by Eric J. Weiner
You were born an old soul and I was sure you had been here before.[i] You arrived sporting a black, faux-hawk and I immediately imagined you as a punk rock girl banging heads and breaking hearts wherever you went.[ii] From the moment you were placed on your mother’s breast, there was something in the way that you took an account of your surroundings; the alertness of your wide, brown eyes, the perpetual grin of amused curiosity that turned the corners of your rosebud lips slightly upwards, suggesting, perhaps, that you were making comparisons between an older catalogue of memories and the new reality in which you found yourself. You were born into a family tree hardened by the pain of poverty and ripened by the triumph and tenacity of Holocaust survival; a blank slate you were not. Vibrating with light and energy, yet calm like still waters, you frightened and amazed me. I desperately wanted to learn what you knew, reach across the chasm of time and space that separated us, read into the history of your dreams, but I could not speak your language. However nervous your birth made me feel, I was thrilled to have a daughter as I secretly dreaded the idea of having to raise a son within the patriarchy.
It’s extraordinary to me that you will be ten-years-old in January. As I write this letter, the world is plagued by incompetent and corrupt male-dominated governments that are unable to gain control over a viral pandemic; male autocrats at home and abroad continue to do their best to erode democratic institutions; male-dominated militaries fight endless wars throughout the globe; the planet is warming at an alarming rate because male-dominated oil and gas industries refuse to help curb the use and production of fossil fuels; economic inequality is growing rapidly and managed almost entirely by male-dominated financial/governmental partnerships under the banner of neoliberalism; gun violence as well as the production of other weapons of mass destruction is overwhelmingly caused and overseen by men; racial injustice is systemic and overseen by a male-dominated judiciary; homophobia is a normative and constitutive dimension of masculinity; male intimate partner violence against women is pandemic; educational systems relegate the accomplishments of women to the margins of curriculum even as the majority of the teaching workforce is female; male-dominated global media conglomerates produce content and representations of women that are degrading and sexist; and the gender gap remains stubbornly large.[iii] And all of this is true even though feminism is the most successful social justice movement in the world.
This is the focus of my letter to you today; not your Colombian heritage nor your European Jewish ancestry, not our family’s economic class, our educational level, nor our ideological alliances—all vital interconnected pieces of the experiential puzzle that I will write to you about at another time—but your female identity and its measure in the patriarchy.
This is not to say that patriarchy is the only force that you will need to combat in the struggle for a more humane and just world. Neoliberalism and white supremacy are also formative, interconnected systems that limit your freedoms and destabilize your opportunities. Indeed, as a man I can feel the patriarchy pulling my words away from the “how” of its influence and redirecting me to speak about other forces; silence is its oxygen, invisibility its sun, rationalization its water. But intersections of systemic power, however real, do not mean that you shouldn’t understand to what degree patriarchy conditions your experiences as a girl/woman in the world today.
You will certainly hear and/or read much of what I will tell you from plenty of strong, resilient, and self-actualized women, some you already know. You come from a long line of women who fought against patriarchy in words and deeds. Although they provide you with different representations of anti-patriarchal and pro-feminist power, they are united by their strong intellects, commitment to equality, a tenacious pursuit of life’s many diverse pleasures, and a refusal to stay silent in the face of injustice. They understood that their silence, paraphrasing Audre Lorde, would not protect them and your silence will not protect you. From your Abuela, who came from Colombia with little money and no English, raised your mother in a makeshift, matriarchal “village” in Woodside, Queens with her best friends Doty (from France) and Gertrude (from Germany), and became a successful salon owner and landlord to your Bubbie who was the first in our family to go to a four-year university, ran her own marketing business, and owned her home, your female roots run against the grain of patriarchy. Going even further back to the beginning of the 20th century, all seven of your great aunts on Bubbie’s side completed Normal School in Fall River, Massachusetts and became educators, feminists, and environmental activists. Your mother also provides you with a representation of female power that refuses patriarchal limitations about who she can be and what she can do. Your Godmother Monica puts feminist theory to work in her classrooms and in her work with diverse communities who are actively fighting for justice while your “Aunt” Dominique provides yet another representation of female power, one that says what she means and means what she says without apology. But I want you to hear about patriarchy from me too because I think it’s important you hear it from someone who, regardless of his level of resistance to the patriarchy, still reaps the benefits from living within it; not without its contradictions, my perspective I hope might nevertheless be instructive.
