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Feminism and patriarchy – who gets to define them?


Caroline Criado-Perez
Guest blogger 

Feminism recently enjoyed a huge victory.

Marissa Mayer was appointed as CEO for Yahoo. Not only was she a woman, but she was pregnant. Bravo Yahoo.

But wait, maybe feminism had nothing to do with it, because here was Mayer saying, ‘I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist.’

Oh. Maybe I released the party poppers too soon then.

But hang on, after her jaw-dropping opening statement, Mayer goes on to say that she ‘believe[s] in equal rights’ and that ‘women are just as capable [as men, one assumes].’

Confused about how these statements could exist in opposition to each other, I decided to see what my beloved Oxford English dictionary (OED) had to say on the matter.

My confusion was not alleviated: the first definition of feminist reads: ‘Of, relating to, or advocating the rights and equality of women.’ So that’s Mayer’s ‘rights’ and ‘equal’ right there in black and white.

So what could Mayer mean?

I am, of course, being slightly disingenuous here. We all know what Mayer means. She means that ‘feminism’ and ‘feminist’ have become dirty words. The F-words of the modern era. And of course this is true to a certain extent.

This is the era that coined the charming, and in no way offensive to holocaust victims, term ‘Feminazi’.

This is the era where women who call themselves feminists online can be expect to be bombarded with hate-filled misogyny.

It is an era where the term ‘men’s rights activist’ has evolved, seemingly existing to directly contradict any assertion that women still have not achieved those ‘equal rights’ that Mayer advocates.

Mayer says that ‘feminism has become in many ways a more negative word’. And she’s right – sort of. It’s become ‘a more negative word’ according to those who feel threatened by its message.

The members of this vocal minority have almost succeeded in aligning ‘feminist’ with ‘sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder’ that Mayer talks about.

But the reality is that feminist doesn’t mean that at all. It means what the OED says it means: ‘Of, relating to, or advocating the rights and equality of women.’

What Mayer is doing here is accepting a definition of ‘feminist’ that has been foisted on it by groups who are actively opposed to its central tenets.

And what’s most sad about this modern phenomenon is that it has succeeded in convincing women like Mayer, and, yes, many men who would in fact benefit from feminism, that this kind of feminism exists.

That it’s not just some anti-fantasy (or maybe actual fantasy, who knows?) dreamt up by people who either don’t understand what feminism is really about or who, rightly, see that it threatens their privilege.

And it’s at this point, this point of saying that hot-potato p-word that I perhaps start to look like Rush Limbaugh’s worst/best vision of a ‘feminazi’. But let me explain.

The only people who are actually threatened by feminism are those who benefit from the current system of patriarchy, another p-word that currently dominates politically, economically and socially.

In a recent brilliant blog post on The Independent, Laurie Penny and Martin Robbins debate the point of how to talk to men about sexism.

And one of the points they touch on is the term ‘patriarchy’. Robbins sees it as ‘the biggest problem I have persuading men’ that feminism is not anti-men.

Penny quite rightly points out that the problem with the term is that it has been misrepresented (by the patriarchy itself), pointing out that it doesn’t attack individual men, but ‘a system of privilege’ that supports the status quo where ‘only a small group of mostly men – patriarchs – actually have power’.

So the term ‘patriarchy’ should in no way be considered as referring explicitly to all men, and feminism’s opposition to patriarchy should in no way be considered as an attack on men. It’s an attack on a system, not on individuals – and it’s not the word that needs changing. It’s people’s perceptions of that word.

This debate is crucial; like ‘feminist’, ‘patriarch’ has been powerfully derailed as a useful term, and paraded around the internet to function as the straw-man counterpart to feminism’s straw-woman.

The fact is that the current patriarchal system works for only a very small number of men and an even smaller number of women. Nearly all men would be feminism’s natural allies, if only the shouting on the internet would let them hear the real message of feminism.

This shouting matters – you only need to take a look at the first definition of ‘feminazi’ on urban dictionary for an illustration of how pervasive and damaging this kind of appropriation and redefinition can be.

