Berfrois

Patriarchy’s Paradoxical Persistence: Berfrois Interviews Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider

Print

by Russell Bennetts

Carol Gilligan is a writer, activist, University Professor at NYU and author of In a Different Voice, one of the most influential feminist books of all time. Naomi Snider is a research fellow at NYU, and a candidate in psychoanalytic training at the William Alanson White Institute. They are the co-authors of Why Does Patriarchy Persist? (Polity, 2018).

Berfrois

What is patriarchy?

Carol Gilligan

Patriarchy is a culture based on a gender binary and hierarchy, a framework or lens that leads us to see human capacities as either “masculine” (e.g. independence, rationality, emotional stoicism, the mind) or “feminine” (dependence, emotional sensitivity, caregiving, the body) and to privilege the masculine. It elevates some men over other men and all men over women. The patriarchal gender binary and hierarchy force a split between the self and relationships, so that, in effect, men have selves, whereas women ideally are selfless, and women have relationships, which surreptitiously serve men’s needs. Patriarchy is an age-old structure that has been near universal, and yet there is an incoherence at its core because in reality men can’t have selves without relationships and women can’t have relationships without a self. Thus, in essence, patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act as if they don’t have or need relationships and women to act as if they don’t have or need a self.

Naomi Snider

For those in doubt that this patriarchy still persists, just think of the ever-growing body of laws restricting women’s reproductive freedom in America today. While framed as a concern for human life, when one considers that U.S. infant mortality rates are about 71 % higher than the comparable country average—it becomes clear that what is really at stake here is not the life of the unborn foetus, but the ideal of feminine selflessness itself. Restrictive abortion laws operate to render women as vessels for the interests and lives of others, rather than as humans with the right to self-determination. Breaking this gender binary continues to have real consequences: sensitive men are ridiculed as weak or passive, not “real men”, while woman who assert their own needs and desires—or refuse to serve as objects for the needs and desires of others—are labeled aggressive or selfish, so-called “nasty women”. As an example of the kickback that follows when a woman steps out of her “supportive sidekick” role, when Hilary Clinton stepped down as Secretary of State, her approval rating was 69%, rendering her the most popular politician in the country, but as soon as she ran for President her popularity plummeted.

Berfrois

How can we, as the saying goes, smash the patriarchy?

Snider

I first started seeing this phrase, “smash the patriarchy”, in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election—on t-shirts, signs outside coffee shops, the status updates of Facebook friends. I found the phrase invigorating, not so much a literal call to arms as an insignia of recognition and belonging: yes, we are living in patriarchy and we will fight it together. I still smile whenever I see it. But now I’m also reminded of Audre Lorde’s famous warning: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I wonder if the desire to “smash the patriarchy”—to destroy this beast in our midst—is a case in point. If patriarchy (or any hierarchy for that matter) rests on the violent destruction or exclusion of that which is deemed threatening or other, then any call for “smashing” as a solution (now the word kristallnacht—night of the broken glasscomes to mind) requires interrogation. What if, instead of relying on our “master’s tools”hammers and baseball bats, the language of violence and destructionwe searched for new instruments and new metaphors, ones that do not assume violence or destruction as the path out of oppression and alienation. This is what challenging patriarchy looks like: it’s the questioning of narratives, the switching of metaphors and the shifting of frameworks. It’s trusting and giving voice to your own thoughts, feelings, experience and ways of seeing rather than trying to fit them into the dominant framework or mode of thinking.

As a culture, patriarchy exists as a set of rules and values, codes and scripts that specify how men and women should act and be in the world. However, patriarchy does not simply exist out there as something concrete and external, to be smashed and destroyed. Patriarchy also exists internally, shaping how we think and feel, how we perceive and judge ourselves, our desires, our relationships and the world we live in. As the reinforcing of boundaries to keep people out becomes an ever more present part of our reality, the need for actual hammers to smash real walls becomes all the more pressing. But what of the internal walls that patriarchy builds within and between usthe walls that come to separate “good” women from their honest voice, or “real” men from their empathy and vulnerability? These are walls that we cannot simply smash.

