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Study Notes

Feminism: Patriarchy

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 6 Nov 2018

Patriarchy refers to a society dominated by men i.e. society, state and the economy are characterised by systematic, institutionalised and pervasive gender oppression.

In a literal sense, patriarchy means rule by the father. A patriarchal family is therefore dominated by the father with power transferred down the male line, whereas a patriarchal society is based upon male dominance.

All feminists are highly critical of how the various instruments of patriarchy impact adversely upon women. For example, feminists claim that marriage works in favour of the husband because he gains an unpaid servant to take care of both his conjugal needs and the upkeep of the home. The exploitation of women within a marriage reflects deeper structural inequalities within a male-dominated society.

As an ideology, feminism seeks to highlight the disastrous impact of patriarchy upon women’s lives. They claim that the exploitation and subjugation of women occurs both within the private sphere and the public realm. The socialist feminist Simone de Beauvoir argued that only man has the freedom to choose and set himself up as essential and subject. In contrast, women are both inessential and object. To address the problem, she advocated a family structure centred upon a balanced couple that displayed “equality in difference, and difference in equality.” Eco-feminists such as Carolyn Merchant extend this critique of patriarchy towards the damage done by men to the environment, advocating a more maternal relationship with Mother Earth.

Patriarchal institutions and practices have to some extent been challenged in recent years via legislative measures and changing social attitudes. In the context of the former, workplaces who employ a specific number of employees are under a legal obligation to publish the pay gap between men and women. There are also laws to prevent sexual discrimination in the workplace with employers liable if found guilty. Cases are often heard in employment tribunals in which grievances may be resolved. In terms of the latter, there is also a greater level of sensitivity towards sexist attitudes in the public sphere.

Having said this, patriarchy has shown itself able to reproduce itself from one generation to the next. Sexist attitudes within the classroom, the workplace, the boardroom and those expressed online continue to blight the lives of many females. Sexism is one of the most significant barriers towards fulfilling life chances, and one that many women (and men) would readily identify in their everyday lives. To address the problem of misogyny, liberal feminists advocate a constructive engagement with the political process. In contrast, radical feminists believe that the conventional approach is characterised by sluggish progress towards gender equality. The eradication of a system based upon systematic and institutionalised gender oppression thereby demands a more militant approach.

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