Do we live in a patriarchy?

I recently read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. It was far better than I was expecting. The essays are personal and humorous yet address a lot of serious and deep issues. Her takedown of trigger warnings is particularly good. The essays are best when sticking to specific topics like the critiques of The Help, 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, Twilight, 12 Years a Slave, and Tyler Perry’s work. The inside look of the professional Scrabble scene is entertaining.

The essays get a bit worse when being more general. Sometimes back-to-back essays contradict each other. In one she argues that there should be more diverse representation in TV, movies, and books, because people have a hard time relating to people that don’t look like them. In the next, she spends 5,000 words about how deeply she identified with the white girls in Sweet Valley High. How are we supposed to take the previous essay seriously after that?

The most cringe-worthy part had to do with the elusive concept of “patriarchy.” She had just gotten through critiquing Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men, which provides a book-long study with evidence and statistics to argue that patriarchy is essentially dead.

Gay’s sophisticated response to this was to laugh it off. Ha ha ha. Of course it’s not dead. Just look around you. It is so obvious we live in a patriarchy. Sorry Gay, but you can’t argue against the conclusion of an entire book by saying the conclusion is “obviously” incorrect.

Let me begin with a (fictional) story. In college I took a lot of physics. One day the professor gave a bunch of solid arguments with evidence and studies to back it up that the Earth goes around the Sun. I burst out laughing. It was so obviously false a conclusion.

I raised my hand, ready to embarrass the professor. I pointed out that I see the Sun go around the Earth every single day with my own two eyes. He might have had some fancy arguments, but I had obviousness on my side.

It is an unfortunate truth that much of what seems obvious (we can even produce convincing arguments!) is often wrong. This is exactly what is happening when Gay’s rebuttal is: look at the political system, most of Congress is men, we’ve never had a woman president, thus men hold all the political power.

That is convincing on its surface like the Sun going around the Earth is convincing on its surface. The gender of elected officials is one metric to measure political power. Can we think of any other?

Maybe we should take the premise of a representational democracy seriously and say the electorate have the power, because they elect members of congress. Who votes more? Well, women do! Now we’re at an impasse, because one metric claims women have the political power, and the other metric claims men have the power. This is looking a little less obvious now that we dig deeper.

I haven’t defined patriarchy yet. Most people don’t, because they don’t want to be tied down to a particular type of evidence. The relevant dictionary definition is: a social system in which power is held by men, through cultural norms and customs that favor men and withhold opportunity from women.

For each metric you come up with to show our culture favors men, I’ll come up with one to show it favors women. My starting statistics will be: life expectancy, education (measured by amount of degrees conferred), incarceration rate, poverty rate, homelessness, victims of violent crimes, workplace fatalities, and suicide rate. Your turn.

I grant you that many people argue patriarchy causes these problems for men (often stated “patriarchy hurts men too”). But that’s playing with words. By definition, a patriarchy “favors men,” and therefore cannot be the cause of society-wide disadvantages for men.

Here’s the truth. Any claim about anything can be supported with evidence if the person who believes the claim gets to pick the metric by which we measure something. This is a form of confirmation bias and sometimes the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. Raw statistics like the ones we’ve been looking at are slippery business, because they tell us nothing about causation. Is the sparsity of women in congress because the opportunity is being withheld from them by some social system that favors men, or is it some other causal factor at play?

When you pick the gender of Congress as a measure, you see ahead of time that it works in your favor, and that’s why you picked it. In other words, when you look for a pattern, you’ll find it. To avoid statistical fallacies like this, we need a metric whose results we are blind to, and we need a solid argument that this metric is actually measuring what we think it is. Only then do we test what the results show. Then we repeat this with many other metrics, because the issue is way too complicated for one metric to prove anything.

I’m not saying we don’t live in a patriarchy. What I’m saying is that you can’t laugh off someone that claims we don’t with a book-long argument to support her case because it is “obviously false” to you. Any argument that we live in a patriarchy is going to have to be subtle and complicated for the reasons listed above. It’s also more likely that the answer is somewhere in the middle. Men are favored in some places; women are favored in some places; and it’s counterproductive to decide if one outweighs the other. We can work towards equality without one gender “winning” the “oppression” war.


