You are on page 1of 15

This article was downloaded by: [University of Sussex Library]

On: 26 March 2015, At: 08:22

Publisher: Routledge
Informa Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered
office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

Contemporary Politics
Publication details, including instructions for authors and
subscription information:

‘Patriarchy’: A concept too useful to

Valerie Bryson
University of Huddersfield
Published online: 03 Apr 2008.

To cite this article: Valerie Bryson (1999) ‘Patriarchy’: A concept too useful to lose,
Contemporary Politics, 5:4, 311-324, DOI: 10.1080/13569779908450014

To link to this article:


Taylor & Francis makes every effort to ensure the accuracy of all the information (the
“Content”) contained in the publications on our platform. However, Taylor & Francis,
our agents, and our licensors make no representations or warranties whatsoever as to
the accuracy, completeness, or suitability for any purpose of the Content. Any opinions
and views expressed in this publication are the opinions and views of the authors,
and are not the views of or endorsed by Taylor & Francis. The accuracy of the Content
should not be relied upon and should be independently verified with primary sources
of information. Taylor and Francis shall not be liable for any losses, actions, claims,
proceedings, demands, costs, expenses, damages, and other liabilities whatsoever
or howsoever caused arising directly or indirectly in connection with, in relation to or
arising out of the use of the Content.

This article may be used for research, teaching, and private study purposes. Any
substantial or systematic reproduction, redistribution, reselling, loan, sub-licensing,
systematic supply, or distribution in any form to anyone is expressly forbidden. Terms &
Conditions of access and use can be found at
Contemporary Politics, Volume 5, Number 4, 1999 311

'Patriarchy': a concept too useful to lose

University of Huddersfield

Since the late sixties, many women have found that the feminist concept of
'patriarchy' provides them with a powerful new way of seeing the world
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

which both makes sense of their own experiences and, by identifying the
otherwise invisible extent of men's power, provides a vital first step for
feminist politics. The concept has, however, been heavily criticized by other
feminists who argue that it produces a hopelessly simplistic and distorted view
of the world, that it reflects a narrowly white, western and middle-class agenda
and that its use is politically counter-productive. Many have also attacked its
apparent theoretical pretensions, arguing that it confuses description with
explanation and substitutes slogans for genuine analysis.
This article examines these criticisms, but finds that the concept is still
politically useful for feminists. However, the article defends feminist use of the
concept only in strictly limited ways. It does not claim that the experience of all
women everywhere is somehow 'the same', that all women are victims and all
men oppressors or that no woman has more power and privilege than any
man. It also rejects the claim that sex oppression is deeper than or causally
prior to that based on 'race' or class; indeed, it argues that patriarchy is not a
system of oppression in the same sense as capitalist class society and it does
not claim that the concept has explanatory, rather than analytical, value.

Background: the 'personal is political' and the identification of male power

The feminist concept of patriarchy was first systematically set out in 1970 by
the white American feminist Kate Millett in Sexual Politics.1 This was a time
when many educated, mainly white young women who had been active in the
Civil Rights, anti-war and student movements began to apply the language of
oppression and liberation to their own situation. In small 'consciousness
raising' groups, they discovered that their bad political, employment, sexual
and family experiences were not simply personal misfortunes, but seemed both
to be widely shared with other women and to build up into a general pattern
of male use and abuse of power. This new understanding gave rise to the key
slogan 'the personal is political', and to the idea that all women could unite in
a common sisterhood; it also provided the foundation for Millett's more
theoretical analysis of male power.
According to Millett, the relationship between the sexes in all known
societies has been based on men's power over women; it is therefore political.
This patriarchal power is, she says, so universal, so ubiquitous and so complete
that it appears 'natural' and, until named by feminists, invisible. It is main-
tained by a process of socialization which begins in the family and is reinforced

1355-9775/99/040311-14 © 1999 Taylor & Francis Ltd

312 Valerie Bryson

by education, literature and religion; it also rests upon economic exploitation,

state power and, ultimately, force (particularly sexual violence and rape). This
means that power and politics are not confined to the public worlds of paid
employment and government, but extend into the most intimate relationships.
It also means that men's domination in positions of economic and political
power is linked to the exercise of male authority within the family, and that
apparently separate areas of life interact to legitimize women's subordination
and maintain male power.
Much of this analysis was not original, for some much earlier feminists had
already identified the far-reaching nature of male power and linked public and
private forms of female subordination.2 By 1970, however, such analyses were
largely forgotten and for many women Millett's ideas were a revelation,
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

