Feminist Primer

Systems of oppression

“Karl Marx was one of the first theorists to explain that ideology is not a free-floating set of ideas, but rather a coherent system of beliefs that are purposely and carefully created by the elite class to promote their interests. Using their ownership of key cultural institutions, the elite then set about distributing these ideas until they become the dominant ways of thinking.” (Huffington Post 2014)

Feminism is not about demonising men – it is about understanding systems of oppression so that we can change them. So what do we mean by a “system of oppression”? A system of oppression is a set of interrelated forces that press down on people who belong to one group (such as women or people of colour) and effect their subordination to another group (such as men or white people).

One of the key characteristics of life as oppressed people experience it is the double bind. This limits the options that are available to a person in such a way that each option exposes the person to penalty, censure, or deprivation. For example, if a young woman is sexually active, she risks being called a “slut” and is considered unworthy of respect. But if she is not sexually active, she is likely to be called “frigid” or “uptight” and to be harassed by men to “loosen up”. If an older woman dyes her hair and wears makeup, she is ridiculed for “trying too hard”, but if she doesn’t, she “has let herself go”. If a woman goes back to work after giving birth, she is plagued by judgement that she is an inadequate, unnatural mother. If she gives up work, she is plagued by suggestions that she “sits around all day doing nothing”, is a gold-digger sponging off her husband (if she has one) or a scrounger on the state (if she doesn’t). And if anything goes wrong, it’s always her fault, no matter who was actually responsible. And so on. On and on.

Life for oppressed people is confined and shaped by interlocking forces that are impossible to avoid. Marilyn Frye uses the analogy of a bird cage to explain how it works and why it can be so hard to identify the forces as a system. When you are close up, you may wonder why the bird doesn’t just go around the bar that is in front of it, because on its own no single bar traps the bird. It is only when you move out and look at the whole arrangement can you see that it is the configuration of the bars that traps the bird. Together the bars form a system of oppression.

When we consider the forces that press down on a woman, the forces that mean that she is censured and belittled and found fault with and blamed no matter what choices she makes, we see that these forces are nothing to do with her individual merits or shortcomings. Instead they are to do with her membership of the group female (or her membership of the group Black, if we were to look at racist oppression). In many ways it is easier to recognise the system of racist oppression because of the relative separation or segregation of Black and white people (and perhaps because the group Black contains men), and similarly for class oppression.

The fact that women are dispersed across all social classes, ethnic groups, and geographical areas makes it harder to identify the structures that press down on women as a group. Attempting to assimilate colonised people (for example, by forbidding the use of their own language, removing their children, destroying their traditional ways of life, etc.) has been a regular feature of colonisation for this very reason – it makes it harder for the colonised people to see their oppression as the social construction that it is and to identify with a collective struggle.

For women, the cage is women’s place as a function – that function being the service of men – not only housework, sexual service, and the bearing and rearing of children, but also “being nice”, “being attractive” and ego service (encouragement, support, praise, attention). Virginia Woolf brilliantly captured the essence of women’s function as “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”.

The details vary across geographical locations, race and social class, but everywhere women serve men and nowhere do men serve women in anything like the same way.

Women generally comply because they are raised and socialised in the system and the penalties for not complying can be heavy, submission can be essential for her very survival. Women’s submissiveness is then taken as proof of women’s inherent inferiority. The same dynamic can be observed in other oppressed groups.

But men are oppressed too, right?

“Women are oppressed, as women. Members of certain racial and/or economic groups and classes, both the males and the females, are oppressed as members of those races and/or classes. But men are not oppressed as men.” (Marilyn Frye)

When we say that women are oppressed as women but men are not oppressed as men, we are not saying that men don’t suffer or they don’t have feelings. What we are talking about here is the systematic oppression of certain groups that people are born into.

As a white person, I was raised within a racist society and educational system and as a child I was taught racist stereotyping and other hateful concepts, which was an assault on my humanity. Erasing this racist conditioning is a lifelong and continuous personal effort. It is important to recognise this. But is that oppression? Not in the sociological sense and to suggest otherwise would obscure the very real oppression that Black people experience. For example, Black people are constantly measured against some mythical white standard of “normality” and found wanting, lesser, because “white” is the racist standard for what is human, and all the practical and material injustices and inequalities that follow that – from the international trading agreements that systematically disadvantage developing nations to the way society reacts to the exuberance of youth, seeing it as “high jinks” when the youth is white and as proof of criminal or violent tendencies when the youth is black, and everything in between and beyond. On and on.

Similarly, the oppression of women affects men and limits men’s humanity. But that does not mean that men are oppressed as men.

The bars of the cage form a barrier to the people outside the cage, but the bars have a very different meaning for those inside it. For the people inside, the cage encloses, restricts and confines. For the people outside, it provides liberty and greater opportunities – by reducing competition from those inside the cage, for example.

