There is a simple answer to this: because it’s the right thing to do.
Patriarchy oppresses women, restricts them from reaching their potential, and exposes them to violence. Men should fight patriarchy for the same reason that white people should support black liberation: we should fight dominance, oppression and discrimination everywhere we find it, even if we benefit from it.
But in case this doesn’t convince you, there’s another reason that might be a little closer to home:
Patriarchy oppresses us, too.
Patriarchy – literally, “rule by fathers” – isn’t just the dominance of women by men. It’s also the dominance of men by other men. The older, richer and whiter you are, the more likely it is you’re in charge. If you’re young, brown or working class – or all three – chances are you’re being oppressed too. Maybe you’re passing on this oppression to the women in your life so you don’t feel so powerless. This is exactly what patriarchy wants you to do.
Here’s a story that I hope illustrates the point. It’s personal, but we don’t talk about our feelings enough, and too often we argue from a position of strength instead of vulnerability:
I grew up white in apartheid South Africa. As well as being racist, society was also very patriarchal. There was a lot of pressure on me, and on other young men, to Be a Man. As far as I could tell, Being a Man meant the following:
- Dominating women (and other men)
- Shooting black people
- Excelling at rugby
- Drinking a lot
- Showing no emotion
While I was quite keen on the drinking, none of the other so-called traits of masculinity held any appeal to me. I was more interested in the world of ideas than the world of violence. Because of this, and despite being straight, I took a lot of homophobic abuse: since I had no interest in taking part in oppression, I must be queer. I spent my teenage years constantly trying to avoid being beaten up.
Among other things, this gave me a real appreciation for the crucial and brave role gay people play in fighting this dominating ideology.
To make things worse, many South African women were so indoctrinated into this thinking that they reinforced it too, by rewarding the men who were most dominant.
And over in the townships, a similar thing was happening in the communities fighting apartheid: the men were going into exile to get the glamorous training of being guerilla soldiers, while the backbone of the struggle was the women, who were left behind to organise the strikes, boycotts and stay-aways. To this day, women’s role in ending apartheid is under appreciated, and women suffer horrendous violence and oppression.
My relationship with patriarchy got personal when I left school and was called up to the army. I managed to dodge the draft by skipping the country, but this was the point that I first saw patriarchy as a power structure: it was old white men giving guns to young men and telling them to go and kill and die to preserve their power. It was these same old white men creating a system of propaganda and patronage that ensured that it was young men themselves who enforced this.
And since then, this has defined my image of patriarchy: I see old generals sending young men off to die, and I think of Bob Dylan’s song Masters of War, which so perfectly captures the naked truth behind this power structure.
This is the male experience of patriarchy: being called up to fight in a war against people who aren’t your enemies. Being made to do things that brutalise you. Suppressing your natural kindness and compassion because you have to Be a Man, and be strong and merciless.
This is the male wound, and it damages us all, leaving us emotionally and spiritually stunted. And it’s particularly harmful to the women around us. We have a responsibility to heal this wound, not just for our sakes, but for the sakes of the women we’re hurting.
I live in the UK now, and patriarchy is far more sophisticated. There are many different models of Being a Man, some of them almost palatable. But the same power structure lies behind it all, and men are subject to the same kinds of pressure: be rich, be handsome, have rippling muscles, show her who’s boss.
Seriously, guys: wouldn’t you love to just throw aside this whole burden? To work because there are important things you want to achieve, and not because you need power and status. To exercise because a healthy body feels good, and not because you need to look like the cover of Men’s Health. To live in a world based on kindness, solidarity and mutual respect, instead of dominance and power.
And more importantly, to heal your relationships with women.
I am a heterosexual man, and women are very important to me. I think about them all the time, and their opinion of me matters. I want women to like me. I suspect I am not alone in this. But there is a problem in our relations: women are afraid of us, and with justification.
We are dangerous. The incidence of rape and domestic violence is incredibly high. Women are correct not to trust us, even if we think we are good guys.
Imagine if this changed: imagine being able to freely relate to women without power struggles and mistrust. Imagine if you could express your admiration for and attraction to a woman without being afraid of it being taken the wrong way. Even better, imagine if women felt safe enough to make the first move.
Women fighting against patriarchy are not doing it just for themselves. They are not female supremacists, seeking to build a world where women dominate men. Feminists care about the men in their lives and want them to be free of this crippling ideology. And women have done a better job of realising the damaging effect of patriarchy on men than we have: it’s ironic that one of the most insightful books about men’s position today, Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man, comes from American feminist writer Susan Faludi.
She shows how working class men have had their power taken away from them, particularly with the shutting of traditional industries, the attack on unions and the downward pressure on wages. Men have been told that feminism is to blame for the decline in our power, but this is not the case: it’s the oligarchs keeping even more for themselves.
So we need to join women in fighting patriarchy. This means identifying, exposing and fighting this power structure. It also means identifying where patriarchy has taken root in our ideas and behaviour, and getting it out. This doesn’t mean we always have to agree with feminists – we’re men, and we have a different perspective sometimes. And feminists differ among themselves. As long as we listen and learn respectfully, we can build a society where we trust and value each other.
Ditching patriarchy means we can stop feeling bad about ourselves: stop feeling bad because we are not rich, strong and handsome enough. Stop feeling bad because women tell us they’re afraid of us.
Fight patriarchy to support women. But do it for your own sake, too.
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