enabling separate pieces of knowledge and experience to 'click' into place and
transforming the way they saw the world.3 Here her introduction of the term
'patriarchy' is of critical and lasting importance, for this one word seemed able
to show the connections between apparently random experiences and isolated
insights and to identify the organizing principle of societies both over time and
in different parts of the world; by revealing the vested interests and power
structures involved, it also made sense of the hostility generated by even the
most moderate feminist claims. As such, the concept of patriarchy seemed to
provide feminists with a powerful new perspective with which they could
develop a more sustained analysis than had hitherto been possible, and that
could inspire new and more effective forms of political action
The term 'patriarchy' is of course not new to political theory, and Millett
took earlier ideas about the power of fathers in the family as her starting point,
stating that 'the principles of patriarchy appear to be twofold: male shall
dominate female, elder male shall dominate young'.4 Some later writers have
argued that the second of these principles must remain part of the feminist
analysis of patriarchy.5 However, Millett did not explore this principle, and I
shall follow most other feminists in setting it aside and restricting the appli-
cation of the concept to male-female relationships. Some writers have also
argued that the term should be restricted to men's family based power.6
However, the whole point of Millett's analysis is that the private and public
exercise of male power cannot be separated; in arguing that the term should be
understood in this wider sense, I am again following the majority of later
feminist writers.
Today, many feminists use the term 'patriarchy' simply as a shorthand for
male power and male-dominated society. Used in this sense, it both describes
power relationships and brings out the interconnections between different
areas of life which are still invisible to many (possibly most) 'male-stream'
theorists. Unlike other terms such as 'gender', 'gender regimes', 'sex class',
'gender relations' or 'sexism', it is not an 'empty' or gender-neutral category,
but provides a permanent reminder that men rather than women are the
dominant and structurally privileged gender group.7 This process of 'naming'
is politically vital if people are to understand the difference between acts and
processes which perpetuate subordination and those designed to challenge it.
There is, for example, a world of difference between men's clubs which have
excluded women from elite structures and networks and women-only groups
which aim at empowering them, or between affirmative action programmes to
'Patriarchy' 313

improve women's employment prospects and the traditional word-of-mouth

recommendations which have benefited men; similarly, jokes against men can
subvert patriarchal inequalities, whilst jokes against women serve to legitimate
and maintain them.
Since Sexual Politics was published, other feminist writers have developed
the analysis of patriarchy in a very wide range of ways.8 Some claim to have
identified its central source in sexuality, reproduction or the family; others
focus on employment or the patriarchal nature of state power; yet others have
concentrated on the ways in which patriarchy is maintained through culture or
language. Attempts have also been made to analyse the historical origins of
patriarchy, its development over time and the variable ways in which it has
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

been experienced by different groups of women; some have used Marxist

concepts to explore patriarchy's relationship to the capitalist class system.
Theoretical differences have been reflected in a very diverse range of political
activities; these have included attempts to improve women's political represen-
tation and career prospects, self-help groups for black women, anti-pornogra-
phy campaigns, women-only peace camps and the establishment of women's
refuges. The identification of power relationships in private life has also meant
that some feminists see changing their relationships with men, either by
conducting these on their own terms or by living without them, as a central
political issue.
These competing analyses and practices clearly involve very different
priorities, and there have been fierce disputes amongst feminists convinced
that they alone hold the key to unlocking patriarchy. Nevertheless, at a very
general level, they can also be seen as complementary, so that theorists
working in one area can learn from those working in another, and different
forms of political activity can have a cumulative effect.9 However, other critics
argue that feminist use of the term 'patriarchy' has itself become a problem for
feminist politics, and that its continued use is not only unnecessary but
positively counter-productive.

A concept past its sell-by date?

Once it had been pointed out, the patriarchal nature of society when Millett
was writing seemed obvious to many people, and much subsequent research
appeared to confirm the picture; as Cynthia Cockburn has said:
If the United Nations Decade of Women, 1975-85, did nothing else it demon-
strated the reality of patriarchy. The opening years saw the assembling of
detailed evidence of women's subordination around the world; the end of the
decade confirmed just how hard it was to change anything. Patriarchy was real
and it was durable.10
Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny that the lives and expectations of many
women have changed dramatically in the years since Sexual Politics was
published. In many nations of the world women have gained new legal rights
and protection from discrimination, better political representation and greater
economic independence, and many have much more sexual freedom and
reproductive choice than previous generations. These visible changes appear to
have been accompanied by a widespread shift in opinion in favour of greater
314 Valerie Bryson

gender equality, both amongst many ordinary men and women and on the part
of governments and international bodies such as the European Community and
the United Nations; indeed, after the 1995 Beijing World Conference on
Women, the Secretary-General of the United Nations declared that 'The move-
ment for gender equality the world over has been one of the defining move-
ments of our times.'11
These changes do not, however, make the concept of patriarchy redundant.
In some nations, particularly those characterized by the rise of religious
fundamentalism and/or ethnic conflict, the subordination and exploitation of
women has become particularly acute; even in the most 'progressive' nations,
patterns of gender inequality remain remarkably unchanged.12 Despite its
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

