Feminism: Patriarchy Changes, Reactions & Responses

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We have learnt through my previous article “Clearing the Confusion on Feminism”, that there is an intrinsic relationship between feminism and the patriarchy. That the patriarchy also deals with more than just the oppression of women, but also how it can affect relations with other men. Patriarchy is often another misunderstood concept, and the issue with that, is that it is thought of as a counter argument to feminism, when this is not at all the case. Ammu Joseph neatly unpacks the term patriarchy in ‘Missing Half The Story: Journalism as If Gender Matters’. In this we unpack patriarchy etymologically via its Latin roots; that being that Pater is the Latin word for father, with the addition of Archy which is the Latin word for Rule. Literally, the term patriarchy simply refers to the rule of the father and refers to a society in which a single male would dominate and lead a family, junior men, women and slaves.

In the course of human history, patriarchy actually plays a very small part in society, and it is often argued that in the beginning of human culture and society, that women were very much looked at as equals primarily through their mysterious and misunderstood power of childbirth, but were genuinely revered as equal and productive individuals within society. Before the patriarchal rule many social historians, including Joseph, argue that patriarchal rule shifted through a perceived shift of social power, primarily through the concept of war. For a variety of reasons, which did not focus on physical prowess, men were sent to war to conquer and pillage resources. Since it was the men that would conquer, there was a sense of ownership placed on the new resources, and since great effort was placed in obtaining this new land and new resources it was natural that they wanted to preserve that, own it, and ultimately pass it on to their children. In this way, because men were seen as owners of resources, land and permanent dwellings, the foundations of patriarchy and male rule was formed.

Patriarchy now rarely refers to this system of male ownership in this way, and rather is used to categorise and label a system of male privilege, unequal power relations between biological sexes, and the oppression of others from men. This oppression can occur towards women and other men in public and private spheres such as the household, workplace, society and is exemplified through behaviours, patterns of language, interpersonal behaviours and constructed stereotypes. This also includes against biological males which under-perform, or even over perform the societal expectations of their masculinity, as the idea of maleness is currently, inescapably linked to the concept of masculinity. Feminism is about destabilising the dominance of patriarchy and not only free women from the constraints that they are placed under, but also free men from being trapped by their own masculinity. To this extent, in recent years we have seen the rise of males caring about their appearances, engaging in fashion in new ways, and also breaking down barriers surrounding emotions, feelings and mental health. In this regard, it is an important point to make that it is the performance of gender which feminists are opposed to and not sex. It is ultimately, and decisively a response to a patriarchal system and not men.

With that in mind, we can therefore disregard feminism as an attempt to overthrow and replace a patriarchal system – because to do so would mean to replace it with a matriarchal system, which is not the aim of feminism at all. Joseph defines feminism using the work of K. Bhasin and Nighat Said Khan which describes it as:

‘An awareness of women’s oppression and exploitation in society, at work, and within the family and the conscious action by both women and men to change this situation.’

The maintenance of feminism, and its definition is governed by its relationship to primarily women, but also by men.  It is thus clear that the relationship between the patriarchy and feminism affects both men and women individually through each system. This, Nancy Levit suggests, is:

‘One side of the picture has remained in the shadows – the way that the patriarchy affects men. Maleness is both a privileged and victimized status’

that has occurred throughout the women’s movement. This statement by Levit is not meant to place men in a comparative state to women through each movement, but rather highlight the effects that each system has on both of the sexes as they grow. Indeed, Allan Johnson, the author of The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy, believes that most men and women participate in this system without consciously intending to oppress or be oppressed, without even being aware that the system exists. They participate in the rat race because that’s what they’ve been told and taught to do – happiness is tied with wealth and possessions, and that type of system automatically favours men. Some Social Studies academics and theorists will link the patriarchy and this system to ideas of capitalism and the economic structure and system which holds humans captive to the ideas of an ever increasing idea of production and productivity, where such a system is based on a predestined failure and impossibility of an infinite and continual sense of economic growth. This loosely relates to the origins of the original concept of patriarchy to the needs of possessions, materialism, wealth, land and ownership.

Male Feminism
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Feminism is moving towards the idea that men can be feminists, and that they should be feminists because the patriarchy system affects their lives as it does women, although not to the same extent. (Claire Warner) The patriarchy does affect men in a beneficial way, although there are many ways in which the patriarchy affects men negatively as well, such as the way in which masculinity is often described as being toxic. Feminism and masculinity are products of the patriarchy – that being that they are two terms that were brought forth in order to combat the power of the patriarchy. Masculinity is the system brought forth by the patriarchy that attempts to categorise men within a hierarchical system against each other. Rita Nakashima Brock states that men are socialised and reinforced in their behaviours and attitudes through masculinity – which directly represents their ability to perform their biological sex. For example, the issue between masculine sex drive, and feminine sex drive and the differing pressures, opinions, shaming and stigmas placed on both young men (Studs) and women (sluts) in terms of sex drive. Overt sexuality for a young male is ultimately perceived to be different for a young female, feminism and its relationship to masculinity is breaking this down – getting people to consider the idea of relationships as opposed to casual sex (Femininity), and dismissing the stigmas attached with casual sex (masculinity).

