History Matters 4: is there still a patriarchal system in the West?

As I’ve discussed in previous posts about Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), continuity in women’s history, particularly continuity with the present, is both an important political principle for Bennett, and an empirical historical fact. One problem is that in contrast to her vision of medieval-modern continuity, in ‘the commonplace everyday world, men and women have seen many things change for women in Western societies (and mostly change for the better)’ (p 70).

Bennett responds to this by stressing continuities in the experience of women (p 71): inferior pay and job segregation, the continued existence of the glass ceiling and violence against women. One explanation of these different feminist views is to contrast them as glass half-full/glass half-empty responses, another is to say that the degree of patriarchy has changed (the intensity of women’s oppression) (p 58). But if we’re talking about real changes, is the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium still valid for the twenty first century (even if it’s a useful tool for analysis of previous periods, as Bennett convincingly shows)?

I was arguing on Another Damned Medievalist’s blog that you don’t necessarily have to show very long-term continuity of any particular elements of a patriarchal system to have continuity of the system of a whole: every component can gradually get changed, while the overall effect of the system remains the same. But I’m increasingly wondering whether there is still a patriarchal system in the modern West (in the sense of mutually reinforcing and interlocking restrictions on women), or whether we need to conceptualise things differently. If you want to see a patriarchal system in action, then the Victorian era provides a clear case (I’ve just been reading East Lynne, which is why I think of this). If a Victorian woman was in an unsatisfactory marriage then she couldn’t get a divorce because of legal restrictions, she couldn’t change the law because she had no vote, her religion told her not to divorce, she was a social outcast if she did divorce and she would struggle to support herself economically anyhow, because women’s work was badly paid. Everything pushed her in the same direction.

In contrast, I’d say that there are now two ‘patriarchal’ systems in the West, which are increasingly separating from one another. One is a ‘traditional’ one, focusing on a primarily domestic role for women, the other is globalised turbo-capitalism.

The ‘traditional’ patriarchy is associated with a Christian and nuclear household, (although religion isn’t strictly essential to it). It’s economically based on a male breadwinner and a wife whose paid work is either more marginal (although possibly still vital) or else non-existent. Instead her main role is to be responsible for household management and care of children, and she is expected to be both financially and sexually prudent (while more leeway is allowed for her husband). Although this model tends to get associated either with the 1950s US suburbs, or the Victorian ‘angel in the house’, I think it’s actually more historically widespread than that. Martha Howell, ‘The Gender of Europe’s Commercial Economy, 1200–1700’ Gender & History 20 (2008) pp. 519–538, argues for a much longer-term development, in which commercial activity was legitimised via (p 519) ‘a gender binary that positioned the sober housewife as partner to the honest and ambitious man of the market.’ In this ideology middle-class women were the wise domestic consumers to middle-class men’s wise market producers. Meanwhile, the union movement’s focus on wages for the working class man extended this pattern down the social scale to the early twentieth century working classes (as described by e.g. Richard Hoggart in ‘The uses of literacy’).

For a long time capitalism has co-existed quite happily with this traditional model, but the increasing voraciousness of turbo-capitalism is no longer satisfied with this. The traditional household doesn’t offer enough wage labour, with women not participating fully in the labour market, and it therefore also doesn’t consume enough, because it doesn’t have two main incomes. Instead there is a new gendering of production and consumption.

In terms of production, work is increasingly separating out into ‘good jobs’ and ‘bad jobs’. Good jobs are prestigious, well-paid, high-skilled, relatively secure and more than full-time (requiring extreme commitment in terms of hours/ethos). Bad jobs are, well, most of the rest: often part-time and hourly paid, insecure, undervalued in all senses. Such bad jobs immediately bring to mind Bennett’s characterization of ‘women’s work’ over long historic periods (p 95): ‘it tended to be low-skilled [in contemporaries’ eyes]; it usually yielded low remuneration in terms of either wages or profits; it was regarded with low esteem; it was work that combined easily with a wide variety of other tasks or remunerative work’. Bad jobs do still tend to be held disproportionately by women (mainly due to job segregation and women’s greater roles in unpaid care work). However the gender boundaries are now more permeable than earlier times. A woman with marketable talents who is prepared to commit herself to work and nothing but work can have ‘a man’s job’. A man who doesn’t have the skills, or the commitment or the opportunities to get a good job, becomes economically akin to a female worker. (This change is increased by the decline in jobs that demand mainly physical strength: capitalism doesn’t really need working-class men in the way it used to).

In terms of consumption, meanwhile, it is becoming clear that turbo-capitalism has no inherent interest in maintaining traditional gender roles. It sees no ethical difference between using scantily clad women to sell goods to straight men, scantily clad men to sell goods to straight women and scantily clad men to sell goods to gay men. (It’s probably still working on the lesbian and transgender market). Feminists have often rightly raged against the commercial exploitation of women’s insecurities (on appearance etc). But increasingly, markets are also developing ways to make money from male anxieties. The most potent (literally) symbol of this is Viagra, which has simultaneously created and addressed the previously underexplored sexual worries of middle-aged men (who, conveniently for drug companies, are generally prosperous as a social group). Overall the world of the consumer is still sexist, because men on average have more money than women. But its sexism isn’t ideologically necessary in the same way it was 100 years ago. Together, the biases of the capitalist system produce a form of patriarchy which is optional for some favoured women: they can effectively become successful ‘men’ (as can gays, in a way not possible in the West for the last 2000 years.)

