Why does patriarchy persist? (Part 3: How we dismantle it)

The opposite of patriarchy... is democracy

Here’s the good news: patriarchy is crumbling. After 8,000-10,000 years, its rein is coming to an end… and it can’t come fast enough. Aurélie Salvaire reminds us of the stakes:

We’re reaching the limit of the domination model… it’s threatening the whole of humankind.

This is the (much delayed) third post in a 3-part series exploring the titular question. For new subscribers: welcome — this post is longer than normal, since we’re covering some deep terrain; bear with me. The ground covered so far:

Part 1: What is patriarchy, and why is it important that we understand it?

Part 2: How are we socialized into it, and how does it hurt us?

Which brings us to today’s third and final post: How can we dismantle patriarchy (and replace it with something more conducive to human thriving)?

A new system is being born right now, and we all have an important role to play in midwifing this new world into being. I want to use this post to highlight the trends that I see as contributing to dismantling patriarchy, and replacing it with a system more conducive to human thriving and our own deep longings for significance and belonging. What might that system look like? Carol Gilligan offers an attractively simple proposition:

The opposite of patriarchy is democracy, rooted in voice rather than in violence and honed through relationship.


The pillars of patriarchy… are crumbling

As I prepared to write this final post and distill down what I’ve learned thus far, I’ve come to believe that the edifice of patriarchy rests upon a set of six core pillars. Without these, it cannot stand.

  1. The artificial separation of human qualities into the rigid binary of “masculine” and “feminine”, associated with men and women respectively.

  2. The denial of women’s capacity for a strong autonomous self.

  3. The denial of men’s capacity for relational connection.

  4. The inability to repair harm in a relationship.

  5. Our disconnection from our own bodies, and our lack of attunement to what we’re feeling (emotionally and physically).

  6. The ideology of individualism: the notion that humans are individuals and exist in relationship to others and the world through competition, hierarchy, domination, and control.

Diverse and sustained action on a range of different fronts is concurrently undermining all six of these pillars. This is the profound shift: we are not smashing patriarchy (opposing something outside ourselves); we are ceasing to support it (recognizing that it lives within us). As Serbian activist Srdja Popovic noted:

Empires fall not because people oppose them, but because they find their support eroded. To win, you need to convince others to defect.

Let’s address each pillar in turn.

1. Transcending the gender binary

It’s not happening fast enough or widely enough, but it’s happening, and it’s irreversible. The gender binary is eroding under the weight of its contradictions, thanks in large part to sustained activism on the part of the LGBT movement, and the trans movement in particular. When I entered adolescence 25 years ago, even in my half-hippie/half-gay theater town the gender binary was still rigidly enforced. Now our children think it’s normal to inquire whether someone is a he, she, or they (granted, I live in Seattle, but still).

In my view the most important aspect of this shift has been distinguishing between sex (a matter of biology) and gender (a social construct). This shift allows us to stop conflating behavior with biology, and thus creates room for people to simply be… people. People who happen to have a certain set of biological sex characteristics, and who can express themselves in whatever way they choose. This requires that we stop characterizing human behavior as either “masculine” or “feminine.” It doesn’t serve us. As Claire Heuchan said:

Only through the abolition of gender can we achieve true liberation.

Don’t worry: we can still have men, women, and everyone in between: biological sex is real, and can be useful to talk about (reminder: COVID-19 for example appears to affect men and women differently). What we’re letting go of are gendered norms governing how men and women should behave. Things I’m excited about:

  • Sex/ed curricula are light-years ahead of where they were when I was growing up (I’m proud that Washington state just passed a comprehensive sex-ed bill that’s among the best in the country).

  • Parents are increasingly aware and trying not to enforce arbitrary gender norms on their children.

  • The trans and nonbinary movement continues to inch into the mainstream, with main characters in pop culture, celebrities transitioning publicly, etc.

