Laurie Essig Ph.D.

Love, Inc

Patriarchy Alive and Well in March

Women's history month puts patriarchy in the past, but it's here and now.

Posted Mar 16, 2015

March is the cruelest month. Part of its cruelty is the optimism that the oppression of women is firmly located in the past. When I lived in Russia during the Soviet years, on International Women's Day strange men would walk up to me and congratulate me on being a woman, sometimes proffering flowers or even chocolate. At the time, it struck me as odd that in as patriarchal a culture as Russia, I was being congratulated on being a woman. It was awkward and kind of uncomfortable, but it also seemed harmless enough. Thirty years later, I am not so sure.

As International Women's Day and Women's History Month become more recognized and celebrated, there is a danger of imagining that we live in a postpatriarchal world (the way MLK and Black History celebrations might confuse people into believing that we live in a postracial world and that civil rights have been won, once and for all).

Several recent incidents have made the congratulatory nature of Women's History Month seem like a cold form of comfort.

Incident 1: The personal is political.

A speaker is coming to my campus who actually believes women should earn one third of what men do and do two thirds of the housework. This speaker is not some crackpot with no credentials, but a political science professor, Harvey Mansfield, who backs up his misogyny with the prestige of Harvard. Can you imagine a similar argument against another group that is consistently underpaid and under promoted? Well, yes, actually similar arguments are made against racial minorities, particularly Black Americans, all the time. This racism and sexism go together like February and March since they justify the status quo of disproportionate rewards for white men.  

Incident 2: Think globally; act locally.

This local incident, a minor note in the annals of living patriarchy, intertwined with a far more serious and global affair when a student, a feminist activist from China, told me that her colleagues back home have been arrested. The young feminists, who have been held by Chinese authorities since March 7th, previously started an Occupy the Toilet movement to point out how there are very few places for women to use the bathroom and that this is a way of keeping women out of public space. This year in honor of International Women's Day, her colleagues were going to protest sexual harassment on public transport. Now at least five of them are being held in prison and have not been able to speak with their lawyers. According to news outlet Quartz:

"The five women’s right activists are Wu Rongrong, Wei Tingting, Wang Man, Zheng Churan and Li Tingting, also known as Li Maizi. Their families and lawyers have been unable to reach them since their detention and police are not releasing any details about their whereabouts."

A variety of responses, including a Twitter campaign, #freethefive,  and a tumblr feed, Free the Five, are demanding their release. But clearly Chinese authorities actually believe feminism is a threat to their regime.

Which brings me back to the local. According to Mansfield, who argues that although women are naturally, biologically even, superior at domestic tasks, we are also naturally inferior at the tasks we perform in the public sphere, like working. It is exactly this sort of patriarchal thinking that justifies the sexual harssment of women on public transport in China since women don't "belong" there. When these brave Chinese feminists tried to contradict that claim, they presented a threat not just to the Chinese authorities, but to patriarchy more generally.

And so patriarchy rears it head, locally and globally, as Women's History events fill up my March calendar. Maybe next year, instead of placing the struggle for women's rights in a historical past that is over, we could celebrate Surviving Patrarchy Month. No more flowers and chocolates on International Women's Day, but rather "get out of jail free" coupons and actual cash to make up for pay inequality would be handed out to feminists everywhere and instead of being congratuatled on being women, all those, of whatever gender, who do not benefit directly from sexism would be congratulated for surviving another year of sexism, local and global.