I’m really surprised that I haven’t written on this yet, since it’s something that so fundamentally underpins my perspective on gender issues and relations. Unsurprisingly, my view of gender, history, and power is not the commonly accepted view. I don’t see men and women as part of a gendered hierarchy by which women are subordinated under men’s power. And even more controversial, I don’t think it has ever been that way.
Gender roles are and always have been a division of labour by biological aptitude, a set of reciprocal entitlements and responsibilities under which neither gender was objectively better off than the other. If women can be said to be oppressed by their expectation throughout history of motherhood and relegation to the household sphere of duties and childcare, despite their entitlement by virtue of being female to any protection and provision their male relatives could provide, then I see no reason not to say that men were equivalently oppressed by the expectation of hard and dangerous physical labour, providing for their families, and participation in war, despite being entitled to more overt political rights, in some socioeconomic groups. Even in modern times, can we really say that the women who are not allowed to drive or leave their homes without an escort in oppressive theocratic nations are definitively worse off than the men who are tasked with going out into the very dangerous world and enduring hard labour to provide for them, or drafted into the military as adolescents or children? Gender roles aren’t unilaterally harmful. They’re restrictive and harmful to everyone, especially under pre-industrial or third world conditions.
Sure, women didn’t have individual property rights until fairly recently in history, but they had the right to occupy, use, and benefit from the property of their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, who were tasked with providing them food, shelter, and protection. Women didn’t have overt political rights, but they ran their households, which gave them influence over their husbands and sons at home. Further, almost every woman had a household to rule, but very few men throughout history had the chance for any political power at all. Just because the tiny minority of politically or religiously powerful people in the pre-industrial world usually constituted far more men than women doesn’t mean that men had more power or advantage than women across the board. That tiny proportion of powerful men tells us very little about what it was like to be the common man or woman. The average male peasant through the vast majority of generations had no more ability to influence his government or state than his wife did. He had no more opportunities than his sister to become a lord or cardinal.
Under gender roles, women were expected to spend their days cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, and to risk their lives in childbirth. Similarly, men were expected to spend their days wearing out their bodies in fields. They were expected to risk their lives by protecting their families from intruders or wild animals, to go to war where many would experience indescribable suffering, and to be the last pulled out of a burning building. Yes, women were kept in the kitchen, patronized, and talked down to. But men were used as pawns whenever the king or lord wanted to squabble with neighbouring powers. Women were treated, in many ways, like children, but men were treated like cannon fodder. Both sexes suffered from a lack of freedom, respect, and human dignity, but in different ways.
The word “patriarchy” gets used a lot to describe this division of roles, but it seems simplistic and disingenuous to refer to the above scenario as a system of male dominance and female subordination or a system where men benefit at women’s expense. Men and women benefited in ways, but men and women were subordinated to their roles. Men benefited by having some property and political rights, and having their homes taken care of. Women benefited by having a near-guarantee of protection and provision, and exemption from compulsory projects like the draft. Men were subordinated to a role that destroyed their bodies in wheat fields and risked their lives on the battlefield. Women were subordinated to a role of labour in the home and the more dangerous labour of bearing children.
But neither of these roles were implemented out of spite. In a much older world, they were necessary. We didn’t have factories, breast pumps, baby formula, tractors, or many of the other modern conveniences that allow practical mobility along the gender spectrum. We had women, who could bear and nurse children, which made them incredibly important but also very vulnerable. And we had men, who were built with far more muscle mass and bone density, and thus the physical strength and constitution to dig ditches, work iron, build walls, and fight wars. Thus, over millennia women and men were separated, as they are in the rest of the animal kingdom, into roles that were suited to them by their respective unique physiological abilities. A man couldn’t stay at home and feed the baby even if he’d wanted to, and a woman couldn’t go out and lift heavy things for 16 hours, physiologically speaking. (Women could do less physically demanding jobs, though, and in fact, brewing and weaving were common enough female professions that the surnames Webster and Brewster have been historically passed from mother to daughter. Baxter – for bakers – is another example, and midwifing was a more or less exclusively female profession for most societies.)
Then the industrialization happened. Up sprung the factories, allowing traditionally male work to be done by just about anyone (including children – there’s a downside to everything). It is no coincidence that this was when feminism also sprung up. However, by the time most women were physically able to do what had been men’s role for all of human history, it was a long established norm that each gender had their sphere, and ne’er the two shall meet. So, like any other harmless deviation from long-established norms, they had to fight for their right to mobility across those spheres, even though the physiological barriers no longer applied. Which is to say, women weren’t kept out of male spheres because they were considered “less than.” Women were kept out of male spheres, and men out of female spheres, because we had a very specific, socially enforced, bilateral division of labour. You’ll notice that now, 150 years later, there is no stigma for women working outside the home, but men who want to do what was traditionally women’s work (from nursing and childcare to being a stay-at-home dad) still face a great deal of stigma and ridicule.
