A Doctor's Plan to End Patriarchy

Advocating for access to safe abortions, Willie Parker decided to attack the root of the problem.

Willie Parker (Brynn Anderson / AP)

Willie Parker became a Christian at age 15. Well into his career as an obstetrician-gynecologist, he refused, on religious grounds, to perform abortions.

Over the years, he saw more and more patients who were victims of sexual assault and intimate-partner violence. He was forced to confront his idea of what it meant to “be a man.” Parker eventually started performing abortions—largely in the southern United States—and he is now an outspoken advocate for access to safe abortions. In his new book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, Parker traces his anti-abortion-access stance to Biblical literalism and obliviousness to societal power structures. Over decades, as he realized that health equity required dismantling of the patriarchy, he worked to understand how he could be effective in that as a man.

Christianity is still a major part of Parker’s identity. When we met, it was one of four self-identifiers he listed on four fingers: Christian, heterosexual, black, and male. Though he isn’t the first person to attempt patriarchal dismantling, he would be among the few who match these identifiers. Parker is broad-shouldered and bearded and deep-voiced. His physical presentation makes no departure from gender norms. Parker does not challenge that gender is rooted in biology, and he doesn’t renounce masculinity. His mission is to reform it into something productive, or at least not oppressive, from within.

During the Spotlight Health conference in Aspen on Friday—part of the Aspen Ideas Festival—Parker was invited to pose a “big idea” to everyone in attendance. It was big: “divesting of what I feel to be the cornerstone of most structural oppression in the world.”

Parker argued that dismantling patriarchy would “cause many injustices to crumble: racial and ethnic tension, class wars, sexual identity oppression, Islamophobia. Imagine if men could see reproductive justice as their battle to fight—not from a place of chivalry, but from a duty to humanity.”

He also told the story of how he met his hero Gloria Steinem a year and a half ago, and she gave him a bracelet. It was inscribed, “Imagine if we were all linked, and not ranked.” That has become his personal mantra. The audience was into this, and even more into his culminating challenge: “I will continue to divest of the patriarchy, and I call upon all patriarchs—both male and female—to join me. Then and only then can we be linked and not ranked. Imagine that.”

I wanted to know more about how a person might divest, in practical terms. So we talked the next afternoon. A condensed version of our conversation follows, lightly edited for clarity.

James Hamblin: If I’m aware of problems with conceptions of masculinity and want to not be part of the problem, what do I do?

Willie Parker: The first thing is to become responsible. Acknowledge that life chances in this country aren’t uniformly equal, and that there is such a thing as privilege. There’s such a thing as male privilege, and that is institutionalized as patriarchy. That’s heavily influenced by religion, and it influences government, and business, and everything else.

So the first step is to recognize that we live in a patriarchal world. You’re born into that from the very moment that the birth attendant says “It’s a boy.”

Once you realize that, you have to recognize, okay, what about that feels right or wrong to you? If you start with the premise that we're all humans, then you start to question, what are the real differences between men and women? There are certainly biological differences, but that doesn't mean there should be differences in people’s access to opportunity.

So when you get all of that, then you have to figure out what is my role?

That requires you to be self-aware. In what ways am I privileged? A racial system in a society that values white privilege puts me at a disadvantage. But being male in a patriarchal society puts me at an advantage. And in both cases, I conclude that isn’t fair. Privilege—in ways that you haven't worked for—isn’t fair.

Hamblin: So then the only moral option is to divest of that privilege? And this doesn't just mean saying I value all people equally and wearing a t-shirt that says “Male Feminist.”

Parker: Even if you’re at that point, there are still probably biases you’re not seeing. Do you balk at taking directions from female bosses more than male bosses? Think back. Or if they’re gay when you’re straight? They’re black and you're white?  If so, then you've got to work harder to recognize and divest of that sense—any sense that’s still somewhere in there, of “I should be the boss because I'm white, and I'm male, and I'm straight.”

Apply that lens, to every aspect of your life. Do you perceive assertiveness by female colleagues as “bitchiness” versus, “Wow, Rob’s a go-getter”?

Everybody has the power to divest of the privilege that they hold. It’s like holding a stock. And that stock rises in value, and the stock certificate is in your name just for being born with a certain skin color or of a certain gender. The benefits accrue the same way.

Hamblin: So I give that stock away? Is that possible?

Parker: All analogies break down at some point. If you decide that the way you acquired the stock was at the expense of someone else, you don't have to take a vow of poverty, but you have to accept the responsibility that comes with that wealth. If you hold a lot of power, it’s incumbent on you to work for a society that's more equitable.

We live in a rape culture, meaning there are ways in which society facilitates men being able to rape. I personally do not rape people, and I don't make sexist remarks. But that’s not enough. I have to actively be anti-rape, anti-sexism and work to dismantle these structures. If we each individually divest of the privilege we’re born into, then we can be in a position to demand that the world becomes fair, and to make it so.

That evening I went to Parker’s book-reading event in town. There were about 30 people there. Five were men, including Parker and me. One in the audience asked a question, a very long question which turned out to be a statement about how he’s against access to abortion, and how now-a-days a lot of women and minorities have impressive jobs, and so he doesn’t really see the big problem.