March 1, 2003 - Off Our Backs : Ivory Coast RPCV Alice Henry writes about patriarchy and male dominance in western society

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Ivory Coast RPCV Alice Henry writes about patriarchy and male dominance in western society

Read and comment on this excerpt from an article published in "Off Our Backs - a women's newsjournal" by Ivory Coast RPCV Alice Henry who writes about patriarchy and male dominance in western society at:

The long road from patriarchy*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

The long road from patriarchy

Alice Henry was with Peace Corps in Cote d'Ivoire. She was lucky enough to live for five years in a mud and straw hut in West Africa, in the midst of a patriarchal society (if sons expected to pass all they earn on to father' is a decent definition of patriarchy). She observed that "strangely, the women in north of Cote d'Ivoire did not seem to me to be especially oppressed except in the same way US women are oppressed, primarily by division of labor by sex and by the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few men. There and here, there are exceptions - rich powerful women - but both systems are male dominated.

The other signs and means of oppressing women such as rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, control over contraception and abortion that more or less result from and reinforce men's control over jobs, knowledge, and economics, are less evident in rural Cote d'Ivoire. Perhaps there is less violence against women because there is a generally low level of violence. Perhaps men find early marriage and polygamy a satisfactory way to stay in control over reproduction and don't need sexual violence."

The American feminists who use the term "patriarchy" usually use it as a metaphor for male-dominated society. However, "patriarchy" is a term that hides distinctions-some societies are more male- dominated than others. In some societies, fathers do have strong rights to their son's wealth. They try to strengthen holds on land and other forms of wealth by waging war and making family alliances. Family alliances are often made by selling daughters to marry sons of other patriarchs. If land or livestock are wealth, this stress on the lines of inheritance and direction of obligations (sons are obliged to serve their fathers) as a definition of society makes some sense.

In western Europe, somewhere along the way patriarchy got turned on its head. Instead of the father having control over the son's wealth, the father was expected to support his sons and daughters until they were adults, at which time they were expected to fend for themselves. The son was not expected to turn over all his earnings to his father. Fathers hoped a son would take over the family farm, or business. However, in many African societies, sons are still supposed to turn over any surplus to their fathers or older brothers. This style of sharing made sense when there was shifting cultivation, no surplus to speak of-- thus no cities-and no cash economy.

Patriarchy may be a first try at centralizing wealth: attempting to localize surplus in order to have enough food, leisure, and all it takes to produce art and innovation. But now, most patriarchal-style societies have a choice to enter the cash economy, and the sons and daughters need the money they make for their own enterprises. Change is taking place, but "don doni"-the Malinke phrase for how change occurs-- slowly.

In most societies today, wealth comes in the form of education, access to jobs, political position, power in the economic system, and inherited wealth. If your father or mother is wealthy in any of those ways, it is much more likely you will be wealthy and marry someone who has some form of wealth. In the U.S., both women and men inherit, but women don't inherit or have access to all the forms of wealth.

What bits of patriarchy, or male dominance, remain in western society? Which bits are most pemicious? Are there some bits that are crucial-so that if you changed them, other things would change more rapidly? How do you go about changing anything, when you feel mired in the midst of it? Should you focus on the worst forms of enforcing power-violence and sexual violence, war, prisons and capital punishment? What about reforming religious institutions? The legal system? Or is economic equality a priority? Well, probably women must work on all these problems to eliminate all forms of dominance.

But working for change in any of these areas is hard. Real hard. Let's look at one area where women might work to create social change: within the education system. I think feminists have been right to fight for access to education, which is a key to power and decision-making-or to put it in a more mundane way-to a good job. If education allows you to get a job, in business or in a government agency, for example, you may have some say in decisions. You could make feminist decisions that diminish men's power and thus contribute to moving society away from male dominance and toward greater democracy.

A crucial way women have tried to create this kind of change through the educational system is by becoming feminist teachers. It may seem that women have largely won the battle for access to education. But before leaving that arena, we might think a bit about tactics that worked, and how it ruined the lives of many who fought. I was in Sociologists for Women in Society, and saw, among other things, women unjustly let go, not given tenure, then bringing class action suits against universities. The court battles dragged on for years. The fighters became bitter and found it hard to lead a decent life.

Fighting for change is a slog, full of personal loss. Those fights are still going on; women (as well as many minority groups) still face weird battles for tenure. Change does not come easy.

A lot of feminists like to create utopian visions and escape to small enclaves away from patriarchy, but I find tales about the mixed bag of techniques powerful men and similarly privileged and like-minded women use to keep others out more intriguing than dreams of the land of milk and honey. In any case, feminists must think about the limited supplies of milk and honey and how to distribute access to the goods.

Democracy is a means of distributing access, and when there is a call for finding the "alternatives to patriarchy," we should pay attention to any person who is bringing feminism into any attempt to make any society more democratic. And democracy as well as feminism has to be part of any struggle to reform any bit of society- transportation, housing, law, child care, health care, farming, how water is managed. There are a million sectors that rely on paid employment, where feminists can work for change from the inside. And the real life stories are messy. The article on Transit Georgina in this issue, on reforming transportation in a town in central Canada, is one such real life story.

Women slogging along cleaning up EPA Super Fund sites may not necessarily think they are working for an alternative to patriarchy, but they are just as concerned about environmental issues as women setting up women-only land. And having become women engineers, they are breaking into what used to be male preserves. So, when I think of an alternative to patriarchy I think, "put on a hard hat and start learning how to clean up asbestos. Or learn about how to prevent and clear out low-grade nuclear waste. Or teach students who will work for feminist change in mainstream jobs. Or get a decision- making job in a government agency." I think the alternative to patriarchy is to work within it to change it.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Mar/Apr 2003

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Ivory Coast; Anthropology; Sociology; Gender Studies; Women's Studies



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