Patriarchy: the no-win situation

One common definition of feminism that you hear batted around is ‘the radical notion that women are people, too’. Particularly with fourth-wave feminism – that is, what’s going on RIGHT NOW amongst feminists – this idea is important on several levels. Firstly, it highlights that yes, this idea of equality for women is still radical, still disturbing and disrupting privilege, even in those places (often in the Global North) where many assume that women have ‘made it’ or that feminism has achieved all that it needs to achieve.  Secondly, it includes the word ‘women’ – a gendered term which acknowledges the fuzzy boundaries of gender and makes way for inclusive definitions of ‘women’ and of ‘femininity’ that are open to transwomen and indeed to those who would identify as men, but who are interested in rejecting black-and-white gender binaries. Finally, ‘women are people, too’ is a humanising statement: a statement which rejects the de-humanising other-ing that happens in so much oppression and abuse, both large and small.  This humanising statement makes sure feminism remains aware of its need to prioritise intersectionality: to be aware that there are multiple ways in which oppression occurs, multiple fault lines along which humans divide themselves and often dehumanise those on the other side of the fault.

Screen Shot 2015-10-15 at 14.31.25With such a thoughtful and nuanced definition, we might be surprised that feminists often resort, when describing what they are fighting against, to the vague notion of ‘patriarchy’. Those critical of feminists point and laugh at this word, arguing that it is outdated, imprecise, and unhelpful. ‘What IS patriarchy, really, other than a word for what you feel like yelling about today?’ comes the accusation. Why indeed do feminists talk about the need to ‘smash the patriarchy’, as if that is a goal that could ever be accomplished by any of us Rosie-the-Riveter-tattooed harpies?

As someone who is a Christian, I find traditional Christian language more helpful here, although ‘smash the patriarchy’ is a fun rallying cry, I’ll admit. What are feminists on about when we talk about (the) patriarchy? For me, what we’re on about is no more and no less than sin.

Sin: for Christians, that nothing-space that opens up when we turn away from God in myriad ways: by our obliviousness to God’s ability to meet us in all times at all places, by our wilful victimisation of our neighbour, by our superior self-reliance, by our abuse of people and earth, by our participation in oppressive structures of society, by our murderous greed, by our hateful gossip, by our lies, by our unforgiveness.  Sin is a no-win situation. We aren’t doing ourselves any good by doing any of this shit, but we do it anyways, because humans do. We aren’t doing our neighbours any good either. We aren’t doing God any good. There’s just no good being done. No good being inhabited.  Lose-lose-lose.

Patriarchy is a no-win situation, and it operates with the same rules by which sin operates. The notion of patriarchy is that there are categories of people whose intrinsic value are higher than others: lighter skin over darker, ‘real women’ over transwomen, men over women, rich people over poor people, smart people over ignorant people, middle-class people over working-class people, et cetera. The behaviours that patriarchy ingrains in people are behaviours that reinforce these value judgments. They also make it impossible for people who are judged of lower value to ‘win’: to gain cultural capital. Patriarchal behaviours operate on a basis of violence and shaming, which are two sides of the same coin. Shaming is public denouncing of a behaviour in order to deter that behaviour in the future, preserving the ability of the ‘higher value’ person to act the way s/he wants, to maintain his/her privilege.  Violence is shaming with teeth: force, fists, guns.

Patriarchy does nobody any good. Not those who are victimised by it, and ultimately, not those who profit from it. A Christian feminist might comment that, ‘What is it worth for one to gain the whole world (profiting by the means of patriarchy) but lose one’s soul?’ In this case, the aspect of the soul we’re talking about is the ability to see the victim as an equal human being and in fact to prioritise the welfare of that human being above one’s own.  The soullessness of patriarchy results in people being shamed no matter what their actions are, no matter what their situation in life is, because, as less than humans, ‘they deserve it’.

I offer one admittedly extreme example. This article came up in a Facebook feed today and I, like the fool I am, clicked on it knowing the resulting rant would not help my blood pressure.  The basic premise of the article is this: a young woman becomes pregnant. Her mother, deeply believing that ‘pre-marital sex is wrong’ (a matter on which Christian feminists robustly critique the Christian tradition) is wracked with guilt, wondering what she did wrong as a parent. But then, she decides that this baby, this new life, is a work of grace and that she shouldn’t be too harsh on her daughter because, after all, she’s got a grandchild now. Isn’t God wonderful, turning horrible, sinful situations into grace-filled ones?