Gilligan

A more apt metaphor for an invisible force that can under certain conditions infect our bodies and minds is disease. And just as the healthy body resists infection, the healthy psyche resists injustice and oppression. So, rather than asking how we can smash the patriarchy, let’s wonder instead: how can we resist it? Research shows that the first response of childrenacross the gender spectrumto patriarchal gender roles that demand that girls be selfless (seemingly without a voice of their own) and boys emotionally stoic (and seemingly invulnerable) is resistance. Girls do hold on to their honest and assertive voices. Boys do hold onto their sensitive, empathic and vulnerable voices. Patriarchy persists because it shames this resistance, rendering it unfeminine in its expression of anger, or unmanly in its expression of tenderness and care. In order to move out of patriarchy, we can join and provide resonance for these voices of healthy resistance. We can challenge the frameworks and scripts that make selflessness a requisite of femininity. We can challenge the idea that emotional stoicism is what it takes to be a real man. From this perspective, the move out of patriarchy is a path of cultivation rather than destructionthe forging of healthy democratic relationships in which all voices are responded to, not necessarily with agreement, but with respect.

Berfrois

How does the patriarchy subvert our relational desires and capacities? 

Snider

We begin our book, Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, with the observation that we are, by nature, relational beings, born with a voice—the ability to communicate our experience—and the desire to engage responsively with others.

Gilligan

If you need convincing, watch this clip of the psychologist Edward Tronick’s “still-face experiment.”

This brief video offers a vivid and easily accessible demonstration of how tuned in we are as babies by showing how quickly an infant picks up and responds to changes in the relational weather. In our book, we describe how, at the opening of the film, we see a mother and her one-year-old baby engaged in responsive play, cooing and gesturing in an ongoing and pleasurable exchange. When following Dr Tronick’s instruction, the mother becomes still-faced and stops responding to her baby, the baby instantly registers the loss of connection. She moves to re-engage her mother by repeating the sounds and gestures that had previously elicited her response. When the mother ignores her efforts and remains still-faced, we see pleasure drain from the baby’s body and face. And then it becomes almost unbearable to watch as disorganisation sets in and we hear a cadenced relational voice give way to a shrill, high-pitched screeching. Our relief is visceral when the two-minute still-face interval ends and the mother responds to the baby’s distress. Our breathing returns to its normal rhythm as we witness the mother repair the rupture in the relationship and see the baby re-engage with her.

Snider

We refer to this video because it so vividly illustrates how trust in relationships hinges on the discovery that ruptures can be repaired. As Tronick and his colleagues have shown, it is not the absence of ruptures or breaks in connection, or the goodness of the mother per se, that ensure the continuation of the relationship. Rather, it is the discovery on the part of mother and baby that they can find one another again after what, in the course of daily living, are the inevitable moments of losing touch. When the baby’s pleasure fades and her voice shifts, we are witnessing the beginnings of her loss of hope that the rupture can be repaired and we see her move to disengage. Then we can see how, if the capacity to repair is itself under siege, if the move to repair ruptures in a relationship is rendered futile or shamed, the loss of connection becomes seemingly irreparable. The conditions are then set for the acceptance of loss as inevitable and the move from protest to despair and detachment.

Gilligan

Our most surprising discovery came with the observation that patriarchy persists because it does just this. It subverts the capacity for repair, thus impelling us on the path to detachment—the defensive move out of relationships designed to protect us from a loss that has come to seem inevitable.

Snider 

The initiation into patriarchal manhood and womanhood subverts the ability to repair ruptures in relationship by enjoining a man to separate his mind from his emotions (and thus not to think about what he is feeling) and a woman to remain silent (and thus not to say what she knows). Thus, gender creates the ruptures that cannot be repaired. The masculine taboo on tenderness, like the feminine taboo on self-expression, opens the way to a range of relational violations and betrayals. At the same time, by shaming a boy’s expressions not only of hurt but also of care, by making it risky for a girl to say what she is actually thinking and feeling or to know what she does and doesn’t want, these gender codes subvert our ability to recognise and repair the ruptures in relationship, not only those we suffer but also those we inflict.

Gilligan

In the book, we offer a conversational template that illustrates how patriarchal gender roles undermine the ability to repair a rupture in connection in everyday life.

She: I feel something is wrong; for this whole past week we’ve been out of touch with each other.

He: I don’t know what you’re talking about.

She: I feel we’re just not seeing each other, not paying attention to what’s going on between us.

He: You’re always complaining about something.

She: No really, I’m trying to say…

He: Look. I’m doing what you asked me to do. I can’t do everything.

Silence

He: Is there something you want?

She: Never mind.

