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Power: Patriarchy

Power: Patriarchy
One form of power that we are interested in, in relation to the subject matter that we’re studying in this module, is the power that’s described as patriarchy. Patriarchy quite literally means rule by the father. It’s used broadly, in terms of what we’re studying in this module, to describe the dominance of men in society. It has a long history. And we have to consider that history and consider the way in which the power that is invested in somebody by virtue of their gender– not by any other means, but by virtue of their gender– the impact that has on women, on men, and on children. And whilst we may have a view that, well, that’s how things used to be.
Things are very different today. And I would challenge you to look at the way in which men’s experiences and women’s experiences are played out in contemporary society, and think about how much, if at all, we have moved from those traditional concepts of power being invested in somebody by virtue of their gender. It has been the case, certainly within the Western world, that women have been regarded as the property of men. When a woman is married, she was the property of her husband and had no social identity, no legal existence, no right in law to live a public life. The lives of women in times gone by were very private, things not in the public domain.
And that was sanctioned by the law, upheld by the law. Children were regarded as the property of their fathers. And when we look to the women’s suffrage movement in the United Kingdom, we can see examples of women having their children removed from their care and being given into the care of their fathers, simply because women were demonstrating and attempting to achieve for themselves an equal standing, in terms of suffrage. Children were regarded very much as being property of their fathers. They were under the ownership of their fathers. That’s who children belonged to, which is interesting and perhaps a bit paradoxical, when we think about the needs of children and the ways in which children are nurtured and reared.
Because we would think that that instrumental role that fathers have in providing for the families, or fathers had in providing for their families, might have precluded their ownership, given that women performed, and do perform still, the nurturing tasks– the main child-rearing and domestic tasks. Although the children belong to the father, the responsibility of child-rearing and child nurturing belonged to women. So we can see that that power is very clearly linked to ideas around gender. And we recognise that within that, there is certainly a differential. When we link this to core issues that we discussed in this module, and violence against women, it doesn’t take us very long to go back in history to discover the rule of thumb.
The rule of thumb is an adage that is in much contemporary use. But it emanates from a judge who described the rule of thumb as being the measure by which we should decide whether or not it’s acceptable for a man to beat his wife. And the judge’s opinion on that was that this was a legitimate thing to do, so long as the stick with which the woman was beaten was no thicker than the thumb of the man who was doing the beating. So we can see examples throughout history of the ways in which power has been exercised, and patriarchy has been legitimised, and the legal system has supported all of these things.
If you take another concept into the ring and think about power together with privilege. And think about what privilege means for us in contemporary society. Standard definition of privilege is about advantage and immunities enjoyed by a small percentage of the population and a small group of people, usually a powerful group of people. So privilege and power go very much hand-in-hand. And when people exercise privilege, they exercise privilege which puts their position and their experience over that of others. And if we consider white male privilege in Western society, it’s an incredibly powerful position.
It’s a position that means that, necessarily, if someone enjoys great privilege, someone else does not, that there is a binary here to know privilege is not enjoyed in a vacuum, or in isolation, from other people. There are definite ways of looking at privilege. We can think about the ways in which privilege plays out. We think about the privilege of adults over children and we see the way in which that has developed over time. We see the privilege of men over women, in terms of the public domain, and the challenges to that, the ways in which that is currently exercised.
And there are many ways of us looking at around at male privilege in contemporary society and being able to see very clear examples of this. We see privilege within the distribution of wealth. If we think about the ways in which, what we might describe as the super wealthy people in society, exercising the privilege. If we think about a person taking a mortgage from a bank and perhaps struggling to pay that mortgage. And we look at what happened in relation to the banking crisis of a few years ago.
The privilege that was exercised by the super wealthy in this country meant that they were insulated, not just in the UK, but insulated across the world, in relation to people losing their homes and people losing the means of keeping their family together. If you can’t live together, it makes it very difficult for you to maintain relationships with your family together. We talk a great deal in the UK about marginalisation and about people being underprivileged. We generally don’t have debates about what it means to be privileged. There’s almost a taken-for-granted element, that those who have privilege don’t need to identify, or own, or explain the kinds of privilege that they have. Think about privilege in your own life.
