The Push and Pull of Patriarchy
Girls Are Not Worthy
In the 1980s, field hockey was my life. I treasured everything about the game. The smell of wet earth and damp grass on my cleats. The lingering scent of Linseed oil on my stick. The comradery of teammates bonding.
I enjoyed the rigor of training. Exhausting my body and feeling satisfaction of goals achieved. The fun we had. How hard we worked. Perfecting my game. I loved it all.
In rural Maine there aren’t many ways to celebrate the weekend. Going for a movie or ice cream often requires a 30-mile, or more, drive to the nearest town. Entertainment, in my day, involved cheap beer, weed or driving on the wrong side of the road with your headlights out. Just for fun. Preferably all at the same time.
High-school sports offered relief from the monotony of rural life in a cultural wasteland. Friday night football games were played under stadium-lights cheered by large crowds. Bleachers were filled in the winter for basketball and spring brought crowds out for baseball. For the boys. For the girls a handful of parents might show up at mid-day games played on a small practice fields and the stands were mostly empty. Girls were not worthy. Boys. Well. Boys were revered by the whole town.
When I was voted team captain I took the responsibility seriously — believing we mattered. We had a contribution to make. Being a female athlete meant helping each other develop into the young women we were trying to become; strong, smart, fast and tough. We tried to uplift one another. As a team, we were competitive if we were all strong. We yearned to do something meaningful and were willing to work for that chance. No pain, no gain was the mantra as we pushed our young bodies to our limits.
On travel to away-games we spent hours slouched amidst weathered blue plastic bus-seats. We gossiped, of course, but what I recall most was an on-going, desperate, conversation about how to “get out.” How could we afford college out-of-state? We schemed. We worried. We shared information about scholarships researched in the library. This was 1986. Pre-internet. We depended upon each other for information.
Junior year, the guidance counselor set up discussions about options after high school. As friends trickled out of these meetings, anger rippled. The counselor had told the boys they should go to college — the best colleges. Ivy Leagues, why not? He told the girls don’t bother applying. If you must, try community or state schools. The counselor told the boys they mattered. They were smart. They had bright futures. He encouraged and helped the boys. To the girls, he was dismissive. He told us we did not matter. We were not smart. We had no future.
Decades later one of my field hockey friends was earning an impressive salary as an advertising executive in New York City. After all these years she fantasized of returning to high school and telling the guidance counselor what she was earning then asking him what his salary was.
These are the kinds of revenge fantasies women have. You said I was worthless. I proved you wrong. Look at my value now.
Good for Girls
I cared about my team and was proud of our contribution to “school spirit.” It irritated me that the boys played under stadium-lights to an adoring crowd while us girls were lucky if twenty people cheered our games. I did not like how we were ignored. I did not like how we were marginalized.
I did not understand patriarchy then.
I did not understand that the hero-worship an entire community bestows on young men while ignoring young women, except for our breasts and vaginas, is patriarchal-grooming.
We were being schooled in the parameters of what we would be allowed to become. Female athletes were being told we did not matter. The boys. They mattered. The boys are heroes. Their exertion on and off the field was recognized, rewarded, glorified. The labor the girls did was “good for the girls.” At least they weren’t doing drugs or drinking. Girls-sports had no larger value for the community.
Not understanding patriarchy pushing down and around, shaping and forming us, I did not realize what happens to those who thwart male-glory. As would become a pattern in my life, I did something that ran afoul of the male system of privilege. I was shamed in a manner so confusing that decades later I am still processing this patriarchal corrective action.
One day, when I was a junior, a senior girl on the hockey team came by my locker during break to deliver a note from a boy. He was a senior and the football quarterback. This blue-eyed, blond beautiful quarterback liked me.
Later, on the bus traveling to a game, to my discomfort the senior girls were talking about this note.
Girl-bonding had its limits even among teammates. While we were loyal to girls in our own grade, there were rivalries between upper and lower-class girls.