Snider

We can see this dynamic play out starkly, and to more sinister effect, around sexual abuse. With the #MeToo movement highlighting the culture of endemic sexual abuse and harassment against women, the question emerges: Why did so many women remain silent for so long? E. Jean Carroll tackles this head on in her essay “hideous men.” Documenting her own history of sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of men, culminating in her accusation of rape at age 52 by now President, Donald Trump. Carroll poses the question “Why haven’t I come forward before now?” Her answer: “Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud… never sounds like much fun.”As Carroll put it in her piece, she feared joining the fifteen women “who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them.” And so, rather than go to the police as one friend advises, she heeds the warning of another confidant: “Tell no one. Forget it. He has 200 lawyers. He will bury you.”

Bury the truth or be buried. She remains silent—the truth buried but not forgotten. “I have never had sex with anybody ever again.” As predicted, in response to Carroll’s accusations, Trump employed his usual response of denial (“she is lying”), turning accusations around (“Shame on those who make up false stories of assault to try to get publicity for themselves, or sell a book, or carry out a political agenda—like Julie Swetnick who falsely accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh”), attack (“she is not my type”) and threat (“The world should know what’s really going on. It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations.) And more troublesome still, Carroll’s accusations have been met not with shock or action, but rather a “collective shrug.” So why do some women suffer in silence and not make moves to repair the damage that assault causes? Well, because, as Carroll so poignantly documents, in a patriarchal culture, her protest would not have been heard. She would have been at best dismissed, at worst responded with violence. And so without the hope of resonance, protest, the move to repair what has been done, gives way to silent despair and eventually to detachment.

Berfrois

What is the psychological function of patriarchy?

Snider

Our work together began with a question: Why do we sacrifice the pleasures and benefits of human connection in order to claim our place in the patriarchal order of things as “one of the boys” or as a “good” woman? Alongside the more obvious and commonly discussed external motivators–the social and financial benefits that patriarchy bestows on some people, who then don’t want to give them up–we ask: Are there psychological forces holding patriarchy in place?

Gilligan

Our journey of discovery led us to the observation that, while the material advantages of compliance and the costs of resistance are undeniable, they are not the full story. It is not that girls simply succumb to the pressures on them to silence their honest voice (the voice that says what they really feel and think), or that boys give in to the pressures on them to cover their emotional sensitivity (their tenderness, their empathy, their vulnerability). It is not just that girls are enticed by the rewards held out to them if they turn themselves into someone others want to be with (someone who is not too loud or too angry or, for that matter, too honest or too perceptive), or that boys can’t resist the privileges offered to them in exchange for renouncing whatever is defined as feminine or maternal (having feelings, caring about people’s feelings). It’s also because the sacrifice of love is a refuge against loss. By demanding the sacrifice of connection for the sake of hierarchy, patriarchy steels us against the vulnerability of loving and, by doing so, becomes a defence against loss This is the psychological function of patriarchy.

Snider

So, in terms of this function, patriarchal codes of masculine honour and feminine goodness defend us against the risk of loss and rejection that comes with real intimacy and from the fear of discovering that we are unlovable. “Real men,” by disconnecting from their need for love and tender care, avoid experiencing the betrayal and the pain they have come to associate with intimacy as they become increasingly insensitive to the expression of emotional needs and vulnerabilities. “Good women,” by detaching from their real thoughts and feelings, avoid the pain that comes from being in relationships that are unresponsive to their desires and concerns.

Gilligan

The tragic irony is that defences against loss further undermine our capacity for connection and repair. Without an honest voice, a girl or woman cannot give voice to the break in relationship or protest the loss she experiences; without a voice connected to her own desire (rather than the desires of others), she cannot give voice to her loss of pleasure; without an honest voice, her silence becomes the source of rupture, seemingly present but not really there – a person others cannot really connect to. Similarly, when a boy or man shields his emotional sensitivity and intelligence, he can’t register the ruptures others feel, or his own feelings of loss. In effect, he both acts and suffers in silence and blindness. The internalisation of patriarchal gender codes thus creates the self-perpetuating cycle of loss as described by the psychologist John Bowlby, whereby the person who suffers the loss becomes the imposer of loss, and, we would add, the preserver of patriarchy through silence or violence.

Berfrois

You write that ‘patriarchy is at once a source of lost connection and a defence against further loss, a source of trauma and a defence against trauma.’ Is this not a paradox? 

