Patriarchy or Male Supremacy?

Meeting Ground On Line has recently reprinted a short 1993 piece by Carol Hanisch on what is described as the unfortunate shift by feminism, from describing our current system as a ‘male supremacy’, to describing it as ‘patriarchy’.

As the Editor’s Note on the reprint remarks:

Patriarchy has all but replaced male supremacy and sexism as the preferred word for the system of discrimination and multi-faceted oppression that women face. The term patriarchy wasn’t used by most 1960s pioneers of the Women’s Liberation Movement and only came into popular usage as those founders were disappeared from view. The liberal and academic takeover of women’s liberation by women with access to the press and money led to the dropping of “liberation” from the name of our movement and to the rise of the word patriarchy to describe what is wrong with “the system” or “society”. Some claim it more accurately blames the system rather than individual men. We think it lets the class of men off the hook and is not applicable to current late capitalist conditions. The short piece reprinted here is an earlier argument against blaming a patriarchy for women’s oppression.

I wrote on this topic a few years ago, explaining the marxist concerns with the ‘patriarchy’ description.  (To be honest, I do sometimes use “the p” as a colloquial descriptor when referencing the male supremacist aspect of our capitalist system, but I think its usefulness sharply dwindles when we require detailed analysis. And it is probably generally disorientating.)

I argued in my article Against Patriarchy that this is not an argument about words, but about best identifying the system oppressing us, so we can equip ourselves to overthrow it.

This understanding also seems to guide Carol Hanisch’s US-based piece, Patriarchy or Male Supremacy?.

Since her article was so brief, I do not know to what extent she shares my concerns about flattening out an analysis of female oppression to be all about men. As I noted five years ago:

Patriarchy theory often also dissuades its proponents from looking at who the ruling class in our society is (the capitalists/ bourgeoisie), deeming it instead ‘men’, despite most men not having the power to rule society.

It does matter what the ruling class is. It affects the way society works. [Eg capitalism or feudalism? It does matter.]

  • Capitalism has created entirely new forms of female oppression. The porn industry as we know it wouldn’t exist without capitalism. As advanced capitalist industries do, it creates demand. And its images are nothing like the pre-capitalist paintings of nude women – they are now images of actual women, which continue to be sold and bought long after the image’s subject/object has died.
  • Industry as a whole needs different classes of workers, to play us off against each other, with some paid much less. And capitalism needs women to do unpaid work (including rearing the next generation of workers) within the hetero family unit in order for the capitalists to keep more of society’s wealth, rather than devoting it to these important welfare tasks.]

[This is not to say that men won’t in general try to maintain their (relative) material privilege via exerting power over the women around them. Male privilege under capitalism is very real, despite it being less inscribed in law than it used to be. Any socially privileged sector has an immediate objective interest in maintaining that privilege, and capitalism inherited the precapitalist sex and sexual relations of male dominance and female subjugation, although it has altered those relations in its own interest. Consequently, female sexuality remains largely subordinate to the political and economic needs of the ruling class (as it has been to the ruling classes of all economic forms), and men maintain their historical role as main gatekeepers and immediate beneficiaries of women’s sexuality. The implementation of this (including the extent to which a woman’s sexuality is determined by her own wishes and enjoyment) varies enormously around the world, which will have to be a subject for a future post.]

And while it has been true that the ruling classes of all types of class society have mainly comprised men, it doesn’t follow that all or even most men are part of the ruling economic class.

This is another reason why conflating capitalism (a women-oppressing system) with patriarchy just confuses us. It can lead to writing off any mention of the role of the capitalist class with (‘well, men created capitalism – it’s part of the patriarchy’). But it is vital to acknowledge that the capitalist class has political interests outside the objective interests of most men. Since knowledge is power, it utterly disorients us, and significantly demobilises us from key aspects of the fight, to assume that discussing and opposing capitalism *specifically* is pointless.

Suffice it to say that I do not believe this is about arguing between the terms ‘patriarchy’, ‘male supremacy’ and ‘capitalism’, but about ensuring we use them each correctly. Capitalism is male supremacist, and cannot be otherwise.

I will also note that I have seen no thorough reasoning for the superiority of the term ‘patriarchy’ when applied to today’s world. I did see the assertion that “male supremacy” reduces male power to the ideological and psychological, but no explanation as to how it necessarily does that. (Clearly, any political descriptor can do that on its own if its user possesses no systemic analysis. For instance, I have seen ‘capitalist’ used to describe a consumerist culture by people who appeared to believe that capitalism would vanish if the mindset supporting it could be argued away.)

Certainly, we need to draw assessments about why it is that ‘patriarchy’ has not been fleshed out as a sociopolitical system. Given the far greater analyses which have been built to date of capitalism, and how its necessary relations of production and reproduction sustain female oppression, I believe we must conclude that the problem is not feminists having failed to prioritise the task of ‘explaining patriarchy’. Rather, it’s just not the right analytical framework for women’s needs.

Please do read Hanisch’s full piece and my own, to get an idea of the political considerations behind these discussions.

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