WTF is Patriarchy?

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By Becky Mollenkamp, PCC

As an intersectional feminist life coach, I help women, femmes, and thems unlearn their patriarchal conditioning and redefine success on their own terms. When I share that elevator pitch, I sometimes have people ask me exactly what I mean by patriarchy.

Unfortunately, some people perpetuate the incorrect assertion that patriarchy is a synonym for men. That’s simply untrue. In fact, patriarchy includes all people and it damages all people.

Here’s a quick primer on patriarchy. The typical dictionary definition of patriarchy is “a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” That’s fine, but it’s incredibly simplistic.

I prefer this more robust explanation from AORTA (Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliance): “Patriarchy is the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and trans people, and the extension of male dominance over women and trans folks in society in general. Unlike sexism, the word patriarchy names the social power dynamic involved.”

Patriarchy isn’t about individual men. It’s not or even only about men. It’s about all of the systemic structures, policies, and procedures (legal, political, cultural, religious, educational, and more) that perpetuate male dominance.

It’s also important to understand that male dominance means specifically the dominance of white, cishet, educated, able-bodied, neurotypical men.

To understand patriarchy, you must be clear about the systems that undergird it. According to AORTA, there are five intersecting systems, or “pillars,” that support patriarchy:

  1. Gender Binary: The belief that there are only two genders, which are defined in opposition of each other (male/female).
  2. Misogyny: The hatred of women, girls, and femininity.
  3. Heterosexism: The idea that only heterosexuality is natural and normal.
  4. White Supremacy: The exploitation and oppression of peoples of color by white peoples to maintain wealth, power and privilege.
  5. Capitalism: Private/corporate ownership of production with the focus on profits over people.

Patriarchal conditioning is all of the overt and covert messages we receive about who holds and can hold wealth and power (see the five pillars above). These ideas are perpetuated by the systems around us from the moment we are born.

To unlearn patriarchal conditioning, we must root out all of the ways we’ve knowingly or (more often) unknowingly internalized these five pillars. As AORTA puts it, “true change requires uprooting all systems of oppression.”

An intersectional feminist approach to coaching (which is what I work hard to deliver) must:

  • Actively fight against gender norms, violence against women, homophobia, and transphobia.
  • Recognize white privilege and not dismiss or diminish the lived experience of any person of color.
  • Acknowledge the economic realities and stark inequities of trying to survive and thrive in a system designed to make the rich richer.

I’m hoping that you have found your way into my world because you agree that patriarchy is real, problematic, and needs to end. If so, let’s stay in this fight together! It will take all of us.

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