America Is Still a Patriarchy

Male dominance may be weakening, but it's not gone.

cohen_patriarchy_post.jpg
Carolyn Kaster/AP Images

In this election, women were the majority of voters, and the majority of them voted for Obama. The weaker sex clearly was men, contributing less than half the vote, the majority of whom preferred the loser. This is not new. As with Obama, men and whites also failed to unseat Bill Clinton in his reelection after voting for him the first time.

This story tests my ability to think systematically about power and inequality. How is it possible to understand an unprecedented transformation in women's relative status while also acknowledging men's continued dominance? Must we just list data points, always just including an "on the other hand" caveat to our real narrative?

I have been described as part of a "feminist academic establishment" that insists on taking the glass-half-empty view—as someone who likes to engage in "data wars" over the details of gender inequality. But what I actually try to do is keep the change in perspective.

In our academic research on gender inequality, my colleagues and I study variation and change. That means figuring out why women's employment increased so rapidly, why some labor markets have smaller gender gaps, why some workplaces are less segregated, why couples in some countries share housework more, why women in some ethnic groups have higher employment rates, and so on.

The patterns of variation and change help us understand how gender inequality works. Systemic inequality doesn't just happen. People (in the aggregate) get up in the morning and do it every day. To understand how it works, we need to see how it varies (for example, some people resist equality and some people dedicate their lives to it). Someone who studies inequality but doesn't care about change and variation is not a social scientist.

Patriarchy

"It's easy to find references to patriarchs, patriarchy or patriarchal attitudes in reporting on other countries," writes Nancy Folbre:

Yet these terms seem largely absent from discussions of current economic and political debates in the United States. Perhaps they are no longer applicable. Or perhaps we mistakenly assume their irrelevance.

In fact—my interpretation of the facts—the United States, like every society in the world, remains a patriarchy: they are ruled by men. That is not just because every country (except Rwanda) has a majority-male national parliament, and it is despite the handful of countries with women heads of state. It is a systemic characteristic that combines dynamics at the level of the family, the economy, the culture and the political arena.

Top political and economic leaders are the low-hanging fruit of patriarchy statistics. But they probably are in the end the most important—the telling pattern is that the higher you look, the maler it gets. If a society really had a stable, female-dominated power structure for an extended period of time even I would eventually question whether it was really still a patriarchy.

In my own area of research things are messier, because families and workplaces differ so much and power is usually jointly held. But I'm confident in describing American families as mostly patriarchal.

Presented by

Philip Cohen is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. He writes regularly at Family Inequality and is the author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality and Social Change

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in The Sexes

Just In