Disassociating Patriarchy From Maleness

by Vanessa Raney

November 17, 2003


So why is it, instead of asking ourselves why we need men to make us whole, we don't look to ourselves first? More important, why can't we disassociate patriarchy from maleness? Even bell hooks, during her recent lecture on "College Community" at Pomona College, can't disassociate patriarchy from maleness. In fact, when I asked her during the book signing how we go about separating them, she referred me to her upcoming book, Rock My Soul (due Jan. 2004).

As a woman, it's really annoying for me to realize that most of the discussions about us concern men. What I mean is, it seems we use men as an excuse to remain victims. There is patriarchy, the system of male participation. Then there's matriarchy, exactly the reverse. Only I don't know if the -archies were intended to refer solely to participation. It seems to me that the issue of patriarchy particularly has come to be associated almost entirely with the issue of maleness.

That is, we talk about male power, male subversion (of the female), male voice, male systems of inclusion, etc. By stressing the male, however, we ignore our own participation in the system of patriarchy. Moreover, we continue to set ourselves up as sexualized objects and then question why men can't see us outside of these roles. I find this most visible in the gendered approaches to rhetoric studies and history, although I don't suppose these to be the only fields to do so.

When I refer to us as victims, what I mean is that we assume certain things. We assume, for example, that when a woman is raped, it's because she's naturally physically weaker than the guy who raped her. But in today's time, there's no reason why a woman can't be more prepared to confront a rapist. No reason since many places offer free self-defense classes, when strength is not a matter of body size.

We also assume that when a wife continues to be beaten by her husband, it's because she's dependent on him to support her -- emotionally, financially, etc. While I understand that wives get beaten, I think it's because we're not taught to love ourselves first. At the first sign of an abuser, leave; otherwise, no matter how we might defend the situation, it's the woman's choice to be beaten.

On the other side, when a man is raped, we assume he's lying. Except girl gangs do rape men. (1) When a husband says his wife beats him, we assume he's lying. Except many wives beat their husbands. We have these rules for men and women, and somehow -- almost always -- women are seen as weaker and less defensible to men. That's what I mean by victim: our unwillingness to take responsibility for what we do.

It's why I think we need to disassociate patriarchy from maleness, because we use patriarchy as a crutch to explain our victim status. Thus, to (re)define patriarchy, we must use words other than male, maleness, masculinity, man. We must also be careful not to include contrasts that place men and women in a power struggle, because otherwise we associate with male, maleness, masculinity, man.

On the other hand, what we really mean by patriarchy is the system of white male participation. Thus, we excuse non-white men's abuses as a function of class. A poor man -- often a poor black man -- is expected to beat on his girlfriend or wife because he's caught up in the endless cycle of poverty. A white man is thought to beat on his girlfriend or wife because of his need to exert male power/authority.

I believe, furthermore, that it's easier to argue that the real problem with patriarchy is that women are made to be excluded and, as a result, to assume inferior positions. Except I ask, Why aren't we taking accountability for what we do? Why aren't we teaching girls and young women to love themselves, to be independent thinkers and contributors, to define what they want to do, and to encourage it?

I also remember reading something last year about men having stronger upper bodies, and women stronger lower bodies. Yet how many of us acknowledge this? How many of us continue to argue that women are still physically weaker to men? Or more yet, how many of us believe that physical standards for women should be lower than men? Do we ever think about what we can do? Like strengthening our lower bodies?

Looking at the world of man, I see men and women. Or rather, a system that includes men and women. Sure, we can argue that it wasn't until recently that women have been more included. Or that women have exercised more authority in areas like business, politics and education. Except history says otherwise. History says there were women in power positions, women who defied the system for different things, women who made choices. Women's history, however, is more closely tied to the issue of class.

I remember, too, the contribution from another female student during one of my earlier conferences. She said her research included the status of women and equal pay. One of the articles she read concerned the amount of time off women took compared to men. Well, it seems women take more personal days, not to mention maternity leave. So this student asked, Why should we get equal pay if we're not doing equal work?

Or have we become so far removed from the contexts of patriarchy that we can no longer recognize it without referring to issues of maleness, of masculinity, of men? Do we not recognize our own contributions to that system? Do we really fail to see that we take advantage of a system that we have associated with maleness, in order to attack not only the system of patriarchy, but also sexuality? If we were to accept responsibility for the roles we've assumed, would we not then have to raise ourselves up instead of relying on the men in our lives?

So my suggestion: let's change the language of our discourse, from patriarchy to humankind. In humankind, we are responsible for what we do. We make choices that impact what we do. We can choose to be individuals, and make choices about who we are and what we will do in the world. We can co-exist as men and women, and share our knowledge and experiences to make a better place. Or we can act as victims.



1.  On the other hand, when I took classes in Sociology, I was also exposed to articles that connected male rape with heterosexual men.  (back)

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Poetry on Swans


Vanessa Raney is a graduate student in History at Claremont Graduate University. Her poetry has recently appeared in American Western Magazine (online), Quirk, Asphyxia Digest, WireTap Magazine (online), The Bayou Review, and The Thing Itself.

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Published November 17, 2003
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