The one question everyone should be asking: “Why does patriarchy persist?”

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Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider thought that the subject of their book would not be taken seriously when they began to write it, in 2015. “Patriarchy” seemed like an old-fashioned concept, destined to be judged and despised. “As if somehow it is shameful to name it”, they say. One could think that we are now far away from such a “historical” problem. But patriarchy is still a concern, and a modern one. It affects each one of us: men, women, children, everyone is threatened by its power. And this is what the two feminist authors showed in Why does patriarchy persist?

Cutting to the chase, why does it persist? Because it messes up with our psychology, our coping mechanisms and our capacity to resist一and, therefore, to love. But perhaps more importantly: how does it persist? In order to answer this question, we need to understand that Gilligan and Snider have a psychological approach to patriarchy. They came up with the idea that the patriarchal system gives men and women “mental protection” from the fear of not finding love, because they will not look for it anyway. As the two writers say, “the only way to never lose something is to never have it”.

This brings us to one of the important notions of this book: in the patriarchal system we exchange “relationship” for “relationships”. This means that, in order to be socially accepted (a real masculine man or a good selfless woman), we give away a big part of who we are. We stop establishing intimacy and connection一relationship一with people to possess as many relationships一in a consumerist way一as possible. Gilligan and Snider use examples of boys and girls that had to adjust themselves to the established gender roles so they could maintain their place in the hierarchy of patriarchy.

A boy would, for instance, stop showing vulnerability in order to be perceived as “strong” and a girl would stay silent so she would not “bother” others with her opinions. These are the two “don’ts” that Gilligan and Snider talk about: the “I don’t care” (for men) and the “I don’t know” (for women). Following this logic, society sees the detachment from feelings and from the capacity of having opinions and a voice as an “evolution”, a part of being adult, a “pseudo-independence” or a “pseudo-rationality”. In this context, men stop seeking connection with others and start to wish to have material possessions, while women just forget about their true voice.

Healthy, political and psychological resistance

Once, as children, we learn that we need to “lose something” (our true self) in order to be accepted by our friends and family, we tend to “resist” this personal dictatorship. This is what Gilligan and Snider call a “healthy resistance”: a weapon that we use to defend ourselves from losing our feelings and our voice. After that, comes the “political resistance” to the binary gender rules: the fight that we put up against the “culture of patriarchy”.

But finally, when we have to face the fact that some of the gender rules of patriarchy are simply too hard to avoid, we become desperate and hopeless. As Gilligan and Snider describe: “When the pressures of accommodation become overwhelming (…) political resistance can give way to what clinicians recognize as psychological resistance. This is, a political resistance can give way to repression, dissociation, and disavowal of what has come to feel too painful or shameful to hold in awareness”. And when this happens, we stop fighting patriarchy一and hence the gender hierarchy wins the battle.

What happens then is that we leave behind our “anger of hope”, a positive force that pushes us towards winning the war, and we start the engines of the “anger of despair”, a negative feeling of nothingness and of complete detachment.

The three “discoveries”

The authors bring up three “discoveries” about patriarchy. The first one is a “pathological response” to loss, a term created by the psychologist John Bowlby. Gilligan and Snider link this concept to the “codes and scripts” of patriarchal manhood and womanhood. In other words, the path to a toxic masculinity or femininity makes us lose something and then react in a bad way about that same privation: we can become, for instance, “emotionally detached” or “compulsive caregivers”.

The second patriarchal outcome is a subversion of men’s capacity to think about what they are feeling and to process their emotions. Women, on the other hand, can and will feel, but will not talk about what is on their mind一they just stay silent. The third one is the effect of resisting the gender codes of our society. This “resistance” brings up the same despair of protesting against a loss that is irreplaceable. Once we understand that our anger is helpless, we turn on our “defensive mode”: we detach ourselves from others and build a wall to protect our feelings and our opinions.

All about (the end of) patriarchy

In many ways, this book could communicate with some of bell hooks’ works, especially All about love: new visions, where she speaks of love一actually, of the ability to love一as in a political action and a lifestyle. Just like Gilligan and Snider, hooks believes that love, this primary human force, has been put in danger in societies where patriarchy rules. Accordingly, only when we learn how to love again we will be living a better society. And to love is to interact well, to learn with each other, to forgive, to let go of the fear of getting hurt and to outlive our own wounds. Love is not just a feeling, it is a choice, a political statement, a way of life.

“Youth culture is cynical about love. And that cynicism has come from their pervasive feeling that love cannot be found”, writes hooks about this subject. “We are simply afraid the desire to know much about love will lead us closer and closer to the abyss of lovelessness. (…) It is easier to talk about loss than it is to talk about love. It is easier to articulate the pain of love’s absence than to describe its presence and meaning in our lives.”

Overall, Why does patriarchy persist? is a groundbreaking book because it helps us to analyze the gender hierarchy through the lenses of psychology. Going against the same dictatorial system they report, Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider dare to speak and to use their (feminine) voice to share their scientific discoveries. Understanding how patriarchy works inside our minds一and apart from the cultural and social approach一could lead us to the end of this ancient yet very modern force that governs our lives.

Marcos Fernandes, for the EVE webmagazine