Some men may want one of the supportive roles generally assigned to women and when they discover it is almost or totally closed to them, they may complain that they are oppressed by “sex roles” and may even suggest women are keeping them out. But the barriers are created and maintained by men to keep women in their subordinate place and the culture and economy firmly in male hands. This benefits all men, even those who bump up against the barriers, by ensuring their classification and status as superior and their right to higher pay and sexual access to women.

Understanding male privilege

“Denials which amount to taboos surround the subject of advantages which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully recognised, acknowledged, lessened, or ended.” (Peggy McIntosh)

The corollary to the oppression of one social group is the unearned advantage of the dominant group. This unearned advantage is generally referred to as privilege. Peggy McIntosh in her pioneering 1988 essay on the subject tells how she was pondering men’s unwillingness to recognise their male privilege whilst sometimes being prepared to acknowledge women’s disadvantage. Recognising that the hierarchies and systems of oppression interlock and intersect, she realised that there must also be a phenomenon of white privilege which was similarly denied and protected. She then embarked on an exercise to identify and list some of the practical advantages that her white privilege granted in her daily life. After listing 46 points, she paused to make some observations.

“Some privileges make me feel at home in the world. Others allow me to escape penalties or dangers which others suffer. Through some, I escape fear, anxiety or a sense of not being welcome or not being real. Some keep me from having to hide, to be in disguise, to feel sick or crazy, to negotiate each transaction from the position of being an outsider. Most keep me from having to be angry. [I was] given cultural permission not to hear the voices of people of other races. (Peggy McIntosh, again)

She realised that people of colour were made to lack confidence and to feel uncomfortable and alienated in direct proportion to how white people were made confident and comfortable. She realised that her whiteness protected her from many kinds of hostility, distress and violence and that she was being subtly trained to visit those same things on people of colour. She told of her reluctance to look at these uncomfortable truths and she came to see that just as most of her oppressive behaviour was unconscious, so is most men’s oppression towards women unconscious.

It is painful to let ourselves see how the advantages of a social group to which we personally belong come at the expense of the people in one or more other groups. It is also painful to let ourselves see how the systems of oppressions in which we are caught up damage both the winners and the losers. But if we want to build a better world, we must face these uncomfortable truths.

“In some groups, those dominated actually become strong through not having all these unearned advantages and this gives them a great deal to teach others. Members of so-called privileged groups can seem foolish, ridiculous, infantile or dangerous by contrast.” (Peggy McIntosh, again)

The unearned advantages conferred on the winners in these systems of oppression often contribute to a sense of entitlement – the feeling that we are entitled to our unearned and unfair privileges, that they are ours by right, rather than coming at the expense of another social group. And when the barriers are removed to reduce oppression and the unearned advantage, people in the dominant group sometimes feel that they are being attacked and fight for the barriers to be replaced. This is sometimes called the backlash. Together all of these forces make challenging and changing systems of oppression difficult.

So what is patriarchy?

Allan Johnson in his classic work, The Gender Knot, defines patriarchy as a society that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered. It is also organized around an obsession with control and involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.” Let’s look at each of these key characteristics in turn.

  • Male dominance – This means that men disproportionately occupy positions of power and authority, which leads to power differences between men and women. As a result men get larger shares of income and wealth and get to shape the culture so that it serves men’s collective interests – for example, by controlling the content of films and TV and by handling rape and sexual harassment cases so that the victim rather than the perpetrator is on trial. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that all men are powerful or that no women are powerful.)
  • Male identification – Men are considered the standard or the norm and society’s key values are associated with men and masculinity. As a result, men are seen as superior and whatever men do is seen as having higher value. For example, occupations primarily done by men are paid more than those primarily done by women.
  • Male centredness – Men are the primary focus of attention in most contexts. For example, men dominate conversations by talking more, zoning out and interrupting when women speak, and men generally control the context of the conversation. When women suggest ideas in meetings, they are often ignored until a man suggests the same thing and he gets the credit.
  • Obsession with (male) control – Male control – or as Marilyn French calls it “power over” – is the core principle around which not only patriarchal social life but also men’s inner lives are organised. As a result, patriarchal societies are hierarchical and revere power over other people and nature.

These forces reinforce each other at both the individual and collective level. Individual men’s focus on themselves and women’s focus on others (especially men) reinforce male-identification and male-centeredness. This in turn reinforces male dominance and makes it easier for individual men to concentrate on protecting and enhancing their own status.

If men were naturally superior to women, there would be no need for force or violence to enforce the system. Male violence is used not only to keep women in a state of fear but also as a way for individual men to enhance their personal sense of dominance and superiority and hence his sense that he is a “real man”.

