In order to be revolutionary, feminist theory cannot claim to describe what exists, or, “natural facts.” Rather, feminist theories should be political tools, strategies for overcoming oppression in specific concrete situations. The goal, then, of feminist theory, should be to develop strategic theories—not true theories, not false theories, but strategic theories“Kelly Oliver, feminist philosopher, Vanderbilt University, USA.
It seems to me that ‘the patriarchy’ is very much the sort of idea that Kelly Oliver had in mind when she made the statement above. ‘The patriarchy’ is a concept that is useful to feminists rather than a real entity or an enlightening framework for viewing past and present relations between men and women. The concept works as a kind of ‘virtual totem pole’ around which feminists can rally and which can be used to justify all kinds of beliefs and retributive forms of justice.
‘The patriarchy’ is revered as a kind of sacred belief and to challenge the concept can bring about the kind of outrage that is normally associated with religious fundamentalism. It also works as an infinitely elastic theory that can can explain away all historical differences between men and women. There are plenty of warnings from history that tell us to distrust theories that seem to explain everything. Their application seldom ends well.
As a concept, ‘the patriarchy’ is new and very much on-trend. Matches using tools such as Ngram Viewer have shown an explosion in the use of the term since the 1960s – see figure below,
Similarly, political scientist Matthew Goodwin writing in his Substack Column, The Great Awokening in The British Media, showed the same effect in the UK media, with a marked explosion in the use of feminist terms, including patriarchy, in UK newspapers since the year 2000. ‘The patriarchy’ seems to be more of a fashionable idea than a rationally formulated and properly researched construct.
An article on ‘the patriarchy’ recently appeared in The Conversation- ‘How did the patriarchy start and how can we get of it‘. The article isn’t terribly good and quite frankly I wouldn’t bother reading it. More interesting perhaps were the comments which became quite heated when some individuals questioned the concept of ‘the patriarchy.’ It struck me that many feminists have an unshakable believe in the concept to the extent that it has become like religious dogma and to question the existence of ‘the patriarchy’ is equivalent to blasphemy. The only argument they could muster was – ‘just look at our past the evidence for ‘the patriarchy’ is all around us.’ This, of course, is merely an exercise in in confirmation bias.
It struck me that there are similarities between the ‘the patriarchy’ as an explanation for the relations between men and women and the kind of natural theology espoused by William Paley in his book of that name published in 1802. He believed that the evidence for god was all around us. Just look at the design of a flower, the complex workings of the central system, or the wings of a butterfly and you see the workings of a divine creator who brought about that level of complexity. Similarly, feminists explain away all differences between men and women as creations of ‘the patriarchy.’ Any difference is evidence of that mystical power and you need look no further for an explanation. Neither theory, the Holy Ghost or ‘the patriarchy’ can be disproved because they are infinitely elastic and they rely only on confirmation bias. For that reason, they are not scientific theories at all. Even then, proponents of this kind of thinking do tend to leave out inconvenient facts. William Daley did not dwell on parasitic wasps that slowly and painfully consume their hosts, the exquisitely engineered haemorrhagic viruses that can destroy a human in twenty four hours or bone cancers that can reduce a child’s short life to one of painful misery. Feminists do not dwell in inconvenient facts either. For example, six times more boys work in child labour, men are more likely to be victims of industrial accidents and health care spending skewed in favour of women. Inconvenient facts, that conflict with the feminist narrative, are ignored.
Of course, I am not the first the view ‘the patriarchy’ as ideology analogous to religious dogma, Professor Eric Anderson* got to that idea well before me. Eric is Professor of Sport, Health and Social Sciences at Winchester University and I recommend his presentation given to the Male Psychology conference in 2109 – see the YouTube video below. He makes the same comparison between belief in God and belief in ‘the patriarchy.’ He does this, however, in a much more entertaining fashion than I have. I hope you enjoy it.
I have previously discussed the rewards a belief in ‘the patriarchy can bring and these include.
- A virtual totem pole around which feminists can rally in way that is similar to the way people rally around other symbols. The flag or religious icons, for example.
- A means to enhance the achievements of women that were apparently accomplished in the face an oppressive patriarchy.
- A means to diminish the achievements of men that were achieved with the help of a ‘following breeze.’
- A means to justify retributive forms of justice. To get an idea of what I mean, look what is happening to boys in our education system.
- Provides the emotional rewards of being a freedom fighter without the dangers inherent in fighting truly oppressive regimes.
Towards the end of his presentation, Eric Anderson observes that a belief in ‘the patriarchy’ will be a ‘tough nut to crack’ more difficult than challenging religious dogma perhaps. I hope Eric is wrong about the patriarchy but given the emotional rewards a belief in ‘the patriarchy’ can bring, I fear he may be right.
*I have recently found this article from Professor Anderson that further develops his thoughts on ‘the patriarchy‘ – The patriarchy, he agues, is little more than a lazy slogan.