You must learn and then never forget that there is nothing about being a girl or woman that makes you less capable than any boy or man. This will take constant vigilance because boys and the men who raise them—beneath the façade of aggression, hubris, arrogance, and various displays of potency, power and domination—are, as a group, afraid and cowardly. They are so terrified of everything you represent that they spend billions of dollars each year and endless hours everyday teaching you–in and out of school–that women are deficient in every way that matters (to them). They are not necessarily conscious of their fear of powerful women and because fear is an emotional response relegated to the margins of the patriarchal imagination, it is often and quickly masked by displays of anger and rage, hostility and aggression, or apathy and boredom. Within the patriarchal imagination, these guises not only mask fear and cowardice, but stand-in for courage (remember when we first meet the cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz?).
You must become alert to how diverse “tribes of men” within the patriarchy will try and persuade you to believe that you have less aptitude for science, math, engineering, and technology. They will try to convince you that it’s in your nature to be more nurturing than men and then use this as an excuse for their own emotional callousness and familial absences. They will have you believe that you are too emotional to reason objectively while they are logical and rational. They will make you hate your body if it doesn’t conform to their ideal. They will try to objectify you, which is, as it sounds, a form of dehumanization. They will teach you to question your desires and shame you when you act on them, unless it’s to meet their needs at the time, and then they will shame you anyway. They will encourage you to shame your “sisters,” undermining female solidarity and community. They will demand that you be shy and stay quiet, unless you are using your voice to support their interests, boost their fragile egos, and make them feel like the men they fear they aren’t. They will reward you for being silly, stupid, and docile and punish you for being smart, assertive, and confident. They will teach you to value and fight for meritocracy while overseeing the savage inequitable distribution of opportunity. Men will take from you as much as they can in terms of your time and energy and give as little as they can to you in return while demanding they be recognized for what they perceive is their oversized contributions to the family and home. Many of these men, though not all, will use the threat of sexual violence to rationalize your need for their protection. If you are not careful, they will erase the power of women from history and your body, and then expect you to take care of them, give birth to their children, and care for their parents while you are also expected to work, clean, cook, care for the kids, help with the bulk of the kids’ schoolwork, keep the social calendar, and look and act like the women other men construct and represent in media. If you are not careful, they will become a mirror in which you only see your flaws in need of repair or covering. They will try and teach you that their educational needs and aspirations matter more than yours. They will try to convince you that one of your essential jobs is to support their work because to them your work is less important. As a group, they are dangerously insecure, emotionally hobbled, and prurient. Throughout history, men have raped and brutalized women in countless ways without any intervention from other men in the group. Men, not women, have caused more death, destruction, violence, and devastation than any other group of people on the planet.
These are historical facts that you won’t learn about in school unless you take a feminist theory class, women’s study seminar, or during women’s history month. The fact that we even have something called “Women’s History Month” proves the continuing domination and hegemony of patriarchy, not its demise. But even when you learn about the accomplishments of women, they will rarely, if ever, be seen and measured within the constraints of patriarchy. Remember that the accomplishments of women—and they are great and many—are in spite of patriarchal systems, not because of them. For many women throughout the globe, just surviving the regime of patriarchy–maintaining their humanity–is a notable accomplishment. But what makes their accomplishments in all areas of knowledge production–from the sciences to the arts–even more significant is that the bar for success and recognition is higher, sometimes much higher, for women than it is for men.
Men’s cowardice makes their silence complicit in the face of real and symbolically violent actions against women. In our current times, many men celebrate something called toxic masculinity. Initially a description of a particularly noxious form of masculinity (as though the kind of masculinity already normalized wasn’t toxic enough), many men now see it as a new standard to meet. Loud, violent, emotionally dense, hyper-competitive, and driven by a kind of pre-modern primitivism, these men represent a serious danger to you, your female friends and other men who don’t adhere to dominant representations of masculinity or who challenge their behavior and ethos. Equally frightening, perhaps, is how many women desire these kinds of men. Many women can and do have an allegiance to patriarchy. It sounds counterintuitive, but there are plenty of women who internalize and desire a one-dimensional man even though to do so diminishes their ability to take a more complex accounting of what it means to be a woman.
Women who have an allegiance to patriarchy and the ethos of masculinity police other women for how they think and act while supporting, implicitly or explicitly, sexism, misogyny and other forms of symbolic violence toward women. Women, in some cases, are even more effective than men in disciplining other women to conform to patriarchal standards. Various forms of bullying, gossip, humiliation, social isolation, and noxious judgement are not uncommon strategies that women will use to discipline other women who do not follow the patriarchal script. Women who do manage to rise within patriarchal structures often do so at the expense of basic feminist principles and at the altar of patriarchy. These women recreate the space of their work superficially; that is, it appears transformed by a dominant female presence, but is still organized around patriarchal principles of hierarchy, power, and the demand for cultural conformity. This is a pinnacle achievement of patriarchy, as it gets reproduced even within female dominated institutions; the board remains the same even as the male players are replaced by their female counterparts. A trick that men play, with varying degrees of success, is convincing women to love and desire the very thing that will destroy them. All of this suggests a deeply entrenched, hegemonic system of patriarchy that you must work diligently to challenge and disrupt, yes, but also from which to protect yourself.
