When we first started working on our book — Why Does Patriarchy Persist?— in the fall of 2015, our biggest concern was that people would look at us stony faced and confused, “patriarchy? Really?” As events would transpire, this fear turned out to be somewhat optimistic. With the election of an unapologetically racist, patriarchal man as president of the U.S. alongside the rise of resistance movements such as #metoo the persistence of patriarchy, was no longer deniable and had in fact come to the fore of public attention as a phenomenon that called for explanation. Why did a sufficient number of voters (including a majority of white women) affirm a man who put himself forward as the patriarch: the arbiter of truth and morality, reality and law? And, resisting the temptation to see patriarchy as something that exists entirely “out there” as an external system of oppression based on an outmoded gender binary and hierarchy to which only less enlightened people subscribe, how is it that even those among us who are committed to gender equality can unconsciously absorb and reify a framework that they consciously and actively oppose?
In addition to familiar explanations, notably that people with privilege are reluctant to give up their power and will go to great lengths to maintain it, we contend that there is also a psychology at work holding patriarchy in place. More specifically, a psychology of loss comes into play whereby a fear of vulnerability, rejection or betrayal can lead people to seek safety in detachment from others. And by detaching from others forgoing the relational desires and capacities (such as the wish for connection and capacity for empathy) that otherwise stand in patriarchy’s way.
Our book begins from the observation that patriarchal codes of masculine honor and feminine goodness enforce a sacrifice of love for hierarchy. Think of the biblical Abraham, willing to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his devotion to God. Patriarchy hinges on our willingness to make a similar sacrifice—to override authentic connection and love – which hinge on mutual recognition and respect – for the sake of securing our position within the existing hierarchy of privilege and power. A boy, seeking to establish himself as a real boy or a manly man, needs to cover his “feminine” qualities by hiding his tenderness and disavowing his desire for someone to be there for him. A girl who wants to be seen as a “good girl” or the kind of girl or woman others want to be with needs to silence the voice that says what she really thinks and feels.
Contrary to popular belief, this sacrifice of connection for the sake of hierarchy is neither inevitable or natural. The evidence now is overwhelming that responsive relationships are key to human health and thriving, Psychologists observing children who are separated from their parents or adults who have lost a loved one find that the healthy psyche protests the loss and impelled by the “anger of hope,” moves to repair the rupture. The healthy response to the sacrifice of love is resistance. It is only when protest and efforts at repair prove ineffective that despair sets in, and then can lead to detachment (giving up on the hope of having real relationships and replacing people with objects).
Our innate capacity to heal fractures in connection threatens the structures of hierarchy. So long as those below are able to communicate their feelings and those on top are able to feel empathy we are inevitably pulled toward repairing the ruptures that all forms of hierarchy create. And so, to enforce the sacrifice of relationship necessary for establishing and maintaining hierarchies of power and status, it is necessary then to render protest ineffective and to subvert the capacity to repair. Patriarchy persists because it does just this.
We were taken by surprise by three discoveries: first, that the codes and scripts of patriarchal manhood and womanhood—that is, the patriarchal construction of what it takes to be an honorable man or a good woman—correspond to what the psychologist John Bowlby identifies as pathological responses to loss; namely, emotional detachment and compulsive caregiving. Second, that the initiation into patriarchal manhood and womanhood subverts the ability to repair ruptures in relationship by enjoining a man to separate his mind from his emotions (and thus not to think about what he is feeling) and a woman to remain silent (and thus not to say what she knows). Our third discovery came with the realization that resistance to internalizing the gender codes of patriarchy tracks the same trajectory as responses to loss: protest, and when protest proves ineffective, despair and then detachment. By subverting the capacity for repair, patriarchy impels us on the path to detachment—the defensive move out of relationships designed to protect us from a loss that has come to seem inevitable.
Thus, we came to see how patriarchy persists in part by forcing a loss of relationship and then rendering the loss irreparable. Without the possibility for repair, love, a force of nature that has the power to uproot patriarchy, becomes sacrificed to protect us from the pain of loss. This sacrifice of love then serves the establishment of hierarchy and opens the way to its preservation.
We live in polarized times—in the US, we have elected the first black president, seen the first woman nominated for the presidency by a major political party, and legalized gay marriage; and yet within the same short span of years we have also heard our political leaders, including the president, endorse racism, sexism, religious intolerance, and violence, and advocate the use of force as the way to deal with conflict. Patriarchy is at once under siege and in power. Clearly patriarchy persists, but in light of our discoveries, we have come to a clearer understanding of why. The political battle between democracy and patriarchy is tied not only to a struggle for power and a contest between different frameworks for living or systems of belief, but also to the tension between our desire for love and our desire to avoid the pain of loss. With its gender binary and hierarchy posing impediments to the very possibility of relational presence and integrity, patriarchy becomes a bastion against loss. The catch is: patriarchy requires a sacrifice of love. Conversely, democracy, like love, is contingent on relationship: on everyone having a voice that is grounded in their experience. The relational capacities that constitute our humanity stand at the crossroads of where we have come to collectively, at this volatile intersection of democracy and patriarchy. And the question that confronts us, that confounds us perhaps more urgently now than ever before, is: which way will we go?
Carol Gilligan is Professor of Humanities and Applied Psychology at New York University and the author of In a Different Voice, one of the most influential feminist books of all time. Naomi Snider is a Research Fellow at New York University.