Let’s be clear about this: the author of this entry will never have met a woman who tells her she can’t shave her legs or wear a bra, because this woman does not exist.

She is a figure dreamt up by the anti-feminist movement, specifically designed to discredit it. And what’s sad about this entry is that, like Mayer, its author seems to be a woman – I’m assuming this based on the fact that she wears a bra.

More than this, this woman self-identifies as a feminist, and feels that these mythical ‘feminazis’ are letting her down. When the reality is that it is anti-feminists who are letting her down.

As feminists we need to stand up to the misappropriation of these terms. We need to ‘Take Back The Words’. Because it is shocking that men who suffer under the patriarchal system, men who, for example, don’t fit into the quasi-mythical ‘alpha male’ stereotype, should not be vocal supporters of a movement that attacks that system.

It is shocking that someone who calls herself a ‘feminist’ believes in the existence of ‘feminazis’.

And, most of all, it is shocking that a woman who believes in ‘equal rights’ and that ‘women are just as capable’ as men, does not consider herself a feminist.

  1. Jackie says:

    Hi Caroline

    This is an interesting piece – and I agree with you totally about the way feminism has been twisted, parodied and derided by those who are threatened by it so that many women and men now see it as something to distance themselves from.

    I do not quite agree that patriarchy is something that privileges only a few men though. Whilst men are positioned differently within patriarchy, and some men do suffer if they are not in the higher echelons, I believe that most men are privileged by the system in many ways. For example, violence against women, a widespread problem, is a product of patriarchal power relations, which many men employ to maintain power and control. This is backed up by institutions and norms that legitimate it, and blame the victims. In every area of social life, men have privileges that women do not – they dominate in politics and political life, on average they earn more, they are not subject to gendered expectations about caring roles that limit their access to paid work. Women are more likely to live in poverty, to be caring for elderly and the sick, to have their means to earn a living curtailed. We are also bomarded by sexualised images that tell us we have to look a certain way and act a certain way to gain male approval. All this adds up to shore up patriarchal privileges that are enjoyed by a lot of men. I realise that there are a lot of men who suffer by not living up to patriarchal alpha male expectations but I would like men to also realise and admit how they are also privileged by the system and protest about and be prepared to relinquish that.

    • Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for your thoughtful response – it’s really refreshing to have someone engaging with what i’ve written.

      You’re right that a lot of men do benefit from patriarchy; however I suppose that what I wanted to emphasise in the piece was that, while they may benefit in certain ways, ultimately patriarchy does men a disservice, as it only really, truly benefits a few at the top – I see patriarchy as inextricably intertwined with the system of neo-liberalism that currently dominates – and that currently benefits very few. I feel that if people’s eyes were opened to the fact that while this system feels like it benefits them – and it does in certain, more superficial ways – ultimately, fundamentally, it is detrimental to nearly all of us.

      Does that make sense? Haven’t had my caffeine yet!


      • Hi Caroline
        Thanks for your response. I agree with you about Patriarchy and neo-liberalism being intertwined, but I think patriarchy exists in all known socio-economic systems to greater or lesser degrees. Soviet Russia and Cuba were very patriarchal!
        I recently read an interesting article about revisiting and reviewing Patriarchy as a means of explaining violence against women, which you can access here:
        The author argues that men who occupy less powerful positions within patriarchal structures are more likely to be violent towards women, as men higher up in the system have more structural forms of power they can employ. I didn’t quite agree with her as I know that men of all classes can be violent towards women. But interesting non the less!

        Thank you for your articles, I really enjoy WVON, its informative, thought provoking and facilitated by a great bunch of women!

  2. vicki wharton says:

    I agree with Jackie, certainly my experience is that most men are not the benign unwitting receivers of this priviledge but subconscious, forceful advocates of it … which is why the term feminazi and the general hatred of feminists and women’s equality advocates is so popular. The male media has done a very powerful propoganda job of separating out and villifying the active campaigners from the message which no decent human being can really argue with. Its a way of stalling and driving back a campaign whilst looking like you don’t disagree with its fundamental messages. Clever, manipulative … and hypocritical. It feeds a basic need amongst pack animals to feel more important and valued than the rest of the pack, at the detriment to the other half of the pack, who are left scrabbling not to be abandoned by the pack as a whole for some transgression of its rules.

