Ideas about patriarchy, its conception as an institution that plagues all women in diverse ways, and its manifestation and entrenchment in the social, political, and psychological spheres have seeped into everyday dialogue through media. The individuals who theorised these ideas and in what context often remain unknown to the average consumer of media.
One such figure was Kate Millett whose PhD dissertation, Sexual Politics, was published in 1970 and became the defining text of the second wave of feminism, which ran through the 1960s and the 70s and unfolded alongside the Civil Rights and the anti-war movements in the USA.
The second wave of feminism was motivated by the works of some prominent writers, such as Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Freiden (whose The Feminine Mystique is believed to be the catalyst of the second wave), Kate Millett, Germaine Greer and many more theorists that successfully provided the feminist movement with an intellectual dimension.
Millett analysed some lauded authors, such as Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence, known for their frank depiction of sex in their erotica and revealed how deeply unsettling the power of men, which the authors identified with, over women exercised in the sexual realm. For instance, in the work of Miller, women were typecasted in stereotypical categories according to their sexual activity and class, and their degradation to subhuman beings through Miller’s language and the protagonist’s egomania that fully manifests itself when he “f**ks,” the passive, subhuman sexual object in Miller’s text is very revealing of not only the sexual but the psychological and social subordination of women.
Millett broadened the definition of politics by considering any hierarchical, power-structured relationship as essentially political. Politics involving only states and parties, concerning issues of war and peace, men meeting behind closed doors to discuss the fate of nations, and similar conceptions of what can be called political were narrow and limiting.
Society-wide control and the oppression and subjugation of individuals based on their seemingly “inherent,” traits have extraordinary ramifications in the legal, social, and private spheres, and hence, any power-structured relationships are emphatically political.
Millett identifies three ideological underpinnings through which patriarchy enables the subordination of women: temperament, sex roles, and status. Temperament refers to the psychological orientation of women – their personality – which is reduced to traits that are ascribed as “feminine.” These traits include passivity, ignorance, docility, and ineffectuality as opposed to the “masculine,” aggression, intelligence, force, and efficacy.
Sex roles, or as we now refer to them – gender roles, refer to the sociological realm which defines the “conduct, gesture and attitude for each sex.” This has to do with the delegation of domestic service and caring for children to females and the world of ambition, work, achievement, and politics remain reserved for males. The political and economic status of women is perpetually inferior and subordinate to the status of men.
The essentialist biological arguments provided by men are their attempts to justify their domination over women:
“Patriarchal religion, popular attitude, and to some degree, science as well assumes these psycho-social distinctions to rest upon biological differences between the sexes so that where culture is acknowledged as shaping behaviour, it is said to do no more than cooperate with nature.“
Millet goes on to introduce the important distinction between sex and gender, where the former is biological and the latter is cultural. She reveals how patriarchal foundations, such as those that demonstrate an invariable link between sex and gender, are immensely doubtful since gender is a result of years of conditioning and socialisation within the unit of the family rather than an innate identity an individual is born with.
Socialisation is an incredibly strong tool to maintain the fiction of patriarchy, “Conditioning runs in a circle of self-perpetuation and self-fulfilling prophecy.” For instance, men are brought up with ideas of masculinity and encouraged to believe they are innately “masculine.” This is internalised and in turn, serves to prove false essentialist beliefs pertaining to men having inherent “masculine,” characteristics.
One vital idea introduced in the text is the extent of collaboration between the family, the society, and the state in maintaining patriarchy, with the family functioning as the microcosm of patriarchal society: “Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unit within a patriarchal whole.”
The private sphere is a site where the state cannot directly exercise its authority. It instead does so through the patriarchs of the family. For instance, women were historically, by law, considered the property of their fathers or husbands and couldn’t inherit property. This is reinforced by the psychological and social subordination of women within patriarchal families, making them secondary citizens and relegating to them the role of servility to men.
Women were historically barred from attending higher education institutions and when educational institutions started allowing in women, they remained perpetually underfunded and provided very few scholarships, which only served to keep women in the domestic sphere and strengthened convictions of innate ignorance and inferiority of females as opposed to the superiority of all-knowing males.
Apart from educational institutions, religious institutions perform the crucial function of rendering women as sexualised, sinful beings. Through the myth of Pandora’s Box and the Fall of Adam, Millett illustrates that “the connection of woman, sex, and sin constitutes the fundamental pattern of Western patriarchal thought thereafter.”
The use of force in patriarchy is usually attributed to practices of the past, however, like ideologies of colonialism and racism, patriarchy is inoperable without the use of force. Even though used as “a last resort,” intimidation and the potential use of force is ever-present. Patriarchal force manifests itself in acts like wife-beating, the historical practice of Sati in India and foot-binding in China, and genital mutilation, and is ultimately realised in the act of rape. Such acts are justified in the following manner:
‘The rationale which accompanies that imposition of male authority euphemistically referred to as “the battle of the sexes,” bears a certain resemblance to the formulas of nations at war, where any heinousness is justified on the grounds that the enemy is either an inferior species or really not human at all. The patriarchal mentality has concocted a whole series of rationales about women which accomplish this purpose tolerably well. And these traditional beliefs still invade our consciousness and affect our thinking to an extent few of us would be willing to admit.’
Millett’s theory of patriarchy has pervaded the way feminists view the world. The ideas of feminism that one ingests through social media platforms, articles, journals, conversations and other forms of communication are firmly rooted in the work of theorists like Millett. Revisiting such works is crucial to understand the import of these ideas and the contexts that they came from to ensure that half-baked notions of feminism are completely understood.