Carefully Smash the Patriarchy

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

On the last day of January, more than 100 people poured into the Rare Book Room at the Strand bookstore to hear Carol Gilligan, a veteran of second wave feminism, and Naomi Snider, a former student of Dr. Gilligan’s at New York University, talk about patriarchy, and what to do about it. Though the crowd on that chilly night was not quite as large as that which had turned out a few weeks earlier to see the tidying guru, Marie Kondo, at the 92nd Street Y, the crush showed that the dominance of men continues to be a societal bugbear. (Incidentally, the “cleaning house” that Ms. Kondo teaches is exactly what many want to do with the patriarchy.)

To remind, patriarchy divides just about everything into that which is male and that which is female, and privileges the former over the latter. In the last millennium, patriarchy was the common foe of feminist voices both literary (Virginia Woolf) and political (Kate Millett), but by the end of the 20th century, it seemed to have lost its potency, with third and fourth wavers eschewing the term as a lexical artifact that was too reductive to deal with the myriad injustices of contemporary life.

But then Trump was elected, and a year later, the #MeToo movement took wing. It wasn’t long before the line “Smash the patriarchy” was getting vigorously hashtagged on social media and printed (in one version or another) on T-shirts, posters and book jackets. It was 1971 all over again.

Though they didn’t anticipate being this much a part of the zeitgeist, Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider published a book on the topic just before the midterm elections last fall. “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” is a gentle dialogue between Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider that proposes a psychological reason for patriarchy — that it’s a defense against loss — that complements the agreed-upon explanation, which is that people in power don’t tend to give it up. It’s more forgiving than many conversations about men right now.

Reprising midcentury studies of children separated from their caregivers and more recent studies of infants (most notably the Still Face experiment, a gruesome display of what happens when babies’ efforts to connect with their mothers are thwarted), Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider explore the aftermath of trauma and the loss of connection. They suggest that the stages of that rupture, as they put it, which psychologists have described as protest, despair and detachment, mirror what happens when young women and young men mature and begin to display stereotypical male and female behaviors: e.g. the detached, heroic male; the selfless, overly nurturing female. (Detachment derives from two attachment styles that are considered pathologies — avoidant-attachment and anxious-attachment — and it’s from those respective affects, Dr. Gilligan and Ms. Snider suggest, that we get our cartoon male and female behaviors, in which intimacy suffers and emotion turns into playacting.)

“If you want to elevate one group of people over another,” Dr. Gilligan said, “you have to undercut our relational capacities as human beings. You have to stop the person at the top from feeling empathy for the people at the bottom. We saw this during the government shutdown.”

Feminist Rock Star

This is familiar territory for Dr. Gilligan, who has been examining the developmental differences between boys and girls, and how those differences can both support and subvert their relationships, ever since her first book, “In A Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development,” published in 1982, made her an academic celebrity.

Its insights and observations were drawn from literature, psychology and conversations with students at Harvard, where Dr. Gilligan was then an assistant professor and researcher, and interviews of women who were considering whether to have an abortion. The book presented a gendered view of moral challenges. Women, Dr. Gilligan wrote, seemed to make ethical choices that took into consideration their relationships and responsibilities to others; the young men tended toward a more abstract and individual ideal of justice.

Read more.