    • vicki wharton says:

      Reading the original blog further I don’t see how to talk with men about patriarchy without dividing them from us as women. A number of white people seemed to be able to talk about the evils of apartheid without going into a defensive laager about ‘not all white people are priviledged or racist’ … what was the trick there that prevented the whole discussion being derailed into a them against us game? Anyone got any ideas on this as the whole sexism in society issue seems to have been totally made into a laughing issue …

      • Jackie says:

        This is really the nub of the problem Vicki, and I don’t know what the answer is. I think that as so many women have close personal relationships with men, as brothers, fathers, sons, lovers, gender power relations are not as noticeable to many women and men as they are seen as a ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ part of life, rather than as oppressive social constructs. And men benefit hugely from this. When feminists point out the problematic nature of everyday gendered life, many men become defensive, aggressive, belittling – their responses in fact proving the point we are making. Like you, I would welcome any ideas to counter this, as you say sexism has become a bit of a laugh. I prefer the term misogyny. In solidarity. Jackie

        • What is particularly interesting (by which I mean disturbing) about the misogynist rhetoric leveled against feminism is the way that the concept of “equality” is now utilized as a tool of oppression. Woman have the right to vote, they aren’t (explicitly or legally) prohibited from entering any occupational field they choose, they aren’t barred from government or sports, etc, etc. Therefore, goes the “reasoning”, woman have already attained equality. Any further change is thus framed as the power-hungry, men-hating women trying to take rights away from the poor, besieged men, to further their own greed and ambition. Somehow, the patriarchy (which, in a truly Kafkaesque fashion, still staunchly denies its own existence) has managed to label feminists as the group who is being sexist. Much in the same way as people of colour are often accused of “reverse racism” (a term which, by the way, makes absolutely no sense — reverse racism is just…not being racist).
          What honestly baffles me is how anyone can possibly buy into this. How many female Presidents or Prime Ministers have their been? What percentage of the government is comprised of women? What percentage of the business world, the tech world, or basically field of significant power or prestige in modern society? How do people ignore the pay-gap statistics? The same way others ignore fossil records and the existence of dinosaurs?
          And that is just the economic side. When we delve into the reality (and yes, it is OBVIOUSLY a reality, despite the oh so vehement protests of, surprise, misogynists) of rape culture, it becomes even more blatant and horrifying. I won’t get into that here, because I could go on for hours with a dismal diatribe of soul-crushing details. But the bottom line is that men like myself enjoy a plethora of privileges, that most are unwilling to even acknowledge. I go for a lot of late night walks through a nearby park, just to think, with scarcely a care for potential risk. A woman, in the same position, simply would not be able to do so with the same sense of security. Men’s rights groups enjoy tossing out factoids about men getting sexually assaulted, or men being the victims of domestic violence, or men being the targets of gendered hatred, as if these examples (which can be perfectly valid) somehow disprove the fact that men are overwhelmingly the perpetrators of such crimes, and overwhelmingly they are perpetrating them against women (I don’t like using simpler phrases like “their victims are women” because the common usage of the possessive adjective creeps me out). Exceptions can in fact prove the rule. Honestly it disturbs me to no end just how irrationally unwilling my gender can be in accepting the brute facts of its own privilege, even in those instances where no malicious intent is meant by it. I share your concern and confusion as to how to go about changing this perverse and pervasive mentality. It is insanity, pure and simple, an inability to accept or engage consistently with reality. I consider myself a feminist, and don’t really understand how any reasonable or remotely compassionate person could possibly do otherwise.

          • Wow, that was long. Sorry. Looked so small in this compact little reply box.

          • Thank you Graeme. I think the one of the keys to changing the misogynist mentality is education from a very early age and consciousness raising with men and women of all ages. Its obviously going to be much harder than that but its a start. Would we had more reflective, anti-misogynist men like yourself!

