Feminist Primer: Patriarchy and Ideology

To begin: the word patriarchy is not a word that came from Feminist rhetoric. Patriarchy historically means simply any social grouping in which the father or oldest male in a given family was designated the role of leader, or owner of the family or social unit, and so with the descent of property following the male line. While there are traces of this meaning in the feminist use of patriarchy, for the most part, Feminism uses the word to denote a society or ideology where men are privileged over women systemically.

Systemically is the key word here, and I’m going to try and unpack it in a few ways. First of all, it obviously refers to a system. I think most people understand the idea of the system. This is multiple things, be they cogs in a machine, a set of ways of doing things, words in language, or most pertinent to this post, ideas in culture (ideology), etc, all working together to make a thing happen, move towards a final outcome or goal or simply keep things as they are. Words operate in a system of language to make meaning, but for that meaning to be made, the meaning of each word must be understood by both the communicator and the person communicated with or the words alone are meaningless, and so on. Systemic injustices or unfair distributions of power are a part of really all social systems, but again, in this discussion of patriarchy as a Feminist/ theoretical term we are talking about male power. Nevertheless, in the same way cogs in a machine work to keep the machine going without being the machine, people work as parts of the system that is patriarchy, and as individuals may be considered patriarchal in the attitudes they espouse, there is no one person, or group of people, who are the entire machine. Not even men!

Maybe think of it this way: if you look at a clock, you may know the time. If you take off the back of the clock, assuming it’s made of parts and not digital, you can see how it works. Feminism is about looking at the workings of things, and identifying the ‘system’ in place. A patriarchal, capitalist society is designed to erase the workings that keep those in power in place. To make us only interested in looking at the face of the clock and simply “knowing” the time as a fact, just as we “know” what is true, or not true in our culture. Feminism employs Structuralist concepts in an attempt to understand how that “truth” of what we ”know “under patriarchy is designed to be put forward to us as simple information rather than a series of constructions and organizations of power.

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Unlike a piece of machinery, the generally accepted view of the patriarchy is that nobody in particular made it, or actively maintains it. I stress this point because this is the part of the concept of patriarchy that can most often be confusing for people, and it is a little tricky. How can men be in power under patriarchy if nobody actually made a decision to give them that privilege, and why are they the ones in power? As part of this confusion, patriarchy is often confused with, or conflated with men themselves, or maleness, but patriarchy is not actually a group of powerful men making up the rules for other people, but rather a system or set of constructs in which all people live under and inside in a capitalist society. Ok, now bear with me because I am going to try and break that down a bit more, I promise!

When I say patriarchy is the system of ideas and allocation of privileges that constitutes the “normal” of a Western Capitalist society (and others, but let’s start there), and the continuation of that system happens though not directly through a group of powerful people, I’m talking about the system being kept in place through ideology. The concept of ideology is both very complicated and very simple, but essentially, ideology is both the system of ideas through which we think about the world and the system that teaches us those ideas.

Maybe one of the best ways to understand what ideology means and how it actually works of is to look at a theory or idea that uses it the term. A theorist called Louis Althusser put forward an understanding of cultural power dynamics that I think makes understanding ideology a little easier. Althusser outlined two main categories of state power; the repressive state apparatus and the ideological state apparatus. The repressive state apparatus are the things we can actually see and recognize as institutions whose role it is to keep order and the status quo of power in a given culture. The police force, the army, prisons, etc. Anyone can point to these and go “these things are there to keep society stable”, and we can objectively recognize that whether or not we believe that those parts of the social system are fair.

The ideological state apparatus, for Althusser, are things like the family, school and education, religion, media, and law, which are officially outside state control but which are used to convey the values of the state, or for the benefit of this post, the patriarchy. If you leave aside school as a place where you’re told facts and asked to learn them, and more of a place where you interacted with peers, or think about your family and how you all lived together and then think about how you learned what was “the way things are”, what was right or wrong, what was cool or uncool, it’s unlikely that much of it came from somebody sitting you down and explicitly explaining it to you. You learnt the way things were from seeing them around you. You learn what’s normal and not normal, or ok and not ok from the way people in society react to things, and people were reacting from what they had learnt from watching and coming to understand, and so on. Althusser calls this process the process of interpellation. Really, in simple terms what that means is that we pick up most of what we know about the world simply from being in it. What we don’t know, unless we are told explicitly, is that we are inside of an ideology, and internalizing a huge amount of information without really thinking about it.

