FEMINISM SEPTEMBER 12, 2013
Yesterday, Hanna Rosin published a version of the new epilogue she is appending to her book The End of Men, titled “The Patriarchy is Dead,” and set off a rerun of the criticisms she earned in 2012. Namely, that she has taken some valid findings about women’s economic success and spun them into an all-encompassing narrative of triumph that’s gratingly out of sync with reality. As Jezebel summed it up, “Patriarchy is Dead if You’re a Rich White Lady.” And that may have been generous: New York’s Kat Stoeffel made a list of “39 Things We’ll Miss About Patriarchy, Which Is Dead,” and many of them—from “bikini bodies” to “the 200 abortion restrictions passed since 2011” to “Getting raped because of skirts and heels, alcohol, ‘the hormone levels in nature,’ and social media”—aren’t particularly deferential to class or creed.
But the thing that rankles me about Rosin’s epilogue isn’t that I think she’s wrong. It’s that, right off the bat, she dismisses her dissenters—who she says are all well-educated feminists like herself—as self-sabotaging, and, frankly, a little sad. We’re blind to the truth she’s peddling because, according to her diagnosis, we have “some irrational attachment to the concept of unfair.” Freedom is ours, but we “cling to the dreaded patriarchy just as he is walking out of our lives.” She shakes her head at us, holding onto patriarchy like a smitten girl with a bad boyfriend. She implies that we’re afraid of the world where the protection of patriarchy no longer exists, and we have only ourselves to blame for our failures.
Of the lady journalists who took issue with her book, Rosin writes, “Many of them are in positions of influence, widely published and widely read; if they sniff out misogyny, I have no doubt they will gleefully skewer the responsible sexist in one of many available online outlets, and get results.” And she purports to know why they disagree with her: They need to “feel reassured ... that men are still on top, that the old order had not been shaken.” This is just plain illogical. Even if Rosin is correct that her peers haven’t “been held back all that much in their careers” by their gender, they aren’t just filling the Internet with essays about their personal travails. One of the writers she mentions is Irin Carmon of MSNBC; in recent weeks, Carmon has covered sexual assault in the military and the case of a 14-year-old rape victim.
But Rosin’s head-shrinking is worse than illogical; it’s offensive. There’s a long and storied tradition of people (usually men) telling women what they think—“You may be under the impression you think this, but it’s really that.” In recent years, this has been referred to as “mansplaining,” but it used to go by another word: “patriarchy.” And women can be instruments of the patriarchy, too. Rosin isn’t the first to tell members of her own sex that there’s a simple, right way to go about things, and to scold them for doing it wrong. It’s easy to draw parallels with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose advice that the work-life conundrum can be solved by "leaning in" puts blame on women who “leave before they leave”—which is to say, women who have to scale back at work because they don’t have three nannies, and who lose out professionally as a result.
Woman-on-woman opprobrium is pervasive, and while the Rosins and the Sandbergs of the world may think they’re helping us get out of our own way, they’re only a step above the all-too-common practice in which we police each other back into line. A study this May confirmed what we already knew about “slut-shaming”: that women are often the perpetrators (though not more often than men), and having lots of casual sex doesn’t make a woman any less likely to censure a “slutty” peer. In another classic case, and what may have been the worst essay of the summer, a self-proclaimed thin woman blamed her curvaceous counterparts for making her feel bad about her body. Sometimes patriarchy is right out in the open, but often it’s insidious. It’s living in a society where both women and men save their harshest judgment for women.
Rosin, in her epilogue, says she wishes she could show her incensed critics that patriarchy isn’t what they think, but is “too complicated to pin on a single enemy.” She’s right about that. Patriarchy isn’t just the ratio of men to women in Congress or on Fortune 500 lists. It’s also a set of societal norms, invented by men but internalized and imparted by everyone, that says women shouldn’t be too big or too loud or with hair in the wrong places—that determines women should be one way and not any other. Being ordered to “lean in” isn’t any more liberating than being told to quiet down. Rosin is right that feminism has come a long way in recent decades, and she may even be right that this deserves more celebration. But when she accuses feminists of shackling themselves because they’re too scared to be free, she’s not only wrong that patriarchy is dead, she’s keeping it alive.
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follor her on Twitter @NCaplanBricker.
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