Understanding the Patriarchy


“Patriarchy” is a term that has recently resurfaced in media, from songs to feminist movements. What exactly does this term mean, and is it being used accurately or merely as a superficial buzzword? Furthermore, can a country like the United States of America be categorized under this term? 

A Patriarchy is, in short, when men exert absolute control over a society. It is a system that is centered around men and is often predicated on the exploitation of women. A patriarchal system is multifaceted, operating in laws, politics, workplaces, and social environments. Some examples of symptoms of a patriarchy could be countries that have laws in place that enable men with more independence than women, countries where the majority of seats in congress and leadership positions are held primarily by men or communities where the rate of sexual violence against women is high. So, to say that a country is patriarchal is to say that within that country, there are systems and mechanisms in place that work to oppress and disadvantage women.

With that established, is it possible that a country like the United States is patriarchal? Over centuries, with feminist movements and social reforms, gender equality in the United States has significantly improved. In the US, laws prohibiting women from voting and divorcing have been eradicated. In addition to this, sexist gender expectations such as women being the primary caregiver and not working are no longer strictly adhered to. Laws in place that once clearly disadvantaged women are almost all eradicated, so men and women mostly have equal legal rights.

Despite this progress, oppression against women is still chronically present. Women only make up 28% of the US congress, which enables landmark decisions such as Roe v Wade to be overturned. In 2022, the Supreme Court removed abortion as a constitutional right, leading to an abortion ban across fourteen states, as of March 2023. When women are denied the right to choose when and how to have children, their ability to function equally with men is impeded. 

A Patriarchy is a society that is centered around men, or in other words, where men are the default. This can be clearly seen in how women are often excluded in medical research. For example, in the US, women make up 55% of HIV-positive people, experiencing different symptoms and complications of HIV than men. But in a 2016 review of HIV-testing inclusion, women only made up 11.1% of the sample in studies that sought to find a cure and only 38.1% of the sample in studies for an HIV vaccination. As a result of this, under certain HIV medications, women are eight times more likely to experience an adverse drug reaction. This continuous exclusion of women in medical trials affects the safety of women who take these prescribed drugs. This is not limited to HIV medications; in fact, the majority of drugs such as anesthetics and chemotherapeutics call for gender-neutral doses, which put women at risk of overdose. Researchers continue to perform studies on men, as they are perceived to be the default, and then dangerously apply these findings to all women. 

This could all be interpreted as merely isolated cases, or it could be seen as proof of the dynamic nature of a patriarchy, as it evolves through social and legal reforms to remain present. The patriarchy is not only upheld by laws but it is also upheld by powerful belief systems and practices. Even when inherently sexist laws are no longer in place, there are still numerous systems that operate at the expense of women. These few examples serve to highlight the systemic sexism that is so deeply ingrained in the United States. For these reasons, the United States is (still) prevailingly patriarchal. 

The popular term “Patriarchy”, like many other abstract terms, is hard to define. The “Patriarchy” which was once used as a more analytical tool, has been criticized for being a hollow term that generalizes the dynamics between men and women within societies. However, it is still important to note the power that this term –often used in the context of feminism– holds, to refer to the persisting oppression that women face. It is a piercing word that calls out the systematic inequalities between men and women, enabling women to identify the inherent disparities within societies. It is liberating to attach a name to an intangible but constant feeling of inequality. While “Smash the Patriarchy” is more of a slogan for feminists rather than a phrase that analyzes the multifaceted nature of sexism within systems, the use of this term helps to generate momentum for social reforms to take place.