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Ophelia Tung discusses the necessity of loss and vulnerability to the resistance of patriarchy.

Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider, Why Does Patriarchy Persist? (Polity, 2018), 159pp.

The 2016 United States Presidential election began with a fervent wave of hopeful excitement for feminists around the world, as Hillary Clinton was poised to become the first female president of the global superpower. Feminists were swept up by complete shock and devastation when Donald Trump, an unabashed chauvinistic and misogynistic candidate was elected. The prospective triumph of feminism preceded by decades of equal rights activism was once again withheld. The bigger question that this state of affairs posed was simply, “Why does patriarchy persist?”

In (or, at?) the wake of the 2016 US Presidential election, renowned feminist thinker Carol Gilligan co-authored Why Does Patriarchy Persist? with Naomi Snider, a Research Fellow at NYU School of Law. The authors attempt to tackle this question and reveal the reasons behind the resilience and resistance of patriarchy. Gilligan and Snider offer an original and insightful perspective on the perpetuation of patriarchy in their honest, vulnerable dialogue. Readers are prompted to ponder upon this issue beyond usual discussions of status and power. Instead, the authors propose a psychological perspective. Engendering the readers with comprehensive explanation and interpretation of a wide range of gender and psychology theories, along with candid personal stories of loss, the authors offer a new angle to comprehend patriarchy and its commanding psychological mechanisms. What emerged is a psychopathology that promises protection against loss and trauma.

In Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, Gilligan and Snider lay the groundwork for their argument by positioning patriarchy as a set of rules and codes that outline the heteronormative and performative gender for men and women. To conform to these expectations of physical and emotional behavior, both genders are expected to mask their genuine feelings. Men are taught to conceal their sentiments by separating their mind from their emotions in order to fulfill the social expectations of an adamant, intrepid patriarch. At the same time, the female voice and agency are muted and ignored to accommodate their male counterpart, consolidating selflessness and thoughtfulness as the epitomes of socially acceptable femininity. Both gender assumptions uphold patriarchy with a fixed hierarchy of human relationships and interactions that value men over women. The unconscious pressure to oblige these patriarchal gender norms eventually destructs the emotional health of both sexes. Men have to conceal their vulnerability to prop up a façade of manhood, whereas women unwittingly silence themselves due to the fear of being accused of selfishness and egocentrism. Both genders bury their genuine feelings in exchange of superficial relationships and general acceptance in a patriarchal society, in the process forfeiting the opportunity to build real connections of honesty and vulnerability. The dread of losing all social standings and associations thus forbids both men and women to break the status quo of gender stereotypes and assumptions. This leads to the persistence of patriarchy.

Gilligan and Snider further delve into the psychological effects of patriarchy and the intricacies leading to its persistence by exploring the idea of loss. Citing Freudian and Kleinian thought and borrowing from the pioneering work of developmental psychologist John Bowlby, the authors argue that patriarchy functions as a defense mechanism against loss. In dialogue with Bowlby’s work, Gilligan and Snider advocate the positive effects of resisting loss. The refusal to give up increases our capacity to repair the rupture in relationships, and even the power to uproot patriarchy. Unfortunately, resistance against loss often becomes the three-step approach of protest, despair, and detachment that is adopted by young children when facing separation from their caregivers, and by adults when suffering from unbearable loss. Patriarchal discipline disables our capacity to communicate our feelings with openness and vulnerability and to repair relationships. We are thus eventually reduced to a state of despair as we perceive the protest against loss as ineffective and resort to detachment by submitting to the desolating situation. Whilst men engage in irrational self-reliance as a form of selfish detachment to prove their capability and manhood, women anxiously disengage themselves from the issue to maintain their posture of selflessness. Having detached themselves from facing their honest emotions, some men and women may even unknowingly become the perpetrator of loss and accomplice of patriarchy through continued violence or silence. Aligning this discovery to a larger political context, Gilligan and Snider position patriarchy and its internalized effects on gender performativity upon us as a pathological psychological mechanism which blocks us from the vulnerability needed in order to resist disillusionment and fear, as “hopeless longing has become too painful to pursue” (55).

Gilligan and Snider explain and elaborate their observations through testimonies of encounters with patriarchy. A man regrets giving up a valuable friendship with a gay classmate out of distress of being viewed as effeminate. A woman shares her trauma of being raped by a close friend and her eventual suppression of the incident to avoid accusation of her ruining the offender’s life. Another remembers her first confrontation with patriarchy in her early days of schooling when her male classmates decided not to trust her because of her gender. While these stories are conversational, raw, honest, and vulnerable, Snider’s own testament is the most poignant. In Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, Snider reveals her own loss and grief as she details her suppression of sorrow and anger towards her father’s passing in order to conform to patriarchal expectations of femininity, as well as her vicissitudes of emotional response as she learns to boldly tackle this trauma with a newfound resistance against loss. These accounts juxtapose with the theoretical discourse of Gilligan and Snider and further justify their arguments. More importantly, they provide an intimate perspective of the issue and reminds us that patriarchy is not just an academic concept, or a thing of the past that enslaves only women, but a malicious framework that still chains both men and women, stripping away our agency from living an honest life of truthful admissions and meaningful, intimate connections.

Gilligan’s sharp, incisive discussion of theoretical ideas is aligned with the candid, expressive and movingly vulnerable testimonies of Snider and other victims of patriarchy. The men and women that contributed to the book become themselves demonstrations of resistance that the authors advocate. By courageously sharing their anxieties, regret, and sorrow, they reclaim their agency by resisting the loss of their right to feel and be vulnerable. Why Does Patriarchy Persist? affirms the strength of vulnerability and the refuge in resistance, motivating feminists around the world to continue to search for new ways to protest without despair and detachment against patriarchy in a volatile political climate. This is an ongoing battle that we could not lose.


Ophelia Tung Ho Yiu is a postgraduate research student at the Department of English at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Her research focuses on the tension between the authorship and readership of Jane Austen in the age of fandom and popular culture.

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