Daughters of Patriarchy, Part 2: Denial

Content note: this post briefly mentions rape but does not go into detail.

Image: my hands when I was 16. I’m wearing a purity ring on my right ring finger, with a heart-shaped sapphire set on a gold band. I’m wearing a light blue suit jacket over a dress, and my left hand is blurred into the background, holding notecards. I was giving a competitive Apologetics speech defending Christianity.

Patriarchy has layers of subtlety. Our society, culture, and world are all patriarchal. Men don’t have to understand the word “patriarchy” to benefit from it. In a patriarchal setting, sons are of more worth than daughters, because sons carry on their father’s surname. The legacy of the patriarch is carried on through his name. Boys will become fathers. Girls will marry out of the family name when they take their husbands’ names.

Patriarchal culture is heavily dependent on denial. The first denial is of the term itself – except for fringe groups that embrace the word “patriarchy,” most patriarchs insist that they are not patriarchs. A man might say, “I’m not a patriarch, only those men who call themselves patriarchs are really patriarchs.” My dad has explicitly done this in his writing.

Denial is a key strategy for any system of power and oppression. The powerful do not name their own participation and deny their involvement when the oppressed use accurate terms. When someone who has been wronged names the reality of wrongdoing in explicit, honest terms, the primary defense of the powerful is to say, “You’re lying!” That’s why men don’t have to know or understand patriarchy to benefit from it.

Patriarchy also exists in denial of exceptions. Not every person with a vagina can get pregnant. Not every person with a penis is fertile. Not every person is born with one or the other set of reproductive organs. Although many, many people are born intersex, patriarchal culture insists on doing surgery on most of these infants to make their genitals conform to a binary that is not natural.

Designated as a daughter, I followed specific rules. I was self-controlled by the time I reached my teens, and any time I accidentally strayed, I would inform my parents. For example, when I was 20, I carpooled with a fellow college student to an event where we gave lectures on speech and debate competition. It was the first time I’d ever been alone with a man in a vehicle. That same day, I tearfully told my dad that I didn’t mean to break the rule I’d followed carefully all my life, I just couldn’t explain why we should both drive 40 minutes from the same area when we could carpool. My dad said it was okay, and I was relieved of my guilt.

I was denied learning too much, especially about how sex and science worked. If I ever read something in the bible that didn’t make sense, I’d ask my mom or dad, and sometimes they withheld an answer. For instance, I was challenging myself to read through the entire bible when I was a teen, and there’s a story in the book of Genesis about a woman who was raped. I asked mom what “rape” meant. She never told me. Instead, she said that it’s called “raping a field” when the same dirt in a field is overused for growing things.

In a patriarchal family system, the role of patriarchal roles is implied – that is, it is a unspoken rule. Everyone adheres to it, but to name it is a kind of betrayal to its secrecy. If someone in the family tells the truth about how unfair it is for some members of the family to get better treatment than others, they are silenced. This can happen with physical violence, the threat of physical violence, verbal attacks, mocking, or even attempts to “reason” with the offender. Reason is not actually being utilized here. Instead, the family members will convince themselves that they are being reasonable in their attempts to be convincing and persuasive.

Extremes happen on a spectrum, and part of denial is comparisons. There is always someone “worse” or “more extreme” to stand next to and point fingers at. This serves to reassure the group members that things are okay. In my family, a point of pride was that the people assigned female were not required to wear dresses. My mom rarely wore dresses, but she taught other women to submit to their husbands from Debi Pearl’s book “Created to be His Help Meet.” The meaning of this book title comes from biblical mythology. Eve, the first woman, was created to be a helper for Adam, the first man. Conservative marriage takes this literally and says women must help their husbands in every way.

I wore dresses because I liked them, and because I was in deep denial of my own about my gender identity. I didn’t have terms to identify why I felt like switching my appearance on a regular basis. I know now with great clarity that I am non-binary, but I didn’t know this term existed until my late twenties. As a teen, I felt strongly that the only future that would please god and my parents was to marry and have as many children as possible. I was pious and earnest, praying and reading my bible, studying theology and biblical womanhood. I had a book called “Before You Meet Prince Charming” by Sarah Mally, and it had an entire chapter called “Dreams Must Die.” It emphasized that it’s important to surrender your own will and give it to god, so he can do with your life what he wills.

Altogether, denial is a powerful weapon. Men can deny that they are patriarchal while benefiting from their position. This serves a dual purpose: it reassures the men that they are not being oppressive, and it serves to gaslight those designated as women. Again, patriarchy assumes that there are no exceptions to the gender binary, so I am phrasing this carefully to acknowledge that intersex, non-binary, and trans people grow up under these designated roles. In turn, those assigned the role of women react to being gaslit with denial within themselves. They deny that they are being oppressed all day while they do the housework, and all night while they sacrifice sleep to care for infants to make sure the men get plenty of rest. In this way, everyone involved is in denial about their own participation.

Click here for Part 3.