This is because when feminism arose, it sought to eliminate women’s gendered role, and the disadvantages associated with it. I am glad we have had a movement to liberate women from relegation to the home. I’m glad I can vote, choose any profession, go to school, and use birth control. I’m glad for Roe v. Wade and the Equal Pay Act. But I am so disappointed in the unilateral nature of the movement that gave us these things. The feminist movement took a one-sided look at a complex and bilateral problem, and addressed half of it, the half that affects women.
Without a broader gender equality movement exploding into the mainstream sphere as feminism did, men are still held to exactly the same traditional male roles, from the trivial (it is normal for women to wear pants, but men cannot wear skirts without severe judgment) to the extremely disadvantageous: men’s historical role as protector means that men alone must sign the draft registry, although muscle-dependent swords and shields have long since given way to tanks and jet planes; and similarly men’s historical exclusion from the female sphere of childcare means that men lose the majority of custody battles, while still being expected to foot the bill for their children’s care, even though men could just as easily be the primary parent or women the primary breadwinner in today’s society. Men protect, and men provide, and there’s very little else that they have the opportunity to do, because we have done nothing to change the role they filled when feminism started to address women’s.
Men also face a tremendous amount of disadvantage due to schemas associated with being seen as the actors, protectors, and aggressors of society. For example, every criminal justice bias we point to as evidence of racism also affects men. Because men are seen as aggressors and agents, people who do not need protecting, people who commit but do not suffer violence, they are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced than women. Men on average receive 63% longer sentences than women, when controlling for the crime, criminal background, and other relevant factors. Women, on the other hand, are regularly dismissed as perpetrators by judges who do not believe such a thing could exist, or who know that no jury will convict a woman. This disparity evokes the days when a man could be arrested for his wife’s crimes or held responsible for the debts she incurred before marriage. Men were, and still are, viewed as actors and do-ers, while women, any time a man is involved, are viewed as beings to whom things are done.
This is especially troubling when we get into issues of domestic and sexual violence, which, due to the prejudices I listed above, we view as male-perpetrated acts of violence against women, even though they are committed at least as often by women against men. There are only two men’s shelters in the US, so when men seek refuge, they are regularly turned away. When men call domestic violence hotlines seeking help, they are routinely referred to batterer’s programs. When they report victimization to the police, they are about as likely to be assumed the primary aggressor and arrested as they are to be assisted. Never mind the disappointingly common police officers who will unabashedly laugh in your face if you try to tell them a woman raped you. This is a clear manifestation of the traditional belief that men can and should take care of themselves, be stronger than those who would try to attack them, and protect others. A man who cannot defend himself from an assailant is not a protector, and thus renders himself invisible or worse.
For some background information, the MRM is fundamentally a human rights movement that seeks to dismantle men’s traditional roles, not a group of outdated traditionalists as the popular myth suggests. An MRA is necessarily opposed to gender roles, which are the cause of most of the issues we raise. It is important to understand, for example, that we as a society permit men to be drafted, circumcised, and socialized to take dangerous jobs because their well-being was not and is not valued under a gender role system. They are labourers and protectors, not the protected. It’s “women and children first,” “end violence against women,” and headlines like “60 Confirmed Dead, Including 4 Women;” not “save as many as you can,” “end violence against everyone,” or “60 Confirmed Dead, Most of Them Men.” It’s #bringbackourgirls, not #avengeourboys.
Men’s job, according to their gender role, is to wear down their bodies to provide for their families and risk death to defend them. In centuries past, we couldn’t afford compassion for people in that role.
This goes well beyond “patriarchy hurts men, too.” If we lived in a system adapted for men’s benefit at women’s expense, in which women were seen as less than, men wouldn’t be the majority of the homeless, overworked, and suicidal. They wouldn’t be asked to sacrifice themselves in mines and on oil rigs so that their wives and daughters can have food on their tables. They wouldn’t get half the federal funding for their cancers that women get for ours. They wouldn’t get their genitals cut at birth, while girls are protected by law and basic human decency from ever having to experience that. Men would always have access to their children, and they wouldn’t be extorted for their care when women have every reproductive option available to be or not be a mother. In a patriarchy, women would be punished, not ignored or enabled, for raping or abusing men. Women wouldn’t be the only victims we care about, and men wouldn’t be the majority of those shipped off to die in times of war. In a patriarchy, men, not women, would be the group whose issues get attention and redress, rather than an elaborate network of women’s organizations and government initiatives forwarding women’s issues while widespread censure and protest stand in the way of the same progress for men.
The popular understanding of gender roles is skewed and one-sided. Patriarchy Theory is a polemic oversimplification that ignores half or more of the gender issues we face as a society. Men didn’t make this happen. They aren’t accidental casualties of their own arrogant folly. They are and have always been just as much a victim of the narrow and now-obsolete system of gender roles as women.
The only difference is that we’ve spent the past century and a half addressing women’s side of the problem.