reputation as a feminist success story, inequality in employment and politics is

particularly acute in the USA, where women's representation in Congress has
not yet reached 10% of men's and full-time women workers still earn only
about 70% of the pay of full-time men.13 In Britain, women's representation in
the House of Commons more than doubled at the 1997 election but, at just
under 20%, it remains far short of equality; the gender gap in hourly pay
remains at 20% for full-time workers (and actually rose slightly during 1998)
and is 40% if part-time women workers are compared to full-time men; some
reports suggest that female graduates are now finding it harder than men to
find employment.14 Meanwhile, despite the alleged rise of the caring, sharing
'new man', women remain primarily responsible for unpaid domestic and
caring work within the home, the lives of many women continue to be
brutalized by the threat or reality of male violence, and male judges, doctors
and politicians can still restrict women's sexual and reproductive choices.15
Although there are important national variations, the 1995 Beijing Conference
made it clear that similar patterns are to be found throughout the world.16
These practical forms of inequality and oppression are relatively easy to
document. Men's privilege is however in many ways much more deep-seated,
and stems from the assumption that they, rather than women, are the measure
of humanity and that society should be organized in accordance with their
needs.17 From this dominant perspective, women may be allowed or even
encouraged to compete with men for employment or political office, but the
terms of this competition remain set by people who can never give birth and
who have been absolved from many domestic and caring responsibilities. This
means that women are seen as 'problem workers', likely to take maternity
leave or time off to care for sick children. It also means that ideas of 'merit' are
based on a male model, so that qualities traditionally associated with women,
such as dexterity and empathy, are less well rewarded than those traditionally
associated with men, such as physical strength and a tough management style,
and the work of a nursery nurse is much less well rewarded than that of a
corporate lawyer. Similarly, women's ability to give birth and their traditional
role in bringing up children are treated as negative constraints on their ability
to compete with men and participate as citizens, rather than as contributions to
society which should attract status or financial reward. In contrast, the inability
of fathers who work long hours to become involved in the care of their own
children is not usually seen as a problem for a society or a failure on the part
of men. The 'normality' of male perspectives extends into cultural and aca-
demic life, so that, for example, newspaper pages devoted to domestic matters
'Patriarchy' 315

are still often labelled 'the women's section', but those on city finance or
football are treated as gender neutral; similarly, although there has been a
growth of subjects such as 'women's history' and 'feminist political theory',
these have been marginalized as subsets of 'normal', male-stream subjects,
leaving the latter largely unchanged.
The combination of practical inequalities and less tangible assumptions
mean that, despite the gains that have been won, it is still meaningful to
describe western societies such as the USA and Britain as 'patriarchal'. How-
ever, the term has been largely abandoned by younger feminist writers, such
as Natasha Walter in Britain and Naomi Wolf in the USA.18 Although they
insist on celebrating women's strengths and rejecting 'victim feminism', these
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

writers agree that women continue to face serious problems, including both
'private' matters such as domestic violence and 'public' inequalities in employ-
ment and political representation; indeed, Walter argues that although young
women today seem to have unprecedented opportunities, they can experience
a 'terrible shock' when they enter the adult world and find that it is still heavily
biased in favour of men and that their freedom is still strictly constrained.19
Neither Walter nor Wolf uses the word 'patriarchy' to describe the disadvan-
tages which young women today so unexpectedly encounter. In abandoning
this central feminist term, which they do not challenge directly, they have
rejected a handle on the world which can still provoke a powerful sense of
recognition, even amongst younger people (every year I am surprised at the
number of students—male as well as female—who, after I have persuaded
them to read Chapter Two of Sexual Politics, comment that 'It could have been
written yesterday' or 'Everything fell into place'). If to be forewarned is to be
forearmed, making this perspective more readily available would seem likely
to help young women resist discrimination and assert their rights, and there-
fore strengthen Walter and Wolf's call for 'new feminism' (Walter) or 'power
feminism' (Wolf).
The fact that many people find the concept of patriarchy illuminating is,
however, no guarantee of its real value (after all, many people have also said
that the world makes sense once it has been described as the product of an
international Jewish conspiracy). Walter and Wolf's failure to use the term
'patriarchy' is probably no accident, but stems from their criticisms of the ways
in which feminism has developed since the seventies. These criticisms are
shared with some other feminists who argue that, far from providing clearer
insights, the concept of patriarchy produces a distorted view of the world
which can only damage the feminist cause. It is to these criticisms that I now

Too simple a concept for a complex world?

For some feminists in the seventies, the beauty of the concept of patriarchy lay
in its simplicity. It seemed to cut through distracting details and irrelevant
differences to lay bare the essential, underlying power structure and organizing
principle of society, exposing the reality of women's oppression and identify-
ing men as the agents and beneficiaries of this. Today, the search for such
over-arching theory seems decidedly old-fashioned. It is not necessary to go all
the way down the post-modernist road to see the dangers of imposing a simple
316 Valerie Bryson

model on complex reality, and feminist critics have long argued that the
concept of patriarchy is so crude, one-dimensional and unsophisticated that it
is simply wrong.20 For these critics, its use imposes an ideological straitjacket
which ignores the experiences of many men and women, inhibits a realistic
assessment of political possibilities and rules out the most effective forms of
political action. Their criticisms stem from four interconnected accusations: that
the concept of patriarchy involves ahistorical, transnational generalizations
which conceal more than they reveal; that its universalistic claims are based on
the experiences of white, middle-class, western women; that it rests upon a
false, essentialist dichotomy which treats all men as the enemy and all women
as passive victims; and that its focus on the politics of personal life encourages
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