7 thoughts on “Do we live in a patriarchy?

  1. I enjoyed this post. I it certainly made me begin to rethink elements of a case for the existence of patriarchy. The metrics are indeed difficult to compare and proclaim any one more or less indicative of patriarchy.

    When you mention counter metrics to the favouring of men, I initially thought it quite a compelling argument. However, I do believe there is an inequality between the metrics you have chosen to counter those arguing for patriarchy.

    It would be particularly difficult to argue any of these ‘non-patriarchy’ metrics have their causation lie within “power [being] held by men”, as the definition of patriarchy states. Perhaps some of them would and perhaps there is truth in the playing of words of “patriarchy hurts men too”. The problem with the metrics, in my opinion, is that I very much doubt any of them would lead to a conclusion that the causal factor was “power held by women”. I can’t imagine any well researched study finding reason to believe women are a causal factor in male statistics for life expectancy, education, poverty, incarceration, victims of violent crime and suicide rates.

    When you stated the definition of patriarchy, you seem to have concentrated more on metrics that don’t “favour men”, and somewhat omit the “power held by men” part. I don’t think an argument for patriarchy is based purely on what elements favour which sex, but what the consequences are of one sex dominating power. When looking at the opposing metrics, would you not also have to decide which causation had the highest frequency? If this were the case, I believe “power held by men” would outweigh the occasions in which “power held by women” played a defining role. This, to me, would still suggest a patriarchy.

    I realise it is unfair for me to criticise your metrics, since you have picked them deliberately to illustrate how complex and misleading certain metrics can be, but it also made me think of the possible differences between the metrics, and how difficult it would be to argue any of these are because of women. It would be far easier to contest that elements of the patriarchy argument (disparity in wages for similar roles, lack of presence in leading positions, victims of domestic abuse, etc.) “power held by men” is a contributing factor.

    Thank you for the post. I found it very interesting and certainly don’t mean any of the criticism to be spiteful. In fact, quite the opposite. It lead me to question my own default position of “of course we live in a patriarchy, it is obvious”.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I definitely concede that I focused on the favoring men aspect for the listed statistics. Of course, there are plenty of social institutions and otherwise that, with the right metric, women have more power. I won’t go into them here, because we’d probably devolve into an unproductive back and forth.

    But I do want to push back on two of the statistics in the post. You say there is no reason to believe women are a causal factor in life expectancy and education. I don’t know if it is true, but I can think of plausible causes stemming directly from women having more power. In the case of education, women take the role of early childhood educators more, i.e. they are in power. Isn’t it possible that they tailor these formative years towards girls which leads to the education disparity later on? Isn’t it possible that women’s health lobbies have more political power which leads to more money being spent on women’s health issues? I have no idea if these are the case, but it isn’t inconceivable to me that those two disparities could be from a power imbalance that favors women.

    Again, the point is not to say men have no power or that we live in a matriarchy or something, but just that these issues are way more complicated to tease out than most people want to admit.

  3. Those could be possible outcomes of studies within those metrics. However I do also remember seeing an interesting BBC documentary discussing differences in gender based upon nature and nurture elements which made quite a strong argument for, in the case of education, parents putting lower expectations on females than males during formative years. This was the case regardless of the primary caregiver being mother or father. A simple (and by no means comprehensive) example of this was to ask parents an estimation of how well an infant would perform in a particular task (in this case crawling up a gradient), and on average parents estimated the male infants would perform far better than the females even though, in practice, the results of the task were equal between the genders. If low expectations such as these were carried on throughout childhood, it could be that women achieve despite the perceived abilities parents place on them rather than because of them.

    On the whole, I very much agree that it is all too easy to point to certain metrics and draw from them far wider assumptions than their actual scope should allow (such as we both have in our own counter arguments). Also, it is not prudent to dismiss thoughtful and well researched studies purely because the reader of them does not agree with the conclusions based on a general “feeling” of patriarchy, as you mention in the post.

