Welcome to our discussion of The Gender Knot by Allan Johnson. This is the first post in the discussion series. We will be discussing Chapter 1 “Where Are We?” You can find all posts connected to this discussion here.
I just noted a potential problem. There is an updated edition of the book now available. Right now I am working with a 1997 edition. I haven’t decided if I will purchase the new edition; for now, I am going to keep going with my old one. But, if you are working with a new edition, you may encounter something in the book that I have left out. If so, please feel free to make note of this in the comments! And please feel free to comment extensively.
As I noted earlier, the first chapter is available online here. If you haven’t had a chance to read the chapter, maybe you’d like to go now and read the introductory pages at least up to the subheader “Male Dominance” (pages 3, 4 and top of page 5).
Early on in the first chapter of The Gender Knot, Allan Johnson has this to say [emphasis mine]:
Patriarchy is not simply another way of saying ‘men.’ Patriarchy is a kind of society, and a society is more than a collection of people.
That may be the most important take-home message from this whole first chapter. It’s not about you, personally. It’s not even about some particular bunch of d00ds. It’s about a system, and how we all interact with it.
So, what is that system?
Johnson defines it thus:
A society is patriarchal to the degree that it is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. It also involves as one of its key aspects the oppression of women.
Male-dominated means what? Most of the people in positions of authority are men. Wherever you look, in the political, economic, legal, religious, educational, military, or domestic realm, you will find that the majority of those in positions of authority are men. Johnson notes that people wonder of a woman who finds her way into such a position whether she’ll measure up to the boys, but no one every remarks of men “I wonder if he’ll be as good a [president/CEO/provost/fireman/fill-in-the-blank] as a woman”. Male dominance leads to power differences between men and women, of course as men accrue more wealth, but also as they shape culture to serve their needs. Would a woman-dominated legislature have been as likely, for example, to pass laws making it legal for men to rape their wives? Most crucially, because we tend to conflate the superiority of a position with the people in it, male dominance contributes to the notion of male superiority over women.
Male-identified means what? All that is “good, desirable, preferable, or normal” is associated with men and masculinity. Don’t believe it? Why do we still cling to the notion that “man” means the same thing as “human” and “he” should be good enough to mean “he and she”? Because, you know, men are the thing and women are the exception. Society’s core values get coded as masculine. Johnson notes as examples: control, strength, efficiency, competitiveness, toughness, coolness under pressure, logic, forcefulness, decisiveness, rationality, autonomy, self-sufficiency, and control over emotions. These are associated with valued work, which in turn has been organized in ways that require these qualities for success.
Engineering is one of those socially valued (well-paid, relatively high status) types of work that is most assuredly male-identified. Here’s what happened when I worked with one class of first-year engineering students on issues of gender in engineering. (See Burack and Franks, Telling Stories About Engineering.)
Students were separated into four groups. Each group was given a list of 40 adjectives, taken from the Bem Sex Roles Inventory. Groups were given written instructions to sort the words into two categories. Two of the groups were asked to sort the words into the categories “masculine” and “feminine” while the other two were asked to sort the words into the categories “engineer” and “non-engineer”. Across groups, the sorting into masculine and engineer resulted in virtually the same lists, as did the sorting into feminine and non-engineer, suggesting a common understanding of both gender and of the ideal attributes of engineers. The students, all of whom considered themselves relatively unprejudiced and bias-free, were astonished to find that their groups’ understanding of what it means to be an engineer and what it means to be feminine were mutually exclusive. It should be noted that all of the students in the class were members of underrepresented minority groups, and approximately 25 percent of the students were female, unusual for engineering classrooms. Thus, it is not just in-group members who understand and accept the unspoken definitions of who “belongs” in the in-group and who does not.
What this means, as Johnson notes, is that while a young boy might have to make an effort to see himself as an engineer, a young girl has to make the effort to see herself as a woman engineer. She has to work on that adjective.
Johnson notes several more important things related to the issue of male-identification. Cultural romanticization of women – the sentimentality of Mother’s Day, for example – has little to no effect on how real women are valued and actually treated day to day. We may have Secretaries’ Day but look at what Lilly Ledbetter went through. And pointing to a few examples of powerful women here and there throughout history does not undermine the notion of patriarchy. They are surrounded by powerful men, and operate in societies organized on a patriarchal model.
That’s why a program such as NSF’s ADVANCE works not just to put more women into faculty positions or a few department head or dean positions (though those are also goals of the program), but to actually transform the institutional structures that support and promote women’s exclusion from science and engineering. You can’t just add women and stir.
The last thing to say about male-identification is that it offers the opportunity for even the lowest placed men to feel superior in some way to the highest placed women. They can identify with powerful male leaders as men, and they can hope, at least through fantasizing, to sexually dominate any woman, even the most highly placed.
Male-centered means what? D00ds, it’s all about you! Your stories in the newspaper, on the news, in the movies! Male experience offered up as human experience. If there’s a movie about deep bonds of friendship, who do you think it’s going to feature? Why, Kevin Costner, in Dances With Wolves! Now that is a film about life. Otherwise it would be a chick flick. And men should be the focus everywhere. The best illustration of this is Johnson’s example of a group of women out for a few drinks, approached by a man who asks “are you ladies alone?” Because of course, if they are without a man, they must be “alone”. Their own company could not be sufficient unto itself and surely they are just waiting for a man to enter their midst.
Ironically, most men don’t, however, feel at the center of things. They need women’s attention to help them feel at the center where they think they belong. Johnson makes note of Virginia Woolf’s famous quote about how women serve as ” ‘looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size’ “. Men find affirmation, in patriarchy, through what they accomplish – they must be seen – and women learn to focus on others. These two things reinforce each other.
If a woman’s attention is diverted for even an instant, it threatens to make men disappear, because that very attention is needed to make men feel twice-life size as they need to, to feel that they matter. This is why time and again, when you see a women-centered discussion start up on a blog, you will inevitably have some d00d pipe up and ask, in one form or another, “but what about us poor menz?” Seeing women focus their attention solely and completely on themselves and other women is, in a very real sense, threatening to men.
Finally, Johnson notes how difficult it is for men to form true close friendships with each other: “[O]ne of many patriarchal paradoxes: that men live in a male-centered society and yet act as though the reality of other men’s inner lives matters very little”.
In Part 2 of this post, we’ll cover Women and Patriarchy and Deep Structures. Meanwhile, some questions to ponder. What do and don’t you understand about patriarchy as a system after reading this? How do the concepts of male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered help illustrate the system for you? Can you think of examples from your life, or popular culture, or anywhere in our society? If you are a guy, do you think you depend on women’s attention to help you feel good about yourself? If so, in what ways? Do you think your friendships with other men do or do not focus much on their inner lives?
Other questions? Comment away, I’m anxious to hear from you.