January 22, 2009 / Uncategorized

The Triumph of Patriarchy

Rick Warren delivers the Inaugural invocation.

Rick Warren delivers the Inaugural invocation.

The dominant narrative of Barack Obama’s inauguration is that it represents the triumph of civil rights for African-Americans. And it does, undeniably. It’s a transcendent moment in America’s tortured history of race relations.

But there’s another, unacknowledged narrative. This one is about the role of men and women in the world, and about shoring up the patriarchal order. It’s about putting women in their place.

Throughout the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama’s candidacy was framed as America’s chance to elect the first black man to the highest office in the land. That was the narrative that dominated the media and shaped the public’s response. But the nation also had a chance last year to elect the first woman president or vice-president. That opportunity, however, was rejected, and not just at the ballot box. There was no glowing media narrative about women’s rights, no discussion of how the nation could redeem its history of female oppression and finally live up to the spirit of equality.

What we saw instead was a mass outpouring of sexism. Clinton was crucified as a nag and a bitch. Palin was ridiculed as a bimbo. Both candidates were routinely referred to as “cunts.” Feminism-free women raced to distance themselves from the two pariahs, affirming loudly that they would much rather support the gloriously historic candidacy of Barack Obama.

The message was clear. America was ready to take a momentous step in its racial history and scrub away at least some of the stain of second-class citizenship from black men. But the story for women — all women, of all races — was quite different. There would be no liberation for women from their prescribed roles, no elevation to a place of equality with men. The Hillary Nutcracker and the Sarah Palin Inflatable Sex Doll told us everything we needed to know about women’s proper place in America’s social order.

The Inauguration on Tuesday reflected both narratives. On one level it was a joyous celebration of racial progress, the realization of a long-cherished dream. But the secondary, implied message was that last year’s threat to the patriarchal order had been successfully squelched. The new president is a man — a darker-skinned man than before, but still a man. His wife, who has already announced that her only role will be as “mom-in-chief,” promises to be a First Lady in the mold of Jackie Kennedy or even Mamie Eisenhower. (Given that Michelle Obama declines to call herself a feminist, and said last year that a woman with an adulterous husband isn’t fit to be president, this is perhaps not surprising.) The invocation was delivered by Rick Warren, the nation’s most high-profile advocate for the belief that women belong under their husbands’ thumbs. And Obama was sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts, an anti-feminist who argues that women don’t even deserve equal pay for equal work. Of course Obama didn’t choose Roberts to officiate, as he did Warren, but he is on record with his keen admiration for the man.

President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts shake hands.

President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts shake hands.

What we’re celebrating this week, then, is that our patriarchy is now officially biracial. That’s certainly a tremendous improvement, but let’s do be realistic about what it means — and what it doesn’t mean. In a patriarchy, women derive their status from men. Men are the primary agents of power, with women in the role of subsidiary satellites. With Barack Obama in the White House, this basic structure hasn’t changed; it’s just that the composition of the classes is new. Black boys, like white boys, can now realistically aspire to be president. And black girls, like white girls, can now realistically aspire to be…the First Lady. That’s how patriarchy works.

On the bright side, these things do follow a pattern. In the past, progress for black men has always been followed by progress for women (of all races), even if a lag of several decades intervened. Black men were granted the Constitutional right to vote in 1870, and suffrage for women was written into law 50 years later.

So perhaps history will repeat itself. Maybe in another half century America will finally elect its first woman president.

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  • Amy Siskind

    Wow Violet.

    So well done. That about sums up the raison d’etre of TNA. And we ain’t waiting 50 years this time in case anyone was wondering!!!

  • goesh

    I don’t question the patriarchy part of the narrative but I just don’t think racism is as rampant and ‘bad’ as some claim.

  • Cynthia Ruccia

    Great post Violet. You always capture the zeitgeist so perfectly. Congratulations on this splendid piece of writing!!!! But like Amy said, we aren’t waiting another 50 years to put this dent in the patriarchy. It will be much much sooner than that——-but it will require building our army of supporters all over the United States, and that is already happening. Rise up women and men—-let’s put our words onto action!! Read “How To Get From 17% To 50%” It’s the beginning of our road map.

