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February 13, 2009
The nature and influence of patriarchy

by Althea Perkins 13.FEB.09

Men are the head of households. You can’t do what the guys do and still be a lady. Men are rational thinkers. Women are too emotional. Woman a heavy load.

We have all heard these things and sometimes said them. But what do these ideas say about relations between men and women? Why do we believe them?{{more}}

These ideas say that men and women are different. But looking closer, we see not only differences but hierarchy and asymmetry. Being head is considered better. We value a rational thinker more than an emotional person. In the relations between men and women, therefore, men generally are more privileged – given more status, respect, privilege, access to material things and positions of power.

How is it that beliefs in male dominance are so central to our lives? This view is based on an overall system, described as patriarchy, that guides what we learn. Patriarchy has its tentacles in all aspects of our lives and is characterized by relations of domination – specifically the idea that traits and behaviours associated with manhood and masculinity are superior to those associated with womanhood and femininity.

Patriarchy places limits on the achievements of women and reduces the value of the feminine by picturing women as limited human beings, the opposite of privileged and capable men. Women are the majority of the unemployed. Men are the overwhelming majority in parliament. The things women normally do in the home are less valued than men’s activities in public. Women are less free to go places for fear of harassment and rape. In activities associated with both men and women, such as sports, women are usually given much less resources and support.

Patriarchy is so pervasive in our lives and so subtle that we take it for granted. We assume that our experience is the only way that human lives can be organized. We tell a boy child not to cry like a girl. The bank asks for husband’s name and signature as if women cannot make independent decisions. Girls cannot enjoy public spaces the way boys can. In all these things, we are reproducing a social system that is determined to limit the life chances of most of its members.

Patriarchy, though, is not an all or nothing game with all women equally victims and all men equally dominant. A man known to be homosexual will face more difficulties looking for a job because patriarchal ideas assert that heterosexuality is normal and homosexuality is abnormal. A middle class professional woman has more status than the domestic helper or the handyman that she employs. Our experiences as men and women and the relations of domination are influenced by our class, age, race and sexual orientation.

While men generally benefit from patriarchy, some men suffer from the demands of this system. Men in the Caribbean feel they must constantly show that they are ‘real men’ able, for example, to provide financially as a father. The man without a job who can’t provide will feel the effects of not meeting the required standard. The man who speaks too softly, spends too much time taking care of the home, publicly displays sentimental emotions, does not have a girlfriend, is at risk.

But there is resistance. Women are challenging the educational and employment limits the system sets. More men are more involved in child and home care. Men and women are engaging in alternative lifestyles not based on relations of domination.

But patriarchy persists because it is resilient and adaptable. Constant awareness of the drawbacks of patriarchy on our lives is one of the first steps to challenging. It helps in our day-to-day lives always to be aware of the insidious nature of patriarchy and how we ourselves help to maintain it. By doing this we may become more and more conscious of our actions and seek to change them in ways that offer alternatives.

Challenging patriarchy is not about hating men. It is about building a more humane system where men are not pressured to satisfy a very restricted notion of manhood and the limitations placed on women are removed so all can enjoy more fruitful lives and relationships.