The problem with power is patriarchy

January 21, 2014 by
Filed under: Arts and Society 

It’s relatively easy to talk about the diffusion of power when you’re a man. Because looking at recent news – from the lack of stories about sports presenter Charlie Webster to the proliferation of those about Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard – it’s clear that patriarchal power isn’t showing any signs of waning.

Over three-hundred years ago, Edmund Burke offered a sage piece of advice to the world when he said, ‘the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse’. Burke’s forewarning may seem obsolete in light of a recent talk given by Moisés Naím at the RSA where he proclaimed that power is no longer concentrated but is diffuse. Or, as Adam Lent puts it, that power is dying. However, Naím’s theory falters when we turn through the pages of world history and pay close attention to an overarching constant: it is predominantly men who wield power. Meanwhile, when women manage to grasp the reigns of power, they do so on the condition that they perform conventional maleness – think of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, the so-called Iron Lady. Therefore, even if we accept Naím’s thesis, the ability to possess power is predicated on performing conventional masculinity, consequently it tends to remain in the hands of men who do so. And, as Burke suggests, with their great power, men commit dangerous abuse.

It’s not new to suggest that power and traditional masculinity are closely woven together, but despite our awareness of this fact, the close bond between the two is not showing any signs of loosening. We need look no further than our own legislative branch of government to see unapologetic patriarchal power strutting around Westminster with full plumage on show. An investigation into a number of sexual harassment accusations against Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard has found that while allegations cannot be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, ‘the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women’. Despite this damning indictment, Lord Rennard refuses to apologise because, he explained in a statement yesterday, he doesn’t believe an apology for something he ‘had not done’ is appropriate. Although he has been suspended from his party, Lord Rennard’s apparent lack of regret for causing offence and, perhaps more startlingly, his absence of an attempt to feign the lamentation that is usually shown by politicians when the public glare is shone on their alleged gross misconduct, shows the power that he feels he’s entitled to as a wealthy, white man. His attitude seems to say, women feel they have been assaulted, but it’s simply not my problem.

Should we really be surprised? Men dominate the public sphere and are, more often than not, seen as superior to women. Alongside concerns over the nature of the inquiry into the allegations against Lord Rennard, consider the fact  that it was Alistair Webster QC who was at the head of the investigation; whether women were involved in the process, the final say was left to a man. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored throughout society, a quick glance at organisations across the country and it is more likely that you will see men, not women, at the helm.

The inequalities between men and women are not limited to formalised structures of power. Abuse revelations go far beyond Parliament’s grandiose corridors. At the other end of the spectrum from the ostensibly ‘softer side’ of abuse claims, sport presenter Charlie Webster revealed that she was sexually abused by her male coach when she was 15 years old. Webster, who yesterday embarked on a seven-day 250 mile marathon to raise money for Women’s Aid, a charity working to end domestic violence, explained that the reason for her disclosure was to break the taboo surrounding abuse. Webster struggled to admit to her abuse because, she says, “I didn’t want my world to break down”. Often it’s hard to admit that our system is irreparable because it means that we have to shatter it entirely to form something new. Indeed, society’s desire to shy away from the damaging effects of patriarchal power has led to Webster’s admission receiving relatively scant amount of news attention. This reflects an underlying trend; for all of our proclamations of progress and civility, we aren’t properly addressing why gender abuse is commonplace, why 2 women are killed week in England and Wales as a result of domestic violence.

The causal factor: patriarchal power that is woven into the fabric of our everyday. Following on the heels of Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise, Nick Clegg’s former aide, Bridget Harris, has castigated the ‘intellectual sexist culture and endemic sleazy culture of Westminster’. Sexism is a way of being in the hallowed halls of the Commons, Harris explains. And, again, so it is beyond Westminster. The tapestry of routine abuse displayed on Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism shows how derogatory views of women have become normalised. These views act as a gateway for men to think, even if unconsciously, on a day-to-day basis that they are worth more than women, which can and often does clear the way for gendered abuse.

Consequently, while efforts to address gender imbalances such as all-women shortlists are laudable and certainly needed, these measures only attempt to solve the surface problems of masculine power. Simone de Beauvoir explained that to delve deeper and truly achieve gender equality, ‘the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hand…it’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power’. To do so, we have to start publicly questioning men and their automatic entitlement to power. For many this is an uncomfortable idea, fear is palpable in jokes we often hear, like “what are you going as for Halloween, a feminist?”. Such reactions are understandable. For those who benefit from and fully invest in patriarchal power, a form of feminism that seeks to undermine conventional constructions of masculinity in order to establish a power paradigm based on true gender equality is a very scary indeed.

Comments

  • Benjamin D

    Agree. Only the other day a female work colleague told me to ‘man up’ in a difficult discussion with a client. I.e. that strength could only come from adopting a ‘masculine’ approach to the issue. It is insidious.

    • Maya Goodfellow

      You’re right, Benjamin, this affects both men and women. Women are also guilty of reinforcing gendered stereotypes and, as your example shows, these stereotypes are part of our everyday lived experience.

