Raising Boys in a Patriarchal Society

Podcast - Raising boys under the patriarchy
Hello! Welcome to another episode of Rebel Mothers. So real quick, before I get into today’s episode, I have a little announcement - this is my last full episode before I take a break for summer. I’ll release another episode next week giving an update on what I’ll be working on - I've got a new project I’m diving into that I’m really excited about, but also, my kids are out of school in three weeks and anyone who has kids in school knows what a cluster the last month of school is - I’ve got one graduating middle school and another graduating elementary and apparently these all get parties now, plus there's the usual teacher gifts, school spirit days, end-of-year projects that require last minute runs to target, field trips, and just so much more. So I’m going to pause on releasing an episode every week during summer break, and we’ll talk more about that next week, but today!! Let’s talk about raising boys while living in a patriarchal society.

So, obviously I’ve brought up the patriarchy before, but today we’re going to talk more deeply about this system and specifically its impact on men and what that means for people who are raising sons. In this episode, we'll explore the origins of patriarchy, debunk some common myths and arguments against patriarchy, and discuss how it affects not only women but also men and society as a whole.

I remember a few years ago when I was browsing the toy aisle in Target, I overheard two young women talking. One asked, “What did you buy him for his 1st birthday?” Her friend replied proudly “Oh! We got him a baby doll. You know, I really just want to defy those gender stereotypes that say boys don’t play with dolls.”

I smiled to myself, because I remembered buying my oldest son a baby doll as well, with the same intention. And I’ll tell you later in this episode how that worked out. Because as mothers, caregivers, and allies, we have a responsibility to raise boys who challenge patriarchal norms and work towards a more equitable future. But we also know that patriarchy harms men as well as women, so we have a responsibility to protect them as well. How do we balance all this? Is it as simple as buying them baby dolls to nurture? (Spoiler alert…it’s not.) Let’s get started!
Where did the patriarchy come from
We cannot have a conversation about how boys are raised without talking about the patriarchy. Just a reminder on what “the patriarchy” really is. The patriarchy is a social system that prioritizes men's dominance and control over women, perpetuating gender inequality and reinforcing power imbalances based on gender. For a long time patriarchal beliefs were conscious and deliberate and often centered on the notion that men were inherently superior to women, ordained by divine authority to hold positions of power and control in society, while relegating women to subordinate roles deemed suitable for their supposed inferior intellect and capabilities.

Now, it is often an unconscious thing - very few people today are walking around going, “Oh yeah, men are definitely smarter and better than women.” But the reality is, this unconscious belief system that has perpetuated over thousands of years HAS unequally distributed more power to men than women. This is seen in personal relationships, work life, spirituality, politics, and educational systems.

After we saw the Barbie movie last summer, my teenage son asked me when patriarchy started. And of course there isn’t one simple answer, there’s no one point in history or geographical location where one day we lived in gender equality and then the next day men were all dominating women. There are many theories on how the patriarchy evolved, right, has it always been this way? Is men’s domination over women simply natural to the human species, and it’s always going to be this way? I have to admit in my darker moments sometimes it can feel overwhelming when you look at the history and even when we see how far we’ve come, seeing how far we still have to go, that can be pretty discouraging.

There was a great book published last year, Angela Saini's "The Patriarchs: The Origins of Inequality '' that drew on anthropology, archaeology, sociology, to explore the historical roots of gender inequality. Saini challenges the notion that male dominance is inherent or biologically determined, instead highlighting how social constructs have perpetuated and reinforced gender disparities over millennia.

The book debunks a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding gender roles and innate abilities. Saini dismantles arguments that try to justify gender inequality with claims of biological superiority or inferiority. Instead, she emphasizes the role society plays in shaping gender norms. Here’s a quote, "If we're to understand how humans came to dominate the planet, it's worth asking why we continue to portray ourselves as biological creatures rather than social ones." End quote. She challenges readers to question the idea of biological determinism and recognize the social construction of gender roles and power dynamics in order to reconsider commonly held assumptions about human behavior and capabilities.

Basically patriarchy evolved in different ways, in different places, at different times, but not everywhere, it wasn’t inevitable. In the afterword, Saini writes, quote: “Some will claim that oppression is permanently woven into who we are. They will say that humans are inherently selfish and violent, that entire categories of people are naturally dominant or subordinate. I have to ask: would we still manage to care about each other so much if that were true?” end quote
Arguments against patriarchy
Okay so Of course, whenever I throw around words like patriarchy and feminism, I’m reminded that not everyone has the same definitions that I do, some people deny these ideologies exist, and some actually blame women and feminism for everything that’s wrong with the world today. (Which, ironically, is a very patriarchal thing to do.)