What you can do right now: stop gendering what doesn’t need to be gendered. When it comes to people, only mention gender where it’s salient (I find it useful to think about it like race or religion: would you describe a person as Jewish or black? Sure, if it’s relevant… which it usually isn’t). “Hey honey, look at that kid climbing the tree!” (Instead of that boy/girl…)

2. Women are speaking up

This to me is an important part of what #MeToo is all about. It’s about finally being heard: what girls and women have been saying for years (and particularly girls and women of color). It’s about having pain witnessed, acknowledged, and accounted for. If patriarchy’s appearance in adolescent girls is marked by the expression “I don’t know” (following Gilligan’s work), this movement is about saying: “I know.” I love this poster campaign by Jessica Sabogal for Amplifier:

The subtext for the work: “If you let them be.” Things I find exciting:

  • Many of the movements that swept the world in 2019 were led by women; women claiming their power, their voice, their rights. None more powerful (to me) than the Violador en tu Camino chant, pioneered by a Chilean feminist collective.

  • We now have a name for this phenomenon: gaslighting. Women are refusing to be told that they don’t know… what they know they know.

  • Like all change, this is individual change connected to social change: women in therapy undoing histories of trauma, in relationships demanding more from their partners, in work refusing to settle for patriarchal norms, social movements offering a different way of being.

What you can do right now, if you’re a woman: continue to trust yourself. I sat next to a woman on a plane last year who had a tattoo on her wrist: “You are enough.” You are. As you are. Right now. You are perfect.

If you’re a man: support the women in your life in their efforts to strengthen their sense of self. One way I practice this with my wife: we alternate “decision days.” On those days, she makes the call (what are we having for breakfast, who’s taking the kids to school, who will intervene when the kids refuse to go to bed, etc.) and I respect it. And the reverse on my decision days. I’ve been fascinated by all the little ways it highlights patriarchal dynamics in our relationship, and gives us a chance to work on them.

3. Men are reaching out and reconnecting

This is the necessary counterpoint: as women are cultivating and learning to trust their sense of self, men are doing the same in their relationships. This is about men slowly recognizing that we too have been gaslit by society: a society that tells us we don’t need help, we don’t need others, we can be strong on our own, we don’t have or need emotions. Like women in our lives, we are learning to grieve for what we’ve lost, and take steps to heal and reconnect. Gilligan notes that the emergence of patriarchy in boys during adolescence is marked by the expression “I don’t care” (when, of course, we do care).

I personally am participating in two different men’s groups (one for white men, one for anyone masculine-identified regardless of race) and have found the experience super fascinating and exciting. Both groups are premised on dismantling patriarchy, and challenging the dominant “masculine” norms we grew up with (and which we now recognize as toxic). These groups are now proliferating (newcomers like CityDads and Organizing White Men for Collective Liberation joining long-established groups like ManKind Project and A Call to Men).

In general this emerging movement still takes for granted that there is such thing as “masculinity.” Obviously I have a different take, but the overall effort I think is hugely important as a step in the right direction: we must first reclaim our whole humanity as men before we can contemplate shedding that label. Things I’m finding exciting:

Here’s the thing: we can’t do this alone. We really need the women in our lives to support us in this work, because it’s really hard and flies in the face of everything we’ve been socialized into.

What you can do right now: read bell hooks’ The Will to Change. If you’re a man, go to therapy (if you can, if you aren’t already). Join a men’s group; many meet virtually. If you’re a woman, support men in your life in cultivating their relationships.

4. We are learning how to heal… and repair

Recall Gilligan and Snider:

The initiation into patriarchal manhood and womanhood subverts the ability to repair ruptures in relationship by enjoining a man to separate his mind from his emotions (and thus not to think about what he is feeling) and a woman to remain silent (and thus not to say what she knows)… These gender codes subvert our ability to recognize and repair the ruptures in relationship, not only those we suffer but also those we inflict… The persistence of patriarchy is contingent on the move from protest to despair and detachment.

