Is the United States a patriarchy?

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. 

7 thoughts on “Is the United States a patriarchy?

  1. “Patriarchy is a social system in which males hold primary power and predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property. In the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children. Some patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.”

    “Matriarchy is a social system in which females hold primary power, predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property at the specific exclusion of men, at least to a large degree…. Most anthropologists hold that there are no known societies that are unambiguously matriarchal, but some authors believe exceptions may exist or may have. Matriarchies may also be confused with matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies.”

    Let’s arbitrarily decree that there are only boys and girls. If one of these ‘hold primary power, predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property’, and if we can decide on adequate measures of, for example, political leadership or control of property then a simple difference of means test would provide evidence of skewness towards either boys or girls. I have not done this, nor do I intend to do it. I will say that my priors for the United States is for a skewness towards guys not gals.

    • Sounds fair, Terry. That’s a very taxonomic method. So then when one of those labels, built on your given criteria, fits a society, is it a bad thing? At first sight, not necessarily — right? But the word is being used in an intrinsically negative sense, right? So something is off.

      And then, once we determine what will be the measures, how much need men hold ‘primary power,’ etc. over women to qualify for a patriarchy? A simple preponderance, 51%? Does that instantly a patriarchy make? Men do predominate in political leadership — in any democracy (following your hypothetical with just boys and girls), there will usually be some predominance of one sex. So what? And if men as an aggregate own an additional square mile of property does that qualify as a patriarchy? If it’s too vague to pin down, and it’s a negative term, how are we going to fix it?

      And is the United States homogeneous enough that we can consider all of its practices under an umbrella like this? Do a majority of people follow the same moral authority? How are we going to contextualize ‘power’? (I tried, it doesn’t point conclusively toward patriarchy.)

    • “But the word is being used in an intrinsically negative sense, right? So something is off.”

      Pardon the separate reply but this is a different issue from the others you raise. The word is being used in an intrinsically negative sense by some people….because they’re involved in partisan politics. I understand why language matters, see the fight over ‘life’ and ‘choice’ in the abortion wars. I would like to separate the terms as cultural descriptions from their use and misuse in political battles.

  2. “So then when one of those labels, built on your given criteria, fits a society, is it a bad thing?”
    Nope just a descriptive label.

    “A simple preponderance, 51%? Does that instantly a patriarchy make?”
    Over all measures? Yes. With a set of binary categories you don’t have much choice. What complicates categorization is when different measures go in different directions….let’s accept your assertion that men predominate in political leadership. But what if women predominate in ownership of property? If you want to argue for a third category where no sex predominates I wouldn’t quibble as long as we can agree on using empirical data and statistical analysis to determine category membership.

    “And if men as an aggregate own an additional square mile of property does that qualify as a patriarchy?”
    Is it a statistically significant difference? For better or worse, inferential statistics has clear and generally accepted rules for making those decisions.

    “And is the United States homogeneous enough that we can consider all of its practices under an umbrella like this?” No. Yes. There is a wealth of research showing multiple regional subcultures in the US and I’ve personally lived in enough different places to experience most of them first hand. That’s the ‘No’. The Yes comes from knowing that people [including academics] will continue to treat the US in a unitary fashion. But, as above, additional information comes from consistency or inconsistency. In this case across regional or other subcultures.

    “Do a majority of people follow the same moral authority?”
    No. But if we identify a set of moral authorities and women predominate in all of them that argues for categorization as matriarchy.

    “How are we going to contextualize ‘power’?”

    I know how I would do it but I’m an organizational sociologist and a social network guy now. Your mileage would probably vary from mine.

    • The variables you would use to qualify patriarchy, though sensible, don’t warrant the “-archy” aspect, I think. Anyway, I don’t mean to deny that we could find a way to employ the term that’s more nuanced than biological preponderance in social/political organization. I do mean to say that the only people I see using the term see it as an innately bad thing, and so this sort of definition will not satisfy them — and the definitions they give do not satisfy me (as empirically demonstrable, as falsfiaible, or as unambiguous).

      The way the word is thrown around is more like this:

  3. “I do mean to say that the only people I see using the term see it as an innately bad thing, and so this sort of definition will not satisfy them — and the definitions they give do not satisfy me (as empirically demonstrable, as falsfiaible, or as unambiguous).”

    I agree. I just wanted to point out that patriarchy and matriarchy have a long history in cultural anthropology and are legitimate social science concepts. My biggest objection to the problems you’ve pointed out is not people making value judgments about either patriarchy or matriarchy but muddled thinking about why it occurs and what to do about….a lack of understanding of causal pathways so to speak….

    [thanks Michelangelo]

  4. I applaud your reach for clarity and exactness in all things. They are elusive and require continuing interchange of ideas, and I believe you have room for growth. For instance, you argue that since women are overrepresented among teachers and lawyers, this undermines arguments in favor of the u.s. as a patriarchy. Since you are clearly an intelligent and logical individual, your argument appears facile rather than simply erroneous. No one would argue that teachers are one of the most powerful groups in the country. Furthermore, sexism is arguably equally or at least substantially absorbed by both sexes. Therefore, merely ocuupying a position does not guarantee that actions and decisions will produce equality. By corollary, men in certain positions will not necessarily act negatively against women. However, I think it’s fair to argue that women have a greater incentive to examine and challenge their own internalized patriarchy.

    Predominance in a range of essential domains and which equates to power and improved quality of life, I would argue, is an important element in understanding patriarchy. I was struck by what seemed to me a hyper intellectualized article. Arguing for argument’s sake, with little apparent effort to understand another perspective rather than simply trying to prove others to be wrong.

    Given the power differential in the U.S. between men and women as measured by physical harm perpetrated against women, surely a single syllable about this topic is warranted. Patriarchy connotes not just power differences in some abstract sense but perceived value differences. The violence women live with by their own family surely is connected to patriarchy. I would argue it is evidence of it. Even if you argue otherwise (which I would consider absurd), surely a single word of compassion would be appropriate and much appreciated in a conversation where true understanding is the real goal, rather than simply proving that other people are just wrong when they use a term to try to understand and express their pain and desperation.

Please keep it civil

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