The problem with the stereotype of male sexual aggressors as ‘boys will be boys’, and ‘sowing his wild oats’ is so entrenched in society that for decades, scientific research worked on the assumption that men naturally had a higher sex drive than women – and a passivity in sexual relations for a male was considered abnormal. It’s only recently that we have discovered different types of sexual arousal and sexual response cycles as opposed to a masculine and feminine one. It is through feminism with which we find the notion of being male, and masculinity, being challenged. Time and time again throughout these articles, I have put forward the notion that the dichotomy of masculinity can only exist as with its presumed opposition, femininity. That being they define each other, and exist through each other’s definitions, women are women, because they are not men and vica versa. If a female no longer acts in a predisposed and conventional way, thereby changing the expectation of femininity, then masculinity automatically changes as a response. This sentiment is echoed by Sussman Herbert in Masculine identities: The history and Meanings of Masculinity who adds that the liberatory movements of women, blacks, and gay men have enriched the lives of men and masculinity and opened new possibilities when it comes to men and ultimately, together, bear the responsibility of changing the concept of masculinity.

Another way in which masculinity, has been changed through feminism is the onus of responsibility being placed back on males. There have been many instances where ‘excuses’ are made in order to shame women. For example, when it comes to sexual assault people try and palm off the responsibility onto the female for the way she held her body, her clothes, he demeanour, he behaviour towards previous men. Sexual assault is a male issue, not a women’s issue. It is an idea which places women in control of their bodies, and men in control of their own, sexual assault is therefore a failing of control from a male, and not a female in how she chooses to respond to society with her body. Shira Tarrent in Men and Feminism: Seal Studies – firmly reminds us of the idea that since it is the men which are the ones who commit the majority of sexual offences then it is ultimately time for men to stand up and face them. In this respect, it is from this point which started The White Ribbon Foundation. An organisation to prevent violence against women that originated in the nineties in Canada which places the responsibility on men to face up to the issue and take a stand against it.

When it comes to ideas of masculinity, power and feminism there exists a lot of surrounding fear. The issue is, as Shira states, lies in the idea that men fear feminism because they perceive it as a loss of social and political power. Further, the idea that power is considered a finite resource and that there is an ebb and flow when it comes to the idea of power; that being when someone loses power, someone else gains power. Power should not be deemed as a limited resource. In this way, feminism should be viewed as being about ‘breaking down gender expectations that limit everyone’. This subtle shift away from a gross misunderstanding of viewing feminism as a replacement to patriarchy, and reaffirms feminism back to its original intention – freedom to equality for all. The fear lies not in the change, but about the idea of replacement. If we change the focus that feminism is not a replacement, to the patriarchy then we can view the idea that feminism actually critiques masculinity, and holds the notion of masculinity in check. It frees both men and women from the constraints of masculinity, and ultimately the patriarchy. Feminism brings forth the idea which suggests that a patriarchal society has always exaggerated the biological differences between masculine and feminine roles and the dominant and subordinate discursive stereotypes attributed to them. (Kate Millet). It did this to reinforce ideologies of power and control, and it is these attributes which desperately need to change, to free not only women but men as well. Victoria Bromley in Feminism Matter: Debates, Theories, activism understands this need for freedom when she states;

Feminism provides men with a lens to see hegemonic masculinity as an unattainable caricature of manhood. It releases men from the never-ending struggle, and ultimately inevitable failure, to measure up as real men.’

It is clear that the dichotomies of male and female, and the discursive practices surrounding that such as feminine, masculine, patriarchy are fluid. They both require and demand change as a reaction and response to, and from, each other, functioning as a dynamic duo and reliant on each other in order to direct and construct change.

Feminism is a misunderstood headline, it’s often thrown around complacently through a severe lack of understanding and as such – it is a concept which has had its name often dragged through the mud. On the same token, patriarchy and masculinity are also often misunderstood via conduits of perceived power and superiority – when they suffer from constraints, if not to the same extent, as which surrounds women, femininity and feminism.


Brock, R. N. (1988). Journeys by heart: A Christology of erotic power. New York: Crossroad.

Bromley, V. L. (2012). Feminisms matter: Debates, theories, activism. North York, Ont., Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Johnson, A. G. (1997). The gender knot: Unraveling our patriarchal legacy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Levit, N. (1998). The gender line: Men, women, and the law. New York: New York University Press.

Millett, K. (2000). Sexual politics. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Sharma, K. (2010). Missing, half the story: Journalism as if gender matters. New Delhi: Zubaan.

Sussman, H. L. (2012). Masculine identities: The history and meanings of manliness. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.

Tarrant, S. (2009). Men and feminism: Seal Studies. S.l.: S.n.

Warner. C (2015, November 20). 6 Ways The Patriarchy Is Harmful To Men, Because FeminismIsn’t Just For Women. Retrieved September 23, 2016, from http://www.bustle.com/articles/124983-6-ways-the-patriarchy-is-harmful-to-men-because-feminism-isnt-just-for-women

Author: Stephen Smith – BA Of Social Sciences, M.Ed