    Gender differences and preferential treatment are very hard to measure and prove, let alone use to infer upon other areas of society. However, there are plenty of these metrics with regards to the plights of women that do suggest elements of patriarchy. This is, perhaps, what leads many people to a state of anger that makes certain elements of confirmation bias more likely.

    As you very rightly conclude, the important thing to remind ourselves is not to be drawn into confirmation bias blindly. It is a very hard thing to do, and it is also something I found myself doing even when providing the points I’ve mentioned here. That is why I found the post so interesting.

  4. patriarchy is still alive and kicking. 2 women a week are murdered by known men in the UK. 1-8 will experience rape at some point in their lives, 1-4 women will live with Domestic abuse. Women’s wages are still (even with equality laws) less on average then men, even through we are doing better in education so showing we are able to do top jobs, these still are in the hands of men. about 15% directors are women in UK. We do not have equal representation in parliament about 23% Parliament still acts like a boys boarding school. we get blamed as Mothers from every thing from raising serial killers to under or over mothering. never hear such statements about men’s parenting. We commit fewer crime’s than men but are likely to receive stronger punishment than men. Women hating is strong in society resulting in many women being found guilty of killing their babies on little or no evidence and wrong statistics made up by a male “experts” who had deep problems with women. some women went to prison but were later released when it was proved they did not kill their babies. Women do not feel free to roam around at night or even early evening first because they fear and are encourage to fear attack or rape. also women’s movement and actions receive more social judgement and comment than men’s actions or intentions. the way women look often judged in negative ways as some women have suffered from such sexism on twitter. Mary Beard comes to mind an intelligent women who is educated and passionate appeared on question time and got disgusting comments about her looks.. when we work we still end up doing most of the housework as well. about 70% of housework still completed by the woman in working couples lives. if we leave a marriage or partnership we are blamed and portrayed as bitter and twisted over contact arrangements with children. Men complain they don’t get contact because of their ex partners. in study by Bristol University it showed women gave contact on separation in 95% of case’s only stopping when contact posed a risk to themselves and their children . in 2006 101 males who had a history of domestic abuse still had residency of their children. the courts support contact and often ignore women’s concerns because of sexist and untrue ideas about women. The whole gender neutral campaign of men’s groups talking about Domestic Abuse ends up exaggerating women’s violence and reducing men’s perceived violence. (see Scottish women’s aids response to British crime survey) Domestic Abuse is gendered violence towards women. there are hundreds of other examples, TV and film representation of women still has a long way to go. I would love to see a feminist who is not portrayed as mad, or bad. and the films that are made are men’s films war, killing, macho men boring apart from any thing. some strong women’s roles are beginning to come through but not enough. Older women have a very bad representation on film and media. Child care still no proper organisation of this essential need that can aid women and children. pensions women end up with less than men, women’s health still not the same support or understanding of women’s need. abortion should be on demand, religion with its male gods telling men they are in gods image but well women are not. we need full control of our bodies. I could go on patriarchy is alive

  5. This is a beautiful demonstration of the points in my post. Instead of reading and replying to it, people just blindly spew the stuff they’ve been taught. Most of the statistics you present aren’t good portrayals of reality (see my post on the wage gap, for instance), or they don’t provide evidence of a patriarchy (see this very post for why equal representation isn’t necessarily a demonstration of power). As for rape and murder. What? Women get murdered by men. Men get murdered by men. What do a few psychopaths roaming the streets have to do with institutional power? You might want to step back from the propaganda you’ve been taught and try to analyze things a little more objectively.

  6. its your statistics that are not backed up women know they are paid less. its not propaganda its just truth and that why our debate will always win over yours we have truth on our side. I have lived as a woman many years and know the barriers and sexist ideas about women. pay in UK is not equal and there have been many examples of this. Equal opportunities reports have identified this issue and I have seen it happen in front of my own eyes. we have a long way to go to get equal pay and equal opportunity

  7. You may have lived as a woman and “seen things,” but I see the sun go around the Earth every day. Seeing something that seems true doesn’t make it so. Woman aged 22-29 earn more than men. Equality has been achieved and then some. What opportunities do men have that women don’t?

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