Act: Inspiration

Moving Into and Out of Patriarchy: Review

June 7, 2019

Put simply, patriarchy is contingent on subverting the human capacity to repair relationship: its hierarchy is premised on a loss of relationship and thereby on a sacrifice of love.

Why Does Patriarchy Persist?In producing their book Why Does Patriarchy Persist Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider doggedly pursued the mystery of why our patriarchal ways of living and relating endure with such tenacity when they keep producing results we do not want. It is a personal account of three discoveries which, theoretically if not politically, can change the game of deep social change. They tell how they jointly came to understand:

  1.  how our patriarchal culture is grounded in a complex psychological dynamic involving protest, failure, detachment, and disconnection as a protective strategy against relational loss;
  2. how this individual psychological dynamic is culturally turned into a brilliantly precise mechanism that enables patriarchy to persist in spite of our long and intense opposition to it; and
  3. how our innate drive for connection provides a path out of patriarchy because it holds the power to repair broken connections within and between us.

Their book is one of professional research, but it is not the usual “academic” product. Rather, it coherently presents their penetrating reflections on their own personal experience and Gilligan’s years of experiential research with boys, girls, men, and women. Their reflection and research reveal how the breakdown of healthy human development gradually embeds us in patriarchy’s dysfunctional gender roles and codes of masculine honor and feminine goodness.

They fully recognize the systemic dimensions of this dynamic throughout our social and political structures. However, theirs was a psychological search: to find out what they could about the processes involved in embedding patriarchal patterns of living and relating in our minds, hearts, and nervous system.

They came away with gold.

Connection, Loss, and Patriarchy

During their work on the book the authors returned time and again to Edward Tronick’s short video of a “still-face experiment”. I did too in course of my reading and writing this review. It’s like a homepage for their explorations. Without watching it—it’s two minutes long—you will struggle to understand both my review and their book. In it a baby demonstrates, almost with purity, how our drive for connection is hardwired into our biocultural nature, and how vulnerable we are to its disruption. Without watching the video you will also have a difficult time appreciating how they gently lay open the human heart to understand why and how it is so conflicted within itself—that is, your heart and mine. So take the few minutes now to watch this powerful presentation of human connectivity and vulnerability:

In the video we see the power and beauty of connecting, then its loss and Maggie’s (the baby) intense reaction to that loss, and finally the connection restored in all its power and joy. Its message is clear: we must connect with other humans. Must! Just as much as we must breathe and eat. We cannot not do this. This comes through at the very beginning of the video with all its joy. It is what our bodies are hardwired to do. At the same time loss is inevitable, and some can become intolerable. Imagine the consequences of the loss of air or food, and how we would do whatever to avoid that kind of deprivation. But loss of connection? It doesn’t kill right away. Rather, it shrivels up possibilities for a full life as our memories keep whispering how much loss hurts.

The human heart in conflict with itself is the story of our coping poorly with the intense pain of the loss of deep connection. And it is clear that when Maggie is in the pleasure of connecting, she is in the same vulnerability as she is in her loss. The awesome power and the awful risk of being in our vulnerability described by Brené Brown in her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Our lives are the struggle to manage this polarity. To the extent that we do this it can generate democracy; doing it badly generates patriarchy. Gilligan and Snider lay out the psychology of how both options play out.

They recognize it will be a reach for many of us to see the connection they are making between the personal and the political, and they speak directly to this:

To lay the groundwork for what follows, we start with the evidence that, despite claims to the contrary, patriarchy is in fact not natural to us as humans. By nature, we are relational beings, born with a voice—the ability to communicate our experience—and with the desire to engage responsively with others.


With this observation, traditional explanations as to why patriarchy persists, which focus solely on the advantages of status, wealth, and power, become suspect. If the desire for domination is not in fact natural, or at the very least conflicts with our natural relationality, why do we sacrifice the pleasures and benefits of human connection for the material advantages and the sense of superiority that come with social status and power? The question becomes even more complex once we recognize that a system of domination doesn’t necessarily nullify or override what are basic human capacities. In fact our relational abilities (empathy, mind-reading, and cooperation) carry with them the power to override hierarchy. History is replete with examples… [Why Does Patriarchy Persist? Kindle Edition. Location, 185-87; 193-98.]