  • Josh W

    Moving from a university culture to a workplacee the difference in attitude was stunning. I’d always been suspicious of claims of a generic sexist culture, assuming it would be based on statistics. A majority of men in my experience being against casual sexism would, I assumed, mean that it was not dominant.

    In practice it doesn’t actually work that way, because those who are sexist are loud, and a few are very enthusiastic about it. Demeaning women seems to be a series of games played out in diffuse bursts, staying under the radar in ways similar to classroom disobedience.

    I think that is more than merely an analogy, I think it’s exactly the same opportunistic skills apply to both. In each individual encounter, it’s not quite enough for bystanders to say something, especially in a distracted environment like an office. It is only after a few months that you start to observe a pattern and so the obvious motive behind it, and longer again to find evidence to deal with it. It is difficult when the abuse is not fundamentally directed at victimising a particular individual, but for seems to be some kind of entertainment that will be directed largely indiscriminately, using whoever is available.

    An equivalent game is played by some women, also directed at demeaning women, and is similarly difficult to pinpoint.

    On the other hand, although this kind of sexism is hard to stamp out, it strikes me to be different to the kind of traditionalist prejudice that stops women rising to the top of companies. It’s reasonably well known that the best way to get to run a company is to run a company, and this self-selection of a privileged group of men keeps out people along a whole range of categories. Equivalently, I would say it is a failure of imagination that stops women from rising to higher positions: You don’t have to think badly of “women” to think that someone is not a correct fit for some particular position, but that definition of “fit” can be based on a very stereotyped and inappropriately gendered framework. You can think that a man or woman is too feminine for a role, despite traditional masculinity having no relationship to the fundamental requirements of the job. By its nature, this usually impacts women.

    We rely on intuition and imagination to make decisions in situations of extremely large amounts of variables, which is a problem if that intuition or gut feeling is contaminated by irrelevant categories.

    Moving from a university culture to a workplacee the difference in attitude was stunning. I’d always been suspicious of claims of a generic sexist culture, assuming it would be based on statistics. A majority of men in my experience being against casual sexism would, I assumed, mean that it was not dominant.

    In practice it doesn’t actually work that way, because those who are sexist are loud, and a few are very enthusiastic about it. Demeaning women seems to be a series of games played out in diffuse bursts, staying under the radar in ways similar to classroom disobedience.

    I think that is more than merely an analogy, I think it’s exactly the same opportunistic skills apply to both. In each individual encounter, it’s not quite enough for bystanders to say something, especially in a distracted environment like an office. It is only after a few months that you start to observe a pattern and so the obvious motive behind it, and longer again to find evidence to deal with it. It is difficult when the abuse is not fundamentally directed at victimising a particular individual, but for seems to be some kind of entertainment that will be directed largely indiscriminately, using whoever is available.

    An equivalent game is played by some women, also directed at demeaning women, and is similarly difficult to pinpoint.

    On the other hand, although this kind of sexism is hard to stamp out, it strikes me to be different to the kind of traditionalist prejudice that stops women rising to the top of companies. It’s reasonably well known that the best way to get to run a company is to run a company, and this self-selection of a privileged group of men keeps out people along a whole range of categories. Equivalently, I would say it is a failure of imagination that stops women from rising to higher positions: You don’t have to think badly of “women” to think that someone is not a correct fit for some particular position, but that definition of “fit” can be based on a very stereotyped and inappropriately gendered framework. You can think that a man or woman is too feminine for a role, despite traditional masculinity having no relationship to the fundamental requirements of the job. By its nature, this usually impacts women.

    We rely on intuition and imagination to make decisions in situations of extremely large amounts of variables, which is a problem if that intuition or gut feeling is contaminated by irrelevant categories.
    Resolving this is tricky, as it cannot just be about criticism of men, of masculine modes of management etc. as this just reinforces the very category you wish to disassemble. Although this might work to create a counter-prejudice that would cancel it out at times, leading to a practical improvement in employment for women etc. you’ve basically just created a sea-saw, where people can fight for or against a traditional framework of masculinity.

    In a way it might be a positive version of the chicken-egg situation, as real women in positions of power will naturally diffuse the stereotype, comprising some but not all of the properties associated with that model of leadership, and sometimes being quite contrasting. And in fact, few women in leadership by percentage globally is actually a pretty vast amount of people, providing far more information than necessary. Given the rhetorical power of demonstrations of diversity, and the hundreds of thousands of female leaders around the world, telling those stories in an appropriately subversive way, making them iconic or otherwise easy to transfer while emphasising those complexities that subvert the obvious narratives, would probably help a lot.

    • Josh W

      Apologies
      for the terrible formatting, thought I’d send this off before I forgot about
      it, posted too late at night.

      • Josh W

        Hmm, I think I’ll quit while I’m ahead!

    • Maya Goodfellow

      Thanks for your comment, Josh.
      I think you’re right – the problem is gendered stereotypes which both men and women perform and reinforce.
      We need to deconstruct gender as a concept and accept that there is no such thing as being a ‘real man’ or ‘real woman’.