Understanding Patriarchy and Men’s Power

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By Joseph Pleck, PhD

Printed with permission


In recent years, we have come to understand that relations between men and women are governed by a sexual politics that exists outside individual men’s and women’s needs and choices.  It has taken us much longer to recognize that there is a systematic sexual politics of male-male relationships as well.  Under patriarchy, men’s relationships with other men cannot help but be shaped and patterned by patriarchal norms, though they are less obvious than the norms governing male-female relationships.  A society could not have the kinds of power dynamics that exist between women and men in our society without certain kinds of systematic power dynamics operating among men as well.

Men do not just happily bond together to oppress women.  In addition to hierarchy over women, men create hierarchies and rankings among themselves according to criteria of “masculinity.” Men at each rank of masculinity compete with each other, with whatever resources they have, for the differential payoffs that patriarchy allows men.

Men in different societies choose different grounds on which to rank each other.  Many societies use the simple facts of age and physical strength to stratify men.  Our society stratifies men according to physical strength and athletic ability in the early years, but later in life focuses on success with women and ability to make money.

In our society, one of the most critical rankings among men deriving from patriarchal sexual politics is the division between gay and straight men. This division has powerful negative consequences for gay men and gives straight men privileges.  But in addition, this division has a larger symbolic meaning.  Our society uses the male heterosexual-homosexual dichotomy as a central symbol for all the rankings of masculinity, for the division on any grounds between males who are “real men” and have power, and males who are not.  Any kind of powerlessness or refusal to compete becomes imbued with imagery of homosexuality.  In the men’s movement documentary film  Men’s Lives,  a high school male who studies modern dance says that others often think he is gay because he is a dancer.  When asked why, he gives three reasons:  because dancers are “free and loose,” because they are “not big like football players,” and because “you’re not trying to kill anybody.”     The patriarchal connection: if you are not trying to kill other men, you must be gay.

Another dramatic example of men’s use of homosexual insults as weapons in their power struggle with each other comes from a document which provides one of the richest case studies of the politics of male-male relationships to yet appear: Woodward and Bernstein’s The Final Days.  Ehrlichman jokes that Kissinger is queer, Kissinger calls an unnamed colleague a psychopathic homosexual, and Haig jokes that Nixon and Rebozo are having a homosexual relationship.  From the highest ranks of male power to the lowest, the gay-straight division is a central symbol of all the forms of ranking and power relationships which men put on each other.


The relationships between the patriarchal stratification and competition which men experience with each other, and men’s patriarchal domination of women, are complex.  Let us briefly consider several points of interconnection between them.  First, women are used as SYMBOLS OF SUCCESS in men’s competition with each other.  It is sometimes thought that competition for women is the ultimate source of men’s competition with each other.  There is considerable reason, however, to see women not as the ultimate source of male-male competition, but rather as only symbols in a male contest where real roots lie much deeper.

Second, women often play a MEDIATING role in the patriarchal struggle among men.  Women get together with each other, and provide the social lubrication necessary to smooth over men’s inability to relate to each other non-competitively.

A modern myth, James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, portrays what happens when men’s relationships with each other are not mediated by women. According to Heilburn, the central message of Deliverance is that when men get beyond the bounds of civilization, which really means beyond the bounds of the civilizing effects of women, men rape and murder each other.

A third function women play in male-male sexual politics is that relationships with women provide men a REFUGE from the dangers and stresses of relating to other males.  Traditional relationships with women have provided men a safe place in which they can recuperate from the stresses they have absorbed in their daily struggle with other men, and in which they can express their needs without fearing that these needs will be used against them.  If women begin to compete with men and have power in their own right, men are threatened by the loss of this refuge.

Finally, a fourth function of women in males’ patriarchal competition with each other is to reduce the stress of competition by serving as anUNDERCLASS.  As Elizabeth Janeway has written in Between Myth and Morning, under patriarchy women represent the lowest status, a status to which men can fall only under the most exceptional circumstances, if at all. Competition among men is serious, but its intensity is mitigated by the fact that there is a lowest possible level to which men cannot fall.  One reason men fear women’s liberation, writes Janeway, is that the liberation of women will take away this unique underclass status of women.  Men will now risk falling lower than ever before, into a new underclass composed of the weak of both sexes. Thus, women’s liberation means that the stakes of patriarchal failure for men are higher than they have been before, and that it is even more important for men not to lose.

Thus, men’s patriarchal competition with each other makes use of women as symbols of success, as mediators, as refuges, and as an underclass. In each of these roles, women are dominated by men in ways that derive directly from men’s struggle with each other.  Men need to deal with the sexual politics of their relationships with each other if they are to deal fully with the sexual politics of their relationships with women.


At one level, men’s social identity is defined by the power they have over women and the power they can compete for against other men.  But at another level, most men have very little power over their own lives.  How can we understand this paradox?

The major demand to which men must accede in contemporary society is that they play their required role in the economy.  But this role is not intrinsically satisfying.  The social researcher Daniel Yankelovich has suggested that about 80% of U.S. male workers experience their jobs as intrinsically meaningless and onerous.  They experience their jobs and themselves as worthwhile only through priding themselves on the hard work and personal sacrifice they are making to be breadwinners for their families.  Accepting these hardships reaffirms their role as family providers and therefore as true men.

Linking the breadwinner role to masculinity in this way has several consequences for men.  Men can get psychological payoffs from their jobs which these jobs never provide in themselves.  By training men to accept payment for their work in feelings of masculinity, rather than in feelings of satisfaction, men will not demand that their jobs be made more meaningful.  As a result, jobs can be designed for the more important goal of generating profits. Further, the connection between work and masculinity makes men accept unemployment as their personal failing as males, rather than analyze and change the profit-based economy whose inevitable dislocations make them unemployed or unemployable.

Men’s jobs are increasingly structured as if men had no direct roles or responsibilities in the family–indeed, as if they did not have families at all.  But paradoxically, at the same time that men’s responsibilities in the family are reduced to facilitate more efficient performance of their work role, the increasing dehumanization of work means that jobs give men only the satisfaction of fulfilling the family breadwinner role.

The relative privilege that men get from sexism, and more importantly the false consciousness of privilege men get from sexism, play a critical role in reconciling men to their subordination in the larger political economy.  This analysis does not imply that men’s sexism will go away if they gain control over their own lives, or that men do not have to deal with their sexism until they gain this control.   Rather, the point is that we cannot fully understand men’s sexism or men’s subordination in the larger society unless we understand how deeply they are related.

Ultimately, we have to understand that patriarchy has two halves which are intimately related to each other.  Patriarchy is a dual system, a system in which men oppress women, and in which men oppress themselves and each other.  At one level, challenging one part of patriarchy inherently leads to challenging the other.  This is one way to interpret why the idea of women’s liberation led so soon to the idea of men’s liberation, which ultimately means freeing men from the patriarchal sexual dynamics they now experience with each other.  But because the patriarchal sexual dynamics of male-male relationships are less obvious than those of male-female relationships, men now face a real danger:  while the patriarchal oppression of women may be  lessened as a result of the women’s movement, the patriarchal oppression of men may be untouched.  The real danger for men posed by the attack that the women’s movement is making on patriarchy is not that this attack will go too far, but that it will not go far enough. Ultimately, men cannot go any further in relating to women as equals