Why Does Patriarchy Persist?
A review of Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s book on the price of patriarchy
There are books that do what they set out to do: they make their points clearly, they argue something new, they uncover something for us. Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s new book, Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, does more than that. It is a spark. It is something like a book-length speech act, both illocutionary and perlocutionary: in speaking, the authors bring their thesis into being, and with it a host of possibilities come alive within us. As we read, we believe intimately that what they say is so. We feel it and see it in our own lives; it cannot but leap up within us. In turn, we are impelled to respond.
As with Gilligan’s former works, this book calls the reader to a sense of aliveness and a feeling of seeing and being seen, and in so doing, puts us into greater contact with ourselves. With Gilligan and Snider in frank dialogue, together they engender in the reader a sense of responsibility to speak from a place of personal truth and vulnerability, and they make possible the belief, however faint and flickering in dark times, that greater honesty, equality, and peace are possible. Together the voices of the authors restore to the reader what they claim patriarchy steals from us: hope for deeper relationships, both intimate and social, through an undistorted expression of love and tender compassion, driven by innate yearning for connection rather than by defense against that yearning.
How do they do all this? First Gilligan and Snider sketch a review of patriarchy’s functions: patriarchy splits human attributes between masculine and feminine, and favors the masculine; elevates some men over others and all men over women; and forces a split between having a self and being in relationship, such that men have selves and women have relationships that serve men’s needs. They then set about distinguishing between our emotional needs and our performed roles, detailing how our affective bodies speak beyond our consciously-held identities. A glimpse of their writing:
We can believe in a woman’s equality and yet, as women, feel guilt when we put our own needs forward or uncomfortable when other women do the same, just as men, including feminist men, can feel anger and shame when their sense of autonomy or their status and power are threatened or their vulnerability exposed.
The book proceeds with a series of anecdotes that bring to life a central premise: due to social pressures to conform to heteronormative gender role expectations, we sacrifice real relationships and silence ourselves. We give up vital love, connection, and intimacy in exchange for a deadened acceptability. This is the initiation rite through which we enter into the framework of patriarchy.
Ourselves-as-we-are (full of needs, affection, desire, vulnerability) are forcibly but imperceptibly supplanted by the idea-of-ourselves-as-we-should-be. The injunction is invisible and, by most, irresistible. As one storyteller, Adam, described it, in detailing how patriarchy’s undertow robbed him of an intimate bond with a gay friend as a teen, “The culprit is a ghost.”
Another storyteller, Jackie, is disturbed by her inclination to protect her rapist over and above attention to her own needs and rights. The authors emphasize that she too felt patriarchy’s invisible control: the forces that had made her the object of sexual violence were of the same apparatus that led her to silence herself, to resist speaking out so as not to “ruin his life,” without so much of a thought about what, within herself, was being disregarded or destroyed by such self-censorship. This captures the book’s central query: why do we do things that seem not to serve our best interests? And then, how are we identifying our interests? There seems to be a contradiction at the core of our behavior, that we act both for and against ourselves at once. When considering the knotty interface of personal and social needs, we see that our interests are an imbroglio. This, write the authors, must have something to do with the psychology of gender within patriarchy:
In asking why patriarchy persists, we are asking why a set of cultural rules and assumptions that are psychologically incoherent and harmful has such a powerful grip on the psyche.
In essence, they say, if individuals are willing to give up so much — what they love, what they feel most deeply committed to — in the service of these norms, something psychological rather than “simply” political must motivate the endurance of patriarchy.
We arrive at the book’s crowning insight: gender rules are both a function and an expression of pathological responses to loss. Following a critique of Freudian and Kleinian theories of loss — particularly Freud’s suggestion that maintaining connection with the lost object constitutes pathological mourning — Snider finds in the pioneering work of developmental psychologist John Bowlby evidence that maps onto Gilligan’s decades of research: namely, resisting loss is not only not pathological, but it may be the most natural and constructive response to loss for humans, linked to no less than our survival as a species. However, resistance to loss can, in certain circumstances, give rise to behavior that cuts us off from the promise of future connection. They write:
Irreparable loss of relationship, Bowlby tells us, is as painful psychologically as a severe wound is physically, and can give rise to defenses. These defenses, while protective in shielding us from relationships which have become broken beyond repair, can over time become maladaptive and destructive — cutting us off from the possibility of intimacy and connection and thus causing harm to both others and ourselves.
Snider and Gilligan then chart a path detailing how responses to the relational losses incurred by patriarchy’s disciplinary forces come to shape the psychology of adult men and women, utilizing Bowlby’s observation of stages in the responses of young children to separation from their caregivers: protest, despair, detachment.
