Understanding Patriarchy – Intersectional Insights of bell hooks

Posted by on Aug 9, 2020
bell hooks

“You need to accept that you are just a little girl and girls can’t do what boys do.”

Bell hooks is an acclaimed intellectual, feminist theorist, cultural critic, artist, and writer whose life cause has been ending domination in all its forms through dialogue, education, critical thinking, and a determined effort to understand and dismantle systems of exploitation and oppression. In her piece for the NO BORDERS collective, titled Understanding Patriarchy, she introduced critical ideas, themes, and explanations relating to this topic of patriarchy that we deep dive into on our reading journey. We encourage you to read her piece in full, but here are a few highlights of her story to give a window into her voice, which is particularly relevant in this moment.

When bell hooks was a little girl, her father whipped her to put her in her “gendered place.” Afterward, her mama came into her bedroom and told her, “You need to accept that you are just a little girl and girls can’t do what boys do.” For hooks, this traumatic event would not soon be forgotten—not only because of the lasting impact of the painful memory but because the story of her punishment was retold within her family to “reinforce both the message and the remembered state of absolute powerlessness.”

“It was a reminder,” she wrote, “to everyone watching/remembering, to all my siblings, male and female, and to our grown-woman mother that our patriarchal father was the ruler in our household. We were to remember that if we did not obey his rules, we would be punished, punished even unto death. This is the way we were experientially schooled in the art of patriarchy.

Sadly, as hooks herself explained, “there is nothing unique or even exceptional about this experience.” The underlying theme of violence used to “reinforce our indoctrination and acceptance of patriarchy” echoes through many households. As family therapist Terrence Real described it, this “psychological patriarchy” is common and, according to hooks, leads to a confusion about gender for both males and females. She reflected on the way this presented itself in her own family growing up in farm country:

“In reality I was stronger and more violent than my brother, which we learned quickly was bad. And he was a gentle, peaceful boy, which we learned was really bad. Although we were often confused, we knew one fact for certain: we could not be and act the way we wanted to, doing what we felt like. It was clear to us that our behavior had to follow a predetermined, gendered script. We both learned the word ‘patriarchy’ in our adult life, when we learned that the script that had determined what we should be, the identities we should make, was based on patriarchal values and beliefs about gender.”

Hooks became interested in challenging patriarchy because the system excluded her personhood—a reality she quickly came to understand after the night her father whipped her. She had wanted to play a game of marbles with her brother, but her father would not allow his “aggressive and competitive” daughter to play this game, which was at the time considered a “boy’s game,” against his “passive” son. “I insisted on my right to play by picking up marbles and shooting them,” hooks wrote. “Dad intervened to tell me to stop. I did not listen. His voice grew louder and louder. Then suddenly he snatched me up, broke a board from our screen door, and began to beat me with it, telling me, ‘You’re just a little girl. When I tell you to do something, I mean for you to do it.’

Her father’s beating continued while the other members of the family “sat spellbound, rapt before the pornography of patriarchal violence. After this beating I was banished – forced to stay alone in the dark.” She stayed there until her mama came in to “reinforce that Dad had done the right thing by… restoring the natural social order.”

This is just one of the many reasons hooks considers patriarchy to be “the single most life-threatening social disease,” which permeates every area of our lives. “I often use the phrase ‘imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy’ to describe the interlocking political systems that are the foundation of our nation’s politics. Of these systems the one that we all learn the most about growing up is the system of patriarchy, even if we never know the word, because patriarchal gender roles are assigned to us as children and we are given continual guidance about the ways we can best fulfill these roles. Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

Another helpful definition comes from psychotherapist John Bradshaw, who wrote in Creating Love that patriarchy is a “social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family in both domestic and religious functions.” Hooks summarized this simply yet powerfully by stating, “Patriarchy is characterized by male domination and power.” And it continues, according to hooks and Bradshaw, because of damaging rules like “blind obedience,” to this diseased system, which Bradshaw defined as “the repression of all emotions except fear; the destruction of individual willpower; and the repression of thinking whenever it departs from the authority figure’s way of thinking.”

Hooks reminds us that both males and females are “socialized into this system,” having learned patriarchal attitudes from our parents that were then “reinforced in schools and religious institutions.”

To dismantle these systems, we must be willing to look with eyes that truly see the disease lurking within our shared social fabric. This includes seeing and understanding the ways patriarchy and a culture of male dominance “supports, promotes, and condones sexist violence,” including rape, domestic partner voilence, and the violence that takes place “in the home between patriarchal parents and children… in which the authority figure is deemed ruler over those without power and given the right to maintain that rule through practices of subjugation, subordination, and submission.”

Dismantling the patriarchy also demands that we refuse to remain silent about the ways this disease harms every member of the human family. “Keeping males and females from telling the truth about what happens to them in families is one way patriarchal culture is maintained,” hooks wrote. “A great majority of individuals enforce an unspoken rule in the culture as a whole that demands we keep the secrets of patriarchy, thereby protecting the rule of the father… This silence promotes denial. And how can we organize to challenge and change a system that cannot be named?”

While we are experiencing a widespread cultural openness to do the long overdue work of taking down the monuments to our slave-holding legacy of white supremacy, voices like bell hooks are working to ensure we continue to focus on the intersectionality of racism with other oppressions, like patriarchy, which are all facets of the same system that for millennia has elevated one group as a superior master class and others as inferior and born into a lower social status. It is ours to do to name and see and dismantle each and every one of these oppressions, which, as bell hooks’ story and voice show us, are fruits of the same rotten tree.

For more about bell hooks, visit the bell hooks institute website. To learn more about the ways patriarchy intersects with and contaminates every area of our lives – and the path to liberation from this ancient disease – join us on our next reading journey cohort beginning next October.