[Building Bridges] Challenging Patriarchy in Our Movements


Anyone who does social justice work understands that we are all full of contradictions, and that we must work through them. Since our movements are reflections of us as human beings, they are also fraught with contradictions. One the most powerful contradictions facing revolutionary social movements is patriarchy: a reproduction of the vision of a male-dominant society that we experience everyday in our current society. It is particularly difficult to challenge this contradiction because it means challenging the way in which many of our movements were founded, and challenging the way they currently operate. This is difficult because it means pointing out the flaws of those leaders we model our movements after.

One of the best examples of patriarchy and its legacy in social movements comes from the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. While the Party was arguably the most important and influential organization in America’s Black Power movement,[ref]The Black Power movement refers to a period from the late 1960s to early 1970s in America where black Americans began to emphasize racial pride and create black political and cultural institutions to nurture and promote black collective interest and values. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a revolutionary Black Nationalist and socialist organization, and has been called the strongest link between domestic Black Liberation struggle and the global struggle against American imperialism. It first started in 1966 as protection against the rampant police brutality of Black People in Oakland. The movement expanded nation-wide calling for Black self-respect and liberation.[/ref] they were also deeply flawed in their politics and approach to feminist issues. In order to fully understand how the legacy of patriarchy infiltrates our movements, we must first understand the work that women have done and continue to do in building and creating the apparatus for movements to exist in. For example, when young Black revolutionaries are told about the Panthers we are told tales of bold brothers with guns who stood up to the police while also feeding the community, and who gave everyone a sense of pride and belonging in their own community. While this is true, what is not articulated is that women were making all this possible: They operated the free breakfast programs that fed the community, and ran the campaigns to finance the brothers when their guns got them into legal trouble.

The erasure of women’s work in past social movements creates the conditions for patriarchy to thrive within our own movements today. Similar dynamics exist in the current racial justice movement taking place all over the United States as evidenced by #SayHerName. The hashtag was initially created to shed light on Black women, like Sandra Bland, who have been murdered at the hands of police. This is because even in the age of Black Lives Matter, the role and struggles of Black women in the movement are always in danger of being eclipsed by a male-centric narrative that ignore this gendered gap in experience. Just as with the Black Panther Party, we are seeing that patriarchy in the current movement being propagated by men in the movement.

Historically, the primary tool that has been used to advance patriarchy inside of revolutionary social movements is the idea of the “revolutionary family and false conceptions of the woman’s role therein. According to the myth of the revolutionary family, the way we will build a strong revolution is by constructing families where the man is the head and his revolutionary wife supports him in his fight for equality while raising their children in a revolutionary manner to serve the people. While this may sound good to some, there are two inherently problematic ideologies underlying this narrative: patriarchy and heteronormativity. In this model, the woman has no power to fight for her freedom from male domination, and it assumes that women cannot lead and make meaningful contributions to a revolutionary struggle. The narrative also completely dismisses Queer, Trans, and gender nonconforming individuals as not being a part of the equation for liberation, or even a part of the revolutionary community at all. Much of the ideas behind the “revolutionary family” are informed by dated ideas about the importance of the nuclear family, which come more from the capitalist desire to package and market everything, including family.

Even though there are many patriarchal norms that exist within the current fight for liberation, major strides are being made to change the narrative and recognize the work of women in the movement. The Black Panther Party was created by two frustrated young black men, and the movement that followed existed within that ethos and the set of contradictions that came with being a Black man at the time; Black Lives Matter, on the other hand, was started by three Black women, two of whom are Queer: It exists to directly challenge this paradigm of the past. One of the key initiatives of Black Lives Matter is to uplift the voices of women and Queer people in the movement, and express both the problems and solutions of the current social movement as something that must be addressed in the most inclusive manner possible. While many men may agree with what has been said here, tackling patriarchy within our movements can be daunting. However, we need to understand and take responsibility for the fact that patriarchy informs the dominant social order, and that we must therefore be the ones to step up and take responsibility for change both inside and outside our political movements.

The following are some strategies for men who wish to support and uplift the work of the women around him:

  1. Uplift women’s voices – Do what you can to ensure that the opinions and ideas of women are being heard especially in spaces that are very male dominated.
  2. Step Back – If you notice that a space is being dominated by the opinions of men rather than voicing your own opinion ask if any of the women have something they would like to contribute.
  3. Challenge our brothers – Engage in principled struggle with other men about their actions regarding women in the movement. This means having hard conversations and challenging some norms.
  4. Follow our sisters – It is not enough to simply hear the words of our sisters, but we must follow their leadership, especially when talking about how to deal with patriarchy in larger movement settings.
  5. Be willing to learn – As men we all carry and benefit from patriarchy so always be willing to listen to the women around you when they and if they address you about it. You may not always agree, but listen to and understand her perspective.