Elizabeth Warren and Tammy Baldwin. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Hanna Rosin, declarer of the end of men, has now declared the end of the patriarchy. In an article on Slate that is adapted from a new epilogue to her book about the demise of the male gender, she reflects on the fact that “elite feminists…cling to the dreaded patriarchy” and have an “irrational attachment to the concept of unfair,” unable to admit that women have won and society’s sexist barriers are obliterated.
The problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem like Rosin has a solid working concept of what feminists mean when they talk about the patriarchy. In her own piece she brings up examples of the patriarchy but declares them to be something else.
Patriarchy is a lack of options for working parents. Rosin should know this herself. She recounts her own struggle to balance work and family. “[A]fter the birth of my first child, I decided to work four days a week, a capitulation that sank me into a terrible depression,” she writes.
I suppose the patriarchy was lurking somewhere in my subconscious, tricking me into believing that it was more my duty to stay home with our new baby than my husband’s. But I didn’t see it as a “duty.” I wanted to stay home with her, and I also wanted to work like a fiend. It was complicated and confusing, a combination of my personal choices, the realities of a deadline-driven newsroom, and the lack of a broader infrastructure to support working parents—certainly too complicated to pin on a single enemy.
There really is an identifiable enemy here. The reason the workplace, and our policies that impact the workplace, don’t accommodate parents is because they are still structured around a time when women’s domain was the home and men went off to work with children taken care of by someone else. (This is true even despite the fact that many women, particularly low-income women and women of color, have always worked.) That structure has led to “our appalling lack of paid maternity leave,” as Rosin puts it, because workers are thought to be male and not need time to recuperate from labor or care for an infant. Patriarchy has always said that public space and all that comes with it—money, influence, power—belongs to men. Women may make up nearly half of the workforce, but if you looked at our workplace policies you wouldn’t know it.
And yes, it is in fact the patriarchy that makes you think that it’s more your duty than your husband’s to care for your children. It’s natural for a parent to want to spend time with a child. But there’s a difference between that longing and the disproportionate burden women face to be the ones to make it work. Men are rarely asked to change their career paths to factor in the work of raising a child—to their detriment as well as women’s!—because, again, patriarchy says men are workers and women are caretakers.
Patriarchy is also the devaluing of the work that women do. Rosin refuses to see gender segregation in the workforce as a choice imposed on women but instead “women as agents making intelligent decisions about what jobs are available in this economy.” Accepting that premise for a moment, it’s still true that while women dominate some growing industries, the jobs they hold pay pitiful wages. A lot of them are in low-wage positions such as home health aides. They make up 95 percent of these jobs that pay about $10 an hour at the median. Home health aides aren’t even protected by federal labor laws, because the work has been deemed to consist merely of “companionship services,” not to be a job at all. They also tend to be nurses, not doctors—two of the top five jobs women hold are in nursing—making under $65,000 a year compared to more than $166,400 for physicians and surgeons. Women’s work is still thought to be done out of the goodness of their nurturing hearts and therefore not something to be paid well. Why would rational actors choose to be paid poorly if they had better options available?
Patriarchy is the fact that when men enter jobs crowded with women, they can command higher wages. In the twenty jobs most commonly held by women, men earn more in all but two. Women are more than 80 percent of the country’s elementary and middle school teachers, for example, but make just $933 a week at the median, while a male teacher will make $1,022. Women also hold a majority of the growing low-wage service sector jobs in retail and fast food that offer little pay, few benefits, and erratic schedules. Yet even so men make more as cashiers or waiters.
And patriarchy is the lack of women in positions of power. Even if women were funneling themselves into a select few industries out of a spidey sense for growing industries, we should still expect them to at least be able to rise in those industries. Yet they make up 15.5 percent of executive officers in food services, 15.8 percent in healthcare and 17.9 percent in retail. Women’s representation among the highest-ranking jobs, in fact, hasn’t been on an upward trajectory, as Rosin implies. Last year was the seventh in a row that didn’t see the numbers budge for women on corporate boards—they hold just 16.6 percent of seats at Fortune 500 companies—and the third year of stagnation in which women were just fourteen of the top CEOs. It’s no secret that women still hold less than a quarter of all the political offices across the country even though we’ve had the vote for ninety-three years.
Patriarchy greedily holds onto power and only bestows it on (almost always white) men. It hoards the most respected and best-paid jobs for men. It pays men more—even when they do “women’s work.” It refuses to change the structures of our workplace and our society to accommodate the fact that women are no longer kept at home to tend hearth and home. Women have made remarkable progress over the past half-century and feminists have celebrated some important victories. But that can’t diminish from the incredible load of unfinished work to truly change the patriarchal system we live in.