The battle rages on between feminists over whether a “women-only” or “liberal women-only” strategy is the best path to upending the current patriarchal system. This system is one that deprives the female gender of appropriate representation in the power structures of our nation. I believe this is *the* question of our generation for women who witnessed the simultaneously positive and negative experience of the election of 2008. Two strong female candidates, each from supposedly diametrically opposed ideologies, became political lightening rods; both were revered and ravaged at the same time. Many of us saw the awesome potential of finally cracking that political glass ceiling and it excited us. When the dust settled in the ashes of the political aftermath, a smoldering question remained — who should crack that ceiling? or more accurately, who deserves our support?
But, to my intended point here – are we focusing too narrowly on politics in our pursuit of social equality? I’ve previously discussed the theory of social dominance as the fundamental explanation for women’s barriers to this social equality. (It may be helpful to read the following posts here, here, and here, which provide the foundation for what follows.) The basic premise of social dominance theory is that a socially dominant group establishes through its power, institutions that perpetuate their dominance. This is accomplished through the the promulgation of legitimizing myths. (legitimizing myths = beliefs, norms, doctrines, ideologies, dogma, memes, etc.) The socially dominant therefore use their power over institutions to promote legitimizing myths that are used to persuade the non-dominant group to accept their subservience. The only effective antidote to specific areas of social dominance is to mount a successful counter-movement for the purpose of gaining access to the power structures of the institution and to erode the legitimizing myths.
So how does this relate to women’s struggle? To break it down, you have to identify,
1) who is the socially dominant group?
2) what are the institutions that have been established to promote this dominance?
3) what are the legitimizing myths that are promulgated by these institutions to perpetuate this dominance and persuade the non-dominant group to accept their subservience?
4) what successful counter-movements exist and what counter-movements are yet to be established?
The answer to question number 1, is Alpha Males. The distinction between alpha males and non-alpha males is important. While non-alpha males benefit from the social dominance of alpha males, they are not the enemy and represent an important ally in women’s struggle for equality. But more on that later.
The answer to question 2 is where we begin to find direction towards strategic resolution of our quest. I believe there are three main institutional pillars of social dominance: Government (politics), Religion, and Corporations/Capitalism. These are the institutions of power and control that direct our societal views on gender issues. What I would like to emphasize here is represented in the illustration above, that is religion is the central pillar of alpha male social dominance. Every struggle, every obstacle, every stereotype, every public action aimed at keeping women second to males in our society, can be directly traced back to religious doctrines. Go ahead, try to find any social obstacles to our equality that are not related directly or indirectly to some religious belief. For this reason I will focus primarily on the religious pillar of our social inequality; but first, let’s discuss our progress in countering the political and corporate pillars.
Government & Politics
The feminist firestorm over who deserves our support in the ultimate quest of cracking the political glass-ceiling continues without resolution. In one camp there are those that tie their efforts to political or religious ideologies claiming no common ground exists between the two groups on abortion and no common ground can ever be found. (Hmmm…there’s that religious pillar getting in the way. Coincidence? I think not.) The other side of the debate argues that all women, any woman, should be supported in their efforts to secure political office. These two groups remain at impasse as the stalemate stalls our progress toward gender equality in government. Until we get there, what can we do?
Dispelling the negative stereotypes (legitimizing myths) about women in leadership positions is one important component of any strategy. I’ve said this before and it certainly bears repeating: Hillary Clinton is the most important woman of our generation and her impact in dispelling negative stereotypes of women in leadership is unmatched. She is the epitome of transformational leadership: strong, intelligent, compassionate, firm, decisive, and fair; and she exudes femininity. We must continue to promote women leaders and demonstrate the benefits of women in leadership and gender equality in the Executive, Judicial, and Legislative branches of our government.
They are a significant agent of social dominance in our society. So, how do women fare in this arena? Not so good. Catalyst.org is an excellent organization that focuses its research on the progress of women in government and corporate America. Their website is a cornucopia of information, research, and statistics on women’s progress toward social equality. Perusing the various statistics you will see that despite a trend of improvement, a severe deficit of female representation in both CEO and board positions in prominant organizations still exists. I recommend spending some time on this site reviewing the wealth of information it offers about women in politics and corporate governance.