The thing to remember about men’s historical allegiance to patriarchal systems of domination is that their fear and greed drive their will to violence and power. A frightened animal is a danger to himself and others. This is why as you grow and develop as a woman you will need to learn how to enact what Che Guevara called “revolutionary love”; that is, to be awake to the reality of their fear and ignorance and their desperate need for reproducing systems and structures of power and domination. You must be committed to equality to the degree that you have compassion for those that aren’t. Be aware that once men begin to learn their history and the limits of science and philosophy to rationalize their violence, brutality, and political hegemony, their world will start to crumble and fall apart. The ground that they thought was so stable will shake and crack from the force of new knowledge and truth. As women move out of the orbit of men—are redefined in relation to something other than patriarchal models of masculinity—men will no longer know what it means to be men.
Their disorientation is necessary but not without its risks. They will start to see themselves as they are and have always been, not who they thought they were or even wished to be. This new knowledge will run against the grain of everything they have been taught about themselves and their relationship to women. This is when they will be at their most dangerous. A fearful, disoriented animal, caged within a prison of its own design, can be a deadly threat. Be prepared for men to double-down on their history of violence and patriarchy and tell you it’s progress or some other immutable force of nature. Resistance is not only futile because “boys will be boys” after all, but also disruptive and against the rules of your nature. “Be who you are,” they will demand, plead, and beg, “so I can remain who I am and have always been!” The patriarchy is radically conservative. They will think you are the problem and try to convince you, through appeals to their science, cultural history, and reason that they are correct. They will say you are mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. They might suggest you need to be medicated so you can stop feeling so angry and/or depressed. They might try to isolate you or prevent you from spending too much time in the company of other women. You might need to remind them–teach them–that “for women,” as Audrey Lorde writes, “the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered.”[iv] Men don’t know that patriarchy is a male problem; a social pathology of the body, mind and spirit. They will unleash a torrent of scientists, educationalists, social theorists, and “intellectuals” to convince you, through a range of propaganda (posing as research), that they are doing what they do for everyone’s benefit. They will elect and/or appoint more toxic men and the women who love them to positions of power. Men, they will assert, are the engines of innovation, finance, labor, design, science, technology, philosophy, and medicine. The more women like you and your friends and male allies (yes, you will discover male allies to partner with) push them to confront the barbarism of men, the more they will try and use their substantial power to control the terms of the debate, reassert the benefits of patriarchy, or simply deny its existence.
Luckily, you are coming of age at a time in which millions of girls and women throughout the world—building on the long history of feminist movements—refuse, resist and reject patriarchal systems and the ethos of toxic masculinity. Women, men and non-binary people across the globe are protesting and working hard to make changes to these troubling and entrenched problems. It is also true, and you shouldn’t forget this, that men and women have made and continue to make incredible advancements in technology, medicine, music, art, architecture, and science; take a long enough measure and the arc of history might indeed appear to be bending toward the horizon of beauty and justice[v]. Men in particular will often be the first to redirect your attention away from the fact that so much of what plagues the daily lives of women on the planet is overseen and managed overwhelmingly by other men. They will encourage you to squint hard at this horizon so as not to be blinded by the brutal history of patriarchy. Unfortunately, no matter how hard you may look toward that horizon and recognize and appreciate the innovations of modernity, their long game can’t account for or rationalize the daily suffering, exclusions, and violence that conditions the lives of so many. As Walter Benjamin famously said, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”[vi] To argue we are better now than we were might be, from a teleological perspective correct, but also beside the point; too many of the same people for too long suffer unnecessarily because men in power who are indebted to patriarchy refuse to help dismantle the patriarchal system from which they gain power and privilege. One thing to remember about men’s relationship to patriarchy is that they don’t have to agree with it to benefit it from it. This allows many men to declare their allegiance to feminism while still quietly enjoying the privileges of patriarchy. To be considered your ally in the fight for equality, men (and women) must be anti-patriarchal as well as pro-feminist.