an inward-looking and apolitical perspective on the world. Such accusations

are serious. However, I shall argue that they reflect misuse and misunderstand-
ing of the concept rather than being inherent in it, and that most feminists have
handled it much more carefully than critics suggest.
Although the term 'patriarchy' can usefully alert us to common patterns
which seem to recur throughout history and across national and cultural
boundaries, the identification of such patterns can at times be superficial and
problematic. As critics have pointed out, too-easy comparison of women's
experiences across the centuries and within and between contemporary soci-
eties can trivialize the depth of oppression experienced by some women by
seeming to equate it with the inconveniences faced by others; it can also
suggest that 'Women's powerlessness, victimisation and lack of resources
constitutes women's timeless history.'21 The potential for over-generalization is
clear in the work of white American writers such as Andrea Dworkin and
Mary Daly, who have linked the practices of foot-binding, witch-burning and
genital mutilation to the tyranny of contemporary American fashion and
gynaecology.22 Adrienne Rich similarly seemed to abstract women's situation
from any social or historical context when she wrote:
Under patriarchy, I may live in purdah or drive a truck; I may raise my children
in a kibbutz, or be the sole breadwinner for a fatherless family ... I may serve my
husband his early-morning coffee within the clay walls of a Barbar village or
march in an academic procession; whatever my status or situation, my derived
economic class or my sexual preference, I live under the power of the fathers,
and have access only to so much of privilege or influence as the patriarchy is
willing to accede to me, and only for so long as I will pay the price for male

Here there is a clear danger of taking the short step from identifying patterns
to suggesting that the situation of all women is somehow 'the same'. However,
it should be obvious that social pressure to wear high heels is qualitatively
different from breaking the bones in a girl child's feet or cutting out her clitoris;
similarly, being passed over for promotion is not the same as being denied the
right to work outside the home, being whistled at in the street is not the same
as being sold into prostitution, and having to empty the dishwasher for a
husband who refuses to take his turn is very different from walking five miles
to a well for water or cleaning another woman's home for less than the
minimum wage. It is therefore essential that the analysis of similarities does not
slip into the denial of differences amongst women.
'Patriarchy' 317

Such crude simplicities are, however, avoidable, rather than being an

inevitable consequence of employing the concept of patriarchy. Millett's orig-
inal analysis clearly stated that patriarchy 'exhibits great variety in history and
locale' and that reforms in the USA and Europe meant that it had become
'much altered and attenuated'.24 Since then, much work has been done by
feminists in attempting to analyse the specific historical forms which patriarchy
has taken and its relationship to other forms of oppression. In the seventies and
eighties, there was heated debate over the ways in which Marxist concepts
could be used to understand the changing nature of women's sex-specific
oppression and over whether patriarchy and capitalism constituted 'dual
systems' of oppression, or whether there was a 'unified system' of capitalist
patriarchy.25 In 1990, Sylvia Walby claimed to identify a general shift in
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

western societies from private patriarchy based within the family to public
patriarchy based on structures outside the home; she has since analysed the
complex gains and losses experienced by different groups of women in
different areas of their lives.26 As discussed below, some black feminists have
also used the concept to analyse the processes through which gender intercon-
nects with race and class. Used in these ways, the concept of patriarchy can
provide a starting point for the analysis of change, rather than a description of
immutable and universal oppression.
The claim that the analysis of patriarchy is only relevant to an elite minority
of women can also be rejected. Certainly, some feminists, privileged by
everything except their gender, have failed to understand that for many other
women oppression based on race or class may be much more vicious and every
bit as deep-seated, and that many men are denied the privileges which their
sex is supposed to bestow. Had Kate Millett been arguing from the perspective
of black and/or working-class women, she would have been much less likely
to claim, as she did, that patriarchy is the oldest and deepest form of
oppression. By insisting on the reality of a 'sisterhood' that transcends other
social divisions, white, middle-class feminists have at times ignored not only
the existence of other forms of oppression, but the ways in which privileged
feminists benefit from the oppression of other women and even directly act as
exploiters themselves (most obviously by employing women as badly paid
cleaners and child minders). Privileged feminists have also frequently assumed
that analyses based on their own situation have universal validity. For exam-
ple, feminist critiques of the family as an oppressive institution have ignored
the experiences of groups whose traditional kinship patterns were brutally
destroyed under slavery, those who are today denied the right to family life by
restrictive immigration laws and those for whom the family provides a sanctu-
ary from the racism of the wider society. Similarly, feminist complaints that
women have been excluded from employment has little meaning for those who
live in communities in which women have always gone out to work because
men have never been able to earn enough to support their families.
Such narrow self-centredness is not, however, confined to those feminists
who employ the concept of patriarchy in their analysis. It is, for example,
strikingly clear in the early work of the liberal feminist Betty Friedan, who
called upon women to fulfil themselves by working outside the home, even if
they had to spend most of their earnings on a cleaning woman.27 Rather than
being the product of a faulty concept, it reflects the predictably limited
318 Valerie Bryson

perspectives of women who are culturally as well as materially privileged by

their class and race situation. Just as men have been able to treat themselves as
the measure of humanity, so white, middle-class women have assumed that
they can speak for the whole of their sex. Similar marginalization takes place
in relation to other forms of social inequality, so that people who are heterosex-
ual, able-bodied and of working age have been able to portray their needs and
experiences as more central and important that those of gay men and lesbians,
disabled people and those who are very young or old. As the black American
feminist Patricia Collins has said:
Although most individuals have little difficulty identifying their own victimiza-
tion within some major system of oppression—whether it be race, social class,
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