So let’s address some of the common arguments against patriarchy. Also, to do research on this episode, I had to read and listen to quite a few articles that ranged from mildly annoying or mind-numbing, to outright terrifying in their hostility towards women. I bring these arguments to you so you don’t have to do that. You’re welcome!

Argument 1 - Patriarchy doesn’t exist
Some people argue that patriarchy actually doesn’t even exist, it is a myth or an outdated concept, claiming that modern society has now moved on to gender equality and that men and women have equal opportunities. They may point to legal rights and protections for women as evidence that patriarchy no longer exists, conveniently overlooking systemic inequalities and social norms that still favor men in many spheres of life. Sometimes they pull out the awful statistics about how men commit more suicide or live shorter lives as an example, right, if patriarchy existed then surely men wouldn’t be suffering at all, right? We’ll get into how patriarchy harms men in a minute, so this argument doesn’t hold any water for me.

Argument 2 - Feminism is actually the Problem
Critics of feminism often argue that feminist movements have gone too far and women are trying to undermine or reverse traditional gender roles, which is leading to societal instability and confusion. They may argue that feminism has led to the marginalization of men, portraying them as inherently oppressive and responsible for all gender-related issues. Some critics also claim that feminism ignores men's issues, such as higher rates of suicide, workplace fatalities, and incarceration. This is also where we get the incels, or “involuntary celibates,” which are groups of mostly young men who blame the fact that they aren’t getting laid on feminism. They believe men are the true victims of gendered oppression, that male power has been usurped, and that feminism is a front to disguise men’s subjugation. The whole incel culture portrays women as irrational and emotional creatures who are blindly pursuing the biological imperatives to seek sexual satisfaction and material security through marriage.

Argument 3 - It’s not patriarchy, it’s something else
Some people may agree that there is gender disparity but they’ll blame something else besides an ideology of patriarchy. For example, they might argue that economic factors, rather than patriarchy, are the primary drivers of gender disparities. They may point to women's increasing participation in the workforce and economic gains as evidence that gender inequality is diminishing naturally over time. Or they go the biological route and say that women are inherently weaker, or that since we are more nurturing and better with children we should be in the home while men should be out in the world making decisions, so patriarchy isn’t actually a problem, this is just the way the world works.

Argument 4 - Cultural Relativism
Cultural relativism is the idea that cultural beliefs, values, and practices should be understood and judged within the context of their own culture, without imposing external standards or judgments. So some critics of feminism or defenders of patriarchy argue that gender norms and power structures vary across cultures and historical contexts, suggesting that what may be perceived as patriarchy in one society is not necessarily applicable universally. They may argue that imposing Western feminist ideals on other cultures is ethnocentric and ignores diverse perspectives on gender and power. And this is not to say that this argument is wrong, right, we learned earlier that gender inequality and oppression has not ever been the same for everyone, everywhere, but just because cultures have different ways of approaching gender, doesn’t mean that patriarchy doesn’t exist.

Overall, these arguments against patriarchy and feminism all usually overlook systemic inequalities and fail to address the ongoing struggles for gender equity faced by many individuals around the world. Most people who identify as feminists today hold the belief that feminism as an ideology is not just about gender equality, it’s about ending all forms of oppression - racism, ableism, classism, and so on. Saini’s book offers insights into how patriarchy intersects with other forms of oppression, like racism, colonialism, and capitalism, and she emphasizes the interconnectedness of these systems of power and the need for intersectional approaches in addressing inequality.

So now that we’ve talked about some of the arguments against patriarchy, let’s accept that it exists and that feminism isn’t about bashing men, or trying to make women like men, or putting women in control over men, it’s about elevating everyone to equal status.
How the patriarchy hurts men
Because here’s the thing: under patriarchy, EVERYONE suffers. Despite the misconception that it solely benefits them, patriarchy harms men in many various ways. Just listen to some of these stats: Men are more likely to smoke, abuse alcohol, engage in high-risk behavior and have accidents at work. They’re less likely to go to the doctor, and I just read in a recent article that 80 percent of drowning victims are male even though their swimming skills are equivalent to those of women, because they’re less likely to wear life jackets, more likely to overestimate their swimming abilities and more likely to take risks. Men make up 50% of the population but nearly 80% of suicides in 2021.

And a lot of these behaviors can be traced back to patriarchy. Let’s look at a few ways in which patriarchy negatively impacts men:

1. **Emotional Repression**: Patriarchal norms dictate that men should suppress emotions such as vulnerability, sadness, and fear, reinforcing the idea that expressing such feelings is a sign of weakness. This emotional repression can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and emotional isolation, as men are discouraged from seeking support or discussing their feelings openly.

