American Patriarchy

A brief introduction to the project

History is a malleable thing. It’s both the thing we must learn or we are doomed to repeat, and it is a stream we can never step into twice. It pushes us forward and holds us back. It’s a roadmap and a rearview mirror. It can set us free or lock us in chains. History is truth, but it’s also, as Napoleon said, “a set of lies, agreed upon.” In the right hands, history can inspire and enlighten. In the wrong hands, history becomes a weapon of mass destruction. It is a malleable thing, our past, which is why who writes our history, and what their goal in writing is becomes vital for us to know. We all know history is written by the winners, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that over the past five hundred years our nation’s history has been collected, preserved and disseminated by privileged white men studying the lives of other privileged white men.

Over the past five hundred years our nation’s history has been collected, preserved and disseminated by privileged white men studying the lives of other privileged white men.

Which is why my current project, a book detailing the evolution and dominance of the American Patriarchy, proposes a break from this structure and the expectations that go alongside it. My thesis is that our history has been hijacked by the patriarchy, and it is in part due to this control of our past that the patriarchy has maintained its hold on the present and, unless we find the will to change within us, our foreseeable future. The problem with facing the patriarchy head on is that it’s designed specifically to repel such attacks. It’s an elusive and slippery target, but like the breeze rustling through the branches we can feel its effects even if we can’t see it. And the best way to find the breeze is to look for what remains after everything else changes. One moment in time doesn’t give us much, but a thousand thousand moments, carried out in the same way, for the same purpose, by the same sort of people, over and over and over, can tell us, well, everything. So that’s where we start. The moments that remain.

Back in Athens, patriarchy, or πατριάρχης, meant rule by the father. Today, it means… that, of course, and so much more. Especially when it becomes ‘The’ Patriarchy. It’s a charged word, to be sure, detailing a system of dominance not easily pinned down. And that obscurity by design makes it nearly impossible for us to find words pliable enough to have a conversation around the patriarchy, let alone come to a consensus on how to dismantle it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find broad themes to guide our conversation. For our purposes here, I’ve put together four ways of seeing the patriarchy that have guided my work.

First, that the patriarchy is not a static system, but one constantly reinvented by those in power that impacts all of us in almost every single one of our interactions. And, as a system, its main function is to maintain itself. This is the basic truth of all systems: they aren’t put in place to create change but to prevent it. The patriarchy, while its exterior appears notably different today compared to any other era in American history, is still fundamentally the same at its core.

Second, that the patriarchy is not a faceless institution. The patriarchy didn’t burn witches at Salem. It didn’t give or take suffrage from women or create and enforce the wage gap. The patriarchy doesn’t do anything. People do. So while the patriarchy is a system, it is a system made up of millions and billions of individuals, male and female, working to maintain it because they believe it will benefit them. And since we can’t bring a system to trial for it’s actions, we must hold those who serve it accountable for their deeds.

Third, that the patriarchy is harmful to all of us. All the time. In all the ways. Our society puts a staggering amount of limitations on women. For a woman to succeed, she must push consistently against a system that refuses to be beaten. While designed by and for men, the system is also brutal for men to live within. A man must conform every bit as much as a woman to its dictates, and while the patriarchy clearly favors men over women, and punishes women and non-binary individuals in significantly worse ways, there are vast numbers of men, particularly those deemed “minority” for whatever reason, who fall outside the circle of the Patriarchal favor. In the end, our Patriarchal system favors a very narrow few over pretty much everyone else. While true that it places men over women, the patriarchy is primarily a tightly constructed hierarchy designed to control the many by the few.

Fourth, we haven’t chosen this system, but we choose how we interact with it. We spend our entire lives in it, constantly forced to choose whether to work with or against the patriarchy. Oftentimes those choices are easy, sometimes they are difficult and at times potentially deadly. We’re either accepted or not by our family, our friends, and our society through the choices we make within the patriarchy. The choices we make matter, and they are our own, but in the end they are what define us. And if that’s true, it means we can choose something different. And if enough of us choose something different… well, who knows what comes after that. But I have to believe that since we currently live in a system that hurts all of us, and puts some groups of people at a severe disadvantage - one that is diametrically opposed to the stated values of that very system - that something different can indeed be better.