What then are some of the factors that stand in the way of women’s progress in the boardrooms of American industry? This topic certainly deserves more attention than these few paragraphs to do it proper justice; however, some major cultural beliefs can be readily identified such as: a women’s role in the family ; women being seen as the ‘weaker’ sex; women’s role as sexual objects and the property of their husbands; and leadership paradigms about the “feminine.” These ideas are all directly derived from gender stereotypes promoted by religion. The woman=weak, man=strong meme in conjunction with a woman’s role as the family caregiver underlie the ideologies that perpetuate these inequalities.
Before I begin this section I will state that I am not interested in promoting or dismissing any one religion. I have my own religious beliefs and struggle with the inconsistencies. Therefore, I am noting up front that I want to avoid a debate over the pros and cons of any religious belief system, so please save that for another day. Offensive comments regarding anyone’s religious beliefs will be moderated.
Women for the most part have always been relegated to subordinate status within organized religion. The major deities of the monotheistic religions are men, and until recently, ministerial positions have been reserved for men. Their dominance of organized religion is well-documented. Yet, women are making inroads into ministerial positions in many of the major religions through increased focus on gender equality. In a report on women’s progress in this area, Women’s Path Into Ministry: Six Major Studies, author E. C. Lehman notes: E.C.
“While those groups did not have to ordain women for fear of legal sanctions, it seems safe to assert that the moral pressure placed on them by the institutionalization of gender equality in secular society played a part in the shifts in their ordination policies (1).”
So while this is good news, it still doesn’t address the overarching view of women’s subordinate place in society. It is not the path that will change the status quo established under the pillar of religion. Several major denominations still forbid the ordination of women; and in those which do embrace this idea, women still suffer from discrimination in areas such as mentoring, promotion to positions of authority, and stereotypes about pastoral styles. In light of this, we still need to identify the true source of the problem. I believe that the true source of the problem lies in the religious doctrines of organized religion (i.e., the legitimizing myths).
To understand this in terms of social dominance theory, let’s look at the history of African Americans and the dominant group’s use of religion to support their oppressive actions. I’ve previously said that the African American community should be a model for our approach as women. They have created strong social bonds among their demographic members by successfully mounting counter-movements to their subordination. They have a sense of common cause that women lack. As victims of a most egregious form of social dominance, slavery, African Americans established their own church (among many other counter-institutions) to dispel the legitimizing myths being promoted among their community by the socially dominant. Whites used religion to support and promote slavery. They attempted to integrate African Americans into these myth-producing institutions by forcing them into the pews of churches where pastors preached that slavery was not only endorsed by God, it was a virtuous aspiration for the enslaved who benefited from their subjugation to their “paternal” masters. Yet this oppressed group fought back and created a system of religion and community that ensured that they, as a group, understood that a loving God would never endorse the bondage they experienced; and in fact, God supported their efforts to secure freedom and equality. History reveals that central to the progress of African Americans was the religious counter-movement they launched to unify their community.
When reviewing women’s religious history, our efforts to establish an effective counter movement have been limited, slow, and to date, relatively ineffective. So, this leads me to the first question: How do we as women establish an effective counter-movement to religious doctrines that promote our subservience in society?
I believe an important component to this is that we have to meet the spiritual needs of women and respect monotheistic beliefs where they exist. Spirituality is a critical component of our humanity and expecting to erase milleniums of belief is improbable. If the African American community was able to figure out this conundrum, then so can we. I believe one possible idea is to establish womens’ interfaith spiritual discussion and advocacy groups.
Women, regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation, share many areas of common ground spiritually. Spirituality does not require belief in a deity. It is the belief system that founds our ideas about life, the purpose (or lack of purpose) for our existence, and death. A first order of business would be to establish those areas and create a mission statement around them. I do not know how we can accomplish such a significant goal if we remain unwilling to reach out to those who disagree with us politically and ideologically. Once that initial mission statement is established, objectives can then be developed relative to creating a common consciousness among women.
