14.1 Feminism: A Fight Against the Patriarchy

Valentin Quintus Nicolescu and Gregory Millard

First popularized in the French journal La Citoyenne in the early 1880s, the terms feminism and feminist gradually became universal. Although contested or even rejected many times even within the women’s movement (Freedman, 2002, pp. 3-6), the terms continue to stand for the ideology and activists fighting for women’s rights around the globe.

But what is feminism all about? To answer that, it is perhaps best is to clarify what feminists are struggling against: patriarchy.

Social hierarchies are a usual feature of complex human societies. But, strikingly, one form of hierarchy has proven to be pervasive across time and space: male-centered, gender-based patriarchy. The specific institutions and forms of patriarchy vary, but they all share the trait of underlying male domination. For example, very different historical and cultural circumstances shaped Roman law in European antiquity and the Hindu legal system in India, yet both position women as dependent on men and legally inferior (e.g., Olivelle, 2005, pp. 146-7). Similar examples can be found across various cultures and historical periods, ranging from Middle Eastern ancient codes of laws to the Confucian worldview in China.

Patriarchy always involves an androcentric power structure that permeates all aspects of society, including:

  • a gender binary that divides society into two categories (male and female);
  • a hierarchical social order that systematically privileges the male category;
  • and a legitimizing discourse that makes this privilege seem normal, natural, and necessary.

“Patriarchy might be everywhere, but it is not everywhere the same” (Bennett, 2006, p. 54). Its specific institutions, practices, and discourse vary by time and place. And it is complex. It can involve men being marginalized and oppressed by other men (politically, economically, or psychologically). Those men nevertheless retain a privileged position in relation to women by virtue of their inclusion in the dominant gender – and those privileges are enforced by many means, including sexual harassment and violence.

Moreover, some women contribute to the reproduction of the patriarchal system: “there is no doubt … that the oppression of women can have endured so long and in so many places only thanks, in part, to women’s collusion in the oppression of women” (Bennett, 2006, p. 10). This can happen because the patriarchal order uses “legitimizing discourses” to attract women’s consent by appealing to social and cultural norms, expectations, myths and rituals that establish the “rightness” of women’s subordination (Abraham, 2019, p. 55).

Finally, in many patriarchal orders there are some women who have access to specific forms of privilege (e.g., as part of a political, cultural, or economic elite), giving them resources unavailable to other women in their society and even to some men. Thus, patriarchy is usually intertwined with other social hierarchies such as race/ethnicity, age, class, and so on.

The patriarchal order can manifest both formally and informally. Formal structures include patriarchal relations in paid work (e.g., women being excluded from powerful and prestigious occupations or being systematically underpaid relative to male colleagues) and in the state (e.g., laws against women’s political participation). Patriarchal relations are produced and reproduced informally in the household (e.g., when men control finances and burden women disproportionately with housekeeping and child-rearing duties); through male violence; and through patriarchal relations and discourses in political, economic, and cultural structures such as the entertainment industry, which disproportionately frames women as objects of male desire and male possession.

Radiating from the patriarchal order, we can identify the vast majority of issues that feminism struggles against: sexism, misogyny, economic discrimination, violence against women, sexual harassment, objectification of the female body, male/state control over reproductive rights, and so forth. The main strategic actions of this struggle are twofold – first, consciousness-raising, or shedding light on women’s oppression by identifying and speaking about the issues and experiences constituting that oppression; and second, resisting that oppression through various means, from voting and political mobilization to protests and civil disobedience.

Feminism is therefore a “comprehensive critical response to the deliberate and systematic subordination of women as a group by men as a group.” In both formal and informal domains, it strives to address “imbalances of power between the sexes that disadvantage women and attempts to renegotiate … the social, economic and political power within a given society, on behalf of both sexes in the name of their common humanity, but with respect for their differences” (Offen, 2000, pp. 20-21).


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2023 by Valentin Quintus Nicolescu and Gregory Millard is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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