The subordination of women

“The oppression of women occurs through sexual subordination. It is the use of sex as the medium of oppression that makes the subordination of women so distinct from racism or prejudice against a group based on religion or national origin. Social inequality is created in many different ways. In my view, the radical responsibility is to isolate the material means of creating inequality so that material remedies can be found for it.” (Andrea Dworkin)

Andrea Dworkin showed that sex is a key part of the mechanism by which women are oppressed and this makes the oppression of women fundamentally different to the oppression of racial, ethnic and other social groups – although the way sex is used to oppress women of colour and working class women is particularly vicious.

In Against the Male Flood, Dworkin identified four elements in the subordination of a social group:

  1. Hierarchy – There’s a group on top and a group on the bottom. The bottom group has less power and fewer rights and resources than the top group and is treated as inferior to them. “Women are physically integrated into the society in which we are held to be inferior, and our low status is both put in place and maintained in the sexual usage of us by men; and so women’s experience of hierarchy is incredibly intimate and wounding.”
  2. Objectification – Members of the bottom group are treated as things, as instruments, commodities and/or property for the use of those on top. “Objectification is an injury right at the heart of discrimination; those who can be used as if they are not fully human are no longer fully human in social terms; their humanity is hurt by being diminished.”
  3. Submission – Those in the bottom group typically comply with the wishes and self-defined needs of those on top – doing so is essential for their survival. This is then used as proof of their inferiority and sub-humanness. “The master, not able to imagine a human like himself in such degrading servility, thinks the servility is proof that the hierarchy is natural and that the objectification simply amounts to seeing these lesser creatures for what they are.”
  4. Violence – Committed by members of the top group against members of the bottom group is routine and systematic and is seen as right, necessary, inevitable and natural. When directed by men at women, “the violence against women is seen to be done not just in accord with something compliant in women, but in response to something active in and basic to women’s nature.”

Dworkin goes on to show that pornography is a key mechanism in the subordination of women. When feminists talk about pornography, they often use Rebecca Whisnant’s definition of pornography: “sexually explicit material that makes dominance and inequality sexy”. So we are not just talking about sexually explicit material, but about sexually explicit material that eroticises dominance and inequality.

Pornography, Dworkin says, is:

“Women turned into subhumans, beaver, pussy, body parts, genitals exposed, buttocks, breasts, mouths opened and throats penetrated, covered in semen, pissed on, shitted on, hung from light fixtures, tortured, maimed, bleeding, disembowelled, killed. […]

It is rape and gang rape and anal rape and throat rape: and it is the woman raped, asking for more. […]

It is the conditioning of erection and orgasm in men to the powerlessness of women; our inferiority, humiliation, pain, torment: to us as objects, things, or commodities for use in sex as servants.”

She says that if pornography were done to human beings, it would be recognised as atrocity, but because under patriarchy male is “human” and female is “other”, pornography is classified as entertainment, a civil right, freedom of speech.

Approximately two decades after Dworkin wrote this powerful essay, photos of US military personnel abusing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison entered the public domain. The abuse was immediately recognised as atrocity – because the prisoners were male. But although some commentators drew comparison with what is done to women in pornography, pornography is generally seen as harmless and not as the atrocity that it is.

So pornography is both propaganda and practical violence against both the women and children used in its creation and the women and children on whom it is acted out. This is of pressing concern now that pornography has moved from the shadows into the mainstream and through the Internet and smartphones is now widely available to children. In 2011, the average age of first exposure was estimated at 11 years. This is the average age that girls begin puberty and a year before the average age that boys begin puberty.

Being exposed to pornography so young can be considered a form of child sexual abuse. It grooms our boy children for a life of using, taking and pimping. It grooms our girl children into accepting a life of objectification and service to men’s needs rather than their own.

Patriarchy and capitalism

Patriarchy is a relatively recent development in the long history of the human race. For most of the million plus years of our existence, human societies were egalitarian and cooperative. Patriarchy emerged about 6,000 years ago in the Middle East (and at different times in other regions of the world). Capitalism on the other hand developed in Western Europe in the early modern period (from about 1500 AD). So clearly patriarchy preceded capitalism.

The transition to patriarchal social organisation was marked by violence as the older men (the fathers) took control of resources that were previously shared, and subdued and controlled the women. The development of capitalism involved a parallel process in which elites took control of land and resources previously shared (the enclosure of the “commons”) and subdued the ordinary people. Capitalism can therefore be seen as a logical extension to patriarchy and we cannot understand the one without the other.

The development of capitalism was messy and violent as the elite set about transforming the largely self-sufficient peasants into a controlled and controllable work force from whose labour they could make a profit. Initially the stealing of the commons on which the ordinary people, particularly women, depended was vehemently resisted and in many places women led the resistance.