  • Kathleen Wynne

    I agree wholeheartedly, Violet!

    Nothing’s changed for women with the “selection” of BO as the first black president. As far as women are concerned, it’s the same horse, just a different color.

    Women of all colors are still expected to sit at the back of the bus, but now black men are sitting up front with the white men! Let’s face it, the white patriarchy knows their days are numbered because they are a fast growing minority in our society. How to hang on to power they’ve always felt entitled to, whether they earned or deserved it? By forging an alliance with black men. That’ll keep women at bay for a few more decades!

    Well, that’s just not good enough. Neither women nor the world can survive 50 more years of almost exclusive male rule. The time for the rise of women to meet the dire needs now plagueing society, which men have proven to be less adept at, is NOW!

    History has shown that when it comes to developing coalitions, consensus and the ability to communicate with all people, at all levels, both here and abroad, women have the edge. Men, in general, have an inate need to express dominance over a group, especially men in power. Women do not. Men have been conditioned to believe that power “requires” a leader to resort to “brute force” and fall back on a linear way of thinking in order to resolve problems that are not readily or easily solvable. Women do not, simply because women are more patient and are more amenable to seeing nuance and responding appropriately to it.

    The world is on the brink and is in dire need of a “woman’s touch”. The only consoliation I have is that Madame Secretary Clinton will be quietly asserting these “female qualities”, combined with the sheer force of her intelligence, vision and commitment, behind the scenes promoting policies that are truly her own, and not obama’s.

    And as is always the case when it comes to men and women in power — if she succeeds, obama will get the credit. If she fails, ONLY she will get the blame. MSNBC news will make certain of that.

  • RealChange

    I agree. As I said in a prior comment, I can not celebrate this emphatic victory of patriarchy. I, too, hope that it will not be 50 years before our time will come. With the fast pace of today’s world and our redoubled efforts it shouldn’t be that long. But you just wait, next time around it will be the hispanic and latino males who will be invited to the patriarchal table of power. We must be ready to counteract that and to have women’s right to being fully included firmly in place. I agree that the 51% solution is extremely important. I also think the elevating of Women’s History Month to a position of utmost educational importance, like Black History Month, is extremely important. I’m thinking of there being a holiday in March commemorating women’s accomplishments and contributions to society, like President’s Day and MLK Day. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the first woman president before we can get that accomplished. ? Someday our…time will come!?

  • Florida Lady

    Violet – wow! You totally nailed exactly how I feel. And I do not write this enthusiastically just because I agree with you – I do not see this blog as simply a chance to nod and smile, bobble-head style.
    I mean that you truly articulated the precise reason that thoughtful feminists are so upset now. Not because we are bigots, sore losers or man-haters, as hinted by MSM. But because week after week of almost hysterical praise and adulation for a man with a very slim resume makes me wonder – millions swoon for a smooth talking black man who ran mostly on promises and personal bio? And, at the same time, millions sneered at women who ran on records, like ’em or not, of public service and with actual votes and policy positions they’d implemented?
    My 8th grade daughter will be in assisted living to see a female president at this rate. No. Not good enough.
    BTW, did anyone else watch the delirious flag wavers, etc. and wonder – would they react this way for a woman? Will the commentators who WILL NOT STOP talking civil rights, Pettus Bridge, etc. be harkening back to the Senneca Falls meetings, suffragates, women’s lib etc. Will women ever have this kind of star turn.
    Civil rights was heroic but feminism is annoying, whiny and just for rich white liberal women who can’t land or hold a man. That is what I picked up.
    Am I wrong here?
    Thanks, Violet. Please edit a bit for length and submit that post to everyone on the planet – NYT, etc. It deserves a really broad reading.

  • Thanks, folks. It’s a poignant situation in particular for black women, who have a tremendous sense of progress in one respect, but also (if they’re feminists) an awareness that we’re still stuck in patriarchy.

