There is a common trope among some neo-feminists these days, that according to which the patriarchy was a concerted system, and whereas *all* men (as a homogenous class) abused, marginalised, and oppressed *all* women (as a no less homogenous class).
I will not discuss here how relevant or not is such an historical model and view of society, nor will I discuss if such view (if it ever was correct) still applies to our 21st century societies. Are women indeed, especially White, middle- and upper-class women (since most such feminists theorists, interestingly enough, belong to these demographics) really ‘marginalised’, ‘disempowered’, and/ or ‘oppressed’ in the Western world? I will leave that to the reader.
What I purport to do here, is to debunk a common myth usually coming ‘CLANG! CLANG!’ in the trails of such caricatural and reductionist view from anthropology to sociology, ignorance of history, and, appalling lack of understanding when it comes to gender interpersonal dynamics (let alone negating of what has been called 'intersectionality', a term which was coined, interestingly enough, by non-White feminists…) that is, the idea that women, throughout the centuries when the patriarchy was firmly entrenched (however you define ‘patriarchy’) were, not only passive coy with no power nor input whatsoever into how the culture was shaped, but, also, ‘just there’, apathetically, to endure the multiple forms of oppression taken by the so-called ‘male supremacy’.
The view, of course, is convenient. It implies that women, as such, had no responsibility whatsoever into the making of the patriarchy, and so, then as now, ought to be exonerated from its every sin; while, on the contrary, men, then as now, ought to be scapegoated for all its wrongdoing. This evading of responsibility -and, therefore, accountability- is convenient but… is it true?
There is no denying that, throughout history, women’s roles and place in society had been strictly defined, very narrowly, by gender expectations that were very stifling indeed. There is no denying either that such stifling, suffocating, gender expectations (thrusted upon women both by men and other women, it bears reminding) were oftentimes reinforced by multiple cultural artifacts, for instance, powerful imageries clearly determining one’s duties and positions. And, in fact, I have blogged in the past about one such imagery, the famous ‘We Can Do It!’ American WWII poster, which, if it has now become an icon of feminist empowerment, was, originally, the embodiment of everything sexist, demeaning, and patronising about our then views of women even when at work.
But: what about men?
Asking about men is where the understanding of the patriarchy as having been ‘male-made only’ shows itself to be grossly caricatural, if not plain ignorant. The thing is indeed: men too were brainwashed into fitting a gender narrative, with gender expectations that were no less strictly defined, narrow, stifling, and suffocating. And, as with that of women, such stifling, narrow, suffocating gender expectations of what it meant to ‘be a man’ were thrusted upon them not only by other men, but, also, women themselves.
The patriarchy, no matter how it came about, whoever it benefited or not, and however it managed to sustain itself (at least in how we still are prejudiced, in many respects, in how we define manhood and womanhood/ masculinity and femininity) was, for all its toxicity, a co-created system. Women were everything but innocent. They were complicit.
Now, outlining how such shaping operate would obviously take a whole book, and we clearly don’t have the time nor the space in here! For the sake of illustration, then, as I had blogged in the past about a wartime poster to make the point about women, I will, here too, blog about wartime posters but to make the point, this time, about men.
What do they teach us?
The neo-feminist narrative as outlined above is quick to condemn the view of women reduced to ‘units of reproduction’. What it fails to acknowledge, though, is the flipside of such reductionism: men being, them, reduced to ‘unit of production’ (the breadwinners, the paycheques) whose role was not only to provide, but, also, and most importantly maybe, to protect. Here were expectations, in fact, that women strongly encouraged, even by shaming and ostracising the men who didn’t conform.
And indeed, that it was men who always have been the expendable gender (a reckoning which has been called ‘male disposability’, or ‘the expendable male hypothesis’) is far from being new, nor is it far from having been the sole prerogative of Western societies. The expectation of men to be willing to sacrifice themselves for the common good, protecting, even at the peril of their lives, those then perceived as ‘weak’ and ‘vulnerable’ (that is, women and children) has been anthropologically proven to be one of the commonest features of traditional manhood across all human cultures. David D. Gilmore, for instance, in one of the first anthropological and cross-cultural study on the topic, had outlined, more than thirty years ago, how, alongside procreating and providing, protecting is in fact a key feature in defining what it means to ‘be a man’ in the most traditional sense:
‘To be a man (…) one must impregnate women, protects dependents from danger, and provision kith and kin.’
‘…manhood ideologies always include a criterion of generosity even to the point of sacrifice (…) Men nurture their society by shedding their blood (…) by dying if necessary in faraway places to provide a safe haven for their people.’
