Why Straight White Women Perpetuate the Patriarchy
Male privilege aint so bad if you can marry it
So, this is important, but could definitely be expanded further. In a piece titled “Hillary Clinton, Betty Shelby and ‘Solidarity’ With Powerful White Women” Zoe Samudzi points out that that white women frequently use the power granted to them through the systems of racial oppression. Beyond that, however, she additionally highlights (but, unfortunately doesn’t deep dive into) the idea that many white women buy into the patriarchy.
[M]any white women — self-identified feminists, even — do not reject patriarchy as much as they may claim to.
Once, I went to a “Female Founder’s” conference for female entrepreneurs and one of the main speakers addressed the audience: “Don’t be afraid to found with your husband. Most female founders I know have founded with their husbands.” Her words filled with me rage, but what she was saying was true; many successful female entrepreneurs I knew did indeed found with their husbands.
Trying to found a company as a woman with a successful male partner is much easier than trying to found a company as a woman with a female partner, a woman with no partner, or a woman with a less successful male partner. This is a highly insidious, type of patriarchy as women are denied access to success on their own and are reliant on their husbands. This crops up all over the place; could a woman who hadn’t been married to a previous president realistically be running right now?
I can find no feminist analysis of the fact that Hillary’s political career is so entwined with Bill’s, but it is deeply troubling that women need to marry the right husband to progress in their careers. Trump, on the other hand, can be on his third trophy wife because his wife’s career is irrelevant. And, I don’t begrudge straight women who use their husbands to access success; if you like who you’re married to, take advantage of it, but realize what you’re doing.
Because this isn’t a harmless act of privilege (are any? discussion for another time.) This is an act that clearly perpetuates patriarchy even against the people taking advantage of it. Hillary claims she stayed with Bill out of love after his affairs, and maybe she did. But, maybe she also realized that divorcing his ass would cut her off from his substantial privilege. If women can only access privilege through their husbands, women will be forced to compromise themselves to keep their husbands.
Who’s not holding white men accountable again?
And I don’t begrudge Hillary this. She is clearly smart, and watching her destroy Trump in that debate did my feminist heart good. If I could vote, I would vote for her, and I’d enjoy doing it. But, there’s a reason Elizabeth Warren didn’t make it to the white house. There’s a reason that it is harder for women of color to make it in politics (and, mark my words, I’ll bet many successful women of color we see rise will be married to white men.)
On a side note, this is why Oprah is so good. Oprah is one of my all time heroes, and I’ll have to write about her another day — but quick summary, she had no class privilege, no race privilege, she wasn’t married (opting instead for a “spiritual union”) and she changed the world of television. She created a type of talk show that hadn’t even existed before. I always think about Oprah when I get down on oppressive systems. So, if you need a non-depressing counter example, go wiki-stalk Oprah for a bit.
But anyway; yeah, I agree with Samudzi. Many white women perpetuate the patriarchy because it is the quickest way for them to achieve their own success. What’s more efficient, marrying someone and using their privilege, or waiting 30 years for intersectional feminism to work? Because white women tend to marry straight white men (aka winners of the privilege jackpot) white women married to white men are not fully incentivized to dismantle either white privilege or patriarchy because they get some of the blowback. This is also why women tend to marry older men; young women can rise in the world more quickly if they marry someone who has already done it.
Women married to men will, generally, want their partners to succeed more than they want anyone else in the world to succeed (except themselves.) This is why women don’t always help women. This is why women perpetuate patriarchy.
Of course, this isn’t just white women. I have observed that when I have a not white partner, they are sometimes not quite so opposed to white privilege as they once were if they believe they can access white privilege through me. Men of color will frequently lean into sexism, thin people will lean into fat-phobia, straight people will lean into homophobia, the able bodied into disability discrimination, etc. Effectively, people are always just looking for the shortest path to their own personal success. People are willing to go to bat for issues that negatively effect them; they are less likely to really invest energy into things that will not benefit the directly.
Welcome to human nature. So, what to do?
One thing to note is that any conditional access to privilege (women through men, people of color through white partners, etc.) will always involve emotionally crushing the less privileged partner. Intimate forms of violence, like sexual assault for instance, are more likely to trigger PTSD than non-personal forms of violence like, say, a car accident (statistic found in this book.) In a similar fashion, I’d argue that oppression at the hands of your beloved is worse than oppression at the hands of strangers.
And I think a lot of straight, white women may not know what they’re giving up. I didn’t know, until I dated a woman for the first time. It was as if a shroud of perpetual shame had been lifted from me. To put it succinctly, I was always the less important person. My ambitions were always less important than my partner’s. My needs — including things like “need to not have sex to heal from sexual trauma” — were always less important than my partner’s needs (say, to have sexual access to my body.) And, I realized, that being single, being less respected in the world, having less money, even (if it comes to it) never having kids — all these things are better than having a life partnership where I am oppressed by my partner. Living 24/7 in a world where I constantly had to embrace my second-citizenship status was horrible. However, it was impossible to have this perspective until I had experienced something else. I couldn’t imagine life any other way.
And, this is known. This is straight up, old school feminism — this is what The Feminine Mystique was written about, but it’s taken on a new twist. Women no longer have to keep house through their partners, but they do access societal success through their partners. They get their work connections through their partners. They found their companies with their partners. And, generally women who are able to access this success are willing to make this trade off and they seem “feminist” and “empowered” as they succeed in the business world but they’re not. Everything they do, requires the permission of their male partner. Deeply radical things women need, things that only women could make, things that might really shake up the world, will not get made because their production requires buy in from men who won’t understand the importance.
Which is why the fight from women at the intersections, women who cannot or will not marry into these kinds of privileges, is so important. It is from these women that big cultural change will come, it is from these women that the truly revolutionary will occur. But, we’re not there yet. Most women with serious intersectionality (women of color, trans women, disabled women, etc.) have to fight so hard to survive they can’t produce larger cultural works. And I don’t know how to support them, but I’m trying to figure out a way. How can we create the support structures that will allow these women to flourish, support structures that might provide some of the functions a marriage historically has?
I don’t know yet. I’m thinking about it. Maybe I should ask Oprah.