get at a good solution because they are trapped in the thinking of group identity and thus completely missed the third possibility (despite the fact that this possibility is in fact the law in Denmark and there is a perfect example of how it can work). Denmark has one of the best protected maternity leave systems in the world. In fact in Denmark a woman gets 2 years of maternity leave after the birth of a child – but the law does not end there. The crucial point is this: the mother has the legal right to take only one year, and if she does so, the father has the legal right to take a year as well simultaneously. That is a full year of both maternity and paternity leave. 

This is a very good system – it does not discriminate against men, as it actively encourages fathers to be home and caring for their child in the first year alongside mothers. It does not make women less attractive to hire (since the version most of them take is the same one taken by most men), and it has a major positive step by recognising that single parents have a tougher time (hey – two people working at the same job means half as much for each to do – this is just a fact), most of the women who will take two years themselves are single-parents and they get the extra year to help with the burden of doing everything themselves. 

Now I am not saying that Denmark doesn't have it's share of chauvinists who would insist their wives take the two years so they can work uninterruptedly towards promotions (and not have to change much nappies) but they are in fact a shrinking minority in the country and smart laws like this which does not discriminate on gender but instead simply helps protect the rights of parents to be there for their children and recognizes that the social good of parents spending more time with their infant children is greater than the social good that would be achieved by their economic productivity in that same period actually helps promote that attitude. By taking gender out of the having-children time-off equation entirely, it helps to remove it from the society. It actively endorses the idea that fathers should be true co-parents, rather than merely "providers" – and that is progressive, that is liberal. That is both liberal and individualist – and it makes for a better society to live in.

  • Passing feminist

    I think you’re under a misapprehension that patriarchy has ever been conceived of as merely a product of male dominance. Gerda Lerner (who died this week) the feminist historian whose work on patriarchy was foundational insists that patriarchy was an intersection of male and female interests: she is adamant that patriarchy was constructed by men and women, and that it must be deconstructed by men and women both (The book is ‘Creation of Patriarchy’). Deniz Kandiyoti has a well-known and excellent explanation of why women maintain patriarchal relations in traditional societies. Benign sexism or chivalry is not good, but it’s preferable to hostile sexism, and if that’s all that’s on the menu, then that’s what you’re going to choose.

    I use patriarchy in a stricter and more anthropological sense than most feminists: I’m mostly referring to the value systems of pastoral nomads where authority inheres in patrilinear kinship relations – systems which have had an enormous ideological influence through cultural transmission. That the 2nd wave broadened the use of the term patriarchy is undeniable, but I personally prefer masculinism as a way of referring to the perseverance of male dominance within modern societies – this term comes from Barbara Ehrenreich. Nevertheless, even the term patriarchy is not the plural form of men: it refers to a system: just as a critique of capitalism isn’t necessarily just ‘eat the rich’, a critique of patriarchy/kyriarchy/masculinism is not necessarily misandry. In fact, the sex/gender system (to use a term taken from Gayle Rubin this time) is harmful to both genders, through the the enforcement of gender roles which you, and I, would wish to reject as artificial delimitations of human expression. That I call myself a feminist is not because I’m part of a gender war, but a wish to claim the heritage of feminist thought and activism, and a recognition that women are still disproportionately negatively effected by gender stereotypes. I agree with you that the Danish system is fantastic!

    • http://silentcoder.co.za/ SilentCoder/DarkPoet

      I was not so much referring to the use of the word in feminist academia (thank you for those clarifications however, they are valuable to myself and my readers) as the way I see it more commonly used now on blogs – with an anger that, if anything, I fear harms the ideal of equality of people.

      But just a small correction – Barbara Ehrenreich coined the term in that usage but it’s actually rather older and it’s more widely used to refer to a parallel movement to feminism that focusses on discrimination against men (based on the largely FALSE perception that feminism is only focussed on discrimination against women rather than the harm of gender-role casting on both sexes and the equality of the sexes – which the name ‘feminism’ probably promotes in many people’s minds). I say parallel because I don’t see the masculinism and feminism movements as being in opposition to each other (though many within both do) but rather as wanting the same thing – and I genuinely believe both would be stronger if they worked together rather than against each other as the outcome they actually want is the same (there are also many ‘mens rights’ groups which are nothing but a front for perpetuating the status quo and some of them use the term as well, but I believe the core masculism movement does not agree with them and essentially rejects most of their core goals, an example of a masculinist complaint would be the high rate of suicide among teenage boys who are prejudiced against and bullied [by other men and to a lesser degree by women] if they don’t fit the macho stereotypes demanded by society.

    • http://silentcoder.co.za/ SilentCoder/DarkPoet

      I felt your second paragraph required another response. I do not believe that all, or even most, feminists are generally guilty of misandry or that feminists like yourself when referring to the patriarchy are attacking men in general – I was referring (and I tried to say this in the post, if I failed then I apologize) to a specific subset largely on blogs who do use these terms that way and deny that misandry even exists, I believe most feminists however would agree with you (and myself) that the current patriarchal system in our society is BOTH misandric AND mysoginistic by enforcing impossible ideals and expectations of behaviour on people of either gender and engendering great prejudice against all who do not fit the mould in their behaviour. Such conscription of behaviour is not only utterly harmful to personal liberty and individualist ideals but also to society as a whole.
      I know that many father’s rights activists have found feminists organizations campaigning WITH them to give just one example.
      I do believe we can one day live in a world where a teenage boy who expresses a desire to run a day-care centre or teach pre-school would not be assumed to be a paedophile by so many people that he’d never consider trying – and where a girl who wants to become a jet-pilot would not be told that “girls can’t do math”.
      These two goals are not in competition with each other in my mind, they are two sides of the same coin.

  • http://silentcoder.co.za/ SilentCoder/DarkPoet

    For those interested – my earlier writings on this particular subtopic of the philosophy tag can be easily found with this link: http://silentcoder.co.za/?s=feminist&searchsubmit=