Why doesn’t patriarchy die?

The prevailing common sense that things can only get better, that men and women are equal – virtually – is confronted by the vigour of patriarchal divisions of labour and sexism in popular culture. 

Beatrix Campbell
28 September 2015

The rape of an Indian student shocks the world and fills the streets with protests; in the UK, women cleaners and caterers take councils to court over patriarchal pay; a New York hotel worker exposes the head of the IMF; women call out Twitter for the proliferation of online rape threats; a 17-year-old Somali woman ignites action against Female Genital Mutilation; millions in China protest against sexual harassment, and in some of the most besieged places on the planet, Kurdish women improvise novel ways of resisting nation states and sexism. Feminism flares all over the world.


Women march against violence in Turkey on International Women's day. Photo: Demotix

But, we hear, resistance is pointless because it is all over bar the shouting…it is only residual sexism that is morphing into spasms of rape, Twitter excess, archaic wounding and harmless opportunism by sex-starved proles and drones?  Isn’t it just all over bar a few greedy feminists who think they can have more than everything, women demanding freedom of choice who can’t hack the consequences? After Conservative Party leader David Cameron almost wore a Fawcett Society T-shirt  saying ‘this is what a feminist looks like’, the Labour Party was almost led by a woman in 2015, and the United States’ president might be a woman in 2016? 

So, what’s going on?

We are asking Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die not because we’re surprised, but because we want to know how sexist systems live and die, where they nest and with whom, how are they refreshed and re-invented, and where do they wither? We want to know when, where and why feminism flourishes and becomes the zeitgeist.  

In the 21st century, the meanings, locations and operations of both patriarchy and feminism - or cultures and regimes of male domination and the resistance - demands an engagement with a new world order - new platforms, genres and institutions of both  sexism and feminism.

Rahila Gupta and I are journalists: we go places, we talk to people, we read and we write - always in the service of radical social change. We have explored riots, slavery, popular culture and the modus operandi of public institutions and political parties. What we want to do now is understand new articulations of male domination – how patriarchy fits with diverse systems, from theocracies to capitalism and socialism.  

We want to interrogate why, though associated with democracy and cultures of rights, modernity offers no guarantee of a new gender settlement released from male domination. 

In the 21st century the prevailing common sense that things can only get better, that men and women are equal – virtually – is confronted by the vigour of patriarchal divisions of labour and sexism in popular culture. 

Feminism has been a permanent presence in modernity, but it flickers in and out of view, it fades and it flies. Women’s movements make their presence felt in moments of tumult and rupture. But not always. We need to explore how they breathe, find their voice, create alliances and make change when new historic settlements are shaped. Why, we wonder, are women educated, organising and assertive in the Sahrawi refugee camps in the western Sahara, whilst in Haiti’s refugee camps women are tormented by routine rape and robbery? And in the US, the herald of modernity, why is home and waged work ever more polarised, why are inequalities are growing at a rate unknown for a century?

Around the early part of the last decade - 2003/2004 - we saw stirrings in the UK among young feminists because the purported freedoms promised to women by neo-liberalism’s rhetoric of choice were illusory; this was crystallised by the austerity measures introduced to deal with the financial crisis, the impact of which fell disproportionately (72 per cent) on women. Where neo-liberalism prevails, male dominated states and individuals have a stake in controlling women’s sexuality and women’s labour in the global marketplace. 

Austerity is a thoroughly gendered project: it is reconstructing the relationship between state and society through the attack on the welfare state, with dire implications for a progressive gender settlement of the 21st century.  

Only in a cluster of Scandinavian social democracies do welfare states appear to take the side of women and children. Even they are assailed by global pressure to shrink their welfare states. 

The vacuum left by a much diminished state is being filled in some countries by religious forces providing services with an ethos that menaces women’s rights. Secular values - historically a better fit with women’s aspirations - were hijacked by brutal military regimes, exemplified by Egypt and Iraq. Now the rise of the religious right represents a new threat - often enlisting the language of human rights to promote the suppression of women's rights. 

There are new divisions of labour across gender, classes and nations: cheap labour is being re-distributed across continents; women are trafficked in ever larger numbers for sex and domestic work; equal pay disappears from the horizon amidst new forms of the ‘dynamics of undervaluation’ of women’s work; the global hegemony of neo-liberal economics dis-organises workers and staunches the prospects of gender economic equality; unpaid labour still contributes between a third and half of GDP globally and is still extracted universally from women. 

All of this exemplifies the ‘modernisation’ of patriarchal structures and ideologies in the era of neo-liberal hegemony. Many of the issues are the same but the articulations are different. That’s what we need to understand. 

We have teamed up with a novel intervention in journalism: Byline, a team that is crowd-sourcing freelance journalists to engender a new relationship between writers and readers. Modelled on the way that, for example, iTunes burst through traditional ways of selling and buying music, one of Byline’s founders, Daniel Tudor, explains that journalism will benefit from an iTunes moment. In an era of the internet ‘and extreme choice, do enough people still want to buy a bundle called a newspaper, the contents of which are chosen seemingly arbitrarily by an editor?’ Byline sees itself as ‘acting as curators of journalists.’  Byline may  go further and ‘pave the way for all manner of niche writers, gathering income for their original work, or simply serve as a tip jar.’

Our project, Why Doesn’t Patriarchy Die?’ belongs both to feminism’s renaissance and Byline’s new way of doing the business.  We’re nearly there. Check out Rahila Gupta and Beatrix Campbell on Byline. With less than a week to go, we’re on our way to raising the £10,000 we need to get to work. Will you join us?



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