Priya Balasubramanian

Physician and Writer

Why we need to talk about patriarchy, not "Women's issues"


I wore white to my local polling station, euphoric at casting a vote for Hillary Clinton. In the aftermath, it is impossible to escape the fact that many women did not share my euphoria. Faced with electing the first woman president, or a man who constantly demeaned women, so many of my sisters chose the man. And none of us can avoid the implications of that statistic: that either Hillary was an unworthy candidate, or that the women who voted were unworthy of better.

It all seems familiar. I was born in India when we had a woman Prime Minister. She fought elections, won wars, suspended democracy and visited upon us the horrors of the Emergency, all with an equal felicity. No man who came before or after had the steel of her will. And yet, the country she ruled was one where women knew their place. Good girls could be lawyers, doctors and engineers, but were dutiful daughters, mothers and wives first. And my older male relatives pointed out, we did not need feminism. You don’t need to fight men to be happy, they said, because it was usually women who made other women miserable. 

This was an enticing argument because it had a glimmer of truth. There was the pervasive trope of the abusive mother-in-law, in fiction and in fact. It was an era where young women were, literally, set on fire over inadequate dowries. Perhaps as shocking was that mothers-in-law were most often implicated as perpetrators of this, and myriad lesser abuse. (It seems remarkable, in hindsight, that the rest of the family and society escaped blame.) Despite Indira Gandhi and the oft repeated exhortations that girls hear to this day, you can be anything you want to be, India was no feminist utopia.

When I came to America as a young woman, I was deceived. Here was the feminist utopia, I thought, where women can be as assertive and outspoken as men. We could be equal. But that was before I noticed that nurses fawned on male doctors in similar ways. Before I realized that as a woman in medicine, I would make fewer cents on the dollar than a similarly qualified male colleague. Or that I would walk in to a procedure room to perform an endoscopy, and my older patient would hand me his dentures, with a “Here, honey,” before I could introduce myself. More significant though, was hearing of the slut shaming of young girls, and the stories women told of being raped, and worse, disbelieved on college campuses. Here was the all-too-familiar patriarchy, if dressed differently.

And this insidious argument about women being enemies of women? Why, that is the same old wily patriarchy. When women exhibit bad behavior, such as with older ICU nurses who “eat their young,” or mothers-in-law from hell, it is easy to forget that they do so in service of an entrenched and insidious world view. That they are tools of a patriarchy that devalues young women, and insists on women being lesser and submissive. But while it is patriarchy that needs to be on trial alongside these women, in that practiced sleight of hand, that subtle shifting of focus, it ends up being womanhood instead. We forget that the majority of interactions between women are ones of kinship. Like unwitting stooges left holding the bag after patriarchy has long escaped, we question the bonds that sustain us through work, child-rearing, and life. 

And in every other situation where we could confront patriarchy, we get distracted by questions over women’s behavior instead. Whether it is rape culture or politics, we scrutinize women with an interest that is both avid and unequal.  Did she maybe-somehow-possibly do the wrong thing? This societal fetish is based on the old patriarchal belief that women should be above reproach. That their behavior should always be impeccable. It seems to elevate women to a higher standard, but all it does is set us up for inequality, and inevitable failure. 

Like the notion of Hillary Clinton being a flawed candidate. Humans are, by definition, flawed. There never will be a flawless candidate, unless we hand over the task of governing to robots at some point in our evolution.  And yet, we accepted once again that a woman be held to that unattainable goal of perfection.  We saw patriarchy on display in all of its strutting peacock hued splendor, and we ignored it for the breathless coverage of ultimately meaningless emails.

Patriarchy is that familiar voice that insinuates that women are bitches if they are assertive, and nasty if they stand up for themselves. And when women vote for people who trumpet these assertions at max volume, we find ourselves being asked if we were mistaken. Perhaps it was not misogyny, perhaps we were over-reacting. Perhaps that is just the way of the world. Make no mistake; that is the phantom shape-shifter, patriarchy, talking. Because patriarchy thrives by deflecting attention from itself. Every time we talk of other things, even feminism, our shadowy adversary wins by default. Because even the words we use to talk of patriarchy are women-centric, like feminism and misogyny. Suggesting that this is a “woman’s issue.” It is not.  Or that feminism is some great battle between the sexes. It is not. Men can and should be as avowed enemies of patriarchy as women are. No one comes out ahead when half of humanity is systematically discriminated against. Yes, men do benefit from patriarchy. But so do women. And while women suffer disproportionately from patriarchy, it affects all the families, communities and economies they contribute to. Ultimately, no one is exempt. 

So while we mourn the last glass ceiling that goes unbroken, let us remember that more people voted for the woman. And while we tell our children that they can still do and be anything, let us teach them to recognize the monster that lurks in the shadows, to call it out every time, and know it by its name.