Men are not the enemy
Some feminists see our struggle as one we must take up alone without the help of “the patriarchy” defined by these same women as the male gender. Since the 2008 primaries, discussion over the topics of feminism and the patriarchy abound throughout the blogosphere. What is feminism? Who is the patriarchy?
One idea that unfortunately has grown some legs is that the patriarchy is the whole of the male gender and that women must take up the cause apart from them. I’m one that does not buy into that meme and I also believe that there are men who desire to further the interests of equality for women. I also believe in order to succeed in that quest, we need their help.
I have previously written about how alpha males established their dominance by virtue of physical strength and then established the institutions of religion, government, and corporatism as a means of sustaining their dominance. Notice I have not identified the dominance as applying to all males. There are non-alpha males who are merely bystanders and benefactors of male dominance. If they had their druthers, women and men would be on equal footing in religious, political, and business organizations. They are the ones who realize that gender equality benefits them too – with higher wages for the family, and a decidedly more egalitarian and diplomatic world policy. In an excellent article about gender bias in workplaces and organizations, Engaging Men in Gender Initiatives: What Change Agents Need to Know, it was noted that:
Regrettably, in their exclusive focus on women, rather than engaging men, many companies have unwittingly alienated them, inadvertently jeopardizing the success of their gender initiatives.
Without the avid support of men, who are arguably the most powerful stakeholder group in most large corporations, significant progress toward ending gender disparities is unlikely.
Because of this, I believe that to paint all men with the broad brush of the “patriarchy” is wrong. The patriarchy is an exclusive club of socially dominant alpha males who have sustained their dominance through the creation of the institutions I’ve identified herein. This is why we continually scratch our head at the sheer math of 51% women in the electorate and less than 17% representation in the highest levels of our government. Alpha males have successfully designed the cultural institutions and messages so that a majority of men AND women fall prey to the call for conformity. This cultural brainwashing is what propels women to disparage other women, to make the public humiliation of women an accepted sport, to engage in campaigns of misinformation to keep women from gaining the representation they deserve in the major institutions of our society.
Taking this view, it becomes apparent that one other action must be undertaken to successfully erode alpha male social dominance: We must promote the engagement of non-alpha males in our society to assist us in our cause. Engaging men in the fight against sexism and gender bias can be furthered through two approaches: encouraging and demonstrating approval for defiance of cultural norms concerning what a “real” man is and does, and increasing awareness of gender bias.
In our society, these non-alpha males are subjected to legitimizing myths that come in the form of “gender norms.” These gender norms include the idea that engaging in the rituals of gender bias and sexism validates their masculinity. Men are expected to “conquer” and “possess.” Women are one of their conquests and possessions. There is also the myth that raising the status of women equates to reducing the status of men. This macho stereotype and zero-sum mentality are myths that many non-alpha males already recognize as false and detrimental to their own social and economic security.
Changing this ingrained cultural perspective is critical if we are to gain alliance with these men in our battle for equality. We must actively seek out men who are willing to be champions of women’s equality and to act as role models who encourage other men to overcome their apathy, fear, and ignorance. One of the greatest male champions of women’s equality has been Bill Clinton. (for those who want to inject a discussion of his liaisons as a way of diminishing his pro-women activities, please save it for another thread) Bill has demonstrated a keen sense of the positives associated with women’s equality and has led the way for other men in promoting such. His adamant refusal to engage in the orgy of misogyny and sexism against Sarah Palin is a perfect example of what such a champion looks like. There are many more champions out there; not necessarily in such positions of prominence, but in our everyday life. We need to engage them so that other men can also be engaged. Continuing to reject their help will only put them on the defensive and lead to more “alpha male” behaviors and beliefs. Cultural conditioning is not irreversible, but it is strongly ingrained.
To make progress as women I believe we need to have a strategic plan to address the central pillar of alpha male social dominance – religion. My suggestions are to:
1. Establish women’s interfaith discussion and advocacy groups as counter-movements
2. Identify our common ground as women
3. identifying, analyzing, and dispelling the legitimizing myths promoted through religious doctrines.
4. Engaging males to act as champions of women and role models for other males.
I invite you to disagree with me on any of these points if you choose; but in doing so, I challenge you to offer practical solutions that have a chance of changing the status quo.