religion, physical ability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age or gender—they

typically fail to see how their thought and actions uphold someone else's
During the nineties, the ideas of post-modernism alerted many feminist theo-
rists to the importance of recognizing the specificity of women's situations and
the dangers of over-generalization. According to the black British feminist
Heidi Mirza, feminists should therefore welcome post-modernism, because it
has 'allowed the celebration of difference, the recognition of otherness, the
presence of multiple and changeable subjectivities'.29 Taken to an extreme, this
kind of thinking can seem to deny the existence not only of patriarchy but also
of the terms 'man' or 'woman', which it sees as social constructs rather than
objectively 'real' categories. However, it is not incompatible with tactical and
provisional alliances, and post-modernism may not be as inevitably hostile to
collective feminist action and the identification of patterned inequalities as
some of its critics have suggested.30
Although its influence is perhaps now on the wane, post-modernism has
helped ensure that 'other' women are less blatantly ignored by white feminists
than in the past; nevertheless, they are still often marginalized by analyses
which compare and contrast oppressions based on gender with those based on
class or race, and leave little scope for understanding the experiences of those
who are oppressed in more than one way. However, recent work by some
black feminists suggests both that if we are to understand any of these
oppressions we must analyse them together and that the experience of disad-
vantaged black women is central to this analysis. Here it is argued that
different forms of oppression are not simply cumulative, but that they interact
to produce a 'multiplier' effect. This means not only that the experience of
being a 'woman' or a 'man' is qualitatively different for people in different
social groups, but also that the meaning of being 'black' or 'working class'
interacts with other forms of socially produced group identity, and that the
analysis of class cannot be isolated from the analysis of gender or race.
Patricia Collins has argued that because African-American women 'occupy
a position whereby the inferior half of a series of dichotomies converge', their
perspective necessarily leads to this kind of multifaceted approach and the
understanding that different systems of oppression are not independent, but
support each other.31 This perspective enables us to think inclusively about
other systems of oppression and to see that any one individual is likely to be
a member of both subordinate and privileged groups rather than simply either
'Patriarchy' 319

a victim or an oppressor; it also reminds us that identities are based on

privilege as well as oppression (for example, all women, not only women of
colour, have a racial identity). In terms of political allegiances, it supports the
black feminist bell hooks' argument that the idea of sisterhood, which implies an
oppression shared by all women, should make way for that of solidarity. This
enables different groups of women to support each other without insisting that
their situation is identical; it also enables women to form alliances with
oppressed groups of men.32
Although she does not explicitly attack its use, Collins' analysis does not
employ the term 'patriarchy'.33 As her stated aim is to develop an epistemology
drawn from black knowledge and experience rather than to engage in debates
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

and agendas set by white women, it is reasonable that she does not feel it
necessary to justify her decision to avoid it. However, she does use the terms
'gender' and 'sexism', which have also been employed by white feminists.
Some other black feminists such as bell hooks appear to have no problem with
the term 'patriarchy': thus hooks writes that'... sexism looms as large as racism
as an oppressive force in the lives of black women. Institutionalized sexism—that
is, patriarchy—formed the base of the American social structure along with
racial imperialism.'34 Given that Collins agrees that society is structured by a
system of gender in which women are oppressed, there seems no obvious
reason to avoid labelling this system 'patriarchy' if to do so is politically
constructive, as I have argued that it is. The concept of patriarchy can,
however, only contribute towards our understanding if it is remembered that,
although all men and women live in a patriarchal society, they experience its
effects in a range of very different ways.
Awareness of the interactive nature of different systems of oppression and
the need for solidarity between members of differently oppressed groups helps
guard against the third criticism made of the concept of patriarchy: that it
produces a view of history and society in which all men are oppressors and all
women are victims and in which feminist political activity must include the
avoidance of all contact with men. Certainly, some feminists have a very
polarized view of gender relationships, and a few have seen lesbian separatism
as the only viable feminist option; such feminists have, however, always been
a tiny minority. Most feminists analyses of patriarchy have stressed that, far
from being helpless victims, women throughout history have resisted patriar-
chal domination in all kinds of ways; they have also been very careful to
distinguish between male power and male persons. Far from seeing all men as
an undifferentiated enemy, who can never be trusted as fathers, friends,
colleagues, sexual partners or political allies, many feminists have therefore
explored the possibility of male support and political solidarity and analysed
the ways in which some or all men may themselves be harmed by patriarchy.35
At the same time, however, retention of the term 'patriarchy' provides us with
a salutary reminder that even the most well-intentioned men are unlikely to
prioritize gender inequalities in the same way as feminist women; in highlight-
ing the extent to which men continue to see themselves and their interests as
central to the human experience, the term can also forewarn us against the
dangers of what has been described as 'phallic drift': 'the powerful tendency
for public discussion of gender issues to drift, inexorably, back to the male
point of view'.36
320 Valerie Bryson