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So this is how everyone can live under an oppressive system with nobody in particular setting those rules. Ideology is, in its simplest form, the way we think about the world as the result of social training (or interpellation). A slightly more complex idea is that ideology is the imaginary relationship of people in society to what is real. When I mentioned Althusser’s theory earlier, I mentioned education, and religion, and the law. These are all far more structured meaning making systems than a family, or a peer group, but the way in which people really learn the rules is in much the same way they learn the “rules” of say, how their own family does (or doesn’t do) the dishes. Simply by being included as “part of” those habits, or organizations, or witnesses to their operation and internalizing what they are see, hear and are told. But even then, the things that are established as right or wrong, good or bad, fact or fiction are actually arbitrary. That is, they could, under a different system of understanding, be other things. They are imagined relationships between a concept and the belief that those concepts are true.

So, ideology is imaginary in the sense that it has no real basis in what is real other than what has been decided upon. If you lived your whole life being told that the color red was actually called blue, then you would have no way of knowing that its main quality was anything other than blueness. That may seem a little abstract but it’s the same basic scheme behind the idea that what we learn as “true” about gender, or sexuality, or race are really just “social constructs”. Construct is another word that can be both simple and complicated, but really it just means that the cultural truth is a construction (in that it has been built) and more specifically it’s a system of ideas that is based on subjective belief rather than empirical evidence. It doesn’t come from some solid foundation in fact. It’s just what everyone has decided to understand as true. Feminism, generally, attempts to emphasize the “imaginary” part of culture and its constructs. If we take on the idea that our way of thinking about the world is something that has been constructed, is based on subjective belief and then trained into us, that it is not necessarily what is “just”, or “real”, or “natural”, then we can begin to unpack the ideology of patriarchy and how it works.

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Again, men are just as much beholden to the ideology of patriarchy as women, but nevertheless benefit more from the system, and so are less inclined to question the system (keeping in mind that not all women are inclined to do so, either, and many refute Feminism entirely). The other important thing to remember is that if you’re not disadvantaged by patriarchy, it’s quite likely that you don’t even notice that there is a power imbalance. Again, because this is really important: crucial to understanding ideology, and patriarchy as an ideology, is understanding that nobody actually sits down and decides what will be real or normal for any given society. The nature of ideology is that it works to disguise power dynamics by making them invisible, and it does that by instruction to believe that ideological or social constructs that benefit the more privileged members of society are simply “the truth”, or “the way things are”, or most dangerously, “the way things should be” through the deployment of a system. Everyone is being given the same messages, it’s just generally speaking more uncomfortable to be on the wrong side of these messages, which is why Feminists consider patriarchal orderings of power to be problematic (which is a bit of a buzzword but really just means “a problem”).

Finally, and an important part of understanding the current task of Feminism, it’s important to think about another concept: intersectionality. As we can see with the workings of patriarchy, systemic oppression is power allocated on the basis of imaginary “truths”. Men, as a grouping, or white people, as a grouping, or straight people, as a grouping, do not even need to assert their power. The power is given to them through a system of indoctrination through which these power dynamics are simply learned, and reinforced, as the way things are, and are only noticeable at all when questioned. This idea of what is normal, what’s acceptable, who is in charge and do they have that right is a really important one for social change, and that is where intersectionality comes in. Intersectionality concerns itself with the question of power dynamics beyond the scope of simple male vs. female power privilege, and I will discuss intersectionality in more detail in my next post.

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This is the first installment in what I hope will become a fairly comprehensive primer in introductory Feminist Language and Theory. I will do my best to keep it as easy to read an accessible as possible, but while I get the hang of that please let me know of any changes anyone here would like to suggest.

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