These two forms of patriarchy co-exist, but the contradictions between them are increasing: even US Christianists can’t really combine the two. (Purity rings simply don’t sell us well as revealing T-shirts). I’m not sure whether what we’re in is a transitional stage and the moral household is on a slow way out, or not. Culture can’t simply be reduced to material circumstances, after all, or American, Scandinavian and Japanese women would all be experiencing very similar kinds of patriarchy. But I think one thing that feminist historians might be able to do is provide a longer-term perspective on how these two current patriarchal systems work or don’t work together. Whether feminists can take advantage of the contradictions between the two systems to benefit women is a different matter.


9 thoughts on “History Matters 4: is there still a patriarchal system in the West?

  1. A very interesting post. I’ve often myself been left somewhat uncomfortable by simple comparisons of the modern socio-political situation with the past in order to ‘prove’ the continued existence of a very similar form of patriachry. I think you’re right to point out that there can in fact be competing systems, and that the move towards a more capitalist bent still favours men, but that it is a rather more open field to which people can to a certain extent ‘opt in’.


  2. If “patriarchy is optional,” as you say, is it it really still patriarchy? Are you in danger of reifying constructions of gender here, so that even when it’s not something any more (re: your description of captialism) it still has to be?


    • There’s a difference between saying ‘patriarchy is optional’ and ‘patriarchy is optional for some favoured women’. The capitalist form of patriarchy still disproportionately hampers the majority of women who a) have caring responsibilities and/or b) are in ‘feminized’ careers. Hairdressers still get paid worse than car mechanics, to take one of the classic working class examples, and part-time workers than full-timers.

      What I was thinking of as a comparison was some past societies in which male superiority is combined with a gender system in which not all biological men count as ‘men’ and/or not all biological women count as ‘women’. In ancient Rome for example, male slaves aren’t seen as men; I think there are anthropologists’ accounts of societies (African? Native American?) where some women can achieve male status and take wives etc. In the same way some modern businesswomen, female lawyers etc have ‘become male’ by adopting a purely male career pattern, in which traditional domestic/familial activities are outsourced to other people. But if you think there’s no longer a patriarchy, you just need to look at the faces of those in power in any organisation to be reminded of it.


  3. I think this is where Bennett’s idea of Patriarchal Equilibrium is really useful, because it really does work across the board. Another important point is that patriarchy is not just about men — it often requires the cooperation of women. Magistra, you’re right about the ability of women to ‘become men’, and there are European cases as well. The most recent article I’ve read on it was about a woman in some part of the former Yugoslavia (I think Croatia, but I’m not positive). Her father and older brother had been killed during WWII, IIRC, and she had become the ‘man’ of the family when she was about 12. She adopted male dress and manners, and had to give up all traces of female life. In exchange, she had the legal rights and social rights of the men, could hunt, could keep her mother and younger siblings taken care of. And could never marry or have a sexual relationship with man or woman.

    Again, I’m not 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure that one of the points of the article is that this seldom happens anymore, in part because women *do* have many more legal rights, and it’s not necessary for women to make those sacrifices in order to provide for their families. At the same time, though, the subject of the article seemed rather sad that ‘the old ways’ were dying out. The old ways where women colluded to support a clearly patriarchal structure that kept women at social and economic disadvantage …


  4. Instead of arguing that “turbo-capitalism” is a new form of patriarchy, I would propose that Capitalism, by its emphasis on productivity and measuring everything in monetary values, is in itself as gender-blind as it is race-blind. But it grew out of a traditional society and is also opposed (among other opposing forces) by these traditions. So men had a head start into the leadership functions of Capitalism and continue to defend them, both by networks that are easier to be entered by men than by women and by a culture that still defines women more by their parenting and household roles than it defines men that way. I’d argue that on its own, capitalism would erode these male advantages as it has eroded other remnants of tradition, but that, of course, would presume that it would march on unbridled.


    • Capitalism is more gender-blind than some ideologies, but its gender-blindness runs out at one point: mothering. If a mother has an uncomplicated pregnancy and an uncomplicated birth and does not choose to breastfeed, then she can pretty much stick to a capitalist-ideal career in which time off work is for failures. But small children still need to be cared for and raised, and this is a labour intensive business if you want them to be safe and get proper cognitive stimulation.

      The ‘traditional’ answer (in the twentieth century) has been to have mothers (women of all classes) do this caring. The modern capitalist answer (which is also the pre-twentieth century answer) is that lower class women are hired to do this, while higher class women largely carry on their lives as they were before they were mothers.(What has changed is that globalisation means there’s increasingly the option of third-world women as child-carers, e.g. the Filipina nanny). Neither alternative is gender-blind.

      To the extent that modern men have taken more of a share of parenting than previous generations (and some have) this has been an anti-capitalist move, taking them away from full-time/more than full-time jobs. Capitalism is just as hostile to the principle of paternity leave as it is to maternity leave. The only way a capitalist system can be combined with gender-blind childraising is if enough working class men could be persuaded/coerced/socialised into childcare to allow a class-based system to develop, in which the men and women with ‘important jobs’ (i.e. well-paid) have their children looked after by an equal number of lower class men and women. But I think that would require a social transformation that might be hard even for unrestricted capitalism to achieve.


      • As long as we don’t get artificial wombs, any human society will be unable to be gender-blind concerning child-bearing. Concerning rising children, I assume that Capitalism could lead to a point where child-rearing is fully done by specialised companies, with professional carers of all genders, feeding babies formula or artificial mothers’ milk. A different question is who would want that kind of a gender-blind system where even the parent-children relationship becomes entirely a part of the service industry.


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