Challenging patriarchy in political organizing

What is Patriarchy?

Patriarchy, a system that gives men privileges, results from a gendered socialization process in all areas of our lives – social, economic, ideological, cultural, political, and spiritual. According to bell hooks, “Patriarchy is political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence.”

Examples of sexism in political organizing:

Despite its pervasive existence, sexism within social movements and organizations is seen as less important than sexism in wider society. Believing in equality does not mean that men no longer experience male privilege. Working with progressive men can have its own frustrations as male comrades feel they are not guilty of sexism – often because of the lack of intention to be sexist – without truly analyzing their actions within a framework of dominance.

· Men are more readily perceived as experts on ‘hard’ political issues such as war and economics. Women have to struggle a lot harder to prove their capabilities as activists, their intelligence and understanding on political issues, and face an uphill battle to be taken seriously as committed organizers, researchers, journalists and writers. In order to do this, women often have to adopt authoritative roles in order to be validated in political organizing.

· Feminism is still not seen as central to revolutionary struggle; instead it is relegated to a special-interest issue and is not considered a broader collective struggle. This results in the frequent trivialization of women’s issues – particularly violence against women and reproductive justice – as being secondary to “more important” political work.

· Most political organizations and meetings are still dominated by men, and even more dominated by male speakers. Some women are frequently tokenized by being asked to moderate or speak in public which – intentionally or not – invisiblizes the culture of male domination within the organization, especially as the gendered roles of secretarial work, clean up, and childcare still falls upon women.

· The emotional work of supporting one another and ensuring our personal well-being is perhaps one of the most pervasive hetero-patriarchal patterns that continues to persist in our movements. The spiritual nurturing of our communities is largely met by the tireless efforts of women, who are daily checking-in, cooking, planning birthdays, doing hospital visits, providing shoulders to cry on, and so much more.

· Women are more likely to challenge men on sexist comments rather than men challenging other men, and the general assumption is that women discussing sexism are “pulling the sex card” or are making false accusations which leaves women feeling guilty and/or unsafe in raising such issues. Unfortunately, women’s issues and concerns are generally belittled or invalidated, unless validated by other men. These two points highlight a general disrespect for women’s voices in discussing their own oppression.

· Women discussing sexism are often characterized as “divisive” or as “emotional and over-reactive”, so women often feel like they have to moderate what they say so that men don’t feel attacked. Many men are likely to shut down emotionally or get defensive when women want to discuss specific incidents of sexism instead of listening and understanding what is being said.

· Given the particular socialization of women under patriarchy, seemingly minor comments or incidents can make women feel humiliated, angry or upset; yet such comments are often dismissed as harmless or unintentional. It is rare that men will end friendships or alliances with other men over patriarchal and sexist patterns, compared to some other sectarian-political beef.

· Women continue to be sexually objectified in political circles. Women of colour and/or femmes in particular are fetishized, obscuring the dynamics of racism, fatphobia, ability, and hetero-patriarchy behind ‘personal preferences’.

Some Suggestions

Believing in equality does not mean that men no longer experience male privilege, nor does being better than “mainstream” society mean that men are absolved of taking responsibility for sexism and patriarchy. So some basic suggestions (this list is not exhaustive, just where I am at right now):

· Honour women’s work for the devalued tasks of community organizing and community building such as childcare, cooking, note-taking, and providing frequent emotional support. Share secretarial work, logistical work and clean-up work. Make childcare / eldercare and cooking not just the priority of your group or event, but your own personal political priority.

· If it is obvious that the same few men are dominating a discussion, the facilitator or others in the meeting should consider suggesting a go-around to get more people talking. If you are one of those men, be aware of the space you take up as well as the tone you use to make your points.

· Be mindful of the language being used and use inclusive language, for example saying ‘spokesperson’ instead of ‘spokesman’. Also, respect everyone’s self-identification and use preferred names and pronouns.

· Recruiting women into the organization is not necessarily the solution. The fact that an organization is male-dominated might merely be a symptom and not the problem itself. The path to ensuring the full and equal participation of women in a political organization can be difficult and the process may feel tokenistic if it does not give equal consideration to women’s opinions, issues, and wants in a meaningful manner.

· Realize that having an anti-sexist gender analysis doesn’t just mean having “more” womens representation and assimilation within Euro-centric and male-dominated social movements. Rather, it requires a fundamental transformation in our social movements to actively facilitate and centre women’s own analysis and experiences of capitalism and oppression, especially that of women of colour and Indigenous women who are actually the most directly impacted by the issues that we work on – occupation and militarization, theft of land and displacement, violence, slave-wage working conditions, poverty and lack of access to basic necessities such as health, housing, water, and food.

· Stop pitting women against each other, particularly those women who are more dominant and visible in the movement who *you* decide are more ‘smart’ or ‘badass’ or ‘interesting’ or ‘hot’ than others.

· Realize that just because you might not find somebody’s behaviour offensive, women might have different boundaries that have been shaped by a history of socialization under patriarchy. There is a difference between listening & respectful dialogue and invalidating or denying that an incident of gender oppression was experienced.

· The silence and denial of sexual violence and sexual harassment in activist communities is unacceptable. Be committed to accountability processes – don’t say you are too busy or have more important things to do. The tendency to blame survivors for the divisions and upheaval that may result from such processes is problematic. As allies, do empower survivors to regain and maintain control over accountability processes. Unless you have a better solution or are actively part of growing an alternative to deal with interpersonal gendered violence, definitely do not judge women who maybe forced to resort to the state apparatus. The only ones ‘hurting the struggle’ are those that want to deny or minimize the experiences, realities, and traumas of sexual violence.

· Create an atmosphere that is empowering, and open especially to new and/or young women. Share skills and knowledge in a non-paternalistic manner to build the leadership of women, especially women of colour.

· Realize that sexism, in various forms, runs deep and always plays itself out. Don’t trivialize women’s issues or place the sole responsibility for fighting oppression on the oppressed. Take sexism on as your struggle – become an active ally in the struggle to end violence against women, fundraise for women’s crisis centers, or organize events that support women’s (particularly poor/low-income and Indigenous women’s) liberation.

· Transforming gender roles and socialization is not about guilt or who is right or wrong. This “list” is just a start; women in the movement have such diverse experiences and contexts and there is no singular form of patriarchy. Really, the best suggestion I have is that if we are committed to building communities of resistance for the long-term, then we need to prioritize building relationships with one another, having hard conversations, and being willing to humble ourselves to a life-long process of learning to effectively fight oppression.

Harsha Walia wrote this piece originally in 2006. This piece is a really basic primer and so does tend to generalize across race, ability, class, queerness etc. Harsha is a South Asian organizer and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She has been active in feminist, anti racist, migrant justice, anti authoritarian, and anti capitalist struggles for over a decade and is a firm supporter of Palestinian liberation as well as Indigenous self-determination across Turtle Island. You can find her at

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