As discussed at the beginning of this article, the identification of power

relationships in the family and personal life as well as in the public sphere was
central to Millett's original analysis of patriarchy. For some feminist critics, the
claim that 'the personal is political' has had a highly negative effect on feminist
politics. Most recently, Natasha Walter has complained that feminism's focus
on personal life has distracted attention from the serious political and economic
inequalities that women still face and encouraged them to concentrate on
self-help and personal development rather than collective feminist action; she
also claims that 'politically correct' feminists believe that feminism is incompat-
ible with enjoyment of fashion or heterosexuality. Once again, however, these
criticisms are true only of a minority of feminists, and they are perhaps derived
more from media representations of the women's movement than the move-
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

ment itself. As Walter herself says, feminism's original recognition of such

issues as the extent of domestic and sexual violence and the partial nature of
dominant male viewpoints was vital: 'The fusion of private and political issues
can never now be put aside. It has transformed our lives.'37 If feminism is to
continue to provide the starting point for meaningful political activity, it cannot
abandon this insight, which is built into the concept of patriarchy. This does
not mean that feminists should police each others' private lives or that they can
never hope to change the world before they have put their own personal
houses in impeccable order; it does mean, however, that feminists' personal
circumstances are inherently interconnected with their collective political activ-
ities; although it is unlikely that many will decide to forswear all relationships
with men, it may be that some will decide that involvement with men is too
energy-sapping, and choose celibacy or lesbianism on political grounds.38
The criticisms discussed in this section are generally true only of the more
extreme exponents of the concept of patriarchy; they are not an inevitable
consequence of its use. Other criticisms focus on its theoretical status; the next
section examines the claim that use of the concept involves sloppy, far-reaching
and dangerously misleading theoretical assumptions.

Description, analysis or explanation?

In describing her work as 'notes towards a theory of patriarchy',39 Millett
seemed to imply that she was doing much more than simply describing male
power; critics, however, say that both she and later feminist writers on
patriarchy have confused description with explanation and that, despite their
theoretical pretensions, they have provided only the former; they have, in
short, both claimed too much and delivered too little.40
Even at its most basic level, however, the concept of patriarchy is not
confined to description; nor could it be. Deciding which 'facts' are politically
significant inevitably involves theoretical assumptions; in describing facts that
had previously gone unremarked, feminist discussions of patriarchy provided
a profound challenge to conventional political theory and the definition of
politics itself. More particularly, in identifying recurrent patterns of gender
inequality and in showing how apparently separate manifestations of male
privilege interact to reinforce one another, it enables us to see that male power
cannot be reduced to individual acts or attitudes and that it is more than the
sum of its parts. This may not constitute a fully-fledged theory; it does however
'Patriarchy' 321

provide the basis for analysis and understanding which goes well beyond
simple description and the unproblematic reporting of facts.
The understanding that gender inequalities are not random but regular and
patterned, and that different forms of male domination help maintain each
other, has led many feminist writers to define patriarchy as a system of male
domination and female subordination or oppression.41 Here, the term 'system'
can usefully highlight the recurrent and interconnected nature of male power
without denying the possibility of effective feminist action; indeed, the stress
on interconnection suggests that feminist challenges to male power in one area
can have a knock-on effect in others, so that the vicious circle of mutually
reinforcing spheres of domination can be broken into at a number of points and
gradually converted into a virtuous circle of progressive change.42
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

To describe patriarchy as a 'system' can, however, also be problematic.43

Firstly, there is a clear danger of slipping into more ambitious explanatory
claims which are based on tautology (men dominate women because they
have more power) rather than on the identification of genuine causal
relationships. Secondly, some writers have assumed that patriarchy consti-
tutes a system in the same sense as capitalism, and that it is the inevitable and
self-perpetuating product of a material base (most commonly identified as
men's control over women's domestic labour and/or reproductive
power).44 However, as Anna Pollert has recently argued, patriarchy does
not have an internal dynamic that is equivalent to the capitalist pursuit of
profit, and men's oppression of women is not the product of abstract
necessity in the same kind of way as capitalism's exploitation of wage
labour; to treat capitalism and patriarchy as equivalent systems of op-
pression is, therefore, to attribute to the latter inappropriate explanatory
powers.45 Attempts to conceptualize a system of patriarchy that has a
degree of independence from class relationships, whether as one half of a
'dual system' or as a 'semi-autonomous' structure, can also lead to a
misguided attempt to discover a material base that is independent of other
economic forces, rather than understanding that gender and class relation-
ships are the inseparably intertwined products of lived historical pro-
While it is useful to see patriarchy as a 'system', it is, therefore, essential to
stress the strictly limited sense in which this term is being used. Seeing
patriarchy as a system in this limited sense does not involve any claim for
independence, causal primacy or equivalence in relation to other patterns of
inequality or oppression. As such, it opens up questions for investigation,
rather than claiming to provide a full theoretical explanation of gender rela-
tionships. It also allows scope for developing the black feminist ideas of
interdependent oppressions discussed in the previous section and to explore
the possibilities of a 'politics of solidarity' amongst oppressed groups.

