Unpacking Patriarchy

I recently read “Is There Anything Good About Men?,” a talk given by Roy F. Baumeister (great name) to the APA in 2007. Six years old, but still interesting. I read it because for all of my feminism, I love men. I have a great father, a great brother, fantastic cousins and friends and coworkers who are all men. My answer to the eponymous question would be, “Uh, yeah. Lots. Duh.”

There are some interesting arguments in the speech. Baumeister asks us to remember that not only are there more men at the top of society, but also at the bottoms, in prison, etc. Now, I could stand to hear some more precise statistics about the number of men versus women in prison or homeless, etc., and I also think there might be something to say for women still being poor but not being necessarily homeless or having committed violent crime, but in the long run, quibbles.

Let’s grant his assertion that men are more extreme than women–less risk-averse, more likely to take a chance that could be dangerous to his social or financial standing or even life. I have no problem doing that.

I just…I trust that this guy’s heart is in the right place, but something rubs me the wrong way about this article and some of its assertions.

I was comfortable enough when he said:

I don’t want to be on anybody’s side. Gender warriors please go home.

I got less comfortable when he started using “the feminists” as a homogenous block. Please see this paragraph:

When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually“How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth — these are mostly men.

Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.

Which feminists were these? First-wave, second-wave, third-wave? Or just the people who identify with the definition of “feminist,” which is “someone who believes that men and women should be treated equally with equal opportunities?” I’m starting to get a straw-woman defense vibe here.

Then he got me back on his side when he said:

The tradeoff approach yields a radical theory of gender equality. Men and women may be different, but each advantage may be linked to a disadvantage.

Is it really that radical? What he’s saying is, “Men and women are actually different, but each have positives and negatives.” As much as I wanted to dispute the differences between men and women when I first entered my freshman year “Psychology of Gender” class, by the end it was pretty plain that yes, there are fundamental differences, psychologically and neurologically, between men and women. If there weren’t I doubt that there would be as many trans individuals, because being trans is not merely about the physical body. (Trans friends, please correct me if you disagree.)

Soon Baumeister gets into evolutionary theory, which is one of my least favorite things, because it’s possible to back so many contradictory conclusions by saying, “BECAUSE EVOLUTION.” To his credit, he bases this on DNA evidence of the number of men versus the number of women that most humans have had as ancestors. The likelihood of a woman versus a man to pass on her genes gives him reason to posit that men evolved to become more likely to take risks in order to try to secure a partner to pass on their genes.

Am I sold on this? Meh. Let’s go with it for now and move on.

I have no problem with the model of different types of sociability between men (lots of relationships, fewer very deep ones) and women (fewer relationships, tend to be more intimate). Of course people vary individually, but I can get behind this in general.

Fast forward to what I have a problem with and why.

Gender inequality seems to have increased with early civilization, including agriculture. Why? The feminist explanation has been that the men banded together to create patriarchy. This is essentially a conspiracy theory (emphasis mine), and there is little or no evidence that it is true. Some argue that the men erased it from the history books in order to safeguard their newly won power. Still, the lack of evidence should be worrisome, especially since this same kind of conspiracy would have had to happen over and over, in group after group, all over the world.

Let me offer a different explanation. It’s not that the men pushed the women down. Rather, it’s just that the women’s sphere remained about where it was, while the men’s sphere, with its big and shallow social networks, slowly benefited from the progress of culture. By accumulating knowledge and improving the gains from division of labor, the men’s sphere gradually made progress.

Here’s the thing.

Maybe Baumeister is talking specifically about first-wave feminists. Maybe they posited patriarchy as some conspiracy of men over women because of a fear of the power of reproduction.

I know very few current feminists who believe this.

Listen, I’m willing to keep an open mind about this whole theory of extremes and of different methods of socialization being why culture evolved (and it really is an evolution) in the way it did. But the fact is that once it got codified, culture started getting reeeeeeally concerned about what to do with women. Cultures started making laws about what they could and couldn’t do, where they could and couldn’t go, and who made their choices. And when that “culture” is dominated–for whatever reason, organic or inorganic–by men exclusively or nearly exclusively, you’re going to exacerbate feelings of “otherness” directed toward women and you’re just not allowing for what in essence is representational government. It’s the birth control panel with the all-male Senate group all over again. You might have the best of intentions, but we know that “separate but equal” doesn’t play out that way, and when women are punishable by death for infractions they never had a say about, that’s a huge problem.

Overall I get a kind of “cult of domesticity” vibe from this whole article. It’s the idea that women have it so good because they’re valuable because they can have babies, and that means their genes get passed on, and that’s the point of evolution so boom, bliss! The idea that women don’t improvise because they just don’t care to, rather than because it has been impressed upon them to stay inside the lines. Especially this, to me, rather flippant dismissal of feminists as misinformed speculators and conspiracy theorists rather than people trying to correct a genuinely bad situation.

Maybe I’m as much of a fundamentalist for nurture as the evolutionary psychologists are for nature in this whole “men and women evolved to want xyz versus were socialized to want xyz” debate. Ultimately, proof is difficult. That being said, I can clearly identify many of my own cultural influences. I don’t think it was biology that led me to want to be perfectly pretty, sweet, thin, and kind–I think it was largely the books of fairy tales modeling that behavior as the kind that would lead to emotional fulfillment (through marriage to the perfect person). I could be wrong about that, at least in part, but I do think that over the last four decades we’ve seen a lot of changes in women’s roles and expectations and that those are evident in the ways in which women behave and speak today, so something has to be more than biology.

Anyway, I wanted to like this speech. I tried to keep an open mind about it as I read, and to try out Baumeister’s assertions in my head. And now, three days later, I find that my brain kept coming back to it to figure out what in it didn’t work for me. That’s essentially the above. So thank you, Roy, for really making me think and challenge some of my assumptions.

You may not have changed my mind very much, but you definitely made me think about why I believe what I do.


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