A senior girl had a crush on the quarterback. When he declared interest in a younger woman this caused resentment. Envy I did not understand and did not want to attract. Rather than feeling flattered, I was confused and upset.
The boy kept sending notes and started hanging around my locker. I was not very nice. Rude even. I told him I did not “date” during hockey season. I had to focus on my game. I wanted to attend college out-of-state. I had a future I was working relentlessly to achieve. Boys were not on my agenda. Boys got you pregnant. Pregnancy ended your future. No thank you, I said.
I thought I had solved this unexpected annoyance with logical, clearly-explained reasoning. So I was unprepared when the senior girls later accosted me, verbally, in the locker room. I was told, in ways that left my eyes stinging red with tears, who did I think I was to reject the quarterback? Every girl would be thrilled to be his girlfriend. Did I think I was better than him?
This “intervention” left me bewildered. I thought we were all about hockey. I thought girls came first. What was going on? I was being groomed by young women on behalf of the patriarchy. I did not realize this then. I doubt they did either. This gorgeous boy, the quarterback, a star in our tiny town, was not to be rejected. He was to be admired, revered, respected. The magical status of patriarchy had been bestowed upon me. I had been “chosen” by a desirable man. Now, I would have value and worth as his girlfriend. Wasn’t this wonderful?
I felt pressured. Controlled. I felt betrayed by the girl-code. I wanted to focus on the game, my grades and getting into college. The senior girls berated and then pleaded to give him a chance. I relented and let the boy drive me home. Once. I allowed him to call me at night and talk on the phone. I was not his girlfriend. I made that clear. But we could be friends. I thought this was a way out of the dilemma.
Girls wearing boys’ football jerseys with his name in block letters on the back was something many strove for in high school. I found this practice disturbing.
It was, of course, another way to groom and model patriarchal behavior. In high school it was a football shirt. In adulthood it is the biggest diamond ring a man can afford to put on her finger and the most expensive car he can buy her to drive. Other practices I have rejected.
A girl wearing a boy’s football shirt indicated one of the young male heroes was her boyfriend. She was desired. She had status. Not because of her diligence or her accomplishments. Not because she ran miles in the woods, lifted weights and pushed her body to perform. Not because she was significant. But because she allowed sexual access to a man who mattered. Wearing his shirt was a public declaration that he had entrée to her body. That was relevant for a girl. Who had access to her breasts and her vagina. Whom she gave right of entry to. Her status came from aligning herself, sexually, with a powerful man.
This remains the situation today. Doesn’t it?
One day the quarterback showed up, in the middle of one of our games, wearing my hockey shirt. I was not pleased. All the girls thought it was adorable. What a great guy. No other boyfriend did that. He is not my boyfriend I said. After the game, I stomped off the field to explain that was my shirt with my name on the back. It was not his to wear.
This boy was kind and gentle. Thoughtful and shy. He liked to talk about kittens, feelings, books and ideas. He was trying to be a feminist and was surprised by my reaction. He said he wanted to support me and the team by doing something no other guy did. Wear the girl’s shirt. Show up for the girls’ game. Wasn’t that what I had been complaining about? That the girls supported the football boys but the boys didn’t come to our games? What had he done wrong?
I didn’t understand patriarchy but was aware enough to know I would not be owned by a man. I had worth and value in my own right. I was adamant about this. I told the gentle quarterback I appreciated his gesture but I was not his girlfriend. I would never be his girlfriend. He could not wear my shirt.
Friday Night Football
For a few weeks I endured this intrusion, trying to navigate the situation in
a way that earned respect from the senior girls — whose opinion matter. Then there was a Friday night football game; an away-game on the rivals’ home-field.
It was late autumn. Crispy cold air. Bright stars. Warm cider from orchard-apples. Soft mittens. Wool socks. Burning wood smoke from home-fires. The cozy season.
That night I made a mistake.
I wore my hockey shirt to the boys’ football away game.