Sylvia Federici in her excellent book, Caliban and the Witch, which traces the history of this transition from a feminist point of view, has shown that in the early stages of this transition the political authorities condoned, if not encouraged, violence against poor women as a way of controlling rebellious young men. During this period gang rape became common and the perpetrators had impunity – provided the women were poor. At the same time prostitution was institutionalised throughout Europe. As a result, not only was class antagonism redirected at women but the class solidarity of the anti-feudal struggle was undermined. (Federici, p47).

This was followed by two centuries of brutal witch hunts that were accompanied by widespread misogynistic propaganda, the expulsion of women from crafts and the loss of their old knowledge passed down through generations of herbs that could not only heal but reduce fertility and of gentle birthing procedures. As a result women lost such independence that they had, their rebellious spirit was broken and they were driven into economic dependence on men, who had also lost their independence and had become dependent on employers. Women became reproductive machines turning out new workers on which the capitalist economy depended but their reproductive labour was now defined as non-labour. (We see that this is still true when mothers of young children are asked, “Do you work?”)

The previous mutual, symbiotic, relationship between men and women was replaced by a harder, more vicious relationship. Men got to have power over their women and children as if in compensation for the loss of their old independence.

Although individual men sometimes fought to save their women from the witch hunts, with one exception (in the Basque region) there is no record of men uniting to resist the persecution of women.

Federici says (p189), “there is no doubt that years of propaganda and terror sowed among men the seeds of a deep psychological alienation from women, that broke class solidarity and undermined their own collective power. […] Just as today, by repressing women, the ruling classes more effectively repressed the entire proletariat.”

This was taking place in Europe at the same time as the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of its peoples, the beginning of the slave trade and subsequent colonialist expansion in Africa and Asia. Methods of control learnt in the witch hunts were exported to the colonies and methods of control learnt in the brutal suppression of the colonised people were introduced in the control of women and workers at home.

Maria Mies and others have shown that the capitalist system is dependent on the continual patriarchal exploitation and subordination of women and colonised peoples and the viciousness increases in every crisis of capitalism. It is no accident that in the current major crisis in capitalism we are seeing an enormous industry develop based on the crudest exploitation of women’s bodies in prostitution and pornography and in the development of the renting of poor women’s wombs for babies for the rich.

Masculinity and militarism

“We see no policy concern over masculinity. Given the massive incidence of male violence, its cost to the state, its implications for security and the damage it inflicts on the quality of life, this is an absence like no other. It can be explained only as a political incapacity in those who wield patriarchal power to pathologize one of its age-old means of coercion.” (Cynthia Cockburn)

In classic feminist theory, masculinity is seen as the learnt behaviour of male dominance and femininity as the learnt behaviour of submission to that dominance. Feminists do not see masculinity and femininity as innate but as socially constructed roles.

Under capitalist patriarchy, masculine sexuality is a relationship of power over the sex object. Many men experience violence as erotic. Countries that are militarising (like Israel) or that need to justify vast military budgets during peace time (like the UK and US), boost masculinity by tacit tolerance for violence against women and overt fetishization of football and similar masculine sports that reinforce men’s notions of themselves as warriors (Cockburn).

“War […] gives birth to new class elites or strengthens existing ones. It produces racialized identities, deepening the differentiation of ‘peoples’. It also […] affirms men and masculinity in a powerfully effective mode. It produces woman as prize and possession, as baggage and as slave.” (Cynthia Cockburn)

Any analysis of war that excludes an analysis of masculinity and patriarchal capitalist gender relations is bound to be inadequate. Similarly resistance to war and militarism without challenging masculinity and patriarchal power is bound to fail.

Practical feminism

“To revere power above everything else is to be willing to sacrifice everything else to power.” (Marilyn French)

I have tried to show in this article how a feminist analysis is vital if we are to understand the mechanisms that capitalist and patriarchal institutions use to bind us and blind us. To effectively challenge these institutions and transform society we need to work on several levels at the same time:

  • Emotionally – We need to acknowledge the damage that has been done to each one of us through the interlocking systems of oppression that work to alienate each of us from our humanity and each other and that serve to reduce our capacity for collective resistance. We need to work towards better ways of relating – those of us who are winners need to be prepared to give up our unearned advantages and those of us who are losers need to unlearn the survival strategies that sometimes work to keep us in our place. We need to understand that this is an ongoing struggle, that we need to support each other in this, to challenge each other when we slip back, to believe that the struggle is worth it and that change is possible.
  • Intellectually – We need to continue to educate ourselves about the systems of oppression that are used to divide us from our humanity and each other. We need to use this knowledge when developing campaigns and remember that the winners in the systems of oppression invariably have blind spots about the impact of policies and their own behaviour on those on the other side of those systems of oppression.
  • Practically – We need to devise strategies for resistance to all forms of oppression and work towards the full inclusion and participation of all. We need to actively listen to those in oppressed groups and encourage their full participation. We need to actively work to change our patterns.

Further reading


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