  • RealChange

    I hear what you’re saying Violet. I understand why black people are celebrating and I’m happy for them. I also understand young people getting behind someone that has been presented to them as the leader of a movement, I was there once. But, for the life of me, I can not understand adult white men and women of modest means celebrating the election of someone who lied, stole and cheated his way to victory and did it with his foot on the necks of women. I know there are reasons people use to justify why they do what they do, but, to me, patriarchal indoctrination is the underlying reason that encompasses the whole of the arguments.

  • AnneE

    There is a really good book that I checked out of the library and it is by Erika Falk, “Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns.” I have only gotten through the first chapter and introduction, but it is interesting. It talks about the lack of women in politics, and why it has been such slow going. Sometimes things are right under your nose and you are so emtionally invested that you do not see them.

    And Michelle needs to stop channeling Glenn Close in the Stepford Wives; next she’ll be wearing lace gloves and a big hat. Too retro.

  • Constance

    Great post, so true. But you should take heart. This pervasive sexism is only prevalent on the East Coast unfortunately that is where most of the media originate from. It has never been the state of affairs anywhere else in this country and certainly NOT on the West Coast. I know people on the East Coast think they are far more intelligent and cultured and forward thinking than the rest of the country or world but it is simply not so and if East coast folks were better traveled you would know that. I don’t know what it will take for you all to pull your East Coast culture which infects our federal government into this century. I think taking down the media is the best chance. All womens groups should push the information of how to down load content for free to help women save money and quit subsidizing the sexist slime that the media companies pass off as entertainment and news which originates from New York. Take the media companies customer base and their profits. That is the best and quickest road to equality for women.

  • gxm17

    Women are 51% of the population. Black men are, what, 6%. They are hardly a large threat to the power structure. But if women were fairly represented in the seats of power, we’d be in charge. The powers that be are going to fight tooth and nail to keep us out.

    The saddest part for me is how many people embraced their inner misogynist during this election. It was horrible to see it unfold. And it’s just as horrible watching the after effects. For me there is no cause for celebration. Really, how can any thinking person celebrate an inauguration that includes an invocation by Rick Warren?

  • Lili

    Ledbetter, S-181 passed! 61 to 38 I think. Senator Mikulski, in particular, should be congratulated. Let’s write/call to her to say thank you. Don’t have her email address.

    Phone: (202) 224-4654 / Fax: (202) 224-8858

  • Anna

    Lili –

    Thanks for passing along the good news! Here’s Mikulsiki’s contact page:


  • Lili

    Thanks Anna, for Mikulski’s contact page. Now it’s back to the House I guess.

  • KendallJ


    Don’t you just love it when we have to ask men to allow us basic human rights!


    You are on the money! Right to the point. Some black women think that they are now included, but they are still just as fucked as the rest of us little wimmins!!


    Your point is exactly right! They are afraid to share power with women. There’s a whole lot more to give up than elevating a few black men in a country where they only represent 6% of the population. But that being said, I think that misogyny is much more entrenched, wide spread and much older. Women need to study gender dynamics and how patriarchy thrives. We can’t ride the successful coat tails of other oppressed groups, because the dynamics under which patriarchy thrives are very different. than white supremacy, homophobia, etc. Our relationships with men isolate us from supporting each other and our cause. We are instead pitted against each other and are forced to compete with each other for male approval. Our familial relationships to men,
    (mother, daughter, sister, lover) also create an ambivalence about our loyalties, making our struggle more complicated to sort out. This is very different from most of the other “isms” and requires a different analysis and remedy.

  • Lili

    Yes, KendallJ, it is way too bad and it takes so much hard work to right the wrongs!

    Did either you or Ann Bartow have the opportunity to watch the Senate hearing on CSPAN today? I am only just finding my way around the legislative process, having spent my active academic life in the Sciences and am now retired – so I have the time! I wonder if Ann’s Sernator (Jim DeMint (R-SC) introduced his amendment seriously, by mistake or in an attempt to derail the process in trying to promote a ‘right to work law’ – elimination of unions etc.. It did not make sense to me and in fact Senator Mikulski questioned whether he was trying to amend the right law. Any thoughts?