The final bit I want you to try and remember as you grow and develop, traveling through communities of diversity and difference, sensing and seeing places foreign and beautiful, is not all feminisms will guide you to a place of freedom and not all men want to reproduce the status quo. To be a liberated, powerful woman you must discover a way to find commonplace with men. This does not mean you have to put up with the aforementioned patriarchal nonsense and the dehumanizing ethos of toxic masculinity. But it does mean that you must develop your critical capacities so that you are able to distinguish between what is patriarchal and what might be a different, male-oriented way of knowing the world. As more and more men struggle to rethink what it means to be men (and plenty of us do) outside of patriarchy, in large part because of the success of feminist movements, women also, as they start to occupy positions of ideological and institutional power, must be careful not to create and rationalize a feminist ethos of misandry. Just because a man says or does something that might be critical of something you say or do as a woman, doesn’t make him automatically wrong or oppressive. You can’t just assume that the beneficiaries of barbarism are, themselves, barbaric. Be measured in your calculations, use your intuition and intellect, remember always that our hope for freedom is tied up in our revolutionary love for each other. To revise James Baldwin’s radical insight about white supremacy for this context, you must remember that women cannot be free until men are free.[vii]
I still see that punk rock glint in your eyes, my dear Chloe, even though the faux-hawk has been replaced by a mane of long, brown hair. You still vibrate with a kind of energy and light that no longer frightens me, but I know will intimidate (and soon titillate) boys and men (and some girls/women) who want you to be the kind of girl who doesn’t talk back and takes her place within the patriarchy. Find strength in the vast and diverse communities of women and men who reject these limiting and limited systems of knowledge, power and identity. Audrey Lorde is right when she asserts, “Without community, there is no liberation.”[viii] Only within community can you find solace and protection from those that would try and limit your passions, deny your rights, silence your voice, shackle your will to knowledge and freedom, and restrain your drive to become more than what the patriarchy demands.
[i] Once Upon a Time
Minutes new and I know
You’re an ancient soul.
Time seems to have given you
stories already told.
Fables and rhymes
Begin “Once upon a time”
As I imagine the tales
you would tell me if you could. (2011)
[ii] Punk Rock Girl
You were a punk rock girl from the start,
Intent on breaking Daddy’s heart.
I knew from your faux-hawk
And the way your eyes seemed to stalk
The slightest movement of shadow and light,
A cacophony of sounds tweaking your imagination
Only you could hear past midnight.
What is it going to mean
Fifteen years from now,
When you learn of my lean days,
Slow and slum low,
Purple and black butchered locks,
Crawling around on a semi-abandoned East river dock?
What’s it going to mean
When I don’t know where you are,
Knowing only that you are too far
Away for me to help you find your way
Out of that next beautiful, dirty bar.
Be safe my little girl with the faux black hawk,
Challenging eyes intense with punk tenacity.
Try and avoid the toxic men who slither in hipster blight,
Hunting tenacious punk rock girls,
Pounding the streets after midnight. (2011)
[iii] I imagine there are some readers that will think I am overstating the male dimension/influence within these spheres of culture, business, and government. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that neoliberalism and white supremacy are two other formative and interlocking ideological structures that condition the lives of women and men in ways that are oppressive and violent. But this doesn’t mean we should ignore the obvious elephant in the room; that is, the culture of men, with its own history, knowledge, language, and education, have taken over every major industry on the planet. To ignore this in exchange for a more general critique of “ideology” is an erasure of power and leaves men unaccountable to the inequities and social devastation they have helped create. Additionally, I am sure many men will read this and bristle at the implication that all men are violent, selfish, misogynistic, and consciously indebted to patriarchy. I am not saying that individual men can’t be feminists and committed to equality between the sexes. But this would miss my point. I am referring to men as they have been defined as a group within patriarchal systems of government, finance, education, healthcare, media, and the military. Both men and women are measured and accounted for within patriarchies. Unlike women, men are rewarded within these systems for no other reason than they were born male. Being male then needs to be interrogated for how power and knowledge intersect to create privileging discourses in which men, regardless of their resistance to patriarchy, still benefit at the expense of women. Below are various sources that quantify the patriarchy:
Also see Jackson Katz, Ph.D.: https://www.jacksonkatz.com/videos/
[iv] See Audrey Lorde. History as a Weapon, 1979: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/lordedismantle.html
[vi] Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, for full document see https://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/CONCEPT2.html
“To historians who wish to relive an era, Fustel de Coulanges recommends that they blot out everything they know about the later course of history. There is no better way of characterising the method with which historical materialism has broken. It is a process of empathy whose origin is the indolence of the heart, acedia, which despairs of grasping and holding the genuine historical image as it flares up briefly. Among medieval theologians it was regarded as the root cause of sadness. Flaubert, who was familiar with it, wrote: ‘Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour ressusciter Carthage.’* The nature of this sadness stands out more clearly if one asks with whom the adherents of historicism actually empathize. The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.
James Baldwin’s words about white people’s imprisonment within the cage of white supremacy: “You know and I know that the country is celebrating one hundred years of freedom one hundred years too early. We cannot be free until they are free.”
[viii] See Audrey Lorde. History is a Weapon, 1979: https://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/lordedismantle.html