Thus to have any hope of dismantling patriarchy we have to create the possibility for repair — for healing and reconciliation. And it’s happening. At an interpersonal level: through therapy, through somatics practice, through restorative and transformative justice processes, through individuals learning and practicing the art of apology and repair with each other (Eve Ensler’s The Apology as emblematic of this cultural moment).

And it’s happening at a broader societal level (I love the notion of “cultural somatics”): through memorials (the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and Memorial; the African-American History Museum on the Mall); through land acknowledgements recognizing and honoring indigenous people; and even the conversation around reparations (the fact that the majority of the candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary supported even the possibility of reparations is remarkable).

What you can do right now: practice the art of the apology. The Greater Good Science Center has great resources on this. One way we try this in my marriage: we have a weekly “no screens” night where we try to surface any lingering resentments that may have been unaddressed in the day-to-day that week, and try to repair. For our kids, we practice “a bug and a wish,” and help them learn how to make amends.

5. We are reconnecting… with our bodies

One truth I’m only recently coming to understand: most of us are disconnected from our own bodies. It is a feature of patriarchy (and white supremacy, and capitalism, and…) that we tend to focus on our “rational minds” as the locus of our sense of self (I think, therefore I am). The aggregate impact of the previous four pillars is that we live profoundly disembodied lives. We are taught from birth to deny one half our selves (woman to deny/dismiss their supposedly “masculine” aspects; men to deny/dismiss our purportedly “feminine” sides): is it any wonder we feel disconnected?

It’s easiest to understand this with respect to our emotions: how many of us truly are capable of naming (much less understanding) what we’re feeling in a given moment? There’s actually a word for this phenomenon: alexithymia. I’ve long understood this intuitively with respect to masculinity: boys don’t cry. The emotional range permitted within what masculinity scholars call the “man box” is extremely narrow (as noted in Part 2 of this series, we often subjugate more complex emotions under the socially acceptable expression of male “anger”). We are told we don’t (or can’t) feel what we know we feel. Increasingly men are recognizing this loss for what it is, and actively seeking to broader our emotional vocabulary and understanding. This looks like going to therapy, more intentional emotion-coaching in our roles as fathers, and beginning to claim the right to feel what we feel… and not be shamed for it.

But it’s deeper than that: it’s also about paying attention to what our bodies are telling us. It’s about listening not only to what we feel emotionally, but what we feel physically. Pioneering new research by Lisa Feldman Barrett is upending everything we thought we knew about how feelings work. In short: our bodies feel something (stomach grumbles, chest tightens, jaw clenches) and then our brains attach emotional content to that physical reaction (at an unconscious/subconscious level). An entire field of practice has emerged over the last few decades called “somatics” that starts with this premise: our body is a source of information that informs our emotions, thoughts, and behavior — we should pay attention to it. One way our therapist has us work on this is by naming an emotion (“resentment,” say) then asking: how does this emotion feel or show up in your body? Where do you notice it? It’s hard work because I’ve never asked that question, or considered it: it turns out paying attention to what my body is telling me… is challenging.

This too, is changing. I see it most clearly in our sex lives, where women are deliberately reconnecting with their bodies: it’s hard to affirmatively consent (what Esther Perel calls “owning your wanting”) if you can’t hear what your body is telling you. But this is also the mindfulness movement, yoga, an increasing interest in eastern or indigenous philosophies and traditions (Buddhism, an exploration of psychedelics, etc.). It’s no surprise that so far most of this work is being done by women… but men too are catching up (the Seattle Seahawks do this as a football team, inside the very paragon of American masculinity!)

What you can do right now: practice mindfulness: this could be yoga, meditation, or a simple breathing practice — anything that gives an opportunity to pay deliberate attention to your body’s sensations. Emily Nagoski, in her foundational book on reclaiming female sexuality Come As You Are, offers a beautifully simple practice that is the essence of mindfulness (and to some extent somatic) practice:

It’s not so much about paying attention to your breath as it is about noticing what you’re paying attention to without judgment, and making a choice about whether you want to pay attention to it. 