One doesn’t have to look very far to see such protective moral imperative being still at play. You see it in the streets, where women are safer than men (for men are, not only more likely to be criminals but, also, victims of crimes). You see it in women being rescued as damsels in distress when seemingly abused, unlike men put in the same situations. You see it in the justice system, where ‘chivalry justice’ operates. You see it the news, for example when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, and when women’s safety was deemed a ’crucial need’, while men and boys aged 18 to 60 were ordered to stay behind and fight to ensure just such safety You see it, in fact, even in the carceral system, where, in prisons’ hierarchies among criminals, sex offenders (rapists included, not only child molesters) are considered among the lowest of the low by their fellow male prisoners, with many studies having shown how they can be stigmatised, ostracised, and, even, segregated by the authorities for their own safety
Men, ‘real men’, don’t hurt women; even outlaws get the point.
Such expectation went beyond the understanding that men’s lives were not as valuable as that of women. Such imperative, such ‘men’s disposability’, was so strongly ingrained that it could even override that of procreating and providing, as can be illustrated in the poster below, circulated during WWI:
The message, here, was crystal clear: a father might matter, but what mattered the most, as a man, was to defend the mother land. Those who refused to go and shed their blood in a foreign country but chose to stay at home instead (even to contribute to raise their children) were, as far as society was concerned, nothing but useless cowards. What mattered, as a man, was to fight, ensure the protection and safety of your country and its most vulnerable people (children, women).
Fathers, especially, were told that their children would not judge them on how engaged and involved they had been as dads, but on the heroic deeds they were expected to accomplish on a battlefield, in times of needs. That such deeds involved being butchered in the hellish conditions of the trenches, in a conflict which saw corpses piling up like never before (single days of battles could see several hundreds of thousands of men being gun downed at once) was irrelevant.
Now, of course, at this point, most neo-feminists adhering to the view that the patriarchy was solely 'male-made' will sneer that wars were always started by men, conducted by men, fought by men, and, so, that men only were responsible for such horrors bestowed upon them. To anyone with a basic knowledge of history, thought, this counter argument is bogus, and, here too, smacking of ignorance.
First, it’s valid only insofar as, during most of history, it was men mostly who were in charge, both politically and militaristically. Who else could launched wars anyway? Then, when women had such political and military power (which they did, at times) they showed themselves to be no less aggressive, conquering, militaristic, even (in the case of Britain) exploitative and imperialistic than their male counterparts. Put bluntly: grant any power to women, and they will be no less likely to abuse it (or not) than men. Finally, and of particular interest here, it completely negates the role played by women into actively condoning such warmongering mindset in the male population. How so?
If you look closely at the previous war poster, for example, it is the daughter (not the son) who is questioning her father about how he did, or not, performed his ‘manly’ duty. Far from condemning men murdering each other, then, women were accepted as encouraging of it, even at a young age.
And, indeed, the fact is that no gender evolved separately from each other, as if in a vacuum. If, as per patriarchal attitudes, women were behaving in ways that were expected of them from men (being obedient and submissive, especially at home) men too were, also, as per the same patriarchal attitudes, behaving in ways that were expected of them from women - ‘be a man’: self-negate, sacrifice, don’t fear, don’t cry, even if it means being cannon fodder for the sake of us all.
Of course, women too were encouraged to join the war effort! Theirs, however, was not attached to a patriarchal stigma whereas, if they refused to do so, they were failing their traditional gender role. For men, it was different. Refusing to fight and die meant failing at being a man. It meant being weak. It meant being a coward. And women, in fact, were not shy into shaming them as so.
Propaganda, here too, reflected just such trope:
I personally find the ‘Women of Britain say “Go!”’ especially interesting, because it reflects sexist stereotypes that are still echoed nowadays; not least, by most neo-feminists claiming to be ‘dismantling the patriarchy’ while, in fact, being nothing but its most potent remaining voice. How so?
Look at the men. They, here, are depicted as being stoic, standing proud, marching bravely onto battle as per the injunction of the women (and their children!) that they are expected to protect and defend. In other words: men don’t mind war and violence, because men are supposedly ‘fearless’, particularly in the face of violence and cruelty.
Now, those of you who regularly follow my blog will know that I post mostly about domestic violence, from a non-gendered perspective. And indeed, there is an argument, here, within feminist circles, and according to which the fate of men victims of abuse is different of that of women victims, since men, supposedly, can’t possibly ‘be fearful’ in such domestic situations. It’s a bizarre argument for sure. Who’s to say that men having objects thrown at them; kitchen knives brandished under their faces; being threaten that they won’t be believed, that they will lose contact with their children and/or be the target of false allegation should they leave or seek help (a toxic combo of gaslighting and DARVO) are not ‘living in fear’? It’s a bizarre argument, but then again, where is it coming from? The poster above helps to answer the question: good, old fashion, patriarchal sexism, as outdated as it ought to be discarded.
But the point, of course, works both ways.
Now, look at the women indeed. They, on the other hand, are portrayed as being feeble, worried sick, clinging to each other, reinforcing by the same token the view that women are naturally weak and passive, that, when there is a tough job to be done, they possibly cannot be counted upon since 'they don’t have it in them' to face violence, let alone perpetrate it. Women, in other words, are depicted as being mostly emotional, fearful creatures, who, if it were not for men, would be completely apathetic and defenceless.