Gilligan

Correct. It is a paradox. On the surface, it seems like a contradiction, but it does have a psychological logic. That is to say, psychological illnesses, by definition harmful, can also carry psychological advantages, termed by psychoanalysts as “gains.” The language of gains helps us to see how patriarchy persists in part because it renders the loss of relationship irreparable, and, as a consequence of this, the sacrifice of connection–otherwise a psychological harm–becomes a psychological “gain”. We avoid the very thing we want–love–so as not to be vulnerable again to a loss that has come to feel inescapable and unbearable. And this psychological logic–the hidden psychological benefits of what may appear harmful–is the key to understanding what otherwise makes little rational sense, namely, why we continue to embody and perpetuate patriarchal gender roles that we consciously disagree with and how these restrictive ways of being and relating can come to feel protective (the only way to maintain a sense of security and well-being), despite being in tension with our most basic human relational needs and desires.

Snider

As I explain to patients who struggle to understand why they behave in ways that seem irrational and at odds with what they say they want, these self-destructive or restrictive patterns of behaviour are difficult to give up because they were developed to offer a sense of security in the face of traumatic experiences. By disconnecting from others and our own experience to avoid a painful reality, we achieve a degree of comfort–this is the “gain.” However, in this self-protective state, we lose considerable feeling for ourselves and others. We lose our capacity to give and accept love. By disconnecting from the feelings and knowledge that are necessary to maintain human connection we end up recreating the very dysfunctional patterns of relating we were originally defending against. This vicious cycle between loss and defence–repeating the very traumas we are trying to run away from–is the same vicious cycle that keeps us trapped in patriarchy’s pernicious grips. The paradox at the heart of all psychological defence mechanisms is the paradox that drives the persistence of patriarchy.

Berfrois

How can patriarchy manifest itself internally?

Gilligan

The first response to the initiation into patriarchy is protest—patriarchy, an external force, is met by internal resistance. However, when the pressures of accommodation become overwhelming, when the desire to have “relationships”—to be one of the boys or a girl others want to be with—becomes too pressing or seemingly essential, a healthy resistance can give way to what clinicians recognise as psychological resistance. It gives way to repression, dissociation and disavowal of what is too painful or shameful to be held in awareness. In the developmental research of the Harvard Project on Women’s Psychology and Girls’ Development, and the studies with boys that followed, this internalisation of patriarchal restrictions on what can be known and felt was signalled in our interview transcripts by the appearance of the injunction “Don’t!”, an internalised prohibition that for girls came to stand between “I” and “know” and for boys, between “I” and “care.” The internalisation marked an initiation whereby girls came not to know what in fact they knew and whereby boys came not to care about what, in truth, they cared about deeply.

Snider

Once internalised, patriarchy infects the way we perceive and judge ourselves, our desires, our relationships and the world we live in. It exists in the way some men experience their vulnerability as a sign of weakness and a source of shame and in the way that some women perceive self-care as selfish or expression of their honest voice—the voice that stands up for what they really think—as aggressive. What’s more, this internalisation of patriarchy means that we may embody and reinforce stereotypes that we consciously disagree with. For me, patriarchy manifests internally as a feeling of terror and not knowing whenever I’m faced with the question: “What do you want?” So accustomed am I to moulding myself to the desires of others, I have become divorced from my own. Patriarchy is manifest in the ways I have whittled down my sharp edges in the attempt to become one of those prized women—valued in the eyes of the world—yet a stranger to myself.  It encompasses the years I spent trying to hide and transform my body, getting rid of its soft parts and making myself smaller so I could feel bigger. Patriarchy was believing I was making myself invincible while, in actuality, I was making myself invisible.

However, the patriarchy that exists in my head will not necessarily be the same as the patriarchy that exists in your head. Patriarchy does not impact us all in the same way. Some of us will internalise what others resist and some will do so consciously, while others will be less aware. My encounter with patriarchy, as a heterosexual, cisgender professional millennial woman will, for example, be very different from that of a non-binary person, a woman of colour or someone born in a different generation. Moreover, for each of us, the impact of patriarchy on our internal worlds depends in large part on how these cultural gender codes and binaries have been communicated, enforced, resisted or challenged within our most intimate relationships. Relational environments that foster authentic connection provide an important buffer against the internalisation of these toxic cultural forces.


Gilligan and Snider discussing their book at The Strand Bookstore, New York City, January 2019

Berfrois

Does love mean the absence of hierarchy? 

