Is The Patriarchy Dead?

And does Feminism deserve to survive it?


When writer Hanna Rosin recently published an article on Slate.com stating that "the patriarchy is dead," much of the feminist response amounted to "burn the heretic!" New Republic editor and blogger Nora Caplan-Bricker accused Rosin of "mansplaining"—the femosphere's pejorative term for supposedly obtuse and arrogant male arguments on gender, apparently now also applied to female dissent—and being the patriarchy's unwitting tool. San Jose State University philosophy professor Janet Stemwedel tweeted her gloating over Rosin's Wikipedia page being vandalized to read, for a brief time, "Hanna Rosin (born 1970) is a terrible human being."

Ironically, the feminist tendency to shoot the bringer of good news was the very topic of Rosin's essay, adapted from the new epilogue to the paperback edition of her book, The End of Men—which, despite its title, is more about female ascendance than male decline. Rosin noted with bemusement that rebuttals to her report on women's rising fortunes were greeted with palpable relief—not by male chauvinists but by feminists. (It isn't just Rosin: when a recent study demonstrated that female political candidates are not judged more negatively than male ones, not even for their looks and dress, feminists reacted with either silence or sniping.)

So where is this dreaded American patriarchy Rosin is covering up? Some critiques of her argument boil down to "it's only affluent white women who are doing well" (and poor minority men are presumably basking in privilege). A gentleman critic, fellow Slate.com author Matthew Yglesias, cites men's numerical dominance in corporate America—as if Rosin might be unaware of these statistics. (One figure he omits: women control 60 percent of the wealth in the United States.) But mostly, Rosin's detractors focus on women's abuse by men and on pervasive cultural biases against women, from beauty pressures to so-called "slut-shaming." Patriarchy, says Caplan-Bricker, is "living in a society where both women and men save their harshest judgment for women."

Do they, though? Such nebulous statements are nearly impossible to prove or disprove. Actually, researchers such as feminist social psychologist Alice Eagly of Northwestern University have consistently found that both sexes tend to view women more positively than men. Sure, this pro-female bias has its flip side: women's perceived "niceness" may cause them to be seen as less fit for leadership and to be penalized for not being nice. But crude generalizations about misogyny bear little relation to real life in modern Western society.

Gender-based biases are not a one-way street. If women are still stigmatized more for sleeping around, men are stigmatized more for not having enough sex—even by some feminists whose choice insult for sexist men is to imply sexual deprivation. Women may experience more disapproval for delegating child care; men, for failing to be providers. We can endlessly debate whether these norms are rooted in nature or culture and whether they are valuable or harmful (or some mix of both). The fact remains that such double standards are not only perpetuated by men and women alike but, in this day and age, at least as likely to be favorable to women as to men.

It's really not that hard to find instances in which men are judged more harshly than women. Last May, after Arizona woman Jodi Arias was convicted in the brutal murder of her ex-boyfriend, jurors deadlocked on the death sentence because some saw mitigation in her alleged mental and verbal abuse by her victim—despite evidence that Arias was a habitual stalker. Around the same time, when novelist James Lasdun published a book about his nightmarish experience of being cyber-stalked by a former creative writing student whose romantic overtures he had rejected, a review in The New Yorker chided him for failing to admit his attraction to the woman and his role in leading her on. Reverse the genders in either case, and there would be howls of outrage about "victim-blaming." (Both incidents are also reminders that women aren't the only victims of abuse and violence from the opposite sex.)

Ultimately, the examples of patriarchy at work offered in responses to Rosin prove her point. They consist of complex issues oversimplified into a war on women (such as proposed abortion limits, which women in some cases support more than men); outlandish exaggerations (women can't walk down the street without getting groped or catcalled); culturally marginal irrelevancies (some ultraconservative Catholic group advising against college education for women); or grievances so petty that it's hard to tell if they're satirical or serious. A list of "39 Things We'll Miss About Patriarchy, Which Is Dead" on New York magazine's website included "vibrators shaped like cupcakes," public restroom lines, and men hogging space on public transit. And several writers mentioned "Titstare"—an incident both trivial and revealing of strong societal disapproval of even mild sexism.

"Titstare," if you were lucky enough to miss the brouhaha, was a joke presentation by two Australian techies at the TechCrunch Disrupt "hackathon" earlier this month: a smartphone app for men to share photos of themselves ogling women's breasts. While the sixty-second demo featured nothing more graphic than a couple of cleavage shots, it was certainly a bad joke—though arguably mostly at the expense of leering men (complete with a comic-style image of a man getting punched by a woman). But none of the commentators who cited this juvenile stunt as evidence of rampant misogyny saw fit to acknowledge that it was promptly followed by apologies from the two TechCrunch runners—one of them a woman, as were two of the five hackathon judges—and a pledge to pre-screen submissions more carefully at future events. If this ends up on a list of patriarchal offenses, one may start wondering if feminism has any real battles to fight.

Which, actually, isn't quite what Rosin was saying. When we spoke a few days after the publication of her article, she stressed that problems do exist—but focusing on "patriarchy" as "an enemy we can take down" is a counterproductive distraction from the real issues. Foremost among those is the career-family conundrum. Take the progress of women in the tech industry: for all the handwringing about Titstare as a symptom of the sexism holding them back, the evidence suggests that it's hardly the main obstacle. In one study, women with advanced degrees in science, technology and engineering were 25 percent less likely than men to work in their field if they were married and raising children—but there was no gender gap for the single and childless.

Some sex differences in work and family roles may always persist; but we should certainly continue to work toward more flexibility, freedom, and options for everyone. Rosin believes these goals should be redefined as caregiving issues for both sexes rather than "women's issues," and here she is certainly on the right track, even if her favored solutions are probably more government-oriented than mine would be.

More broadly, I am convinced that if feminism is to have a positive future, it must reinvent itself as a gender equity movement advocating for both sexes and against all sexism. Focusing solely on female disadvantage was perfectly understandable when, whatever paternalistic benefits women might have enjoyed and whatever burdens men might have suffered, women were the ones lacking the basic rights of adult citizens. But today, there is simply no moral or rational justification for any fair-minded feminist to ignore (for instance) the more lenient treatment of female offenders in the justice system or the anti-father biases in family courts. The concept of feminism as equality of the sexes is increasingly on a collision course with feminism as a movement championing women.

In its present form—as a secular cult that should call itself the Sisters of Perpetual Grievance—feminism is far more a part of the problem than part of the solution. It clings to women's wrongs and turns women's rights into narcissistic entitlement. It is far too easily prone to bashing men while painting women as insultingly helpless and downplaying their human capacity for cruelty. (The notion that abuse and dominance would not exist without patriarchy is not only naively utopian but utterly sexist.) It is also deeply irrelevant to most women, only five percent of whom consider themselves "strong feminists" even though 82 percent believe that men and women should be social, political, and economic equals.

Of course the patriarchy—at least here in the West—is dead. Whether feminism deserves to survive it is up to the feminists.

A version of this article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.