2. **Toxic Masculinity**: Patriarchy fosters the perpetuation of toxic masculinity, which emphasizes traits such as dominance, aggression, and stoicism while denigrating qualities like empathy, compassion, and sensitivity. Men who conform to these rigid gender norms may engage in harmful behaviors such as aggression, violence, and risk-taking to prove their masculinity, leading to negative consequences for themselves and others.

3. **Limited Expression of Identity**: Patriarchal norms constrain men's ability to express their identity fully, as they are expected to adhere to narrow standards of masculinity. Because girls and women have always been seen as second-rate, a guy acting in a way considered "feminine" is basically seen as dropping a rung on society's ladder. This limits men's freedom to explore diverse interests, emotions, and ways of being, reinforcing a rigid and limiting understanding of what it means to be a man.

4. **Unrealistic Expectations**: Patriarchal societies often place unrealistic expectations on men to fulfill traditional roles as breadwinners, protectors, and providers, regardless of their individual circumstances or desires. This pressure to conform to societal expectations can lead to stress, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy for men who struggle to meet these standards.

5. **Limited Role in Caregiving**: Patriarchal structures devalue caregiving and domestic responsibilities, relegating them primarily to women. As a result, men may face stigma and discrimination when seeking to participate fully in caregiving roles, such as being a stay-at-home parent or taking parental leave. This limits men's ability to engage in nurturing and caregiving activities and can strain their relationships with their children and partners.

Overall, patriarchy hurts men by perpetuating harmful gender norms, restricting their emotional expression and personal identity, and imposing unrealistic expectations that can lead to stress, anxiety, and emotional distress.

If you want to read more about how patriarchy harms men, I highly recommend Liz Plank's excellent book "For the Love of Men.” She shows how patriarchal expectations limit men's emotional expression and hinder their ability to form authentic connections and explores the damaging effects of toxic masculinity on men's relationships and personal development.

Throughout the book, Plank challenges readers to confront their own biases and reevaluate societal norms that perpetuate gender inequality. She calls for a shift towards a more inclusive and empathetic understanding of masculinity, one that embraces vulnerability, emotional intelligence, and mutual respect. As she puts it, quote "We need to create a world where men feel free to be themselves, not just the men they think they're supposed to be." end quote

So this is all in my head when I think about raising my boys. And now we get to the heart of this episode - how the hell ARE you supposed to raise boys in a patriarchy? How do I make sure my sons aren’t harmed by patriarchal norms? How do I raise them to be proactively feminist themselves, using their privileges as white men to dismantle these systems that are harmful to everyone?
Raising feminist boys

Well, here are a few thoughts, each of which is worthy of lengthy discussion on its own.
1. Model healthy communication & equal gender roles in the home
Demonstrate respectful and open communication in your own relationships and interactions. Show your sons how to express themselves assertively as an ally while also listening actively and empathetically to others. Every family structure looks different, but if we’re looking at the stereotypical nuclear family with a father and mother, there should be an intentional and conscious conversation about who will engage in what kind of work so that it is divided up evenly. That means Dad should be cooking, cleaning, filling out school forms, packing lunches, folding laundry, comforting boo-boos, running errands, managing after-school activity schedules, just as much as Mom.

If you’re in a family situation where one parent works outside the home to earn an income and the other parent stays home to take care of all the childcare and housework, this conversation is even more critical. It’s all too easy for the stay-at-home parent (which is usually the mother, because remember, under patriarchy, women earn less money than men) to become the doer-of-all-things, and this carework is then taken for granted. If the income-earning parent gets to come home from work and relax in the evenings and weekends, then the stay-at-home parent should be relaxing just as much, because care work is also work that we need a break from.
2. Move beyond the dolls to actively promote feminine values.
Yes, I gave both my sons dolls, and honestly, they never played with them. In fact, the doll lay neglected in their closet until my daughter, at the age of two, uncovered the poor little baby and promptly took him to her room to care for him. But it goes beyond the dolls and traditional “girl” toys. We tell our daughters they can do anything a boy can do…but do we tell our sons they can do anything a girl can do?

Encourage your sons to question traditional gender roles and expectations. Help them understand that masculinity is diverse and multifaceted, and that there's no one "right" way to be a man. Also elevate traditionally “feminine” characteristics, because under patriarchy, femininity is not as valued as masculinity. All humans are capable of compassion, creativity, nurturance, warmth, vulnerability, generosity, fear, sadness and so on. There’s a disturbing belief among the far-right that masculinity is under attack, that boys are being coddled, and teaching them compassion is emasculating. All this does is reinforce dangerous messages that further entrench young men into believing that what makes them men is denying these human attributes.