  • KendallJ


    I was at work most of the day and wasn’t able to catch any of it. I’ll look for it on cspan over the weekend and try to get back to you with my impressions. I am curious to know who voted against it. We should target them and chase them out of government.

    I’m here in New York and am hoping that Gov. Paterson will pick Carolyn Maloney to fill Hillary Clinton’s senate seat. I’ll be celebrating if he picks her. She is a wonderful feminist and will push for women’s rights in the same way Hillary does. They have been wonderful partners in fighting for us. I’m praying to my inner goddess!!!

  • Lili

    Thanks KendallJ I would appreciate that but don’t spend too much time looking for it. You probably have heard the rumors by now that Gillibrand is the Governor’s pick?


  • Let me add my name to the long list of people who agree with this post. That’s part of what made the experience bittersweet for me. And I don’t intend to wait another 50 years either!

    The tragedy today is the same as it was then (in 1870), btw–it didn’t have to be this way. The progress could have been made simultaneously. That possibility has now been rejected twice in our history by a group who were offered a hand up by the patriarchy.

  • gxm, that kind of argument is bogus. “What thinking person…” It is possible to understand the import to the citizens at the same time a person recognizes that this is not the story most people know. It’s possible to both appreciate the racial progress while hating the patriarchy that supported it, and resenting it, and all the complicated feelings that go along with being a victim or oppression.

    I suggest that either/or thinking, that sort of “you’re either with us or against us” sentiment, is part of the problem in our own progress.

  • Lili


    It is easier to tell you who voted for Ledbetter (and with all the democrats, except Ted Kennedy)

    Collins (R-ME)
    Hutchison (R-TX)
    Murkowski (R-AK)
    Sanders (I-VT)
    Snowe (R-ME)
    Specter (R-PA)

    You will notice that McCain voted against it. Here’s the link:


  • KendallJ


    I can live with Gillibrand getting Hillary’s seat. She’s a Hillary Clinton loyalist and comes from upstate where I’m originally from. My family will be proud and I’m glad Gov. Paterson has been listening. I would have picked Maloney, but Gillibrand is a good pick. I hear she refused to sell her super delegate to Nancy Pelosi for Obama. She has integrity and I’m glad Gov. Paterson did the right thing and filled Clinton’s seat with a strong woman. For me, the fact that she is a die hard Hillary supporter is sweet! She isn’t a bleeding heart liberal, but is great on women’s issues. He just got my vote in his upcoming election.

  • KendallJ


    This is why I couldn’t even fathom voting for McCain in the general election, even though I was livid at the democrats for their primary election rigging and blatant sexism. I voted for the green ticket.

    It should be noted that the republicans who voted for it were primarily women.

  • Anna

    Anna Belle – I so appreciate how you think, including this recent comment: “I suggest that either/or thinking, that sort of ‘you’re either with us or against us’ sentiment, is part of the problem in our own progress.” Yes, indeed. Most things in life are so much more complex than the either/or form that our brains seem attracted to. I’ve become particularly aware of this on the rare occasions when I listen to some news commentator ask a question. It’s often either/or, this or that. Curiously, the interviewee often falls into the trap and works within the somewhat arbitrary confines of what has been doled out to her/him via the question without maintaining there own sense of creative thinking and personal integrity and answering the issue as they see fit.

  • I agree, Anna, I see it all the time in the media too. It is maddening. Just once I’d like to see someone say, “You’ve got a sloppy frame on that question, but if you’re asking….” And then just cut to the heart of the matter, dare to speak the complexities.