Gilligan

Love, like democracy, depends on everyone having a voice that is grounded in their experience and on each person being listened to, not necessarily with agreement, but with respect. Equal voice is the cornerstone of love and democracy. So, if hierarchy—a structure of domination and submission—is taken to mean unquestioned authority and thus the absence of equal voice, then, yes, love and hierarchy are antithetical. However, an important distinction must be made between hierarchy and asymmetry: love does not imply the absence of difference, conflict or imbalance in power or capacity. In fact, as we point out in the book, absence of conflict and disagreement is a hallmark of patriarchy, where the voice of the father is unquestioned as the voice of authority. Totalitarian regimes brook no opposition and quickly move to silence dissent, whereas love and democracy thrive on open conflict and disagreement, because this is the condition that makes it possible to work through conflicts without the use of force or by other means of domination. Love does not demand sameness, but responsiveness to difference.

Snider

The parent-child relationship sets a template for this more nuanced understanding of the distinction between love and hierarchy, an understanding based on the level of responsiveness and presence rather than sameness of treatment or an absence of power imbalance. Clearly there is an imbalance of power and ability—the relationship is by no means symmetrical. And yet the attachment research, which we draw on in the book, shows that in order to maintain the bonds of love, even this—the most asymmetrical of relationships—must be responsive to the needs of the most vulnerable. Children will protest a whole range of relational disconnection and violations, from the most overt forms of abuse or injustice to the subtlest experiences of disconnection or misattunement, but when their protest is ignored, punished or goes unheard, they will eventually detach from the relationship. Love – the experience of being seen and known, accepted and recognised—will give way to a sort of passive compliance or overt disavowal.

Berfrois

Is patriarchy more of a political or psychological problem?

Gilligan

It is both. The political battle between democracy and patriarchy is joined with a psychological struggle. Patriarchy’s persistence is tied not only to a struggle for power and a contest between different frameworks for living, or systems of belief, but also to the tension between our desire for love and our desire to avoid the pain of loss.

Snider

What’s more, these two dimensions are inseparable; they work in tandem to keep patriarchy in place. The politics of patriarchy rests on psychological defence mechanisms that detach us from knowledge and desires that would otherwise put us on a path to political resistance. Or, to put it another way, the persistence of patriarchy as a political system and cultural framework is contingent on the psychological move from protest to despair and detachment. Otherwise we would all be up in arms! In turn, these psychological defences are driven and sustained by the politics of patriarchy—the social, political and cultural forces that shame and subvert the capacities that are crucial for repairing rupture and maintaining connection. We’re compelled to sacrifice relationship for the sake of having “relationships,” meaning set and scripted ways of being and relating.

Berfrois

What then should we focus on first—psychological transformation or political change?

Gilligan

We have to do both. In seeing that patriarchy is both a political and a psychological problem, we came to the recognition that political change depends on psychological transformation and vice versa. Leaving the psychology of patriarchy intact, we are unlikely to get rid of its politics. Leaving its politics in place, its defensive psychology is easily mistaken for nature.

Snider

And when a patriarchal psychology is mistaken for nature, a psychology of healthy resistance is easily mistaken for pathology.

Berfrois

What was your writing process, as co-authors? 

Snider

That is an interesting question because in many ways the format and structure of the book—as well as our process of writing it together—embodies the vision of democratic relationship we set out in the book. The way we wrote and structured the book—our two voices in dialogue—speaks to the importance of having a voice grounded in personal experience and the power of resonance and responsiveness in cultivating such a voice.

Gilligan

The interplay of our voices proved key to the discoveries we came to. Without Naomi’s personal story of loss, we might never have connected the developmental research that I initiated with Bowlby’s studies on loss and attachment. It was this connection that led us to the thesis that patriarchy persists in part because it forces a betrayal of love and then renders the loss irreparable.

Snider

And without Carol’s ear for different voices and her eye for resistance we might not have to come to see so precisely the mechanisms at work in perpetuating a patriarchal order and the forces working against its continuation.

Gilligan

The book’s format reflects our process of working and writing together. We would separately draft the sections that describe our own experiences and then we would come together and read out loud what we had written, as well as sharing the things we wanted to say but couldn’t quite find the words for. In the process of writing together, we noticed that we became sounding boards for one another, picking up what was often just a faint resonance and discovering that by giving voice to our doubts or questions, to our curiosity or understanding, we would call forth in the other something that had felt unsayable and strengthen a voice that had felt weak or shameful, faltering or transgressive.

Snider

In the course of our writing together, we came to appreciate more deeply how it is that real relationships are forged, differences are understood and progress is made. And that’s by voicing differences—in opinions and experiences—rather than by eliding or running away from them. By listening to each other’s thoughts, feelings and perspective we were able to sharpen our sense of what we really thought and felt and thus call into question conventional narratives and to challenge the way things are often said to be.