How the Patriarchy Got in Our Heads

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The hardest times for me were not when people challenged what I said, but when I felt my voice was not heard.

Carol Gilligan, co-author of a new book, “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?”


Remember in “Terminator 2” how the bad terminator kept getting smashed and shattered and ripped apart, but it didn’t matter? He just kept re-emerging, rising from the ashes, as an unstoppable force. Now imagine that terminator is a vessel to keep power, wealth and status in the hands of men — that’s the patriarchy. It can feel indestructible, coming back ever stronger despite seemingly endless efforts to smash it.

But why and how, after decades of activism, does the patriarchy persist? That’s what Carol Gilligan, the psychologist and ethicist, and Naomi Snider, a former student of Dr. Gilligan’s, were determined to unpack in their new book, “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?”

The answer may seem obvious: It persists because it maintains a system in which men hold power — political, economic, institutional — and what man would want to give that up?

But Snider and Gilligan contend that this is more a symptom of patriarchy and less cause.

Women and men, they say, internalize patriarchy without realizing it, pushing aside their best judgment and sacrificing their needs in order to fall in line with how they think they’re supposed to behave. By not falling in line, they risk sticking out for all the wrong reasons, potentially driving away friends, partners or professional opportunities, ultimately resulting in isolation.

[READ MORE: Carol Gilligan Reminds Us That We’re All Humans]

That fear is instilled in us early, they say: With boys being taught that crying is synonymous with weakness, for example, while girls learn that assertiveness equals aggressiveness.

As adults, it manifests in other ways. In how women shoulder their family’s emotional labor, meaning the invisible mental work of holding a household and relationship together. If a woman registers that this is unfair and complains, she’s often told that she’s “selfish, a drama queen, hysterical,” Snider said. Eventually, “she believes it.” That’s patriarchy.

Snider also cited the cliché of a woman who doesn’t tell a man she is dating that she wants a committed relationship for fear of scaring him off and being rejected. That too is patriarchy, Snider said.

In essence, Gillian and Snider write, patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act like they don’t need relationships and women to act like they don’t need a sense of self. The crux, though, is that we are “not supposed to see or to say this,” they write.

At the end of “Terminator 2,” the bad terminator is finally destroyed because he is incinerated, decimating him to the core. If it’s true that patriarchy is now hard-wired into our minds, it may take a drastic self-reckoning to ever truly eliminate it.

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50 percent

That’s how many women who work in the field of economics felt that they had been treated unfairly because of their sex, compared with 3 percent of men, according to a new, far-reaching survey of the field by the American Economic Association.

[READ MORE: Women in Economics Report Rampant Sexual Assault and Bias]

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