Patriarchy or Male Supremacy?

by Carol Hanisch

EDITORS NOTE: Patriarchy has all but replaced male supremacy and sexism as the preferred word for the system of discrimination and multi-faceted oppression that women face. The term patriarchy wasn’t used by most 1960s pioneers of the Women’s Liberation Movement and only came into popular usage as those founders were disappeared from view. The liberal and academic takeover of women’s liberation by women with access to the press and money led to the dropping of “liberation” from the name of our movement and to the rise of the word patriarchy to describe what is wrong with “the system” or “society”. Some claim it more accurately blames the system rather than individual men. We think it lets the class of men off the hook and is not applicable to current late capitalist conditions. The short piece reprinted here is an earlier argument against blaming a patriarchy for women’s oppression.

Originally published in the Hudson Valley Woman, October, 1993

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Do we live in a patriarchy? Listening to many feminists today, one would think so. After 25 years of consciousness raising, the fact that women are treated as second class citizens, discriminated against, violated in numerous ways, and still generally oppressed—socially, politically, economically, sexually—is beyond debate. But are we, in the United States in 1993 living in “a state of social development characterized by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family?” I think not.

We are not liberated, but we no longer live in a patriarchy (though remnants still remain). The form—and to some degree, the source—of our oppression has changed. To not be clear about this gets us fighting the ghosts of the past rather than the realities of the present.

The great sweep of feminism—along with the end of feudal slavery in the South and the industrial revolution—which began in the middle of the last century and more or less ended with women’s winning the vote in 1920, gave patriarchy its final shove into its grave. Under patriarchy, women had few if any rights and did not exist as a person under the law. Often she had no choice of a husband, and was sold to the highest bidder, covertly if not overtly. As the old folksong put it:

Sad is the fortune of all womankind.

She’s always controlled and she’s always confined

Controlled by her father until she’s a wife

A slave to her husband for the rest of her life.

Her father (or brother) and later, her husband, held claim to any money she earned. Her husband could divorce her, taking everything from their children to the clothes on her back. He owned it all. There was no acknowledgment or legal recourse for retaining any of what her labor in the home had earned. If she turned raw produce into consumable food, it was how she earned her right to live and she had no legal expectation to more than subsistence. She could not divorce her husband; she belonged to him legally much as a slave belonged to his/her master.

The Property Rights Acts, which women began to win in the 1830s [in the U.S.], laid the groundwork for women’s independence from this slavish arrangement. The right to divorce was landmark because it meant a woman was no longer bound to a man for life, no matter what. More freedom of choice, in a boss or mate, did not bring liberation, of course; it was more like moving from total slavery under feudalism to wage slavery under capitalism.

Today only about 20 per cent of women in the U.S. live in a family with a father at the head, bringing home the bacon alone, and therefore in a position to wield that kind of power. In overthrowing the patriarchy, women entered into a freer, but more anarchistic state of relationship with men. Where the personal law of one man once circumscribed her life, she now must deal with many men bringing their (often conflicting) demands upon her. To confuse this with patriarchy can be a serious mistake.

The other side of the coin is the equally loose use of the word “matriarchy.” There is, in recorded history, proof of matrilineal society which fits the definition. Whether matriarchies where women actually ruled society ever existed in some Golden Age or not is another question. Whether women really want to command total power is a more relevant question. It seems ironic to me that many women who most favor a matriarchal future are not interested in being mothers and often put down women who have children as “yielding to the patriarchy.” I’m not sure where the next generation of the society they wish to rule are supposed to come from.

One of the reasons why consciousness raising in the Women’s Liberation Movement was once so dynamic, productive and compelling was that we used our own lives as the basis for our analysis and understanding of our current situation. We were more often on target then those who get caught in the quicksand of existing academic (women’s studies included), psychological, social science theories about women. Such professionals often have a big stake in the status quo. We used our own experience to challenge all assumptions and attitudes, including our own. Difficult as it was at times, it saved us from the rote, sloppy thinking that characterizes much of what passes for feminist theory and fills the bookstores and media today.

Women who say we live in a patriarchy, should examine their own lives and see how the word fits or doesn’t fit our current objective conditions.

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