So how tight is this connection between patriarchy and loss? Nothing less than profound:

We began with a question: why does patriarchy persist? It led us to a set of discoveries connecting the persistence of patriarchy to the psychology of loss. The persistence of patriarchy is contingenton the move from protest to despair and detachment. Otherwise we would all be up in arms. [Ibid. 2075-77] (Emphasis added.)

Maggie protested and her mother re-established connection. This blocked off the road to detachment and despair. If the mother hadn’t, and if this was a rather frequent occurrence, Maggie’s protest would have been impotent and Maggie would have been vulnerable to despair and detachment. Maggie is all of us. (As I write this I hear a mantra of mine that has run deep within me for a long, long time: “Loving is too much too handle.”) Gilligan and Snider are arguing that wherever our culture is unable to support us in re-establishing faith and hope in deep connection, its patriarchal patterns and forces move into to fill the vacuum:

…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). [Ibid., 233-35]

Since a cultural pattern relentlessly seeks to replicate itself and our know-how tends to develop constantly, this initiation rite — 10,000 years old and counting — is continually being refined and improved.

For Gilligan and Snider this force, however, is not the only game in our body or throughout the land. The best of ourselves stays internally connected to our capacity to connect deeply in spite of the pulls within us from our learned patterns of despair, detachment, and silence. We are hardwired for personal transformation:

We end with a realization. Within the very psychology that sustains patriarchy are the seeds for resistance and transformation. Because we live in what is in many ways a dark time, the anger of hope becomes a beacon, showing us a way out of despair. [Ibid., 2077-2079] (Emphasis added.)

And Naomi adds this from the deep personal work she shares throughout the book:

For me the key insight was that loss, which separates us, also connects us. With this realization I began to see how, despite the forces operating against it, repair is always possible, loss is never irrevocable. [Ibid., 2079-2081]

So, returning to myself as an example, when I become ready I can work through my protection mantra, repair my broken relational machinery, learn to move into my vulnerability more rather than hide in detachment, and grow my relationships.

Democracy and Repair

At one point Gilligan makes a bold move and connects the insidious brilliance of patriarchy directly to democracy and polarization:

For me, it was the realization of how precise the mechanism is that holds patriarchy in place.Like clockwork, patriarchy strikes shame at the moves to repair the ruptures that stand in the way of democracy and love.

We kept circling back to the Maggie in the YouTube video to remind ourselves that these are human capacities, present from the very outset of life. [Ibid., 2081-2086] (Emphasis added.)

Then, rejoining their voices, they summarize the gold they discovered:

We come then 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 psychology is easily mistaken for nature. Men appear emotionally clueless, incapable of registering their own hurt or that of others; women are deemed preternaturally selfless, angels, or if not angels, then sluts. [Ibid., 2086-89]

We have become the politics we must transform, and we must become what’s necessary to carry out that transformation. They end their book saying growing democracy requires relational transformation:

Put simply, patriarchy is contingent on subverting the human capacity to repair relationship: its hierarchy is premised on a loss of relationship and thereby on a sacrifice of love. Conversely, democracy, like love, is contingent on relationship: on everyone having a voice that is grounded in their experience. In this sense, everyone’s voice is recognized as essential to the realization of democratic processes and values and therefore both called forth and welcomed, heard and responded to—not necessarily with agreement, but with respect. Equal voice is the condition that makes it possible to work through conflicts in relationship without the use of force or by other means of domination.

The relational capacities that constitute our humanity stand at the crossroads of where we have come to collectively, at this volatile intersection of democracy and patriarchy. And the question that confronts us, that confounds us perhaps more urgently now than ever before, is: which way will we go? [Ibid. 2095-2102] (Emphasis added.)

Unconnected Dots

I hope my brief summary of their discoveries can entice you to go for more, for the subtle but essential details of the brilliant perversity of patriarchy — “we give up relationship in order to have ‘relationships,’ meaning a place within the patriarchal order” —  along with the grounds for hope that are within us—our capacity for repair and transformation. We are far more than the victims of conditioning and traumas.