          • vicki wharton says:

            Wow Graeme – you rock! I think that a good part of the underpinning of male priviledge is based on the concept that women and children are sub human – a kind of underclass in comparison to men which is essentially a psychopathic viewpoint. I worked in PR, using the media to change attitudes about drink driving and smoking. It is a very powerful tool for propoganda and if you examine the male media, the only part of it that features women and children is pornography. In this we are constantly referenced as sub human using cruel and debasing names such as bitch, whore etc even when the object of this name is only 6 years old. We are also filmed enjoying cruelty and violence towards us. This so much mirrors German propoganda about Jews in the 1930s it scares the living daylights out of me as the avid consumption of this media by men is almost 100% in certain age groups. It is social conditioning by stealth, but when I have talked about it with people like Theresa May at a hustings pre the last election and the Department of Justice or Media, they simply poo poo what history, the PR and advertising industries know full well, media is the first line of annialating another group’s humanity. After that, the dominant group can do what they like to the ‘other’, they are sub human animals and can be farmed, killed, tortured etc, they simply don’t count. It is no wonder that the rape conviction rate is less than 0.006% – 600 convictions in over 100,000 rapes a year – as a woman you are going into a justice system where the whole thing has been rigged against you in pretty much the same way as it has if you’re a black man etc etc etc. It’s not worth participating in their sham. Sorry, think that’s the bleak abyss you were trying to avoid but I can state it, have done years of therapy to be able to look the monster in the eye and call it just that, the monster in the room.

          • fantastic, fantastic, encouraging comment – thanks very much for this.

          • And yes Jackie, I totally agree with you about education at an early age – Cordelia Fine should be obligatory reading for all new parents!

    • Yes I agree with this – but I think a lot of it is a herd mentality, borne of not really thinking the issues through – e.g. I have met online a man who used to subscribe to MRA ideas, until he bothered to do some research into feminism – he’s now about the most feminist man I’ve yet encountered!

      • vicki wharton says:

        That is the only thing that stops me from blowing my brains out … is that ultimately I believe that most people mean well, and given a bit of education will choose the right thing to do. The trouble is getting them to access any of these subjects without snearing about political correctness gone mad etc. I think schools is ultimately where the most good can be done, but I must admit that getting my daughter’s headmaster to engage with gender equality is like trying to inflate an enormous bouncing castle with just my pitiful lungs to do the job. Not sure which will give out first, his ignorance or my stamina!!! 😉

        • Oh dear – what a depressing analogy! But keep going! I absolutely agree – education is key.

          • vicki wharton says:

            I must admit that until I suffered gender violence myself I didn’t realise what life outside the matrix looked like! But it polarises people against you in a way that is completely invisible and yet totally anihilating. And that’s just friends and family – the moment the authorities get involved your children are threatened with being taken into care and the police even threatened to arrest me for defending myself … that’s the reason most women don’t report gender violence is that what you see on Twitter and in the media against the victims of gender violence is just the tip of an iceberg of bigotry and prejudice. But you don’t know that til you are taken over that line by being attacked … and then you see who’s side most people are on and it isn’t the victim’s.

        • Hi Vicky

          Have you seen these resources for schools by EVAW?
          Call to end violence against women and girls: strategic vision:

          You may not make a feminist convert of your daughter’s headteacher but you will certainly be able to prove your case. There is also the government’s strategy to end VAWG that you may want to wave under his nose …
          Call to end violence against women and girls: strategic vision
          good luck x

          • vicki wharton says:

            Yes, I’ve sent him links to the EVAW resources, I don’t think he even reads it. And I’ve seen the Government’s strategy and progress review. The trouble is, to my mind, that until the Government starts tackling the male media that promote gendered violence through propoganda, they are continually wringing their hands in a show of grief that just feels false if they are unwilling to tackle the media that promote violence through misleading reportage which then gets falsely called fantasy. There is a refusal to join up the dots here that makes a lie of all the public sabre rattling. Writing dusty reports won’t solve this problem, and I kind of suspect they know it – but they continue to hide behind reports rather than taking action to deal with on line violent pornography and the absorbtion of its messages by large parts of society.

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