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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2 comments for “Patriarchy or Male Supremacy?

  1. Mandy
    June 15, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    This article is pretty good! When I met Radical Feminist theory, the name patriarchy are used as synonymous of male supremacy or a substitute of male supremacy in famous books of the movement. Well, because of my readings from Meeting Ground/RedStockings articles, I started to replace patriarchy (as a current system of women’s oppression in the west) to male supremacy.

    I found out two things: The lack of context about the system that keeps women’s oppression today turns against our movement in a very problematic way. Patriarchy is about the era where women had no choices or economic independence. Although there is an interest on the part of the capitalists in passing a biased image of Feminism, the lack of Feminist consciousness on the part of some women is also one of the causes of the problem that we face. When patriarchy is brought into play, it seems like a joke of terrible taste because, see!, Western women can vote, study, they can even run for president(and be the president). In this context, how people in generally can believe that women are still oppressed?

    This is also connected with the fact that people within the left accuse Radical Feminism of victimizing women in relation to pornography and prostitution. After all, they “chose” to be there by free choice, thus defying the patriarchy that limits their choices … If the left can be pretty reationary when women’s bodies are turned into men’s sexual commodities, the right use the fact we can vote, study, etc to make Feminist Movement looks like a hysteric movement that promotes the “sex battles”, the division between men and women. The kind of woman that a good womens must to avoid. Summing up, we got villainized and away from the women we need to achieve for make a powerful mass movement. Some Radical Feminists had wrote about how so much women don’t like see themselves as a oppressed, right? So, the Right-Wing also know how to appropriate of this feeling very well. Being a victim is often confused with being impotent, as if you have no control over your own life (Janice Raymond denied this thought in one of her books brightly). And when oppression comes from an immutable characteristic (sex or race), this refusal to perceive oneself as part of an oppressed and exploited group increases.

    And sure, male supremacy sounds so gross for the male ego(and also for many women who put as their life mission the defense the male ego) than patriarchy. I’m so sick of revisionists terms like “toxic masculinity”, “abusive relationship”, “masculinities”. Although I know that many people who use these terms are well-intentioned, but the way these terms omit hierarchical relationships between the sexes is a hard blow to the radicals who have so hard fought to show male domination as a real thing. It is pretty similar when some marxists criticizing the prostitution and pornography only using the argument of how cruel capitalism is, but by making these two sexually neutral industries the fact that its are the female bodies that are being raped by men to create an identity of what it is to be a real man is omitted. It is simply forgotten that behind the dominant class there is the dominant sex, too.

    And to end this comment, a Socialist writer called Zachary George said in one of his articles that “The end of capitalists isn’t the end of class society”(the full article can be saw here, what made me think that the same can be applied to patriarchy. The end of patriarchy isn’t the end of Male supremacy (Anne Koedt also explained this very well when she showed that while Socialism don’t destroy the male supremacy in every aspect, all wich can be offered to women in this new system is sexual reformism).

    This made me remember a phrase from Gerda Lerner: “The class differences were initially expressed and constructed in terms of patriarchal relations. Class is not a separate construction of the genre, rather class is expressed in terms of gender.” Because of it I’m also more exciting to understand better the complex relationship with class society and male supremacy, I think it is one of the most important key for the human emancipation.

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