The goal of feminist theory is to understand women's subordination, op-
pression or exploitation in order that this can be challenged and changed.
Because naming male power is a vital first step in this process, the concept of
patriarchy remains of critical importance. As Cynthia Cockburn has said:
322 Valerie Bryson

... 'patriarchy' is not merely a colourful term used by feminists to rebuke men.
It is not a thing of bygone days, nor a rhetorical flourish. It is an important
dimension of the structures of modern societies, whether capitalist or state
socialist. It is a living reality, a system that quite observably shapes the live and
differentiates the chances of women and of men. The struggle for sex equal-
ity... is an attempt to contradict, to undo, patriarchy.47
Without the concept, however, these observable facts are easily overlooked, or
dismissed as individual or local experiences. If we abandon it, women will
continue to be taken by surprise at the obstacles that confront them and they
will be denied a way of seeing the world that challenges dominant, male-cen-
tred, 'common-sense' assumptions. It is clear that the concept can easily be
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

misused, and it may be that it should, as Pollert says, be labelled 'dangerous:

handle with care'.48 However, the same is true of most political concepts, and
if we were to abandon all that have been misused, few, if any, would be left.
In 1988 Carole Pateman wrote of the concept of patriarchy:
Some have argued that the problems with the concept are so great that it should
be abandoned. To follow such a course would mean that, to the best of my
knowledge, feminist political theory would then be without the only concept
that refers specifically to the subjection of women, that singles out the form of
political right that all men experience by virtue of being men. If the problem has
no name, patriarchy can all too easily slide back into obscurity beneath the
conventional categories of political analysis.49
Today, in a supposedly 'post-feminist' era, this danger is even more acute.
Rather than abandoning the concept, feminist activists should be exploiting its
potential for increasing the political awareness of a new generation and for
developing new forms of resistance and solidarity in the struggle for a more
genuinely inclusive and equal society for all. As part of this process, it is
important to be able to say that 'post-feminism' will only be possible in a
society that is also 'post-patriarchal'.

1. K. Millett, Sexual Politics. References to the 1985 London edition.
2. This is particularly true of some of the early socialist and Marxist feminists and the
nineteenth century American campaigner Elizabeth Cady Stanton. See V. Bryson,
Feminist Political Theory: an Introduction, Basingstoke, 1992.
3. For an account of the early reception of Millett's work and the 'click' experience, see
S. Tobias, Faces of Feminism. An Activist's Reflections on the Women's Movement,
Colorado, 1997, especially pp. 5, 192.
4. Millett, op. cit., p. 25.
5. See, for example, V. Randall, Women and Politics, Basingstoke, 1987, p. 20.
6. See the discussion in J. Gardiner, Gender, Care and Economics, Basingstoke, 1997; and
J. Acker, 'The Problem with Patriarchy', Sociology, Vol. 23, No. 2, 1989.
7. Although Joan Acker advocates the use of 'gender' rather than 'patriarchy', she
recognizes that 'Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may
be more easily assimilated and co-opted than patriarchy', op. cit. pp. 239-40. Anna
Pollert disagrees, and claims that 'patriarchy' can be more readily co-opted into the
obscurity of post-modern narrative or an anti-feminist backlash than can 'gender';
I do not however find this argument convincing. See A. Pollert, 'Gender and Class
Revisited; or, the Poverty of "Patriarchy"', Sociology, Vol. 30, No. 4, 1996, pp. 652-3.
In her latest book, Sylvia Walby tends to prefer 'gender regimes' to 'patriarchy',
although she does not really explain this change from her earlier usage and seems
'Patriarchy' 323

to see the terms as interchangeable. See S. Walby, Gender Transformations, London,

1997, p. 6; and S. Walby, Theorizing Patriarchy, Oxford, 1990.
8. For an overview of the ways in which the concept has been developed and its links
to various forms of political activity, see V. Bryson, Feminist Debates: Issues of Theory
and Political Practice, Basingstoke, 1999, especially Ch. 2.
9. Ibid., Ch. 10.
10. C. Cockburn, In the Way of Women. Men's Resistance to Sex Equality in Organizations,
Basingstoke, 1991, p. 6.
11. B. Boutros-Ghali, 'Introduction', Platform for Action and the Beijing Declaration, United
Nations Department of Public Information, New York, 1996, p. 1.
12. A 1994 United Nations report identified Sweden as the country which has gone
furthest in eliminating gender inequality; even here, however, the basic patterns of
male privilege and female disadvantage remain. See National Report by the Govern-
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

