In re: Patriarchy

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 15 Mar 1996 12:37:33 +0900

There is a wonderful moment, which I think I have mentioned
before, in Terry Eagleton's _Ideology_. Eagleton is discussing
the frequent failure of critics obsessed with finding evidence of
conflict in language to realize that conflict is only possible
between people who agree on what it is that they're fighting
about. We are not politically conflicting, he says, if you conceive
of patriarchy as a system of domination in which men oppress
women and I am talking about a town in upstate New York.

Like Thornton, I was taught that patriarchy is an obsolete,
19th century concept. Still, I feel, Cohen has it right.
Patriarchy has once again become a central term in feminist
thinking and should be examined in that light.

Here I observe that like other ideological labels, it diverts
attention from a wide range of variation in actual social
arrangements. In my mind, the prototype of the patriarch is
the Roman paterfamilias, who had legal power of life and death
over his wife and children. Another closely associated image is
Lot, who turned over his daughters to a gang of rapists in
Sodom in place of travelers he took to be angels of the Lord.
Fast-forwarding through history, I arrive at the Puritans in
Colonial Massachussets. Now the murder of a wife or child is
illegal. Corporal punishment is still acceptable. "Spare the rod
and spoil the child" is a principle extended to women who are
still perpetual minors. Advancing, then, to the present day, I
know, from training to work on a crisis line, that domestic
violence, which turns my stomach, is still widespread. I am
also aware that efforts to achieve complete equality of
opportunity for women have a way to go. But now, at least, the
laws are very different from what they used to be. My
daughter, the Midshipman, is a living example of how much
things have changed within my own lifetime.

Turning to where I live now, in Japan, I know that while the
Meiji Legal Code gave the male head of household almost the
same powers as the Roman Paterfamilias, this legal situation
was changed radically by the Post-WWII constitution. More
poignant is an article in the Tobin volume _Re-Made in Japan_.
The subject is the introduction of modern technology, including
TV, in the Japanese countryside. In the old-fashioned Japanese
family, the father sat at the head of the table with his back to
the *tokonoma*, the alcove where a scroll and a tea bowl or
flower arrangement marked the ritual top of the room. When
the TV set was put in the tokonoma, the father was literally
pushed to one side. Now Japanese electronics companies have
introduced small, personal TVs and the family is scattered in
separate rooms, with individuals watching their own favorite

None of this is to say that Japanese society is no longer sexist.
There was a moment during the '80s when a looming labor
shortage added weight to political efforts and made it seem
that women would get a fairer break in the workplace. The
flattening of the economy has been a severe setback, especially
for female college graduates who are finding it much harder
than their male counterparts to find jobs.

I conclude that while "patriarchy" may still be useful in
consciousness raising and political mobilization and, of course,
as a term of abuse for males who are sensitive to labels, as an
explanation for what I see around me it is not, alas,

John McCreery
March 16, 1996