Similarly, then, and going back to how we view domestic violence, here’s the patriarchal view yet echoed by neo-feminists and according to which women, in matter of domestic disputes, can only be terrified, shaking, powerless, apathetic coy, completely paralysed with fear when things go wrong. Given the high prevalence of abusive relationship where abuse is in fact bidirectional (both aggressively and defensively) and the extreme rarity of women being murdered by male partners and ex-partners (in the UK, that’s less than 60 per year on average, in a population of abused female which amounts -as reported, not to be confused with as experienced- to nearly 2 million women in total) it is, of course, a no less bizarre argument! Nevertheless, it also comes from here too: good, old fashion, patriarchal sexism, as outdated as it ought to be discarded.
Propagandist could be very pragmatic, though, and it wasn’t uncommon to play on different levels. Strong men expected to protect weak women and children was one such trope. Strong women mocking men who, for whatever reason, didn’t want to shed their blood or that of others was another:
And in fact, another cultural artifact which further proves the complicity of women in the making of the patriarchy that is, in the making of what it meant to ‘be a man’, can be found in one of the most well-known propaganda symbols that came about during WWI, and those loaded history is so heavy that it has now become a pacifist symbol: the white feather.
White feathers were not officially generated. If the idea came from an Admiral (Charles Fitzgerald) he didn’t put it through to the government, but, directly through to… women. And, oh boy! How women fully embraced it! White feathers were publicly handed, by women, to men who were not in uniform so as to shame them into enlisting.
Under the patriarchy, of course, nothing was ever simple. The Suffragettes, for example, can be remembered for tenaciously, bravely, even violently at times, having campaigned for women to have the right to vote. Yet, not unlike men being protective of women while oppressing them at the same time, they, too, were contributing to oppress men, feeding what we now denounce as ‘toxic masculinity’ that is, the idea that men ought to ‘man up’, ‘grow some balls’, and embrace violence head on and with glee simply because they, as women, demanded it.
Boys who were underage were indiscriminately handed such white feathers. Men who couldn’t enlist because they performed essential professions at home, or, had illnesses or disabilities preventing them to do so, were treated with the same sexist, demeaning contempt. Many veterans were insulted by being handed white feathers too. Even war heroes, dressed in civilian clothes, could be thus humiliated in public by such clueless, prejudiced, and judgemental women!
These toxic behaviours of women into sustaining no less toxic gender stereotypes when it comes to violence and pain, war and death, embodied even in times of peace by such mantra as ‘be a man’ or ‘boys don’t cry’, cannot be underestimated. Here was a time indeed when men who refused to fight on religious or moral grounds, the so-called ‘conscientious objectors’, could be thrown into jail for their values. On the frontline, such men, who came to mutiny and refuse to go on killing anymore, most after suffering terrible trauma brought about by the horrors they witnessed and participated in (‘shell shocked’, as the medical terminology assessed them back then; and that we would probably now diagnose as suffering from PTSD), men who had come to revolt against being treated as ‘disposable’/‘expendable’ canon feeders, were simply put through a firing squad for, here too, ‘cowardice’.
Women and their white feathers, then, expecting men to shed their blood and go on murdering others on their behalf, were far from being morally innocent. On the contrary, they were complicit in the butchery, in yet another typical example of how women themselves were co-creating the patriarchal mindset which has poisoned us all.
But where does that leave us?
The view that the patriarchy was solely ‘male-made’ to benefit *all* men at the expense of *all* women is utter nonsense. Intersectionality aside, it reflects, above all, a crass ignorance of even basic historical knowledge.
The patriarchy was a co-created system. And judging by how prevalent the sexist prejudices and stereotypes it had relied upon are still pretty much ‘en vogue’, including among feminist claiming otherwise to fight them (go figure) there is no doubt that its heritage remains no less our co-responsibility.
Where do we go from here?
There is a term for political views appealing to our prejudices over rationalism (be it historical facts or else): demagogy. The so-called ‘feminism’ which relies on just such gender stereotypes and prejudices to sustain itself, then, the so-called ‘feminism’ that goes a great deal into painting all women as an oppressed, homogenous class, that had, historically, no input whatsoever in how we define and interact with each other, ought therefore to be denounced for what it is: demagogy.
I call myself a feminist. I believe in gender equality, gender equity, and I too, want that the narrow, suffocating, even, destructive and self-destructive gender expectations we are all boxed into, to be blown apart. Yet this won’t happen unless women, too, come to term with the part they have been playing into feeding these gender expectations. The brand of feminism which has been framing the patriarchy as having been ‘male-made only’ doesn’t. It’s populism (a synonym for 'demagogy'). It won’t help. It will fail.
In the end, empowerment, real empowerment, is about being responsible and accountable. Can women be so? Can feminism be rescued and be so? I leave these questions up to the reader.
In the meantime, thanks for reading, and, if you are interested in feminism, men’s issues, domestic violence, and other gender-related topics, then please feel free to subscribe.