Understanding What Exactly ‘The Patriarchy’ Is

Women have been treated as though we are worth less than men for so long, many have accepted the reality. It seems so commonplace throughout the world that we might almost forget to question why this came to be in the first place.

What’s clear to me is that this divide is not a natural nor logical one, but instead a strategic one. Think about it, many women experience one of the most unpleasant experiences every single month: a cycle that causes one to endure pain, fatigue and inconvenience while still performing regular tasks. Many women are also the ones who endure one of the worst pains known to humankind: the pain of childbirth. Following from that, many women are the ones who can bring life into this world.

Yet, women have been repeatedly told that they are the weak and dependent ones. How is that possible? And why would this belief become so widespread?

How clever it is to make a whole faction feel that they are less than, so much so that even they start to believe it about themselves. They are forced to accept it even when what they live and experience points to a very different understanding.

Saying a group is less than is one thing, but deliberately putting rules and restrictions in place to ensure that a group remains less than is another. When we speak about difference in the treatment of gender, where one gender is treated as more valuable and worthy than another, specifically when men hold all power over others in a society, we call this patriarchy.

The issue becomes a bit more complicated when we understand the difference between sex and gender and, as I mentioned in my last article, when we consider intersectionality, but for now I will speak about patriarchy in its more general terms.

Patriarchy exists in the following forms:

when a young girl is told from the moment she is born that she cannot do the same things as her brother because she is a girl and he is a boy;

when that young girl sees movies that portray women as the damsels constantly waiting for a man to save them;

when that young girl becomes a teenager who looks for herself on T.V. and all she sees are sexualized images;

when that young girl is only exposed to media that is produced and created by men who aim to make her feel uncomfortable in her own skin, and push her to purchase products to enhance the features they find to be most important;

when that young girl grows up to be a woman who, no matter how much better she is than her male counterpart at her job, she will always make less money than he does;

when that woman is asked about her workout regimen and her measurements rather than about her intellect or decision-making capabilities.

Patriarchy also lives in the young boy who:

is told that he must achieve dominion over the girls in his life and that if he doesn’t, then there is something wrong with him;

in the young boy who is told not to cry because emotions are for girls;

in the teenage boy who consumes pornography that justifies the sexual abuse of his female counterparts;

in the man who becomes so infuriated when a woman declines his advances that he feels justified in stalking, insulting or assaulting her;

and in the husband who hurts his wife when she does not follow his orders.

Saying a group is less than is one thing, but deliberately putting rules and restrictions in place to ensure that a group remains less than is another.

We often do not pay enough attention to the presence of patriarchy until it takes form in its most extreme ways. We can more easily allow ourselves to accept it in its subtle states, but we might rarely consider how these states progress and grow. We forget to ask why patriarchal rules even exist in the first place. Instead of questioning accepted notions, we can allow ourselves to repeat unnatural cycles.

The truth is, however, that there is nothing natural nor logical about patriarchy at all. When we begin to think about patriarchy as a set of strategies to control others — to oppress them, to keep them from gaining freedoms — then we understand the need to oppose it from the same strategical mentality. This does not, by any means, signify that those who oppose patriarchy should use the same modes of oppression on those who uphold it. In fact, those of us who oppose patriarchy should do the complete opposite.

We should dismiss systems that place any person over another person. We should educate our children on their worth as people rather than confining them to oppressive categories and we should create more equitable opportunities for those who have been held down by patriarchal chains.

What do you think? Have you experienced patriarchy in any of these forms?

Images via Nicole Ho

Anna is a writer and PhD student. She graduated from the University of Cambridge with her Masters in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies in 2015, after having graduated from Stanford University with her bachelors in Medical Anthropology in 2014, as a member of Phi Beta Kappa. Anna is deeply interested in gender and race issues in the US, especially as these relate to youth, education and popular culture. She is pursuing her PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge as a Gates scholar.

  • Rubina January 15, 2018

    I like that this was chosen as an article and in general agree with all the premises and explanations in the article. The article, however, was poorly written! There were sentences that were missing punctuation and it was hard to read. I had to re-read a lot of the article in order to understand what was being said. I am still only on my second cup of coffee, so there’s that! No, really. I LOVE Darling Magazine but request some upgraded writing skills please! XOX

  • Jackie January 13, 2018

    I like your article. Patriarchy is a difficult thing for me to get amped up about in some ways, but I definitely understand in others. Anything related to man on woman violence, I feel very strongly against! Ive never experienced it, but I fear it. You hear about it all the time. And I understand that more attention is direly needed on talking to young men about how to treat women. Yet, I’m a woman who was always top of my class and told I could do anything boys could do. And went to a high school with other women who were all very empowered and accomplished. So it’s hard for me to get as passionate about that point because I don’t see adults belittling girls anymore in the mainstream (though I understand it happens around the world). I didnt experience it happening to anyone I know nowadays so I dont fear it. So, some parts of the “patriarchy” concept I see strongly and others weakly. Thats why I really like your point about rooting out “subtle” forms of sexism as a way to eradicate the foundations of the extreme forms we see in gender violence. That helps bring it together for me. Thank you for writing.

  • Rebecca January 12, 2018

    The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.
    — Albert Ellis

  • Leigha January 12, 2018

    Love the article! Love that you mentioned the specific issues (intersectionalism, gender vs sex) but took a step back to inform at the general level!

  • I like that you gave anecdotes and examples to what patriarchy looks like in our society. Really helped me understand the concept more! 🙂

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog