On Patriarchy: Political Origin Stories in Contemporary Feminist Thought

My dissertation concerns the way in which different political ‘origin stories’ of patriarchy shape feminist discourse. The concept of ‘patriarchy’ has recently made a resurgence as both a political tool and an object of academic inquiry. However, the question of what patriarchy actually is remains open. This can result in difficulties for feminist scholarship, as different diagnoses of the problem of patriarchy result not only in different proffered solutions, but also in unprofitable discourse as scholars talk past each other. In my dissertation project, I posit a framework for understanding patriarchy which seeks to solve this problem. By articulating a typology of patriarchal ontologies and explaining how different feminist thinkers are situated with respect to them, I aim to explain how different scholars diverge, as well as to unearth the various assumptions and premises within their intellectual infrastructures – which in turn has implications for how we evaluate different feminist thinkers.

In my first chapter, I posit an “idealist” ontology of patriarchy: one in which patriarchy is, in first order analysis, a system of meaning. To excavate the conceptual architecture, I draw on The Second Sex (1949), demonstrating how Beauvoir articulates one of the earliest accounts of this ontology. By unpacking the genealogy of patriarchy that Beauvoir presents, I identify three key elements which define the idealist ontology: its ahistoricity, its omnipresence, and its agency. I then argue that three prima facie highly divergent thinkers – Catharine MacKinnon (1989), Audre Lorde (1984), and Judith Butler (1990) – share this ontology.

I show that this ontology has both advantages and disadvantages for Butler, Lorde, and MacKinnon, in particular as it pertains to their political projects. On the one hand, it enables them to bring valuable intellectual resources to bear on questions of the relationship between gender and thought, including whether or not one can ever “break free” of the patriarchal conceptual landscape. On the other hand, a system of patriarchy as all-encompassing as that posited by Beauvoir will also leave these thinkers struggling with what I term the problem of grounding. To paraphrase Lorde, if most of our concepts are tainted by patriarchy, what “tools” can we use to dismantle the master’s house? If all gender norms are complicit in power structures, how are we to determine what – if any – elements of gender are salvageable? In particular, this leaves Butler and MacKinnon’s earlier works open to criticism for their inability to theorize genuine gendered experience – authentic gender identity for Butler and pro-sex positivity for MacKinnon – necessitating changes to their theories which weaken their original ontological stance.

My second chapter discusses the “materialist” ontology of patriarchy. During the second wave of feminism, patriarchy was theorized as a system of class oppression. Men were understood to be the oppressor class, women the oppressed class. Although the theory was on the face of it simple, there was great disagreement regarding the exact mechanism of patriarchy as class division, contributing – among other factors – to the splintering of feminists into theoretically opposed factions during the “sex wars” of the late 1980s.

Here, I focus primarily on the radical feminist writers Shulamith Firestone and Adrienne Rich. In Dialectic of Sex (1971), Firestone proposes that sex was the first class division: men sought to guarantee their access to progeny via controlling women’s bodies, as a result of which they developed an ideology of, and taste for, oppression. Rich, by contrast, argues in Of Woman Born (1976) that human history began as a primordial matriarchy, and it was the invention of agriculture – man’s ability to control nature – that led to their desire to control women. These texts sparked voluminous – and sometimes acrimonious – discussion within the second wave, particularly with regards to their entailed solutions. Those in Firestone’s tradition would see the body as something to be transcended via technology, where freedom from patriarchy could only arise when women were no longer forced into “shitting pumpkins” (her colorful term for giving birth) for the benefit of men. The theories which followed from Rich, however, would view reproduction as a source of mystic and otherworldly power, and envisioned the solution to patriarchy as a return to Mother-Goddess worship and the rule of women. The difference between these two theories would eventually result in two completely different intellectual traditions within feminism: xenofeminism, one the one hand, and cultural feminism on the other. Offshoots of these traditions can still be found today. For instance, xenofeminism is highly influential in the theory of Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now (2019), which argues for the eventual communization of reproduction. Cultural feminism, on the other hand, has had a hand in the advocating of institutionalizing “feminine”-coded values, exemplified perhaps best in Joan Tronto’s theory of an ethics of care (2013), whereas its more essentializing elements remain subject to critique by women of color and trans feminisms (c.f. Bey 2022).

My third and final chapter will articulate what I term the “moralist” ontology of patriarchy. This version of patriarchy is the one found in proto-feminist thinkers such as Christine de Pizan (1405), Lucrezia Marinella (1600), and first-wave thinker Anna Julia Cooper (1892).

Unlike the idealist and materialist ontologies, the moralist ontology does not question the male right to rule, but instead primarily focuses on the character of that rule. These early women writers sought to push back against male authors who argued that biblical verses clearly demonstrated women’s inferior state, and deftly redirected the arguments leveraged against them to elevate women’s status. Marinella, for instance, writing in The Nobility and Excellence of Women and the Defects and Vices of Men (1600), used the story of Eve’s creation from Adam’s rib to argue for women’s nobility: since, following scholastic reasoning, more noble things are created from more noble matter, woman being created from bone made her more noble than man created from mud. Though the moralist ontology has been ostensibly rejected in feminist theorizing, I argue that its elements – a focus on the psychology and character of individual men – can be found in contemporary thinkers, including – counterintuitively – Kate Manne (2019). Insofar as elements of this ontology are present in theorizing which is intended as structural, feminists will find themselves struggling to locate the appropriate role for agency in their theories: who is to blame, the system or the men involved? 

The three ontologies – idealist, materialist, and moralist – taken together give us a good start at classifying the various ways that the causality of oppression have been theorized in feminist thought. As mentioned above, this can help us understand certain forms of disagreement, such as the difference between cultural and xenofeminism. As a classificatory scheme that redraws the traditional lines between classes of feminist thinkers, my account further enables us to answer questions that have proved difficult using only existing intellectual resources. Overall, I hope that the framework can assist us not only in understanding why feminist authors differ, but how those differences can be used productively. I want to provide us with tools helpful for evaluating and ultimately proposing solutions to the “problem of patriarchy” – tools which, I believe, are desperately needed.