The Dimensions of Patriarchal Control, Explained in Three Steps

One of the things I tend to emphasize in my patriarchy posts is the idea that patriarchy is about control of women’s bodies at different levels of society and culture. There are multiple dimensions of patriarchal control at work on a global basis. Despite the cultural differences, it is a global pattern.

For instance, patriarchal control is promoted through cultural products, such as movies, that tell stories and contribute to overall cultural narratives about gender. Doctor Phil (no, not THAT doctor Phil, the REAL doctor Phil, Ph.D, sociologist, non-Opraj promoted, non-phony) provides this analysis of Sin City (the movie), after reviewing all the instances of gendered violence that are the heart of the film (violence against men is peripheral to it):

“The portrayal of women in this film doesn’t send the most empowering of messages: if you’re a woman and you have sex, male violence is sure to follow.”

There is no question that patriarchal control does involve strong attempts at controlling women and girls sexuality, from FGM, to child marriage, to purity balls, a great deal of cultural and social energy is dedicated to ensure that such sexuality remains under patriarchal control and is not freely and independently enjoyed by women and girls. And if they dare try, consequences follow, in the form of violence, in many movies.

Patriarchal dominance also means that any man is entitled to exercise such control over any woman perceived to have strayed from patriarchal requirements of virginity or marital fidelity. That is the individual level of patriarchal control. Take this story, for instance:

“A Texas bus driver who refused to bring a woman to Planned Parenthood is suing after being fired.

Edwin A. Graning worked for the Capital Area Rural Transportation System (CARTS) near Austin, Texas, for less than a year before he was let go in January. At the time, he told his supervisor that, “in good conscience, he could not take someone to have an abortion,” according to the lawsuit. Graning is an ordained Christian minister.

…He is seeking reinstatement, back pay, and compensatory damages for pain, suffering and emotional distress.

Right…because I’m sure the woman he shamed and refused to drive (which was, you know, his job) wasn’t pained or distressed at all.  This reminds me of extremist pharmacists arguing they shouldn’t have to dispense emergency contraception or birth control pills if it goes against their “conscience.”  It’s bullshit; do your job.  Women’s legal right to access medical and health services trumps some anti-choicer being made to feel uncomfortable.  Even if you have compassion for folks who don’t want to act in a way that compromises their conscience – the fact is that their refusal to do their job could seriously impede someone’s access to care.  And there’s nothing more important than that.”

It is interesting that such moral invocations are only seen as legitimate when they involve controlling women’s sexuality. So, if a woman has sex, there are consequences: violence, but also pregnancy, both presented as punishment. Therefore, it is unconscionable that a woman be allowed to escape the consequences of her sexual activity either through contraception or abortion (the whole “pro-life” argument is a joke and a cover-up).

The next step into this is that once a woman gets pregnant, her body becomes public property, and subjected to multiple forms of control, more likely in institutional form, backed by the authority of state agencies. For example:

“The health watchdog NICE has issued new guidelines encouraging women in England to attain a healthy weight before they get pregnant.

It also advises them against eating for two once they conceive.

It says almost half of women of childbearing age are overweight or obese, which could harm their child.

Many women feel they are offered confusing and conflicting advice about their health during pregnancy.

The guidelines from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence are aimed at cutting through that. They discuss weight and exercise before, during and after pregnancy.


If a woman is obese during pregnancy, she has an increased risk of developing serious complications like pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, miscarriage and stillbirth. She is also more likely to have a Caesarean section.

NICE says women with a body mass index of more than 30 should be encouraged to lose weight before they become pregnant. During pregnancy, losing weight can be harmful to the unborn child, so women are advised to eat healthily and to do gentle exercise.

After they have given birth, women are told they should lose their baby weight gradually. Experts from NICE say celebrities who regain their pre-baby figures very fast can put unrealistic pressure on ordinary mothers.

“Women should understand that weight loss after birth takes time, and physical activity and gradual weight loss will not affect their ability to breastfeed,” said Professor Mike Kelly, NICE public health director.

“Losing weight gradually can actually help women maintain a healthy weight in the long term.””

Note that this is not just during pregnancy to protect the fetus: it’s before, during, after, and long term. Also, how high are these risks, exactly, compared to the general population. They might be higher but not significantly so. Equally, it has long been established that BMI is not a measure of health. It is one of these fitness measures that have changed over time, that are culturally used to define standards of bodily acceptability.

And of course, patriarchal control also extends to parenting and marital health.

The bottom line is that control over women and their bodies and sexuality is exercised at multiple levels: culturally, individually and institutionally, It is a tightly-woven web of symbolic, interpersonal and structural violence from which there is limited escape.

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