Questioning the Patriarchy from Within

Until relatively recently, the history of writing has been overwhelmingly a history of men’s ideas. (One need only compare the number of known ancient women writers to the number of known writers in the ancient world to get a sense of the gender disparity.) Ancient literature represents plenty of misogynist attitudes (looking at you, Hesiod, Euripides, et al), but I’m intrigued by the fragments of ideas left by other male authors — writing in hyper-patriarchal societies — who ventured to second-guess the inequality or assigned roles of the sexes.

An interesting theme in the so-called tradition of ‘Western literature’ is reconsidering the role and place of women through the observing women’s roles and places in other cultures.

For example, Herodotus, the fifth century BCE historian, informs his Greek audience about a Libyan tribe that turns the masculine narrative of sexual conquest and the stigma of promiscuity on their head:

Next come the Gindanes. The women of this tribe wear leather bands round their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers: each woman puts on one band for every man she has gone to bed with, so that whoever has the greatest number enjoys the greatest reputation because she has been loved by the greatest number of men. (Herodotus 4.176, trans. Selincourt 2003[1954]:301)

The 1st-century reconstruction of letters by Crates of Thebes to Hipparchia of Maroneia (third century BCE) build on the Cynics practice of emphasizing nature above social convention:

Women are not naturally the weaker sex. Look at the Amazons; they were as physically tough as any man. (Letters 28) … You are no weaker by nature, any more than bitches are weaker than male dogs. Female liberation will then be justified on the grounds of nature, since it is acknowledged that slavery in general, not based on proven inferiority, exists by mere convention. (Letter 29) [trans. Dobbin 2012:70)

Passages like these raise an interesting question: what are the earliest texts you have encountered in the timeline of history that critique the de facto supremacy of the patriarchy?

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The ‘Hollow Patriarchy’ Hypothesis

The idea of the ‘hollow patriarchy’ comes from The Unmade Bed: The Messy Truth about Men and Women in the 21st Century by Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford.

The hollow patriarchy is the idea that if you look at the economic data and the sociological data, women are rising in the middle class very rapidly. They are 40 per cent of breadwinners in America. They have more university degrees than men. More female lawyers graduate than male lawyers. Men are losing this position of breadwinner in the middle-American society. But women are still being denied these positions of power. Women are 16 per cent of equity partners in law firms, which is really absurd. Only about three per cent of Hollywood directors in the major seven studios are women. This actually translates into virtually every industry. So the hollow patriarchy is that you have this masculinity as an icon of power, but it’s rotten at the centre. In the middle of it, men are becoming less and less the providers they once were and this tension creates all this kind of cultural and domestic turbulence. (Stephen Marche and Sarah Fulford dissect 21st-century gender politics, CBC Radio, April 24, 2017)

If the ‘hollow patriarchy’ hypothesis holds true, we have a cultural conundrum indeed. It is as if we still line up the causal gender dominoes in the same way: manhood equates to masculinity, masculinity equates to power, and power equates to sustaining the patriarchal order. To be a ‘man’ continues to mean to ‘being in charge,’ even in a world where the normativity of this assumption is obvious nonsense.

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Gender and Leadership: redefining and reconceptualizing power

When you think of the word ‘leadership,’ what comes to mind? What are your top three word associations? Got your list? Now, how many of the words that you just imagined reflect traditionally masculine characteristics?

In this episode, Shawna Lewkowitz (@ShawnaLewk) and Anne-Marie Sanchez (@anma_sa) discuss some big questions about gender and leadership: How has our contemporary concept of leadership evolved over time? Is our current idea leadership sufficient to encompass the many skill sets and ways of being in the world that have been traditionally considered as ‘feminine’? Would a society of gender parity have a different definition of leadership than we do?

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I Believe Her

Innocent until proven guilty. This is the foundational presumption of our justice system. This is the normative, intentional bias we have structurally embedded in our conception of justice to protect the wrongly accused. It is central to our legal definition of human rights itself.

But presumed innocence has a inherent side effect. It structurally imposes a bias of its own. It presumes the accuser must be lying. For as long as we presume the innocence of the accused, we are predisposed to suspect the integrity and honesty of the plaintiff. In a sense, to presume the innocence of a perpetrator means concurrently assuming the victim bears ‘inverse guilt’ for making a (presumed) falsified accusation.

Applying a gender lens to this inverse guilt is critical. For example, when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct, harassment, or assault, she steps forward not only as the victim of an act of violence against her body but as one who must now internalize this inverse guilt. As far as the legal system and public opinion is concerned, speaking up equates to everyone assuming she has fabricated her story — at least until her charge is proven. But how does one prove all sexual misdemeanors “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Who can trust a legal system biased explicitly on the defendant’s innocence to rule in your favor regarding an incident that occurred in private or behind closed doors?

Presumed innocence favours the denial of wrongdoing above the declaration of wrongdoing. And so it should. No one wants to live in legal system that allows a single, flippant accusation to destroy their life and family overnight. Such a system clearly provides no legal protection for anyone at all. But the problem is that the protection we all supposedly enjoy under the presumption of innocence also produces a legal climate and culture of law enforcement systemically incentivized to manifest at least some degree of victim blaming — the disproportionate burden of which is borne by women.

The question, I think, is whether or not we can simultaneously assume the innocence of the accused and the honesty of the accuser? Are we capable of such nuance? It seems to me that until the claimant’s character are assumed as innocent as the defendant’s actions, we will continue to replicate a system that serves men above than women. We need to figure out a way to normalize the paradox of saying “I believe her” while simultaneously protecting all of us from a nightmarish dystopia where all it takes is an accusation to prove your guilt once and for all. I’m not sure how we get there from where we are today, but trusting and believing victims must be a first step to bringing some equilibrium to a very unbalanced arrangement at present.

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