I thought nothing of it when I put on my game-shirt with my name across the back. That is what I always wore at football games. As did my team-mates. It was a way to display school spirit; a community I was proudly part of. But this game was different. It was atypical because of a public perception I was “dating” the quarterback.
I arrived and climbed the metal bleachers filled with people cheering the young men on the field under high-powered spotlights. When I found my teammates, I took my place among them anticipating a fun Friday night. Instead, there was anger. The senior girls were furious. Why aren’t you wearing HIS shirt? We are here to support the team. He needs our support. HE is the quarterback. You should be wearing his shirt. He wore your shirt at our game — but you cannot do that for him? For the school?
I remember crying and trying to defend myself; completely blind-sided. I had thwarted the patriarchy. Again. I didn’t understand the price for foiling male-power is meted out not only by men but also by women. Who did I think I was to assert my own identity? To proclaim at a Friday night football game, the pinnacle of rural Maine’s cultural-life, that I mattered as much as the star quarterback? That I was equal to a golden boy with a bright future. I left the stadium in frustrated tears. What had I done to invoke such hostility?
The night ended the quarterback’s attention. There were no more notes or phone calls. No more rides home in his car. He stopped hanging around my locker. No one thought I was his girlfriend. I was relieved. The hockey season finished. Snow started to fall. I stacked wood to heat my family’s home, worked at the local dinner on weekends to save money for college, studied and dreamed about escaping Maine. I thought I could evade this male-centered glory. It had to be better elsewhere. If I obtained an education, stayed strong, worked hard, I thought I would elude the rules of patriarchy.
Of course, I was mistaken. But I did not know that then.
I have been confused by patriarchy. Angered by it. Run afoul of it. Harmed by it. I have constantly misunderstood the rules and suffered the price for challenging male grandeur. Over and over. I was able to escape Maine and completed college in New York, graduate school in Canada and a doctorate in Europe. All funded by scholarships, student loans and a decade in kitchens twenty-hours weekly as a dish-washer, waitress, bar-tender and hostess.
My doctorate was at The London School of Economics’ Gender Institute where
I examined male violence and the role identity plays in male control and ownership of women. With a feminist Ph.D. and hundreds of books and articles read, I still do not understand patriarchy.
There is no logic to it. There is no reason why, because of my body parts I should be paid less. Worth less. I should be subject to violence and abuse, bullying and harassment. Why?
And why, oh why, can’t we stop the sexual abuse of women and girls?
Why can’t we end patriarchy?
The quarterback and the game-shirt in high school was, of course, the least damage patriarchy has done to me. It was just the beginning. Really. I have suffered far worse. My female friends, relatives and colleagues have all suffered. Terribly. But this small-town high-school moment left a mark on my psyche so profound I smell the grass and dirt from the field. I hear the clang of the metal lockers in the school hall. I feel the painful perplexity of trying to assert my identity, my value, my choices about my life and being told I was stepping out of line.
Patriarchy is so entrenched because men enjoy the power. They relish the large salaries. They appreciate the impunity. The reverence feels great. They like being able to select any girl or woman they choose and force her into a relationship they control. Where they make the decisions. They take pleasure in a dominant social status bestowed upon them from birth and reinforced every day in hundreds of small and large ways over their lifetime.
It’s nice gig. Who would willing give it up?
Just as boys gloried in playing football under stadium spotlights while the entire town watched, men are sated by visible positions of power and prestige where the spotlight remains on them. The panel presentations, key note speeches, media talking-heads; their words, their ideas published and praised. Their faces reflecting the light. Boys became men groomed to expect the community to continue watching their performance. Even “feminist” men. Like the kind quarterback.
Patriarchy feels good. Men have learned to expect it. They have been conditioned for this constant attention and acclaim their whole lives. Since boyhood they have been told, over and over, this is their right place. Under the spotlight. They are the heroes. Everyone should watch them. While girls and women are forced to the side. Told we do not have value. We should not be watched and cheered. Men are not going to willing relinquish this feel-good prestige that comes at the expense of women.