The answer to that last question is yes. God is great at turning horrible, sinful situations into grace-filled ones. But the horror and the sin of this situation is exemplified in the actions of the parents of this young un-married mother. They immediately make the situation about themselves, their failure to impart their morals to their child, their lack of parenting ability. They then emphasise the immense shame that their daughter is going through (to which they, and no doubt the church culture in which they are immersed, contribute) with no end in sight.  And yet – hallelujah! At least she didn’t get an abortion. So, the young woman can’t win by staying pregnant because of the immense cultural slut-shaming. She can’t win by having an abortion because of conservative views on when ‘life begins’. There is no way for her out of her shame besides time – maybe. And even then, you can bet that shame will dog her for years. She may perhaps be able to redeem herself through being a good mother – a perverse, literal embodiment of 2 Timothy 2.15: ‘women will be saved through childbearing’.

Maybe you will just wonder why I bother arguing with people whose theological positions are so far from my own.  I do so to illustrate what happens when patriarchy is so obviously at work even in what would seem to be a loving family, a family which desires to honour God.  What is heartbreaking about this article is that even when a parent is hoping for so much for her daughter, she can still be exerting social and religious shaming pressure on her, still victimising her, still making it impossible for her daughter to feel anything but wrong, bad and damaged. That is patriarchy and it is sin.

The grace that the writer of this article is on about – the grace that she equates with the foetus of her grandchild – is the very definition of ‘cheap grace’: grace that is about maintaining a social position, an un-shame-able life which trades in the tired, legalistic tropes of purity and women-as-property.  I find the title highly ironic: ‘the wages of sin is death’, says the book of Romans, and yet here, the author of this article cannot bring herself to admit that the wages of this ‘sin’ is life.


The wages of patriarchy is dehumanisation and dehumanisation is a tiny seedling of a death-wish for a fellow human being. That death-wish is not only harming for its effects on the other human, it is a death-wish for oneself because it rebounds and makes oneself less able to see and value other people as fully human. And as such, it is a death-wish for God, who Christians believe has become human forever in Christ. Therefore, the wages of patriarchy is death.

I wrote about cheap grace above. Perhaps Bonhoeffer wouldn’t appreciate me appropriating his concept, but I think it is apt. The opposite of this cheap grace, this victimising ‘grace’, this patriarchy, is ‘costly grace’ or real grace. The grace that shows up in the second half of that verse about ‘the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus’. That grace is, in the above instance, a parent teaching her child that her body and her sexuality is a gift, not something to feel ashamed about. The grace is arguing that beings worthy of eternal life in Jesus need not attend to patriarchally-defined norms about what it means to be a good woman, a pure woman; because in Christ is our goodness and our purity.

I wonder if I have done a disservice in using such an extreme example of patriarchy above. It is important to illustrate the micro-aggressive nature of much of patriarchy. But will those of you reading assume, ‘I’d never do that to my daughter!’ and brush aside what I am trying to say?

Just imagine Jesus sharing this jpg on Facebook.
Just imagine Jesus sharing this jpg on Facebook.

Patriarchy is in our marrow. Call it ‘original sin’ if you like – I find there’s too much of Augustine and Milton in that phrase to be useful at all. And ‘total depravity’ makes me vomit up Calvin.  But what these two phrases get at is twofold: that patriarchy is in the tiny things as well as the big things, but also – thankfully! – that nothing is beyond God’s ridiculously generous offer of contagious forgiveness and life. What is needed is shutting up and accepting that we are in need of this offer. What is needed is shutting up the patriarchal voices, even if they are your own (and my own), if they are obscuring and dehumanising the voices of those suffering oppression. What is needed is shutting up and accepting the grace from below.


2 thoughts on “Patriarchy: the no-win situation

  1. Erin,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful post. I admit that I have been guilty of accepting certain Christian, cultural norms without testing them against scripture.

    Just out of curiosity since you gave the example of the mother with the pregnant daughter, what counsel would you have given were she your daughter?

    • Not being a mother it feels a little presumptuous to say, but I imagine I would tell her that I love her and support her no matter her decision, and that I will prayerfully defend her right to her own choices regarding her body.

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