but in the interest of social and familial justice and harmony it must be done.
As requested, Brown told of being at a book signing where, after her presentation, she signed four copies of one of her books for a woman who had her husband in tow. After Brown had signed the books, the woman took them and said to her husband, “Come on, babe. Let’s go.”
The husband said, “No, I want to talk to her for a minute.”
“No. Let’s go. Let’s go,” the woman insisted.
The husband was adamant: “No. I want to talk to her for a minute.”
The woman would not relent. “No. Come on. Let’s go. Let’s go.”
The man was clear. “I’m going to talk to her for a second.”
At this point in relating the story, Brown told Tippett, “There was some tension in that conversation.” She recalled thinking of the man, “Oh, my God, you need to go. I don’t know why you want to stay.” What could a man have to say of merit or value about shame, the subject of the book Brown had just signed for the woman and the couple’s three daughters?
Acknowledging Brown’s discomfort with the tension, Tippett quipped, “Go with your wife!” Brown echoed her interviewer’s comment: “Yeah, go!”
The man, Brown continued, thanked her for the presentation she had just given. He said he liked everything she had said, especially the idea that people are happier and healthier when they reach out, tell their stories and “show up.” “But,” he said to the Social Work professor, “you didn’t mention men.” Apparently unfazed, Brown responded “I don’t study men.” The man could not help his sarcasm. “Well, that’s convenient,” he said. And then he continued, “Because we have shame, we have deep shame, but when we reach out and tell our stories, we get the emotional [bleep] beat out of us.”
The man then attempted to preempt the exculpation he may have come to expect when attempting to discuss men’s problems with women. Brown recalls that he said, “And before you say anything about those mean fathers and those coaches and those brothers and those bully friends: my wife and three daughters, the ones you just signed the books for, they would rather see me die on top of my white horse than have to watch me fall off.” The man in the yellow golf sweater then said “Thanks for listening,” and just turned and walked away.
Brown told Tippett this was an epiphany for her. “You know, when truth hits you, it just hits you and you know what it is the second it comes to you.” But it was a vague, partial epiphany at best. And her arrival at truth widely missed the destination.
The man had told Brown the problem wasn’t coming from men. Nonetheless, Brown told Tippett, “I remember driving home and having this moment where I was like, oh, my God. I am the patriarchy. I’m facilitating this. I’m participating in this.”
She was indeed facilitating this. And she was indeed participating in this. But this was not the patriarchy, nor any part of it. Patriarchy is a system of male power for the benefit of men. This was clearly not for the benefit of men.
What, then, was it? What system of power was Brown facilitating and participating in? Why could she not name it? And what are the implications of these questions for social research, social policy, social services and Social Work—and for our men, boys, families, communities and nation?
Social Constructionism teaches that what we perceive as reality is regulated and mediated through language, idioms, memes, narratives and other linguistic and shared literary devices that contain and convey our prevailing cultural assumptions. “Patriarchy” is a good example. That single word packs a tremendous cognitive and emotional payload. By its very utterance it sets conversations on edge. Patriarchy must exist because it has a name.
American philosopher Susanne K. Langer observed that “[T]he notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived; its influence might well transform the entire mode of living and feeling, in the whole species, within a few generations.” Langer thus suggests that naming the unnamed can be prelude to analysis, discussion and change.
We might infer that the lack of a name for something serves only the purposes of those who benefit from keeping that thing just as it is—vaguely if at all recognized, poorly understood, seldom and only elementally discussed, with every conversation about that thing having to start from a blank slate. Keeping something nameless may be the surest, easiest way to protect it from change, redress or focused attention by a collective effort to solve the problems it causes.
And so we struggle to understand the phenomenon Brené Brown wrongly identified with the errant and diversionary term “patriarchy.”
So what word can we use to facilitate our discussion and understanding of women’s power?
Some might suggest “matriarchy” as the female corollary to patriarchy. But there is no “archy”—no arch, no proud, vaulting structure—involved in women’s power. In fact, women’s power depends on just the opposite. As writer and men’s activist Lawrence Diggs once observed, “Women’s greatest strength is their facade of weakness, while men’s greatest weakness is their facade of strength.” No, women’s power is not the “other side of the coin” from men’s power; it is not parallel to men’s power. It operates on other planes, in different dimensions, with altogether different orientations of up, down, in and out. It is fashioned of altogether different forms of matter and energy.
The patriarchy, the male power structure, is often envisioned as a vertical hierarchy, like a pyramid. It is constructed of individual blocks, looking very much like genogram symbols of solitary men. A dollar sign at the top of the pyramid represents economic and political power, the focus of the male hierarchy.
Viewed from a distance, the patriarchy appears powerful and impressive. If we look down and to the side we see a much less imposing structure—a low wall or fence perhaps?—that represents the subordinate realm of women.
But if patriarchy and men’s overabundance of patriarchal power and privilege explains everything between the sexes, why are men faring so much worse than women in various important ways? Why so much male incarceration? Why so much “successful” male suicide? Why so much self-destructive male behavior? Why so many fathers alienated from their children in a society in which social work recognizes the Importance of Human Relationships as a core value?
Is the grand narrative of “The Patriarchy” possibly missing something?
The answer, as it so often does, comes from a fresh point of view. Let’s imagine climbing into a helicopter and flying over the tall masculine pyramid. Let’s imagine looking down on the pyramid and noticing that it is rather two dimensional—in some ways the facade that Diggs envisioned—without much depth or stability.
And what of the low, female structure? From our new perspective, we can see that it is actually a complex web of interactions centered around a Heart, the iconic representation of relationship, intimacy, communication and emotion. We see that its primary constituents are represented in closely connected genograms of women-with-children.
It is the female power structure, every bit as powerful as The Patriarchy.
The interconnectedness of the female power structure suggests the name we so badly need to enable a truly grand, truly complete narrative.
The word “matrix” is closely related etymologically to mater, mother.
- Generally, a matrix is defined as “that which gives origin or form to a thing, or which serves to enclose it.”
- In Biology, a matrix is “the intercellular substance of a tissue” (a “scaffold,” according to my biologist wife).
- An archaic meaning is “the womb.”
The quintessential misuse of patriarchal power occurs when a man tells a woman, “If you don’t do what I want, you will never get another penny from me.” The quintessential misuse of matrical power happens when a woman tells a man, “If you don’t do what I want, I will make sure you never see your kids again.”
Are we certain we know which of those two threats is more devastating to its target? Is it always one as opposed to the other? Do we find ourselves motivated to minimize one abuse and its effect on one class of victims by thinking, “Well, men don’t really care about their kids anyway”?
Dehumanizing—even demonizing—“the other” is a standard feature of social injustice.
This is a much more accurate depiction of power relationships between women and men.
In the interest of social and familial harmony, we need to get a grip on that.
Nobody gives up power willingly. That includes women.