Dec/Jan 2009


Making sense of patriarchy’s long shadow

Ann Friedman

The word patriarchy is often fodder for crude caricature in today’s debates about gender politics. On the one hand, it furnishes a ready touchstone for feminist academics—an all-purpose indictment of gender injustices, past and present—as any glance across women’s-studies sections in academic-press catalogues will quickly confirm. On the other, it serves as a no-less-convenient rhetorical cudgel for antifeminist writers (and, for that matter, bloggers, cable talk-show hosts, et al.) keen to dismiss or deride the sweep of feminist thought; in this usage, it doubles as a winking, half-ironic way of suggesting that, no, we don’t really live in anything so monolithic and rigidly old-world as a patriarchy.

It’s tempting, amid such abuses of the term, to just give up and endorse its retirement. Yet a pair of new books make clear, in very different compasses, that the patriarchy is indeed alive and well—measured either in the long view of Western political thought or in the urgent latter-day battles over what kind of women in which circumstances are granted control over their reproductive lives. In The Deepening Darkness, Carol Gilligan and David A. J. Richards argue that the Western political and cultural tradition is so imbued with a particular brand of manhood that “patriarchal” is, if anything, a mild descriptor for its repressive aims. And in Our Bodies, Our Crimes, Jeanne Flavin traces the life-and-death power that the little-examined patriarchal assumptions informing our common life can have—especially among poor, nonwhite women.

Flavin, who teaches sociology at Fordham University, supplies a sobering primer on the laws and social constraints that keep women from fully controlling their bodies. The case studies she surveys in Our Bodies, Our Crimes make it painfully clear that the freedom to decide how and when to reproduce is, for a huge swath of American women, just as important as the much more fervidly discussed question of how and when women can choose not to reproduce. Indeed, in her opening chapter, Flavin criticizes the abortion-first thrust of much reproductive rights activism. “Voluntary fertility control through abortion and contraception was never the driving force behind black and Puerto Rican women’s quest for reproductive rights,” she notes. “While they shared white women’s desire to limit their own fertility on their own terms, their experiences and political agenda were quite different.”

Our Bodies, Our Crimes would have greatly benefited from a more extended treatment of this idea—examining, for instance, why South Dakota’s 2006 ballot initiative that would have enacted a total abortion ban, save for cases that would endanger the mother’s life, yielded far more press coverage and sharper activist outcries than efforts in courts and statehouses to pay or compel poor women to be sterilized or not to have children. Courts and legislatures often claim to be protecting these would-be mothers’ existing children or to be forcing them to “take responsibility” for their actions. But, Flavin explains, women ordered not to reproduce can easily be charged with criminal activity unrelated to their children—and in most of these actions, “‘irresponsibility’ seems to have become a less inflammatory code word for immorality.” She examines several examples of judges’ and local officials’ efforts to police fertility and concludes they have all been tied to the paternalistic belief that poor women (particularly those who are not white) lack the competence to control their own bodies. Of course, the South Dakota ban was a more sweeping measure—and no state was trying to pass a ballot initiative restricting childbirth in the lower orders.

But overlooking the routine operations of this brand of inequality can wall out a broader view of what reproductive freedom means: If feminists don’t take up the struggles of women who are not wealthy and white, how can we expect our justice system to do so? Flavin’s book contains plenty of sharp legislative and judicial context, but she doesn’t provide much political explanation for why today’s feminist movement has come up short in advocating for women deprived of not merely reproductive choice but also all sorts of other life choices. That’s to be expected, on a formal level, from an academic study—but courts and legislatures are instruments of political consensus, and exploring the question of feminist activism could permit critics to see plainly the true reach and character of (dare one say it?) patriarchy.

Other studies of the logic of reproductive regulation, among them Dorothy Roberts’s 1997 Killing the Black Body and Rickie Solinger’s 2005 Pregnancy and Power, place more pointed emphasis on its race- and class-based inequities. Flavin’s stress on the oft-lurid nature of regulatory crackdowns can spark, by contrast, a sort of tabloid shock effect—as when she recounts stories of women who’ve been forced to give birth while in shackles or to enter into plea agreements that mandate tubal ligations. She does effectively highlight the importance of these cases to the broader legal question of preserving women’s control over their own bodies. But as more than a snapshot, her book falls short.

For a sense of how gender inflects ideas of citizenship and the formation of political obligations, The Deepening Darkness is a far more exhaustive resource. Gilligan, a feminist academic best known for In a Different Voice, her 1982 book on psychology and women’s development, and Richards, a constitutional-law scholar with a focus on gender issues, write that they were inspired by each other’s area of expertise. They pool their resources here to produce a wide-ranging history of patriarchy—all the way back to ancient Rome—that demonstrates how it has fundamentally crippled our understanding of psychology, while at the same time fatally shaping the development of constitutional law. Much of their analysis is cultural, exploring “the tension between democracy and patriarchy in both intimate and political life” via the works of Virgil, Apuleius, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and Hemingway. The result, as the book’s title suggests, is a bracing declensionist argument. Rome’s rigid embrace of patriarchy, they contend, led directly to the crumbling of its democracy, the separation of the public and private spheres, and the repression of sex—all developments that Western civilization has struggled to overcome ever since.

But while The Deepening Darkness presents a unified historical indictment, the pace of its argument has a certain yin-yang quality, thanks to the varied backgrounds of the collaborators. Gilligan and Richards juxtapose historical and literary examples of patriarchy gone wild (Freud, Saint Augustine) with calls for justice, change, and resistance (Apuleius, Woolf). But the book suffers from a problem opposite to the one that hampers Flavin’s monograph; it’s so sprawling—weaving back and forth through politics and literature, psychology and law, religion and current events—that Gilligan and Richards appear to be constructing a theory of everything: Read this, they seem to say, and you’ll understand why society is the way it is.

It makes for a rather heady sort of critical theory—and one that effectively provokes readers to change their thinking. In particular, Gilligan and Richards’s treatment of how male dominance has shaped the division of Western life into private and public spheres feels firmly keyed into modern experience. Private freedoms are deeply entwined with public ones, they explain, so that even though the sexual revolution of the 1960s—a “private” transformation of mores if ever there was one—is not always linked with resistance to the Vietnam War, Gilligan and Richards make a strong case that it should be.

Neither Our Bodies, Our Crimes nor The Deepening Darkness is pitched at an audience far outside the seminar room. But Gilligan and Richards pay considerable dividends for patient readers. They provide a context for much of what Flavin writes about, referring several times to the novelist Arundhati Roy’s concept of Love Laws—the notion that society exercises domain over which of its members should be loved, together with how (and how much) they are to be loved. And Flavin takes that logic a step further, examining how our society determines who should reproduce and how much.

Seeing the state’s power deployed in such clearly personal contexts serves as a somewhat redundant reminder of how, after many other feminist breakthroughs, the control of one’s body remains for far too many women a privilege and not a right. And that, if nothing else, is ample reason to continue calling patriarchy by its name.

Ann Friedman is deputy editor of the American Prospect and blogs at