Protest against the strictures of gender role conformity indicate a vital sensitivity to threat of loss baked into these norms and a refusal to give into their demands. These mandates, as much as they force a suppression of self in the name of social acceptability, directly threaten the “experience of living in connection” but are so powerful as to be experienced as the only means for maintaining relationship security within patriarchy. When protest fails, we see despair — “the giving up of hope that what has been lost can be found” — in essence, when the hope for real connection is relinquished in favor of the pseudo-relationship of role conformity. After despair comes detachment, a way of dissociating from the need to be in connection when “hopeless longing has become too painful to pursue.”
According to Snider and Gilligan, Bowlby’s model tracks the cultural ideals of masculinity, which they demonstrate through interviews with high school boys who move from valuing friendships at the age of 14 to replacing emotional bonds with “sports…girls…and money” only a few years later. The pseudo-independence of patriarchal manhood, the authors say, is akin to the detachment phase, when accumulation of material objects comes to replace relationships as the paramount focus. The authors point out the longing for important friendships is still there, but the young men begin to report lack of safety and trust, and a need to dissimulate their desires for closeness, to be sure not to “sound too sissy-like.” Vulnerability does not begin as a liability, but becomes one through initiation. It is in this initiation, mimicking Bowlby’s description of detachment, that teenage boys’ interests transition from friendships to the accumulation of material objects to shore up their security and social value. The objects are reliable, says Snider, where relationships are not. The construction of masculinity is thus figured as a response to loss.
It is a tragic tale, but one that ends with hope. Snider identifies within Bowlby’s work the innate “seeds of resistance,” as the protest response to loss represents an inborn “ability to challenge cultural prescriptions that are inimical to our most basic relational needs and desires.”
A word on style: Snider and Gilligan generously carry the reader through the process of discovery, from the origins of the book in Snider’s engagement with Gilligan’s work while pursuing a master’s in law at NYU, to their personal reflections as they engaged in creative dialogue with one another, to their delight in each “surprise” they encounter in the process. Each tells her own stories of loss and discovery, and each is open, conversational, and frank. It is such a fresh rendering of the research process, as both are simultaneously humble and excited at simply thinking and exploring together. I think this is in large part the power of this work. It is an intimate work. Telling our stories is an intimate act. Speaking of loss is an intimate act. Being vulnerable with our hearts, being open about our misdeeds and harms, trusting enough to voice our needs and wounds — I can think of nothing more intimate and nothing more constructive, hence my suggestion that this work is something of a book-length speech act. Because the book is confronting patriarchy’s prescriptions against intimate emotional expression, the style is itself a performance of reparation and resistance.
There is something about a piece of writing that so plainly offers a mirror of our experience: it calls forth the fragments of our lives, the bits of self and memory that have been brushed aside, flattened, forgotten. It illuminates the many losses that have formed us, our loved ones, our patients, our students, the characters we watch perform on the national and global stage; at the same time, it teaches how loss gives way to sacrifices intended to avoid further loss, which too often can only become precarious compromise solutions that generate violence and other forms of harm. We look around us, at our societal struggles and ills, and we see people living out variations of pain and suffering, or more precisely, defenses against pain and suffering. And we see, with great clarity owing to the authors’ own clarity of vision, how patriarchy fosters this arrangement. But in seeing these patterns illuminated, mapped onto a clear psychological framework, we are given the gift of greater contact with what is, and thus a greater chance of engaging it meaningfully with an eye to change.
Inviting the reader to reflect on the sacrifices of voice and truth that patriarchy demands, Gilligan and Snider remind us of our power and right to determine the course of our lives, the quality of our relationships, and our sense of integrity. They are not shy in announcing their conviction that this creates the conditions for responsible citizenship, for a citizenship of peace that stands up for human dignity and the principles of democracy. They convince us, in fact, that this is the only path to democracy: for when we defensively silence ourselves, we cannot participate meaningfully in political change; we can only reinscribe the status quo.
Gilligan and Snider’s work continues a dialogue with questions I posed last year on a panel discussion about what work we each have to do in dismantling silencing, gendered forces that steal from us the opportunity for real relationships, real change. I worried about how aspects of the public discussion surrounding #MeToo might function to constrain if not strangle the expression of different perspectives and the vicissitudes of emotional responses to the events unfolding before the public eye, foreclosing rather than fostering open exploratory dialogue of a complex phenomenon, one that exists as much in the wordless realm of bodily feeling as in the register of intelligible language. This book is an antidote for the shaming practices that I feared would stanch discussion and movement toward self-understanding. Perhaps above all, it is an invitation and an instruction guide for speaking out loud about that which we have buried, and in so doing, find another way.
Ali Shames-Dawson is a former student of Jeremy Safran, a contributing editor at Public Seminar, and a 3rd year doctoral student in clinical psychology.