Patriarchy and the potency of words

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)
Sat, 16 Mar 1996 09:11:52 +0900

P.S. to my last comments on the usage of "patriarchy." I have, it
seemed to me standing in my shower this morning, created an
interesting problem.

Why, if "patriarchy" (=male-domination) adds so little new
information to descriptions of human societies, does it still retain
considerable ideological force: as a rallying cry, term of abuse, etc.
As academics we like to think that it is information that makes
our words powerful, but here is a case (one of many I am sure) in
which information (=description) cannot be the explanation for
the strength of our reactions for and against current usage of the
word. What, then, is going on?

I hazard the guess that "patriarchy" (=male-domination) remains a
powerful word precisely because it evokes the earlier meaning
(patriarchy=a society run by senior males) and this link points to
associations with the Roman paterfamilias, Puritans, or, more
generally, the sort of father-figure described by Freud, who heads
up the primal horde and is, stereotypically, harsh, distant, angry,
domineering, in relation to those who fall under his control. One
consequence is arousal of oedipal anxieties in males who have
grown up confused about what is expected of them as men and
what the proper form of male-female relations should be. To be
caught between suppressed oedipal rage and a conscious
commitment to gender equality is, indeed, to be caught between a
rock and a hard place. The result is acute ambivalence and a useful
opening for feminist political action, since the male in question
will either be paralyzed or likely to resolve his ambivalence by
joining the feminist cause. In contrast, the older type of patriarch
(=senior male in position of authority) will brush off the attack, or,
if sufficiently aroused, slap down the opposition.

Competing hypotheses anyone?

Now I must get off to work.

John McCreery
March 17, 1996