Five Signs You’re Living in a Patriarchy

Television violence

In her book The End of Men, Hanna Rosin states that we no longer live in a patriarchy, and that the establishment of an American matriarchy is just a matter of time. Although Ms. Rosin does have some insights about the ways in which our culture is changing around gender, her definitions for both these terms are incorrect—which means that she misses the very clear signs that America is a thriving patriarchy.

Ms. Rosin’s definition of patriarchy is a commonly understood one: “For nearly as long as civilization has existed, patriarchy—enforced through the rights of the firstborn son—has been the organizing principle, with few exceptions.” Here, patriarchy is all about family structure—if men are primary breadwinners and women are at home, you live in a patriarchy. If not, you don’t. (Ms. Rosin also defines a matriarchy as a society with lots of single-mother households—another misunderstanding, and one that has been used to stereotype and denigrate black women.)

While it is true that patriarchy holds the traditional family as the cornerstone of society—and that we don’t live in as complete a patriarchy as we did when the country was founded—there is more to a patriarchy than the family.  However, Ms. Rosin declares that the patriarchy in concrete form is over, and it is now just “…an abstract idea to fight over.”

I can see why she would believe the patriarchy is abstract, as its primary definition doesn’t make it into mainstream conversation. So…what is a patriarchy? And how do we know America is one?

A patriarchy is a society that is structured via laws and customs so that males are considered superior to females and have more power and privileges. A patriarchy relies on sexism as its foundation, but sexism is not the only thing that keeps it alive—racism, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination are also at its root. White, physically fit, heterosexual men with money who use violence to establish their dominance have the highest status; all men in a patriarchy feel pressure to meet this standard.  Patriarchy is a zero-sum game of power, and very few people who live in one feel that they measure up.

Patriarchy is far from an abstract idea—it takes concrete, and often violent, forms. Present-day America doesn’t look like a fifties sitcom (it never really did for most people), but we are definitely living in a patriarchy.

Here are just a few ways you can tell:

  1. Kids and Uzis: A nine-year old can learn to shoot an Uzi for fun and skills. Interpreting our right to bear arms in this way ensures that violence is seen as a game, and the most destructive weapons are presented as toys, a precursor to the tools of life.
  2. Public Beheadings: Videos of terrorist beheadings of our citizens are easily available for public viewing, released on social media without regard for  mourning families. Terrorist groups tape beheadings and send them out to prove their dominance—to taunt the masculinity of America. While we must deal with this threat—there’s no doubt about that—watching the beheading of an American citizen serves the purposes of the terrorists, fueling us with fear and rage.
  3. Female Body as Public Property: Every week, you can find a few stories that discuss what laws and customs we should or shouldn’t have about the female body. The stories might seem disconnected at first glance—a debate about street harassment on Fox News in which harassment itself isn’t clear, private photos of naked female celebrities stolen and posted online, a police officer who targets black women for sexual assault and rape and finds online support—but they all revolve around the idea that the female body isn’t private, and disagreement about whether it should be.
  4. Lost History:  How many of us can rattle off the life details of Ida B. Wells or Alice Paul?  How many know it took nearly a century of activism before women could vote, and that racism was a big part of the picture?  How many know that, without the Civil Rights movement, there would be no law prohibiting discrimination against women in the workforce?  How many, when the word “Stonewall” is spoken, think of Andrew Jackson instead of gay rights?  A patriarchy relies on a lack of knowledge, so that those in the “out” groups won’t know their own potential.
  5. Boys vs. Girls:  Concern for boys is seen as a completely separate category from concern for girls, as if uplifting a child of one sex requires diminishing a child of the opposite sex. This approach to sex and gender is obvious throughout our national conversations, and the underlying assumptions are a part of Ms. Rosin’s book—the end of men means the rise of women. Until we can conceive of shared power, we will always believe that either boys or girls must “win”—and everyone will lose.






2 thoughts on “Five Signs You’re Living in a Patriarchy

  1. diahannreyes says:

    It can be so hard to identify the patriarchy when we are living right in the middle of the paradigm. I so appreciate you naming this and what it looks like because with a lot of these issues I don’t think many people would think to point to the patriarchy as a cause. I do believe that if we keep talking and naming and pointing out that this exists eventually people will have to stop not seeing. So thank you, Liz!


    • Elizabeth Hall Magill says:

      Thanks, Diahann! I agree–if we talk about the patriarchy in concrete forms, it helps us to see it, and to name how it hurts us all.


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