Patriarchy is bad for us all | Marcelline Naudi

Patriarchy oppresses not only women, but anyone who does not fall within the expected norms of the dominant section of society

Prof. Marceline Naudi, Department of Gender and Sexualities

When the P (patriarchy) word or indeed the F (feminism) word is mentioned, many men tend to recoil, get defensive, deride and possibly mock… What they fail (refuse?) to see is that Patriarchy is bad for us all, regardless of our gender, and that feminism’s main fight is against patriarchy (not against men) and is therefore good for us all…

So what is ‘patriarchy’? Many definitions exist but it’s mainly seen as unequal power sharing between women and men. The London Feminist Network (n.d.) defines patriarchy as follows: “Patriarchy is the term used to describe the society in which we live today, characterised by current and historic unequal power relations between women and men whereby women are systematically disadvantaged and oppressed. This takes place across almost every sphere of life but is particularly noticeable in women’s under-representation in key state institutions, in decision-making positions and employment and industry. Male violence against women is also a key feature of patriarchy. Women in minority groups face multiple oppressions in this society, as race, class and sexuality intersect with sexism.” (1)

Download UNITY in pdf here

Dale Spender (1986) sees patriarchy as a much wider phenomenon (2). She states that a premise of patriarchy is ‘domination’ – the domination of women by men, of black by white, of poor by rich; it is domination glossed over by rationales of competition and meritocracy (may the best man win) but it is still domination. And she points out that domination has another side – the reality of those who are dominated.

Hence, patriarchy oppresses not only women, but anyone who does not fall within the expected norms of the dominant section of society. Patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes, furthermore, dictate the roles, responsibilities and the expected behaviour of women and men in society and in the family. It produces gendered stereotypes that women, men, and all genders, are expected to strive towards and attain. We all know these stereotypes – they are assimilated by us as we grow and are socialised, normalised, within our society. Men, for example, are to be strong, leaders, breadwinners; women are to be sensitive, gentle, caring. Women must not be, or appear to be, strong, leaders, earn good money; Men must not be, or appear to be, sensitive, gentle, caring. When we go against these gender norms we tend to get ‘punished’ – we may be rejected, made fun of, put down, and in more extreme cases, seriously assaulted verbally and/or physically.

All this has many implications… For example, whilst it is acceptable that women display vulnerability, ask for help, cry, show weakness, it is much less acceptable that men do so! Men are not expected to deviate from the ‘strong’ stereotype. This means that it may be more difficult for them to accept this side of human nature in themselves, more difficult for them to seek help when they may need it - and if they don’t seek help, they will probably not get it. Not getting emotional or psychological help when in need of it, may result in mental health issues. Consequently, suicide rates, for example, tend to be higher in men than in women.

Women, on the other hand, are not expected to display anger and aggression (which are considered acceptable for men). They are expected to be passive, accept and defer to the dominance of men, as the ‘natural order’ of things. One of the most notable conclusions from a 2018 qualitative study on barriers to reporting of domestic violence include the predominant patriarchal attitudes in our society, which further contribute to making violence against women less unacceptable (3).

It is important to promote gender awareness because it increases the visibility of this hierarchy and system of power that is often the basis of both material and social inequalities. The patriarchal system instructs and coerces us into our respective gendered positions, which results in inequalities, discrimination and violations of women’s (mainly, but not only) human rights, many of which we accept as part of taken-for-granted ‘cultural’ attitudes.

And this is what feminism continues to combat. Dale Spender gives us her understanding of Feminism as a set of explanations which make the most sense of her experience, and her life, and the lives and experiences of many other women she knows (4). But she also explains that she chose to be a feminist for other reasons. She tells us that feminism is based on a ‘better’ set of assumptions than any other world-view she has encountered. She sees it as a fairer way of viewing and organising the world. She assumes that human beings are equal, that we can learn to live in harmony with each other – and the planet – and that there is no necessity for violence, exploitation, persecution, war. These assumptions, she tells us, underlie feminist philosophy: they do not underlie patriarchal philosophy.

So, I conclude by recalling the title of this short piece, patriarchy is bad for us all, and adding, feminism is good for us all!

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions. for safety on the streets… for child care, for social welfare… for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist,’ I ask ‘Why? What’s your problem?’”

Dale Spender, 1990


1. London Feminist Network. (n.d.). What is patriarchy?

2. Spender, D. (1986). ‘What is feminism? A personal answer’ In J. Mitchell & A. Oakley (Eds.), What is Feminism? Basil Blackwell.

3. Naudi, M., Clark, M., & Saliba, H. (2018). Barriers to help-seeking in gender-based violence against women: A research study

4. Spender, D. (1990). Man made language. Harper Collins