In the March 19 issue of “In Her Words,” a newsletter published twice-weekly by the New York Times that reports on feminism and gender (in)equality, Maya Salam reviews the book “Why Does Patriarchy Persist” by Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider. Salam identifies the central and seemingly “obvious” question Gilligan and Snider pose — “Why and how, after decades of activism, does the patriarchy persist?” — and succinctly explains their argument: patriarchy is hard to eradicate not because, or not principally because, men are reluctant to give up their political, economic, and institutional dominance, but rather because both men and women internalize and perpetuate sexist norms. In her review, however, Salam does more than simply summarize the book’s argument. Because she is writing about a term, “patriarchy” – with which most people are familiar, but which few people might be able to define precisely – her column is also an excellent example of the definition of key terms.
Whenever authors write for a non-expert audience, they must take into account their readers’ lack of familiarity with the terms they use. Even when key terms could be assumed to be universally understood — most, if not all, of Salam’s readers will have at least heard of “the patriarchy” — the specific definition used in a paper can be crucial to its argument. To support their argument, Gilligan and Snider must define “patriarchy” broadly: not only as a system of constraints that limit women’s opportunities but as a mindset, expressions of which range from the unfair distribution of “emotional labor” to differing, gendered expectations in heterosexual relationships. Salam writes:
As adults, [patriarchy] manifests in other ways. In how women shoulder their family’s emotional labor, meaning the invisible mental work of holding a household and relationship together. If a woman registers that this is unfair and complains, she’s often told that she’s “selfish, a drama queen, hysterical,” Snider said. Eventually, “she believes it.” That’s patriarchy.
Snider also cited the cliché of a woman who doesn’t tell a man she is dating that she wants a committed relationship for fear of scaring him off and being rejected. That too is patriarchy, Snider said.
In essence, Gillian and Snider write, patriarchy harms both men and women by forcing men to act like they don’t need relationships and women to act like they don’t need a sense of self. The crux, though, is that we are “not supposed to see or to say this,” they write.
Only by defining their key term in a way that serves their argument can Gilligan and Snider make their case, and only by defining it clearly for her readers can Salam offer a solution. To end a patriarchy that is “hard-wired into our minds,” she argues, a “drastic self-reckoning” will be necessary.
— Rosamond van Wingerden ’20