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Chauvinism, Sexism and Patriarchy.

I am trying to feel out the differences between chauvinism, sexism and patriarchy, how they affect me and others and how we can combat them. I write as a man who is non-chauvinist and trying to be non-sexist (which I find is a constant struggle that I can just manage to keep up). The deeper levels of patriarchal conditioning are so ingrained that it would take a total reconsideration of all my past life to make real change — though I make the effort at times, the strain is too great and I quickly retreat to shallower levels.

Chauvinism is the easiest to describe (though not so easy to understand why it occurs). Almost all chauvinist behaviour consists of treating women as if they were things or animals — as property belonging to men, not as people. Being non-chauvinist requires little more than elementary courtesy. A man could easily be non-chauvinist but extremely sexist. He could believe in a natural role for women (whether biologically determined or as part of the necessary structure of society) and expect that women who did not play that role would be unhappy. This is sexist, but if he accepted a woman's right to decide for herself whether or not to play that role he would not be chauvinist.

Sexism and patriarchy are much harder to come to grips with. Sexism occurs as an institution in society and in individuals as a process of conditioning which is often fairly obvious once it is thought about. Patriarchy is more subtle, imposing conditioning which is harder to bring into consciousness. (This distinction almost treats patriarchy as the part of sexism we're not yet conscious of — it's obviously much more than that, but I haven't got this clear to myself.)

My understanding of sexism comes from my own observation and experience, together with listening to and discussing with both women and men. What I understand about patriarchy comes almost exclusively from listening to women — sometimes feeling what they say, sometimes understanding it, sometimes only hearing it. It is easier for me to be aware of patriarchal conditioning in women than in me and other men, because of the extra distance. Most of what I can say about patriarchy at the moment comes from women in our Alternative Socialist group. But because their pain is not mine the emphasis and connections are different.

I want to give a number of examples to show the different levels of chauvinism, sexism, and patriarchy.

I have always taken "equal pay for equal work" as self-evident. It's only in recent years that I've become aware of the sexist bias that ensures that very few women are permitted to do the same work as men, that they are unlikely to start at jobs where they have a chance to be equal, and that girls' schooling is different from boys'. (Listen to Frankie Armstrong singing Peggy Seeger's song The Engineer.) Even when there is nominally equal schooling, girls are likely to be discouraged from doing certain subjects. The patriarchal aspect (as distinct from the sexist) comes in because girls' conditioning in early childhood is to a pattern that makes certain choices socially unlikely. It even makes some choices intellectually unlikely; recent evidence suggests that differences in the treatment by adults of boys and girls in their first year of life is enough to explain differences in I.Q. much later.

I've noticed some things in my work as a university teacher of mathematics. There are prizes given for the best woman student in mathematics (I don't want to discuss the patriarchal nature of competition and prizes now). For some time we've been trying to change these to prizes for the best student. The official attitude is that "the little women deserve a chance of their own" (I'm not sure whether this is best described as chauvinism or sexism). In fact, though only a quarter of the students are women, there are usually at least two women among the top four students. One of the lecturers (a woman) remarked on how galling it is to receive a prize as the best woman student when you are simply the best student.

Incidentally, a review in the Sunday Times said recently that "there are no women who compare with the best men in mathematics". This is commonly believed but is false. I would describe modern mathematics as largely the creation of one woman, Emmy Noether (most mathematicians would say I exaggerated, but would agree that she is a major figure). There have always been women among the best British mathematicians (Mary Cartwright and Hanna Neumann recently, and others at the moment). End of digression.

We had one really outstanding woman student. It was only with great difficulty that we persuaded her to do research, and she dropped out after a short time. She was involved with a man who was also doing a mathematics degree. He did very badly — I suspect because he knew he could not reach anywhere near her standard, and simply refused to compete with her at all. Almost certainly that's the reason she gave up mathematics. I doubt if he said anything about her being better than him. She may have been responding to his hurt feelings, but I suspect she decided because of her own feelings, imposed by patriarchy, that she was not supposed to do better than her man. Even if she had decided to give up her own work because of his feelings, that form of caring for another is typical of the way women are conditioned to respond (and men conditioned not to respond).

If a couple have a child, a non-chauvinist man would help to look after it, but might regard child-care as primarily the woman's responsibility, in which he was willing to help her. A non-sexist man would regard the child-care as a shared responsibility. In a non-patriarchal society childcare would not be organised in couples. The non-sexist man would probably not feel responsibility while the woman was looking after the child. When he was looking after the child, the woman would be relieved of the physical burden. But in our patriarchal society, her concern, unlike his, would be present all the time to weigh her down.

Society still sees motherhood as women's primary role, and girls are moulded to become mothers. Many women now find it possible to reject that role. But they still spend too much energy caring for others, and too little caring for themselves. A woman under patriarchy is above all someone who cares. Caring is present all the time. This full-time care for others makes care for oneself very difficult. Men don't care (in both meanings of that phrase) and so can keep going with less trouble.

As a final example, look at the portrayal of women in films. It is usually sexist or chauvinist. This can be combatted because it is visible. But the deeper message given by the relatively small number of women portrayed is the fundamental message of patriarchy — NORMAL PEOPLE ARE MEN!

Alternative Socialist Newsletter, Patriarchy issue, 1977.
© Daniel Cohen

(Alternative Socialism was a group that was active for a time in the later 1970s. Its guiding principle was a commitment to an anarcho-socialist and feminist vision. It was one of the first groups to decide on a pricing for its conferences based on participants' incomes. Asphodel Long, Monica Sjoo, and other members of the Matriarchy Study Group (see IN MEMORY OF ASPHODEL LONG) were active in it, as were Keith Mothersson (one of the founders of the group) and John Rowan (see my review of his book The Horned God.) I developed many friendships as a result of being in the group.)


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