What are the major difficulties around the concept of ‘patriarchy’; has the term outlived its usefulness? Essay

The term patriarchy has many definitions, but it broadly means male supremacy over women in society. It can be said to be a “system of male authority, which oppresses women through its social, political and economic institutions” (Humm, 1989 p89). There are several major difficulties around the term.

There are conflicting ideas within feminism about what exactly the term means, and as such there is no one set definition of it. The universality of the theory can also be questioned. Furthermore the theory itself can be said to be patriarchal.It can be argued the term has outlived its usefulness, as due to changes in the law, the roles of men and women are viewed as more equal. However, on the other hand it can be argued these changes are not carried out in practice, and that patriarchy still is a useful concept. As stated in the introduction, patriarchy means male supremacy over women in society. The word patriarchy comes from Greek, and means ‘rule of the father’ (Wynter, 2000).

It is commonly used by all feminists to explain the oppression of women by men.The government, the church, the judiciary system and the media are among the institutes in society, which are said to enforce patriarchy. The nuclear family is a model of the patriarchal structure in society. It comprises of a mother, father and children; traditionally the father goes out to work, whilst the mother looks after both their children, and the husband himself.

This patriarchal picture of the family demonstrates how it helps maintain male supremacy over women. The male as the ‘bread winner’ has power and control over the whole family.Liberal, socialist and radical feminists all have differing views on what is meant by the concept of ‘patriarchy’, which is one of the main reasons why patriarchy is a difficult concept. Liberal feminists in general see patriarchy as lying in legal and customary constraints, which prevent women’s full participation in society. They see patriarchy as a political structure, which benefits men (Eisenstein, 1993). The socialist view of patriarchy differs from this as they link it with capitalism.Socialist feminists argue the sexual division of labour, which is reinforced by capitalism, results in the exploitation and oppression of women. This is the view of Hartmann, who states that the sexual division of labour is crucial in explaining the root of patriarchy (cited in Humm, 1992).

Radical feminists go much further than both liberal and socialist feminists. They argue power, dominance and hierarchy characterise the patriarchal system. Therefore they argue as well as legal and political structures, social and cultural institutions in society must be overthrown to enable women to be equal with men.

Within radical feminism there are differing views on how women are oppressed. Firestone argues that it is due to biology that women are oppressed (Firestone, 1970). Traditionally women have been considered physically weaker than men and their economic years are minimised through child birth and child rearing. Other radical feminists would further argue sexuality has been used to sustain male supremacy over women and many see heterosexuality as a tool of women’s oppression. Daly sees Christianity as enforcing patriarchal values.

She argues the fact that God is seen as the supreme male is problematic, and further enforces patriarchy (Daly, 1968). Specific definitions given by certain feminists also greatly contradict each other. Walby argues patriarchy is “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Andermahr et al, 1997, p159). Muller argues it is “a social system in which the status of women is defined primarily as wards of their husbands, fathers and brothers” (Muller, 1995).Millet sees patriarchy as being independent of capitalist and other modes of production (cited in Humm, 1989). This view would be greatly criticised by socialist feminists as they view patriarchy and capitalism as being inextricably linked.

Although there is a basic, broad idea of what patriarchy means, there are still a great number of interpretations, which all differ and concentrate on different areas. The universality of patriarchy may also be questioned. The term is often used to cover all areas of male dominance in society, which can encounter problems.

Instead it can be argued that more than one term should be used to describe male supremacy over women, or that the definition of patriarchy should be much broader. Patriarchy can be further problematic as it is often argued that the theory itself it patriarchal. It can be argued the theory is an example of female chauvinism, which is similar to patriarchy. Although patriarchy is a key component of feminism, it has been argued the term has outlived its usefulness. Certain changes in the law are cited as evidence that patriarchy has outlived its usefulness.Laws such as the 1975 Equal Pay Act demonstrate that now women have the same rights as men. Marchment states the law no longer prevents women from entering certain professions (cited in Richardson, 1993). The assumption is that now that the law no longer prevents women from doing certain things and taking certain jobs and that they are therefore no longer oppressed.

They have the same opportunities and have achieved equality. This therefore shows that the term ‘patriarchy’ has outlived its usefulness. Nowadays many women work, and in many homes the female is the main ‘breadwinner’ and head of the household.The nature of the family has changed and now many households are headed by single-mothers.

This is further evidence that patriarchy is and out dated term. Wynter (2000) argues at the moment we are witnessing the most fundamental changes in gender relations, which is resulting in the demise, and eventually the death, of patriarchy. She argues patriarchy is built on the church, media, legal and political systems.

She states nowadays women are taking on many roles in all these spheres, which is contributing to the demise of patriarchy.Both New Zealand and Finland have single female prime ministers, which she states shows traditional roles under patriarchy have changed. Furthermore, she argues the fact that the nuclear family has demised in recent years is yet more evidence of how oppression against women has lessened, which is in effect leading to the term ‘patriarchy’ losing significance (Wynter, 2000). Although it can be argued patriarchy has outlived its usefulness, some feminists argue that it is still an extremely important term.Although according to law women have the same rights as men, these rights are not always carried out in practice. Marshment states although laws does not prevent women from entering certain professions, they are still naturally defined, socially and culturally as primarily mothers and housewives (cited in Robinson, 1993). Patemann argues patriarchy has been overthrown, but only in the sense that laws have been changed, and women still do not receive the same rights in reality (cited in Andermahr et al, 1997).

These underline the continuing importance of the concept of ‘patriarchy’ to define the position of women in today’s society. It is the belief among a number of feminists that the term ‘patriarchy’ should not be completely dismissed, but should be changed. Mitchell (1974) argues the term should be retained, but should only be used to describe the rule a father holds over his wife, children and household dependents (cited in Andermahr, 1997).

Rubin argued the word patriarchy should be replaced by the term ‘sex-gender’ system, which could be applied universally (cited in Andermahr, 1997).These show that to some feminists ‘patriarchy’ is still a useful term, but simply needs to be up dated or modified. ‘Patriarchy’ is the concept at the centre of feminism, and basically means male supremacy over women. It has many difficulties, which include the differing views from different feminists, and the fact that there is not one agreed meaning of the concept. Also, the universality of the term may also be questioned. Furthermore, the theory itself can be said to be patriarchal.

The question supposed that the term is outlived, which is supported by the fact changing laws have made the positions of men and women equal in theory. However, it is argued by many feminists that this theory of equality is just that and is more often than not never carried out in practice. Although women have come a long way, and achieved a number of reforms the position of men and women remains unequal. Although ‘patriarchy’ is a problematic concept and women’s position has changed, it is still a useful term to refer to and explain male supremacy over women.


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