This brings me to number 3,
3. Address your own unconscious patriarchal norms
It will take practice encouraging boys to be vulnerable, compassionate, and creative, and it also starts with checking your own unconscious biases about men and feminine values. How do you feel about men crying in front of you? What’s your gut reaction if I tell you to picture a man braiding another man’s hair? What would you think if your male coworker proudly showed you the quilt he just finished making? Recognizing how the patriarchy has affected our own beliefs about how men are supposed to behave is a good place to start, because once we’re aware of them, we can start to unpack why we think like this, question if these thoughts still serve us, and decide what we want to do about changing our belief system around men and feminine values if needed.
4. Encourage Emotional Intelligence:
In addition to never again saying the phrase, "boys don't cry," it's crucial to actively promote emotional intelligence and empathy in boys. Encourage open discussions about feelings, validate their emotions, and provide them with healthy outlets for expression. Teach them to recognize and respect emotions in themselves and others, fostering a sense of compassion and understanding that transcends traditional gender roles.
5. Address all forms of oppression, not just gender inequality
This is a big one. Patriarchy doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and women aren’t the only class of people who are facing injustice and oppression. We live in a society of interlocking oppressions, namely: white supremacy, heteronormativity, extractive capitalism, imperialism, and ableism, to name a few. Intersectionality means there are people who are facing multiple injustices based on their various identities. Raising feminist sons means raising boys who are aware of their systems and are actively working to dismantle them.

The good news is that no one is born prejudiced. It is something that is learned, and as such, it’s possible to unlearn it. Having conversations about these topics can be uncomfortable but necessary. There are a lot of excellent resources out there on raising anti-racist kids.
6. Foster Critical Media Literacy:
Equip boys with the skills to critically analyze and deconstruct media messages about gender. It’s good to watch movies and shows that are diverse and inclusive, but it’s also important to teach them how to question stereotypes and representations of masculinity and femininity in movies, TV shows, advertising, and social media. Go back and watch some of your favorite movies from the 90s and early 2000s with your kids and point out all the stuff that just would not fly today (and maybe reflect on how that affected you too!)
7. Promote Consent and Respectful Relationships:
From the very beginning, teach your kids about the importance of consent, boundaries, and respect in all relationships, whether romantic, platonic, or familial. Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy, meaning they should have control over what happens to their body, including who gets to touch it, how, when, etc. If they don’t want to be hugged by Aunt Sarah, they don’t have to be hugged. Then teach them that consent goes both ways, and they have a responsibility to listen and honor others' boundaries.

When they get a little older, this will include talking about how sexism and misogyny have a lot to do with consent because they can lead to harmful myths and misconceptions, like:
Men should always want sex and are expected to push the boundaries of how far they can go with partners.
The woman is a “gatekeeper” responsible for pacing or stopping sexual acts.
Women should obey men.
It isn’t “manly” or romantic to ask before kissing a woman or making a move sexually.

Have these open and honest conversations early and frequently to help promote respect and consent.
8. Advocate for Gender-Inclusive Education:
Support educational initiatives that promote gender equality and inclusivity in schools. This is super important now that there are some conservative parent groups out there who are actively trying to shut down conversations about gender in school. Encourage schools to incorporate feminist perspectives into the curriculum, teach about the historical contributions of women, and challenge gender stereotypes in classroom discussions and activities. Maybe you can advocate for inclusive sex education that addresses topics like consent, healthy relationships, and LGBTQ+ identities.
9. Lead by Example:
Perhaps most importantly, model feminist values and behaviors in your own life. Yes, we talked about modeling equity at home, but also model these values out in the world. Show your sons what it means to be an ally to women and marginalized genders by actively supporting gender equality initiatives, advocating for women's rights, and challenging sexism and discrimination when you encounter it. Your actions speak louder than words, and by living your values, you demonstrate to your sons what it means to be a true feminist ally.
Okay, so as we wrap this up, just a reminder that raising boys in a patriarchal society requires intentional efforts that go beyond challenging traditional gender roles and stereotypes. I’ve listed a few here but what do you all think?? These are some of the ideas that I’ve had but I’d love to hear other Rebel Mothers’ experiences and insights. How are you all raising your sons to survive and thrive while also dismantling patriarchy?

Something to remember is that motherhood and social justice are lifelong practices. You’ll likely screw up over and over again but you always have the opportunity to learn more and do better at both. And the more we recognize that, the more opportunities we have to build resilience, develop tools, and find community support to help us in raising feminist boys. Thanks for listening!

Raising Boys in a Patriarchal Society
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