6. We are recognizing our interdependence

Increasingly we are coming to understand what has always been true: we are all connected. This is literally true at the molecular level, and this pandemic is reminding us that borders are geopolitical fictions. Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of “interbeing” remains for me the most beautiful distillation of this truth (I also love Charles Eisenstein’s writings on this).

If we are able to recognize this, the climate crisis becomes inconceivable: of course we wouldn’t dump oil into the oceans; it’s our own backyard. It’s only the illusion of separateness that allows us to cause this level of harm. So too with other humans: only if I believe that incarcerated people are somehow “other” or sub-human can I countenance the inhumanity of solitary confinement; only if I believe migrants are “other” can I allow myself to tolerate kids in cages.

This for me is why dismantling patriarchy matters. I started this newsletter with a question: can we create an ‘us’ without a ‘them’? The answer is no, as long as patriarchy persists. Patriarchy creates separation and enables hierarchies of domination — only its dissolution will allow us to recognize our essential interdependence.

What you can do right now: refuse to “break.” john a. powell talks about “bridging” and “breaking” (as discussed in a previous post). The great Sufi poet Rumi put it this way:

Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:

At the first gate, ask yourself, “Is it true?”

At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”

At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”

If it’s not… don’t do it. It’s both really simple and really hard (especially on social media platforms that reward outrage and insults).

How change happens

The first post in this series referenced Bobbie Harro’s “cycle of socialization.” But we need not remain trapped in that cycle. She subsequently updated her framework to offer a different roadmap, aptly titled “the cycle of liberation” (the whole article is a beautiful and inspiring read).

What’s awesome is that we are living through a time when huge transformations are happening across all dimensions of this cycle. As I noted in a previous post, the autumn of 2019 was the most active period of mass protest around the world in human history. Protests against inequality, against corruption, against authoritarianism, against climate inaction, against violence, all pointing to the same realization: this system isn’t working. It needs to change. We deserve better, and we can do better. This is the moment we’re in: seeking liberation.

I’ve identified a number of trends that give me hope; I want to zoom in on two case studies that I find inspiring in this moment: parenting, and sex (related!)

Re-imagining Parenting and Early Childhood Education

I may be biased here (as the parent of two young children) but in my view this is THE single most important space of cultural change right now. As Miki Kashtan reminds us:

It is what children learn that drives evolution.

The rapid progress in many related fields: neuroscience, psychology, pediatrics, education, etc give us unprecedented insight into how to raise thriving kids. Much of the new science is of course actually ancient wisdom, particularly from indigenous traditions: it as as much remembering as it is discovering. But both things are happening: emerging fields such as nonviolent communication, positive discipline, and other practices that center around an ethos that is explicitly premised on challenging patriarchal dominance paradigms and re-centering on the child and its needs. I documented many of these trends in a post on “Parenting Beyond Power” that I’ll expand upon in a future newsletter.

Of course we’re not there yet, and this work is really hard. From an article called How Parents Unwittingly Nurture Patriarchy (and I am very much complicit on a near-daily basis, despite my best efforts):

Multiple times a day, well-meaning parents who don’t spank their children still unwittingly prime their children to accept force and coercion as normal.

I’m pleased to share a two-episode podcast miniseries I recently collaborated on with Jen Lumanlan (via her platform Your Parenting Mojo) interviewing Carol Gilligan on patriarchy and in dialogue with Jen on parenting and patriarchy that draws out many of these connections and their implications for those of us trying to raise kids in this world.

Re-imagining sexuality

I also think this space is super exciting: a growing recognition that sex life under patriarchy (heterosexual sex in particular, but even queer sex) sucks. Esther Perel has emerged as one of my favorites here, particularly navigating the gender dynamics of sex under patriarchy. This podcast interview on “sexlessness” does a great job laying out why this is so hard, even among couples committed to gender equity.