The patriarchal push and pull is cumulative — pressing women down and men up. Every day. Every year. Over a life-time the damage to women is staggering. As I became an adult, punishments for refusing to conform became more severe and damaging in permanent ways. The shaming I experienced in high-school transformed to; absurdly less pay, struggling to get published, fighting to be recognized as a humanitarian and a scholar, being fired for speaking out against men who have had the power to get rid of me. And far worse.
But most men do not want to think about this. They are aware that women they love are harmed at the expense of their success but they don’t want to consider this too closely. They don’t want to feel badly about their privilege. They don’t want to be made to feel responsible. They don’t want to be at fault for the advantages they enjoy at the sacrifice of women, including women they love like their mothers, wives and daughters.
Women who marry into the patriarchy and follow the rules are given space and supported by many men. This is true. Women’s marches are allowed. Women’s sports are accepted. Women’s studies programs and diversity initiatives are tolerated. Some men will even do the dishes. What is off-limits; however, is embarrassing men. Exposing men who are abusive, incompetent or overpaid violates the rules. Men will not be humiliated. They will not be rejected. Their positions in the spotlight will not be threatened.
I have been uncooperative with patriarchy. This is dangerous for women attempting to appease male-power. To protect what has been allowed them — because they have not challenged male privilege in ways that disgraces powerful men — women will often turn on other women. Like the senior girls when I failed to wear the quarterback’s shirt. So long as a woman strokes a man’s ego (or body) she can get away with behavior that defies male dominance. If she refuses to caress the male ego (or body) she will be “taught a lesson.” Put in her place. Other women will join in that retribution.
Many women are highly-paid and enjoy positions of power and influence. Women are visible, praised leaders. This happens. A woman can be told by society that she matters. She has value and worth. This transpires for women. Some women do flourish in the patriarchy. But they must fondle a lot of male egos to succeed. They must wear the quarterback’s shirt. They must be his girlfriend if he chooses them even if they are not interested.
Maybe these are small prices to pay for not being destroyed.
A woman speaks up in a meeting and shares a brilliant idea. Everyone is quiet. The silence scares her. She retreats. The conversation flows on.
Later a man, usually white, re-states her idea to positive feedback. Most of us have been there. At that meeting. Many times. This has happened more than I can recall.
The difficulty is I do not willing remain silent. I am usually forced into muteness by some man who will say, “We are moving on. Next please.” When my contribution is later re-stated by a man I interject, “That was my idea. That’s what I was trying to say.” I continue insisting. I insist and insist and insist. It was my contribution.
This has not been an effective tactic.
It makes me an inconvenient nuisance. I should just go along. I should stay silent. I should turn to the man who has blatantly stolen my idea (most likely earning far more for doing half the work) and I should light up with a smile, lean over, show décolleté and murmur, “What a brilliant idea. How did you come up with that? You are so smart.”
Unfortunately, I don’t do this. I should. But I cannot bring myself to lie. I cannot rub male egos (and bodies) for the sake of the patriarchy allowing some small reward. I have continued to insist on wearing my field-hockey shirt. With my name on it. I have persistently asserted my contribution, my value, my worth — be recognized. It has been a losing strategy.
Millennial girls. Do not make my mistakes. By the time you are my age, you will not have the men’s attention. Most men will be focused on the next crop of young women trying to build careers. They won’t see brains or potential, value or worth. No.
They will be looking for cleavage and considering how easy it will be to get inexperienced young women to stroke their egos (or bodies) and to stand with their arms held high overhead with a heavy white-hot spotlight trained on them — the men.
All but the most fortunate women will end up sluiced aside by the push and pull of patriarchy, by men and women alike, that washes over each new generation. I don’t have any good answers, when young women ask me for advice. I have done a lousy job navigating patriarchy.
I have always wanted to wear my own game-shirt.
Lori Handrahan’s Ph.D. is from The London School of Economics. She has been a humanitarian and an academic for over twenty years and can be reached on her website www.LoriHandrahan.com.