The Damage of Patriarchy

I grew up with a pretty strong sense of self. Confidence was never an issue. I had plenty of other issues – still do. But my default is to believe I have a right to be heard, a perspective worth sharing, and a contribution worth receiving. It’s not that I don’t question myself, but rather I don’t question my value. The struggle through my life has not been “Do I belong?” – but rather “How do I fit?” This perspective is presumptive, I realize. There are times I don’t fit, and that’s okay. Sometimes when I don’t fit, that hurts. And sometimes it makes sense. But my perspective is also empowering.

As a woman in a patriarchal society who grew up in a conservative culture where women were third in line (God – Man – Woman), my presumption made me bold. I ignored the glass ceilings. I was helped by a mother who rejected this nonsense, and a father who didn’t try to limit my contributions to the world. For many years, I thought I had avoided the trappings of patriarchy. I made my own way, and that was proof.

It wasn’t until seminary and a class on feminism and the Bible, that I realized how much I was influenced by patriarchal values. For example, until my 30’s I held a general distrust of women. I considered most to be petty and disloyal. As I sought to deepen friendships with women, I learned my assumptions were often not true. I began to wonder how much of my assumption had been based on experience, and how much had been absorbed by a patriarchal narrative. The more I thought about it and the more I heard how other women talk about women, the more I concluded that many of us were doing exactly what patriarchy wanted us to do: distrust one another; compete with each other; destroy one another. Patriarchy is strengthened when women do not come together.

Another realization during this class was to see how I had tempered my strengths when working with men. I thought specifically of a time when I had served on a church board. I often went head-to-head with a man, a successful business man. My internal monologue always accompanied the external dialogue with this man: “Don’t get too far ahead of him.” “Don’t say something that will make him feel dumb.” At the time, I justified my actions by seeing him as the weaker one. But now I was seeing this as my felt responsibility to manage his feelings. Certainly I had a responsibility to be collaborative and kind. But I was going far beyond that as I sought to prevent him from feeling inferior to me, as if that was my responsibility.

Some changes I’ve made:

  1. I no longer use gender when I speak of or to God. I have learned how humanizing God, or worse yet making God male, only makes the idea of God manageable and safe. Now that God is not limited to my understanding of men or people, the idea of God has expanded significantly. God is not meant to be managed or manipulated.
  2. I no longer feel the responsibility to manage a man’s ego. I expect him to manage his own and instead focus on being my best self. This has been both freeing and empowering. I am still learning to identify and pursue what I need. But I am learning to build a life that is meaningful for me, not just for those around me.
  3. I support the right for women to make their own choices about their bodies. I believe there are important conversations to have about reproductive decisions, and that should occur between a woman and her doctor. Restricting those decisions is the same as saying women cannot make thoughtful, difficult decisions for themselves.
  4. I acknowledge the pain and damage patriarchy has caused other groups, and how I’ve contributed to their pain. I think particularly of People of Color and the LGBTQ communities. The more I have freed myself from patriarchal thinking, the more clearly I see their pain, and the better ally I become.

My experience has been that there’s an ongoing conversation among women about how fragile men are. And we use this perceived fragility to ignore our needs and wants. As gender and sexuality become increasingly fluid, I see the potential to not only water down the patriarchal nonsense, but to eliminate it altogether. Perhaps that’s why some are feeling frightened and reactive. What has long been considered normative is being challenged and replaced. And that is scary for those who don’t know anything different.

I’m not trying to hate on men. I am trying to point out the danger of unchecked power. Patriarchy is a system that has named “men in power” as the normative. And in this country, specifically white, Christian, heterosexual men. So we are not just talking patriarchy, but also Christian nationalism. And that’s for another blog post.

Power is seductive, and seems to cause most to use it selfishly. The best way to prevent the abuse of power is to share it with diverse voices and perspectives. With the recent US Supreme Court decisions, it feels as if we’re moving backward, not forward, by reducing that diversity. I hope it’s patriarchy’s final “Hail, Mary” attempt. They’re in a losing battle and I think they know it. For those of us who reject patriarchy, let us not lose hope.