I look at my daughter and I see nothing but potential.
But there is a part of me that sees a bigger picture.
I am a woman and I live in a patriarchy. When my daughter grows up, we will still live in a patriarchy.
Part of living in a patriarchy means that we don’t routinely talk about it. The reasons for this are linked to its survival. If we talk about it, we’ll realise how much it damages everyone in our society. Once we engage in that process of critique, there is a danger that we might want to design a fairer system.
The patriarchy can’t have that now, can it?
Since becoming a mother in 2013, I have paused many times to think about how this unfair system will affect my daughter. Not only do I encourage other parents to do the same – regardless of your child’s gender - but I invite you to take it a step further: let’s sit down and talk about it.
What Is Patriarchy?
To quote my heroine, Gerda Lerner, patriarchy is the manifestation and institutionalisation of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society, more generally.[i]
If we scratch a little deeper, we find that patriarchy has multiple dimensions, depending on a person’s other range of identities. Think of it as being intersectional.
For example, in Western societies, the men who derive the most benefit from patriarchy are white, economically privileged, heterosexual and neurotypical. Equally, the women who are most oppressed are likely to come from lower socio-economic backgrounds, to come from the Global Majority, may be neurodiverse or disabled and not heterosexual.
We also need to be clear about what patriarchy doesn’t look like.
A patriarchy is not:
· A system that only happened in the past.
· A system that is made up by “angry” women.
· A system that only exploits women.
· A system that can be “fixed” by legislative means.
The Experience of Sexism in a Patriarchy
Having established what patriarchy is and is not, it’s time to think about how it shows up in our everyday lives. Because it does show up. All day. Every day.
When I think about my daughter, the following spring immediately to mind and, although patriarchy is an intersectional experience, we (as women) face some common challenges:
· If my daughter is heterosexual and chooses to live with a male partner, she can expect to do as much as 60% more unpaid work in the home than him.
· She has a 1 in 3 chance of experiencing domestic violence.
· She has a 20% chance of experiencing sexual assault or rape (compared with 4% for men).
And let’s not forget those little extras, many of which are not quantitatively studied, but determine so much of the female experience … the judgement about your emotions (“Is it that time of the month?”), the slut-shaming, the mansplaining and assumption of inferiority (“I’ll talk to your husband about this”), the lack of balanced and authentic female representation in history books, in textbooks, blah blah blah … I’m tired just typing it.
The Experience of Sexism in a White Patriarchy
Arguably the most tragic aspect of patriarchy is how it combines with other systems of oppression to prevent women from coming together. Given that women comprise 52% of the UK population, if we were to unite, we would be unstoppable. But patriarchy works in conjunction with racism, classism and ableism to prevent this from happening.
For my daughter, this means that:
· If she chooses to have children, she is 4 times less likely to die in childbirth than a Black woman.
Again, these are just a few that spring to mind. White privilege is a real thing, and it is dangerous to those who don’t possess it.[ii]
Talking to Children About Patriarchy
So, how do we do it?
How do we adequately prepare children, girls especially, for their full participation in a society that does not work for their benefit? More importantly, how do we prepare them in a way that is not emotionally damaging and mentally draining?
I don’t have all the answers, but this is what I intend to do:
· I’m going to sit down and tell her it’s not her fault.
· I’m going to encourage her to learn about the racial benefit she derives from her whiteness and the class benefit from her socioeconomic status.
· I’m going to teach her skills that will prevent her from internalising misogyny.
That’s all I can do.
And I sincerely hope that other parents and caregivers will join me.
For the next 51 weeks, I’ll be writing about patriarchy and white privilege – past and present. Sign up to stay updated.