    I had to comment, because “any thinking person” can clearly see the shades of gray here. Moreover, thinking people might consider what happened to the women’s movement the last time some of its members expressed their justifiable anger in less than polite language. I see that happening again, just as it did all those years ago. Then, the women’s movement literally fractured over those who would support the 15th amendment despite the pact being broken (and there was a pact, it doesn’t get talked about much, but it was made), and those who refused to support it because the pact had been broken. It might not have taken 50 more years if that fracture hadn’t occurred, and that was part of the design, I believe, in advancing black’s suffrage over women’s suffrage at the time. As I have said many times, it costs so much less to share with 6% than it does to share with 51%. Beware that trap is all I’m saying.

    Anyway, I’ve digressed a bit here because it’s late and I’m tired, but I guess I was meandering around to the point that I worry about people who can see absolutely no progress in this. Yes, bi-racial patriarchy, I agree, but wtf, black people weren’t even full humans when this nation started and whatever the degree of his color, qualifications, who raised him or whatever, it’s significant. It’s significant in exactly the same way it would have been if Palin had been elected with McCain. Not the best case scenario, admittedly, but damn, not a white guy! 43 frickin’ white guys, and nearly 240 years later…

  • black male’s suffrage, that is…

  • Lili


    You obviously know more about both Maloney and Gillibrand than I do. I too heard that Gillibrand refused to cave for Nancy Pelosi and for that reason alone I am really pleased that KG was chosen to have Hillary’s Senate seat.

    Everyone, please let us contact Paterson and thank him for supporting a woman to replace Hillary.

  • marille

    Agree with most of Violet’s post. my only objection, if I understand it correctly, there is no automatic fallout for women after achievements for African Americans. yes voting rights for women came 70 years later, but that was after a very long and torturous struggle. Scores of women made the fight for voting rights their life issues. it took generations of actively fighting women willing to go to prison and do anything to get the attention and create pressure. just read in the notes to Wollstonecraft’s “vindication of the rights of women” that it took French women until 1944 to become citizens (that is over 150 years). I can share the concern of one of the commentators above that there might be a hispanic, asian, indian male president before a female president.
    many Hillary supporters have now joined the fight for the ERA. It is so telling that the constitution addresses equal rights based on race and religion but not gender/sex. without inclusion of females in the constitution it is very hard to fight the type of sexism against the female candidates we experienced last year. over 70% of the population supports the ERA or think it is already ratified, but there are still 15 states who did not ratify the ERA (Virginia on of them). Active attempts for state ERA ratification are underway in Florida and Arkansas (may be more).
    In the DC/Virginia/Maryland area we have monthly strategy meetings,( the next on 2-15-09 3-5pm, if anybody is in the area).
    I am very pleased to hear about the choice of Gillibrand. She is quite young and has the chance to raise to seniority in the senate.
    I think if we are serious about having 51% representation we cannot ignore the fact that the constitution ignores us. and that is where we need to start. otherwise we’ll see any minority or religion represented but not females. because the constitution does not state that we have equal rights.

  • Violet, I applaud your assessment that we remain a patriarchal society. This will not change unless and until we understand the importance of proportional representation. What we essentially have today is 83 men (Senators) legislating for 150 million women. It is truly beyond the burdens of taxation without representation! Parity and ideas of equal pay for equal work don’t exist precisely because women do not make up in percentages the number of votes cast by lawmakers or the number of justices ruling on these issues. Without that, we have to rely on paternalism – some guy who gets the support of women for agreeing that women should have a voice – but a man should speak for her the majority of times. This smacks of the days of Alice Paul who was repeated questioned as to why she wanted women to get involved with such issues when they had the children and husband to look after.

  • P.S. Remember, it wasn’t until 1992 that women held more than 3 senate seats during any term. And many of these female senators were patriarchal appointees. Today, women have made up only 1% of all elected positions since the founding of this country. We have always been 51% of the population but have never been represented to that extent at ANY level of government or in the private corporate sector.

  • Very well written and I like the perspective. Thank-you. I was very offended by Ms Obama’s judgement of Senator Clinton’s personal marital choice. It showed great naitivity and lack of respect for the art of womanhood. Truly some women flower as Women and as in your article some ‘support’ the Patriarchy by berating other women. UGH.