I wish, however, they would have gone a bit further. They fulfilled what they set out to tell us, but I believe there was more they could have and should have pointed to more specifically. If our relational capacities are at a crossroads, and I am as convinced of that as they are, leaving us with a confounding question — “which way will we go” — is an inadequate conclusion. Maybe even woefully so. It’s like they gave us a lever without adequately noting we would need a fulcrum to go with it. I think this could have been addressed by briefly pointing to three steps we need to take to make the most of what they have given us: we must go beyond the “anger of hope;” we will need to develop a wealth of collective approaches for the kind of personal transformation needed for individuals to move out of patriarchy; and we need to build a broad-based political movement grounded in relational transformation.

I may be projecting my own agenda, but I think all three of these points are somewhat implicit in their book. Certainly it was not their responsibility to lay out a political program. They have grasped in significant detail a central piece of the puzzle we have been struggling with for centuries if not millennia, and it would not have taken more than a few pages to explicitly connect that piece to the whole puzzle. There is so much passion for deep change personally and collectively, and so much blindness for how to do it at the same time. Speaking broadly the Left has been working mostly within the Marxist paradigm for 175 years. It has achieved a lot, but it is now exhausted. Yet, we are still following it while driving down our 21st century road looking in the rearview mirror. With such misdirection of our attention there is going to be little understanding of how to use Gilligan and Snider’s precious piece of the puzzle. The dots needed to be explicitly connected. Not only that, I believe that virtually every line of their book begs to have these dots connected.

With regards to the first dot, going beyond our “anger of hope,” I think they were even misleading. Anger and protest are a beginning. By themselves they cannot take us out of patriarchy nor enable us to better develop real human connection throughout our lives. I agree that anger “becomes a beacon,” but it cannot show us “a way out of despair.” As Martin Gurri so well documents in his The Revolt of the Public, we are lost in protest politics all across the globe that goes nowhere relationally or politically. I did gain from Gilligan and Snider a deeper appreciation for that kind of anger being an essential starting point. I believe its primary value is for waking up and raising our energy out of our despair so we can become available to do something about the massive mess of problems we are immersed in.

Once awakened and energized, however, we need to develop a proactive narrative of what is possible and what we need to do, and it needs to point us toward alternative ways of living and relating outside of and beyond patriarchy. It also needs to be open and flexible enough to evolve in substantial ways as our lived experience on this new path informs our perspectives, our sense of what is possible, and our strategies for actions. I am reminded of a good friend and co-founder of the Community Economies movement, Julie Graham, who was one of the two writers known as J.K. Gibson-Graham. During one of our conversations I had asked her how she moved into her life’s work. Her blunt response makes my point: “It began the day I decided I wasn’t going to go on waking up in the morning in a rage about capitalism.”

The second dot I noted above regarded how individuals could use the knowledge from this book effectively. A cancer is an alien organism spawned by breakdowns within the host organism. It then proceeds to take over as much of the organism as it can. Patriarchy is a systemic social cancer. That is, it has succeeded in capturing much of the cultural as well as structural dimensions of society virtually everywhere. Gilligan and Snider describes how it works in capturing the very ways we live and relate, embedding itself in our nervous system. They also share stories on how individuals, including Snider herself, have liberated their “relational capacities.” Implicit in these stories are two fundamental points: only the individual can do this liberating work, but individuals can’t do it alone. They require some form of transformative community and culture. Our most fundamental ways of seeing and understanding are hidden from us because they have become so habitual. With rare exceptions the knowledge the authors give us will not be used unless we do this work through the co-agency of transformative communities. I fear without connecting these dots what they have given us will just end up being another set of stimulating data that gets intellectively connected only. That would be tragic because their discoveries need to shake the foundations of all our thinking about transformative change.

The final dot is very much related to the systemic nature of patriarchy also. Small transformative communities cannot accomplish much in the way of deep political change. This requires a systemic approach that can match the depth and breadth of patriarchy’s capture of our personal and social life. That is, a broad-based democracy movement that can grow a new kind of culture that fosters deep connectivity and develops the kind of political power that can bring about structural transformation.

[1] Carol Gilligan,,

[2] Naomi Snider, Research Fellow at NYU School of Law and William Alanson White Institute.

Teaser photo credit: By Prof.lumacorno – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson co-founded an intentional community in Staten Island, NY in '80, in part an experiential research center in democratic culture...still there 30 years later...immersed in the worker co-op and solidarity economy movements since 2007 with the Valley Alliance of Worker Co-operatives (New England), GEO, and the Community Economies Collective.


Tags: building resilient societies, gender equality, patriarchy