ment of Sweden for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 1995, Shared
Power Responsibility, 1994, Stockholm.
13. See Bryson, 1999, op. cit., Ch. 6; and S. Franks, Having None of It. Women, Men and
the Future of Work, London, 1999, Ch. 2.
14. The increase in women's representation was largely due to the Labour party's now
discontinued 'all-women shortlist' policy for candidate selection. In 'unlikely but
possible' constituencies where the policy did not apply, only 11 of the 66 new
Labour seats were won by women. On the gender gap in pay, see Social Focus on
Men and Women, Office for National Statistics, London, October 1998; and on the
employment prospects of male and female graduates see the Guardian, 28 October
1998 and 18 November 1998.
15. On the domestic division of labour, see Office for National Statistics, op. cit.
16. United Nations Department of Public Information, op. cit.
17. For an elaboration of this argument, see Bryson, 1999, op. cit., Ch. 9; and K.
Ferguson, The Man Question, Berkeley, 1993.
18. N. Walter, The New Feminism, London, 1998; and N. Wolf, Fire with Fire. The New
Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, London, 1993. See also N.
Walter (ed.), On the Move. Feminism for a New Generation, London, 1999. The term
'patriarchy' is, however, briefly employed Kate Figes, daughter of pioneering
feminist theorist Eva Figes. See K. Figes, Because of Her Sex. The Myth of Equality for
Women in Britain, London, 1994, pp.73, 232; and E. Figes, Patriarchal Attitudes,
London, 1978.
19. The New Feminism, op. cit., p. 3.
20. For a much quoted early critique, see S. Rowbotham, 'The Trouble with Patriarchy',
reprinted in M. Evans (ed.), The Woman Question. Readings on the Subordination of
Women, London, 1982.
21. L. Segal, Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism, London,
1987, p. xi.
22. A. Dworkin, Women Hating, New York, 1974, p. 115; and M. Daly, Beyond God the
Father. Towards a Philosophy of Women's Liberation, Boson, 1973, p. 1.
23. A. Rich, Of Woman Born. Motherhood as Experience and Institution, London, 1977, p. 58.
24. Millett, op. cit., pp. 25-6. Many of the contributors to a recent edited volume of new
writings by radical feminists insist that the concept has always recognized historical
change and the ways in which women's experience of patriarchy varies with class
and race. See D. Bell and R. Klein (eds), Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed,
London, 1996.
25. See in particular L. Sargent (ed.), The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism. A
Debate on Class and Patriarchy, London, 1986. For a summary of the debate, see
Bryson, 1999, op. cit.
26. S. Walby, op. cit., 1990, 1997. A shift from private to public patriarchy has also been
identified by A. Ferguson, Blood at the Root, London, 1989; and J. Cocks, The
Oppositional Imagination, London, 1989.
27. B. Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 303 (first published in
28. P. Collins, Black Feminist Thought, London, 1990, p. 229.
324 Valerie Bryson

29. H. Mirza, 'Introduction: Mapping a Geneology of Black British feminism', in H.

Mirza (ed.), Black British Feminism. A Reader, London, 1997, p. 19.
30. For an elaboration of this point, see Bryson, 1999, op. cit., Ch. 2.
31. Collins, op. cit., p. 70.
32. b. hooks, Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center, Boston, 1984.
33. Except when discussing power within Afro-American families. Here she argues that
'African-Americans' relationship to the slave political economy made it unlikely
that either patriarchal or matriarchal domination could take root', op. cit., p. 52.
34. b. hooks, Ain't I a Woman?, London, 1982, p. 15 (my italics). See also P. Hondagneu-
Sotelo, 'Overcoming Patriarchal Constraints: the Reconstruction of Gender Relations
Among Mexican Immigrant Women and Men', in E. Ngan-Ling Chow, D. Wilkin-
son and M. Zinn (eds), Race, Class and Gender. Common Bonds, Different Voices,
London, 1996, p. 184.
Downloaded by [University of Sussex Library] at 08:22 26 March 2015

35. For an overview, see Bryson, 1999, op. cit., Ch. 9; and 'Men and Sex Equality: What
Have they Got to Lose?', Politics, forthcoming.
36. Bell and Klein, op. cit., p. 561.
37. Walter, op. cit., p. 57.
38. See S. Cline, Women, Celibacy and Passion, London, 1993; and C. Kitzinger, The Social
Construction of Lesbianism, London, 1995.
39. Millett, op. cit., p. 24 (my italics).
40. For an early criticism of Millett which makes this point, see V. Beechey, 'On
Patriarchy', Feminist Review, No. 3,1979; for later examples see Gardiner, op. cit.; and
I. Whelehan, Modern Feminist Thought. From Second Wave to 'Post-Feminism', Edin-
burgh, 1995.
41. See, for example, Walby, op. cit., 1990, p. 20; and 1997, p. 6; Cockburn, op. cit., p. 6;
R. Rowland and R. Klein, 'Radical Feminism: History, Politics, Action', in Bell and
Klein (eds), op. cit., p. 15; Tobias, op. cit., p. ix; J. Lovenduski and V. Randall,
Contemporary Feminist Politics. Women and Power in Britain, Oxford, 1993, pp. 7, 9;
and J. Hoffman, 'Is there a Case for a Feminist Critique of the State?', Contemporary
Politics, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1998.
42. For elaboration of this point, see Bryson, 1999, op. cit., Ch. 10.
43. For elaboration of the following points, see Pollert, op. cit.
44. See C. Delphy, Close to Home. A Materialist Analysis of Women's Oppression, London,
1984; C. Delphy and D. Leonard, Familiar Exploitation. A New Analysis of Marriage in
Contemporary Western Societies, Cambridge, 1992; Sargent (ed.), op. cit.; and the
discussion of the 'domestic labour debate' in Gardiner op. cit.
45. Pollert, op. cit.
46. Pollert, op. cit.; and Acker, op. cit.
47. op. cit., p. 18.
48. Pollert, op. cit., p. 655.
49. C. Pateman, The Sexual Contract, London, 1988, p. 20.