Dismantling Patriarchy: Beginning with Yourself

Dr. Audrey Atkinson
July 2023

Many often mistake the patriarchy as hatred toward men or being anti-men in some way. In reality the patriarchy is a system that encompasses a way of thinking that places men above women and devalues the feminine, while overvaluing the masculine.  It has been in place for millennia and is even present in origin stories. For example, in the popular Bible story of Adam and Eve, not only is Adam created first, but everything is blamed on Eve when things go sideways. Elizabeth Lesser (2020) highlights the way popular stories, myths, and legends shape culture and hierarchies, seeping into our subconscious and conscious. In light of this, and the pervasive influence of the patriarchy on our society, it is safe to say that we have all ingested some of the toxic beliefs and views it can perpetuate.

A brief search reveals the thousands of ways patriarchy seeps into the fabric of our lives. From gender inequality present in media, the workplace, home life, politics, marketing, and the medical profession, to the safety of cars, designed for the male body, the impact is clear. Among the harms caused, patriarchy not only limits women but does not allow men to be their full selves as it prescribes narrow ways of being in order to be considered “a real man.” In the book Hood Feminism, Mikki Kendall (2020) directly links patriarchy with racism and states that, “Entitlement, intolerance, homophobia, misogyny, aggression, and sexual violence inside and outside marginalized communities are the antisocial behaviors that patriarchal systems create” (p. 81).

A great starting point for dismantling the patriarchy in yourself is to examine your beliefs about a woman’s role as well as what being a woman means, looks like, and the cultural stories we tell about them.

A classic technique from CBT is to ask “What is the source of this belief? Is it reliable?” These two questions can be enriched by asking “Who is this belief serving?” As Lesser (2020) noted, many of these beliefs and stories rarely empower women, but instead diminish their worth and voice while elevating men, thus upholding the patriarchy. For example, the commentary I heard growing up was “Women could never be president because they would be too moody due to their monthly cycles,” and “Men make more balanced leaders.” Decades later, not only has a woman never been elected US president, but similar arguments for why one should not be remain in circulation.

Another key step is changing what we pay attention to, the stories we are telling, and the way we tell them (Lesser, 2020).  One very small and practical thing I have done is read my daughter a page or two from the book series Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls (1-4) nightly. Not only does this give the next generation more examples of strong and diverse women, but I have personally learned a great deal about many women I never learned about in school or in life. By paying attention to diverse stories on women, including those who exercise power through nonviolence and love, it helps my efforts to change my beliefs and elevate those leading the way. Another practical and favorite act of mine is to intentionally read and watch things created by women, as well as support women owned small businesses.

As we do this work, it is important to adopt a stance of self-compassion to help combat feelings of shame that may arise as we realize the ways in which we have been influenced by, and perpetuate, patriarchal systems. For practitioners living in a white body or who identify as white it is also important to recognize and reflect, with self-compassion, on the ways that we have benefited from the marriage of patriarchy and white supremacy (Kendall, 2020).

It is a fair critique that many white women have relied on Black women to do the harder work and have only challenged the system when it has directly impacted them, while at other times turning to the patriarchy when it serves them. For a quick read that dives a little more into the importance of self-compassion in this work and ways it can help, check out Atkinson (2022).

The art of true-self-care, caring for and loving ourselves, is revolutionary even though it may feel small, and is instrumental in the work in dismantling the patriarchy. Guided meditations focused on the different forms of self-compassion can be a good, active way to practice.  This link is a great place to start. This form of practice also allows for the many benefits of a mindfulness and mediation practice, which we often teach our clients. Like many areas, this will be a continual area of growth and work for us in a lifelong journey of creating a more just world.

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