Think about the kinds of privileges that you have by virtue of your gender, by virtue of your wealth, by virtue of the place in which you live. Think about those kinds of things. Think about whether or not that is different from, or similar, to the power that you have. Many of us, when we’re asked about the power that we possess, we underplay that power. We say, I’m not really a big, powerful person. Sometimes in working with social work students, when they’re about to go out on placement, social work students feel incredibly anxious about the power that they will be able to wield as agents of authority.
For example, of a council, of an agency that has a legitimate, a legal, role in the lives of people. And oftentimes students will feel quite powerless in a university setting and move into that placement setting and discover that other people look on them as people with power. So it can be context-dependent. And it is something that we should try to surface or understand, or have an awareness of. It’s important that we understand what it means to be underprivileged. Think about whom you might define as being underprivileged when you consider privilege from that kind of perspective, that it’s something that gives you choice, that gives you social standing, that gives you status.
We think about the ways in which that standing and status is demonstrated in our society. Think about the ways in which power is used. Definite domains where we see power being exercised. We frequently talk about the power of the press, and we are going to look at this in more detail. We’ll look at the power of the press in creating images of men and women, and creating images of power and influence, and creating images of violence and legitimacy. We’re going to look at that in a few weeks’ time. When we talk about, in politics, the party and power, we’re very clearly stating that politics is an arena where power is exercised and displayed.
And governments have the power to legislate, to put controls into our lives. On a lighter note, we sometimes talk about power dressing. And what does power dressing mean? When we dress our bodies in a particular way, sometimes we are dressing to impress, to create an image. If we think about the ways in which the power is displayed within the court system in the United Kingdom, we still have people wearing white wigs made from horse hair as a very clear symbol that that person is the powerful person who sits higher up than other people in a court room, for example.
So you may describe some of that as power dressing, as opposed to clothing that indicates that you have wealth and influence. So we think about power and the way in which we own power, and the way in which we display our power. Most of us are reluctant to explore ways in which we might abuse our power. We have to think about how objective or subjective that might be. When we describe things as being an abuse of power, what does that look like in contemporary society? And we have many images of that that go through social media, that go through the news media.
We have seen some of the chilling photographs that came from Abu Ghraib prison, when the occupying forces treated prisoners who were prisoners of war in ways that were totally beyond the Geneva Convention. And we’re shocked and horrified by that. Perhaps some of that relates to the ways in which people understand the power that they have, and the ways in which they’re able to use it. A more mundane, perhaps, exhibition of the abuse of power and the ways in which power changes over time is that for a long time in the United Kingdom, people who thought children were allowed to strike the hands of children and the legs of children with pieces of leather– leather straps.
And when we look back, not so very long ago, at the kind of institutional abuse of power, we might say that that’s an example of that, for a small child, a child of five or six or seven, having to stand in front of an adult person with their hands out to be strapped for some kind of misdemeanour, perhaps talking during quiet time, or not lining up in a straight line when you’re coming into class. There are many, many examples of the abuse of power that for many people, they did not see as abusive, that they saw as being the legitimate exercise of their authority.
So we have to think about that, and think about the ways in which that changes over time. Because it does change over time. Domains of power change over time, and exercise of power does change over time. The last part of this section is to offer a link into the next section, to start to think about power and violence. Because we have to think about why people are powerful, and how power is exercised. And violence is one of the ways in which people who have, or assume that they have, power– this is one of the ways in which they exercise that facility. Power consists of the ability to get your own way, even when others are opposed to your wishes.
And I’d like you to hold that thought, to continue to think about that. Because what we’ll do in the next section is to go on to look at violence in more detail, and consider how legitimate it is, if it is ever legitimate to use violence to get your own way.

This video examines the idea of patriarchy and how this particular aspect of power impacts on the experience of women and girls in their everyday lives.

In the next step, you will have the opportunity to put forward your own thoughts and ideas in the discussion forum.

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