Men are becoming more emotionally attuned — to our own needs, to our own desires — and more relationally aware about our partner’s needs and desires… and how bad we are in general at naming both of those things and addressing them in a constructive manner. I love this podcast interview with Emily Nagoski, who talks of the forthcoming book “Magnificent Sex.” One finding that stuck out for me: the sex experts (people who are having the best sex) report only finding their way into erotic intimacy and desire in their mid-50s… and only after working through all the baggage and hangups that patriarchy heaps upon us from birth.

This is about reclaiming pleasure as our prerogative: particularly difficult for women (this piece from Brigid Schulte is just spectacular), but also for men who often have very little knowledge and connection to our own bodies and desires (I listened to this podcast episode posing the question “Men, what makes you feel sexy?” and realized I had no idea: this is what it means to be disembodied). If you do nothing else, pick up adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism: an absolute joy to read, and to realize this: we deserve this. You deserve to feel pleasure. And not to feel guilty about it.

This is also about re-conceiving sex ed (I love Bonnie Rough) and consent and intimacy and desire and connection and what it means to have a good life. Spoiler alert: most of us do not have the sex lives we aspire to, and much of the blame rests at the feet of patriarchy. Inevitably, questioning the patriarchy requires questioning its institutions, including — of course — marriage itself. I love this episode on “decolonizing sex” from an indigenous perspective. And this great Vox Explained episode on monogamy:

My favorite line, echoing the Gilligan quote that kicked off this post:

For the first time in human history, we're trying to develop relationships that are not based on coercion. -Stephanie Coontz

From patriarchy to… democracy

The opposite of patriarchy isn’t matriarchy: it’s democracy. Democracy rooted in equal voice, in agency, in relationship, in interdependence. The task of this moment: can we create — for the first time — a democracy worthy of the name?

The coronavirus creates an unprecedented moment: one which serves to underscore the gender dimensions of the intersecting crises we face… and therefore, the solutions. As Andreas Weber notes:

The pandemic shows us how to behave in the right way.

It demands that we respond with an ethos toward collective care that acknowledges our fundamental interdependence. COVID-19 is both a symptom and an inevitable result of a systemic failure: it is, as Anne Moraa aptly noted, “a crisis of care.” Can we learn, as my last post pondered, to care for the whole?

This is the single biggest source of my hope in this moment. Twenty-five years after Robert Putnam wrote Bowling Alone, America — and the world — is undergoing a period of rapid civic revival. This is sometimes hard to see in the echo chamber of a news cycle that thrives on darkness and toxicity, but it’s happening nonetheless. A recent post talked about three responses to the stress, complexity, and uncertainty of this global moment: turning inward, turning away, and turning toward.

Building democracy is about turning toward, and it’s happening at unprecedented global scale. In 2002 Margaret Wheatley wrote a book called “Turning To One Another.” This is what huge numbers of us are doing: seeking out community, connection, and belonging. And I believe it holds the key to our collective liberation. Here’s Cassie Jaye:

We have to stop expecting to be offended, and we have to start truly, openly, and sincerely listening. That would lead to a greater understanding of ourselves and others, having compassion for one another, working together towards solutions because we all are in this together.

Initiatives are proliferating around this concept, with names like Weave, Better Angels, More in Common, Repair the World, Citizen University… and many more.

It starts with you. Right now.

If you take only one thing away from this series, here’s the bottom line: we all need to change. And: we need to support others (our partners, children, friends, colleagues, society-at-large) in their efforts to change.

There are innumerable ways to act on this. But as always: it starts with you. And your intimate relationships. I want to return here to Harro, and define the shift we’re collectively trying to make. She reminds us:

Liberation is the practice of love. It is developing a sense of self that we can love, and learning to love others with their differences from us.

The patriarchy is crumbling. Let’s not prop it up any longer.