When someone — whether laypeople, like Jill Soloway or the writers at Buzzfeed, or academics, like bell hooks — describes the United States as a “patriarchy,” it is unclear to me what they intend to mean. Maybe this sounds irreverent, but women serve in every level of government — executive, judicial and legislative, at this point only never occupying (and losing only by a close margin) the upper echelons of the presidency. Just this week in Georgia, a woman won a House seat in an election where her opponent was a well-financed white male. If we look at influential powers beyond government, women own some of the largest hundred-billion dollar corporations in the west. Women are the majority of teachers, arguably one of the most influential concentrations of quasi-political power in a democratic republic. As a voting bloc they’ve had much sway in all elections since suffrage.
So, to understand what someone means when they insist that the States is still a patriarchy, it might be appropriate to ask: Would the United States still be a patriarchy if Hillary Clinton had won the election?
It’s a yes or no question. There are two possible responses.
If the answer is “No, the United States would have no longer been a patriarchy,” then we’ve clarified something — we’ve singled out a condition under which the States would cease to be a patriarchy (namely, φ: electing a woman to the highest position of executive power). Someone answering “No” stipulates that there is a certain achievable goal under which patriarchy would cease. Now, why did Clinton lose the election? Not, as some people would like to believe, because of pervasive American sexism — rather, because of a variety of complicated reasons that can in no way be reduced to misogyny. Donald Trump did not win simply because Clinton was a woman. That was not a decisive factor. However, now that the individual has clarified under what condition (φ) the state of patriarchy could be dissolved, and we know that this (sufficient) condition could be achieved at any given election cycle — that men only occupying the presidency for the last few terms has been a purely contingent state of affairs — then we know that the term “patriarchy” only trivially applies to the United States. We know that, essentially, use of the term “patriarchy” is only appropriate because a male currently sits in the Oval Office. It might follow from this answer that were Clinton in office, America would even be a matriarchy. Now, by designating φ as nullifying the term “patriarchy,” the person has demonstrated that the term, applied now, can hardly condemn at all (as it only specifies one stage in a democratic process), and all the baggage it carries loses much of its weight. A woman could occupy the presidency at any time. If she does, then the patriarchy will be dissolved. Thus, the patriarchy could be dissolved at any time, the U.S. is not innately a patriarchy, and the term carries only taxonomic weight. (Not to say it may not carry particular emotional weight, but it does not carry damning weight.)
However, the person is unlikely to answer this way. Few agreed that racism ended when President Obama took office, and of course it didn’t. The two are not the same, but let’s examine what happens when they choose the other response.
The other possible answer is “Yes, the United States would still be a patriarchy if Clinton had won.” If this is the case, then we know, first of all, that a woman occupying the most powerful position in the world would still not be enough to end patriarchy. Certain consequences follow from this. There would seem to be less incentive for believers in a patriarchy to work to elect female politicians, or female board members, or encourage female participation in science or engineering — women in power, just in and of itself, is not enough. Presumably, it has to be the right kind of woman power; the people that answer this way don’t think of Clinton as feminist or progressive enough; her engagement with politics is no better than another conservative man’s political engagement. What these people want is large-scale cultural and political change. Patriarchy is not about women holding power, it is about the “mental, social, spiritual, economic and political organization/structuring of society produced by… sex-based political relations… reinforced by different institutions… to achieve consensus on the lesser value of women” (A. Facio, “What is Patriarchy?”). Or more simply, it is a “social system that values masculinity over femininity” (M. Watanabe, Feminist Fridays).
I rarely encounter succinct definitions of patriarchy (much less in terms through which progress can be made), yet it is still nonchalantly applied in certain political circles. Often, when parts of the definition do make sense, they’re false. Modern-day societies — at least capitalist ones — are not “organized” in any way intelligible by Facio’s definition; political relations are rarely, in the Western world, defined by sex or gender. One element that seems central to a definition is the over-valuing of “masculine” qualities over “feminine.” Glossing over the problem of defining these (even discussing them seems to be submitting to gender stereotypes), the value a society places on certain qualities is only the aggregate values of its individual members. Different people have different preferences. The idea that a society might completely equalize its values — why would we ever expect that to be possible or desirable? — seems to suggest superimposing someone’s idea of a perfect value set onto all others. Regardless, it’s unclear why, from some estimation of sexism in a culture, we need the introduction of a political term, using “-archy.” There must be more to it to make that term appropriate. It’s still unclear.
The problem of answering the question with “Yes” is that we still lack a condition, e.g. φ, by which we can dissolve the patriarchy. Under what circumstances will that word no longer apply? Otherwise, it is meaningless. Many of the proposed explanations evoke “institutions” — things never explicitly defined, and when critically examined, are revealed to be either nonexistent or too heterogeneous to dub patriarchal. If these institutions in America are supposed to be, say, the legal system or the education system, and these institutions are supposed to give America its organizational status, then in fact America is a matriarchy, due to the distribution of power present in these systems. If income-bracket is supposed to be an institution, then there might be a case to be made; men, on average, earn more (because they are in higher-paying positions), but this is probably not because they are men, or because our civilization favors them so, but rather certain contingent factors (such as career choice). This, again, would show America to not be innately patriarchal, “institutionally,” but temporarily, accidentally.
Sexism exists, to a much higher degree toward women than toward men. Does this mean we have to call America a patriarchy? No. The term “patriarchy” could do with some clarification, and not just from the ivory tower — with the same methods of analysis that we use to identify a system as a republic, dictatorship, or whatever — or be put to rest. The term is so abstract as to defy any analytic understanding, and its only coherent definition — a society or government run by males — either does not fit the United States or fits it only trivially.