Patriarchy: Focusing on Our Needs and Feelings to Resolve Conflict

After thinking and talking about the issue of including 'Patriarchy' in the principles of the ANN on and off since last years' Gathering, I have finally worked out some ideas which I am quite excited about. So, I would like to share with people a possible process for dealing with the issue (either at the 1996 Gathering or in the longer term), the reasons and feelings behind my own attitude to the issue, and some observations on the way the issue has been raised and dealt with so far.

From our discussions in the network so far, it is clear that patriarchy is a very complex concept. On an intellectual level, it is used to describe many different aspects of power-over relationships between men and women, and often, of power-over relationships generally. In addition, people at an individual level have complicated and varied feelings around the word. I believe that all of our feelings, and the needs which underlie them, must be dealt with if we are to be able to resolve our conflict around this issue.

Our feelings seem to come from our 'experience' of the word - i.e. the context in which the word has been used in relation to ourselves (for instance, as a word which has helped liberate some women through the 'naming' of their oppression, as a weapon of personal attack against some men), and from our attitude towards the specific concepts which form part of the definition of patriarchy as we each understand it.

There also appears to be a third source of strong feelings around the word in our particular situation, which is our decision to consider whether or not it should appear in the ANN's principles - that is, to see how the concept fits within the guidelines which tell us whether or not we 'belong' to the network. It seems to me as though many people (including myself) are very scared that our particular conception of patriarchy and our strong feelings attached to it will not be heard, understood or accepted by others, and that we will be judged and rejected, thus losing our sense of connection and safety within the group. I have noticed from my own feelings, and the behaviour of other people, that this fear seems to be making us feel 'urgent' about getting ourselves heard and convincing others that we are right, which in turn prevents us from listening to anyone else.

One way to help deal with these feelings is for us to agree at the Gathering that our sharings and discussions will not lead to a decision being made on whether or not 'patriarchy' is included in the principles. People will still have different levels of fear around not being heard and being judged, but this should at least remove some of the pressure.

My second suggestion is an idea for a process we could use at the Gathering for dealing with the feelings around our conceptions of patriarchy. I suggest that, as individuals, we have time to consider three questions: 1) 'What are the specific concepts within patriarchy as I define it which bring up strong negative or positive feelings for me and what are the sources of these feelings?'; 2) 'What is it that I fear will happen to me if patriarchy is/is not included in the principles?'; and 3) 'What do I need within the network to feel safe?'

Our answers to these questions could then be shared in small groups (of same or mixed sex, depending on what individuals feel comfortable with) using reflective listening. Then our answers to question 3 could be shared with the whole group. At some later stage, we could then collectively consider the question 'How can everyone's needs for safety be met? By including 'patriarchy' in the principles? By not including it? By some other alternative?'

By way of example, I would like to give my answers to the first three questions.

I feel positive about the word 'patriarchy' when it is used to describe power-over relations between men and women (and the promotion of the masculine ideal amongst men). This is because, as a woman resisting my own gender oppression, it is important for me to name the specific structure which causes this oppression. In order to feel safe, I need to know that the people around me also accept that, within the culture we live in, men as a group are socialised to use power-over behaviour in relation to women as a group. However, I also have some negative feelings about the word 'patriarchy' which I will explain in more detail, as they more directly affect my attitude towards including the word in the ANN's principles.

I feel uncomfortable when 'patriarchy' is used to describe power-over relationships other than those specifically related to gender issues. This is because, if the power-over relations of the state or class system, for instance, are called 'patriarchal', it seems to me that this implies that unequal gender relations are the primary source, or cause of all the other power-over relationships in our culture. The idea that this premise is true makes me feel angry and scared, for the following reasons.

For me, to accept that unequal gender relations are the primary power-over relationship is to accept the idea that men as a group are biologically more predisposed to using power-over behaviour than women. This is because if men's power-over behaviour is 'primary', by definition, it cannot have a deeper underlying cause or preceding factors which contributed to its development - it simply 'is'.

The idea that men are biologically more predisposed to using power-over behaviour than women makes me incredibly angry, because it means that I cannot acknowledge men's value and sacredness as individual people, or feel that I have a shared humanity with them. And my personal experience (of men who use power-with and women, including myself at times, who use power-over) tells me that women and men are fundamentally the same in terms of our basic needs, weaknesses and spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities. My experience tells me that I do not have to feel that men are 'other', and I get angry when people tell me that I should deny this experience.

In addition, if it is the case that patriarchy is the primary source of all power-over relationships, for me this then implies that unequal gender relations deserve more of our attention than other forms of power-over, because it makes sense to put most of our energy into transforming the core problem. This idea also makes me very angry, because it 'ranks' individual people's different experiences of oppression - it denies that people's feelings around their class or race oppression, for example, are as valid or worthy to be considered as particular women's feelings around their gender oppression. If I deny the equal validity of someone else's feelings and experience, then I cannot feel their true value as a person and fear that I too, have no inherent value.

So, in order to feel safe in the network, I need to know that everyone accepts all people's experiences of oppression (including my own) as equally valid. For this reason, I would not like the word 'patriarchy' (or 'pro-feminist') to be included in the ANN's principles if this is the only oppression which is explicitly named. My fear is that this would represent a culture within the network where ranking people's feelings is considered acceptable, and that my own feelings will be open to attack and judgment. I need to have my feelings and experience acknowledged and respected by others.

Lastly, here are my observations of how the conflict has been dealt with so far. As I see it, the process has been dominated by three older men in the network1 and has been shaped as a 'win/lose' debate. This means that these three people dominated the discussion of the issue at last year's Gathering, and that many others, particularly women, felt trapped by the process that was being used - to join the debate they felt they had to use the same oppositional, power-over approach, otherwise, they had to tell themselves that their feelings on the issue weren't strong enough (or important enough) to warrant speaking out.2 While I feel that they were not aware of what they were doing, I am extremely angry that the three people concerned behaved in a way which denies everyone's equal right to contribute - I feel angry because I have spent a great deal of my life listening to older men present their feelings and ideas as if they are more worthy of attention than other people's, particularly women's.

I have the greatest hope that this situation will not continue for long, because I do trust that the three men concerned can take responsibility for their behaviour, and that we will now be able to consciously choose more effective processes for dealing with the issue. In fact, since the Gathering, we have started to use more appropriate processes which value everyone's contribution. I still do have a fear, however, that the same dynamics will arise at this year's Gathering and so I have been thinking about how I might respond if this is the case. If it is not possible to change the dynamic by pointing out that it is occurring, I think I will withdraw from the process at that time, and continue to try to organise an alternative process. For me, it is not OK to spend a disproportionate amount of my time and energy focusing on a few people's feelings at the expense of others.

I believe that it is possible for us to resolve this conflict and see this as an opportunity for us to develop our capacity to deal with difficult issues in the Network.

Anita McKone

1. I have communicated with these three people personally prior to publication of this article.- return to text
2. Thanks to Karen Rosauer for her observation of this.- return to text

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