Higher education and its individualistic trajectory to success– to earn through self improvement the right to make demands (which is also to say the ability to leave), has replaced the union and social networks as the safety net for the working class. Pell Grants, the grants given to low-income students, illustrate the focus on bringing low-income people to prosperity by cultivating into them the characteristics of the patriarchy. The glaring absence of support for low-income workers will stand in contrast. If a person can’t support themselves, and jobs with liveable wages require considerable education, the logic goes that they need considerable education. Class disdain prevents feminism from supporting women as workers where they are, and it oppresses men similarly.
Misogyny has never been limited to men. One aspect of the patriarchy is the overvaluing of male approval relative to female approval. Women can be, and are, completely capable of this. This is a “starvation economy,” no matter what anyone says; we’re all competing for limited resources in the form of other people’s time and energy. One woman will undermine another woman for no reason other than she is, generally speaking, the competition. This mindset is so insidious that it has made its way into feminism– the feminist who wants her head patted for being so approachable (find her in the “I’m not a feminazi, or anything” demographic). There are women who have benefitted from the patriarchy, and there are also women who represent the patriachy. Some of those women are also feminists.
Another way conventional feminism mirrors the patriarchy is its blindness to internal aggression. The patriarchy, which is distinct from but not unrelated to male dominance, put boys along with girls in highly exploitable situations. The abuses within the Catholic Church are a good example of this. Recently in a Louisville mentorship program there was a case of sexual abuse of a male minor by police officers. If the legal system is an extention of the patriarchy, then so are the status offenses that undermine the agency of minors in general. If the patriarchy is guilty of treating women unfairly, it is also it is also guilty of treating the powerless unfairly. And this is how the patriarchy works, not only by subordinating a gender but by enforcing and capitalizing upon weakness.
Consider the lack of insight that would permit Camille Paglia, a controversial but outspoken feminist, to muse on camera about how she, a lesbian, uses the male gaze. She is an academic lecturer on gender and she is genuinely confused by this apparent contradiction. In the clip, she doesn’t address the possibility that “male” here is shorthand for “agent and beneficiary of mechanisms to wield power.” Paglia is a white, well connected, well educated person, and she looks upon other women with the presumed authority to value them; more to the point, the object of her attention might reasonably seek her approval because of all that. Here is the real currency in both feminism and the patriarchy– power. Paglia has power in that she can objectify another person without needing to navigate the demands of those who would do the same to her. The defining characteristic of the male gaze is the ability to influence the behavior or estimation of its subject, not the gender of either party.
Basic economics should surprise no one; privileged few have the luxury of any interpretation other than the most pragmatic interpretation possible. Sometime last summer an “Advice for Girls” post went viral, encouraging women to strike back at the patriarchy at every opportunity. “Advice for Girls” was exciting and exuberant, yet somehow in the ensuing flood of Facebook shares, it wasn’t pointed out that nobody was waiting for encouragement in the first place. Few can live entirely on their own terms, everything comes at a cost; the notion that the general public can afford to address every gendered affront is wildly out of touch. Who can afford to lose their job, their relationships, their family, raise the ire of their bus driver or whoever?
The world is unfair. I respect your decisions and trust that you are acting in your own best interest as you navigate a lot of really shitty practicalities.
Joan Didion, a female author who is not a feminist (and has at least the integrity to say so), summed up the sentiment of her class when criticizing the women’s movement. In her essay “The Women’s Movement” she suggests women just get a different job, find a different doctor, or go to a nicer hotel, if they faced discrimination for their gender. These are the women who would actually benefit from “Lean In,” the tutorial on how women can succeed at work by overcoming internal obstacles like fearfulness. It was a bestseller. The author Sandburg describes this as a lack of confidence, but “Leaning In” will only work if you can make demands with the reasonable expectation that they will be met. Most women, most people, don’t have that sort of agency. Sandburg has leverage, that’s the part that never gets mentioned in book reviews and empowerment lunches. Before you start making demands, you have to be able to leave.
(Later in that collection of essays, Didion also writes about having her hair criticized by a doctor while seeking care for debilitating migraines.)
Lately I have been thinking a lot about power, in all its expressions, but particularly in regard to what we call the patriarchy. The tee shirt says “Smash the Patriarchy,” but practically speaking, how would we do that? Is this even an inherently feminist statement? What is the patriarchy, where does it begin and where does it end? The patriarchy is inscrutable, like gravity, and best observed by its effect on its surroundings. The irony, if it is irony, is that feminism mirrors the patriarchy in its response to it. Historically, and currently, feminism as an institution is largely white, liberal, affluent intellectuals or pseudo-intellectuals. It advances the cause of these women, rather than all women, or all people subject to the degradations of patriarchy. Because of this, feminism is a sister to the patriarchy: a sometimes opposing equivalent rather than an opposition.