It occurs to me when reading feminist blogs and comments to blog posts that there is a lack of understanding about what patriarchy is and means. This is especially obvious in discussions of men’s role in feminism, in society and in a feminist society. Many feminists start out with the caveat that they ‘like men’ or ‘don’t think all men are oppressors,’ but few feminist theorists would bother making that point, as ‘men are all evil’ is not actually what they mean when referring to patriarchy.

Patriarchy is a social system that includes men and women (as well as people who don’t easily define as either). The philosopher Bourdieu argues that power can be direct — such as when you force someone to do something through coercion, or physical violence — or indirect, exercised through culture, social values and institutions, and language. The exercise of power becomes a social system when power moves from being direct to indirect.

Patriarchy is not exercised directly by men over women, but indirectly through our involvement in social structures — the way we talk to each other, what we mean when we think ‘woman’ or ‘man’ in our heads, our legal system and governance, social customs, traditions and formal institutions like education and religion. Patriarchy is a social system that is built on the concept of gender difference and that gender difference should determine how we think about each other, what our role is in society, and what people get to exercise power. While feminists are usually concerned with patriarchy’s impact on gender relationships, it also incorporates other power structures seen in race, class, disability, and sexuality politics (and more) – as these power structures all combine and inform each other.

Both men and women live within this system and it is the act of living in it that both creates patriarchy and reinforces it. Men gain from patriarchy, but not exclusively. Some men gain more than others; some women also gain. Furthermore, by the time power is a social system, everybody who is operating within it is participating in its continuation — even if you don’t want to be. In this way, women are as responsible for the perpetuation of patriarchy as men. And, while men gain more from patriarchy, and so may be more reluctant to give it up, they are just as much ‘victims’ of patriarchy as women. They can no more choose to remove themselves from a patriarchal world than women.

When power is direct, it is easier (but not necessarily easy!) to address — you can fight back, you can remove yourself from the realm the individual exercises power in, you can resist. When power is a system, fighting back is a lot more overwhelming. First, you have to decide what your goals are, but this means changing the way you understand the world. If you have been brought up your entire life to believe that women are lesser human beings than men, taking the conceptual leap to equality is actually a major breakthrough. Yet, we made that leap and we made tangible goals to make change — increased education, votes for women, access to the professions, equal pay, reproductive rights, rights to exercise our sexuality; rights to our own body. Some of those goals have been met; some we are working towards.

However, we are not complete in our dismantling of patriarchy, because we have not yet been able to conceptualise what a world looks like where gender means something different. We talk about getting rid of gender, but we do not know what to replace it with. We talk about rehabilitating gender (different but equal), but we can’t get away from the fact that ‘different’ is used to deny people rights and opportunities. This problem is because patriarchy is not just about individual action, it is a state of mind. It is a state of mind that we all share and as such we are not encountering new ideas or ways of thinking that might allow us to change our state of mind. We don’t even have the terms to start this conversation, as our basic descriptors are ‘he’ and ‘she’. The exercise of power is written into the very structures of our language-the language that we use to think with.

This should not make people despair — the fact is we have made huge conceptual leaps in the past which have allowed us to shake the foundations of patriarchy. But, we have not yet dismantled it. And, this is why language, and how we use it, is important — because it shapes our world. It is also why feminism is not about women hating men; it is about challenging the very way we view the world and asking women and men to join us in that.

Illustrated by example: Last week, I pointed out the rather large discrepancy in sentencing between men and women who killed their children. So, how does this happen? Did the judge (male or female) just hate women and want to punish them?

This is unlikely.

In fact, s/he probably thought s/he was responding to the crime appropriately. But subconsciously, when confronted with a woman who killed her child s/he probably had a thought that went: women = mother> mothers protect, nurture children> this woman killed children =heinous. The judge sentencing the men thought: men + violence = normal masculinity > men killed children = within the boundaries of normal masculinity= standard sentencing. The gender of the criminal had a differential impact on how the same crime was viewed, resulting in different sentencing.

Thus, gender matters, patriarchy exists, women suffer, men suffer = time for change.