I teach middle school language arts, and last semester, as we took on some short stories by Margo Lanagan, we took on the theme of patriarchy as it’s played out in story and in the world. After reading an article on the origins and meanings of patriarchy and its accompanying value set, students mapped four actions mentioned in the article—conquer, control, protect, dominate—and the behaviors and qualities associated with each. They found overlap, especially with ideas like oppression, war, fear and exploitation, and then there were some interesting ideas that came up like laws and taming. When I asked who had been tamed in society, mostly the kids came up with anyone who had also been exploited like slaves, child laborers, child soldiers, and farm workers. But eventually students decided anyone who is somehow different from the status quo is either tamed or rejected because climbing the social ladder to domination means meeting expectations better than the next guy (or gal). And who decides the expectations? Whoever’s winning.
I don’t recall that my kids made it to the idea of insecurity as a product of patriarchal systems, but I find myself thinking about it a lot lately and its relationship to taming. Winners and losers alike fall to insecurity: The winners are insecure about the next competitor sneaking up the ladder, and the losers gather their crumbs and lie in wait for the next profiteer to come along and use them for some gain. The book and documentary Half the Sky are filled with extreme cases of tyrannical oppression against women in societies around the world, societies offering little protection to any but men, but where women are standing up to those systems and making change—making men a little insecure with the loss of entitlement. But most of those stories are outside the U.S. What of the tyrannies of competition and power existing here? To be sure, they don’t often come with the same levels of unchecked violence, but disguised patriarchy (disguised only in the sense that it hides behind the dogma of institution) and its values set has its own dangers.
Last night my ex-husband shared an article about some comments religious leaders in our country had made about the shooting in Connecticut. James Dobson, leader of the Religious Right institute Focus on the Family and profiteer to the tune of millions, said this:
I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me and we have killed fifty-four million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences too.
And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and on God Almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.
Apparently, God is angry over abortion and our country’s opening to gay rights and gay marriage, and the consequence of his anger was the shooting in Connecticut last week. But it seems to me Dobson’s comments have to be viewed in light of the way he makes his money. Most certainly, a man who’s made his millions off of books and speaking engagements has something to fear from a society that becomes tolerant and accepting. Who would buy his books on God’s wrath at people who are different from the expectations Dobson’s established (he’s one of the winners—he gets to do that)? Or ask him to speak for masses at grand functions? His financial future could start to look a little grim. The answer to his insecurity: tame the masses with the most illogical fear, to an end of protecting profit and dominance, both in markets and in politics.
To return to my students studying patriarchy… they wondered about matriarchy and whether it was the same set of values but with women steering the ship. We did some reading and found that anthropologists seem to believe that matriarchal societies of the past were more egalitarian and less dictatorial. We then mapped what we considered to be opposite values to the patriarch and came up with a great deal more sharing, cooperation and acceptance (no taming to be found on this map), but agreed that it sounded a little too perfect world and unlikely that any society had achieved it. So we gathered the few matriarchal societies we could find for our reading and viewing (a documentary called Blossoms of Fire about the Isthmus Zapotecs of southern Oaxaca, Mexico) and discovered that there were definitely points at which matriarchy looked a lot like patriarchy but in women’s clothing. But we also agreed there was, in fact, a great deal more sharing and cooperation and acceptance.
Thanks in no small part to the profiteers of the institution, I have to be very careful when I start talking religion in the classroom. In fact, we barely tapped on it in our discussions. I think it landed in control on our maps, but had I been courageous enough to ask the questions, I’m sure it could have shown up in every category of the patriarch–in conquer, protect, and dominate as well. But even though we didn’t talk about it, I hope that as my students hear these stories, they stop and consider that the Dobsons and Huckabees of the world wouldn’t get very far with their competitive manipulations in a society that was just a bit more matriarchal in its sensibilities—I hope they consider that they wouldn’t need to.