Misogyny vs. Patriarchy

Posted on July 9, 2019 By

by Rachel MacNair

Before I get into why I think it’s important to understand the difference between misogyny and patriarchy, I want to explain how they fit into the Consistent Life Network’s set of issues.

We identified six issues of violence involving socially-tolerated killing of human beings, as listed on this banner:

Each of the issues is overarching. Nuclear weapons and military spending are covered under war. Destructive embryonic stem cell research is covered under abortion. Infanticide is included under euthanasia. And so on.

I’ve always regarded racism as also covering misogyny and lethal discrimination against people with disabilities. In all cases, entire groups are being targeted for dehumanizing words and actions. There just isn’t really a good word to cover all of the groups. Bigotry is the closest, but it doesn’t quite capture the point we want to make.

But why is racism the one to cover all three?

It’s more clearly related to all issues: the racism of the death penalty is a major problem, whereas women are less subjected to executions and people with mental disabilities are in some places explicitly exempted. Women and the disabled are also explicitly excluded from being subjected to the military draft, which we would regard as a benefit for them.

Still, our focus on abortion should bring misogyny to the forefront, and our focus on euthanasia brings bigotry against people with disabilities to the forefront. Yet racism clearly has lethal impact in both those areas as well.

Misogyny vs. Patriarchy

There’s a further complication: many people confuse misogyny and patriarchy, but they’re not the same. Misogyny means being against women. Patriarchy means ruling over women. An example to illustrate the difference:

During the original run of the sitcom Roseanne, Jackie was Roseanne’s sister and Dan was Roseanne’s husband. Dan didn’t particularly like Jackie; when he came home and saw Jackie there, he wasn’t happy. But Jackie was family, and therefore entitled to be there. Jackie moved in with a man named Fisher. Fisher beat her. She wasn’t willing to go to law enforcement for fear of making things worse. Jackie’s father had died, she had no brother, and the husband-surrogate was the problem. In patriarchal terms, the next in line for male “protection” was her brother-in-law. So Dan went and beat Fisher.

Here’s the difference:

Fisher beats Jackie / motivated by hatred for women = misogyny.

Dan beats Fisher / motivated by protection of women = patriarchy.

Both led to violence. Both are, shall we way, poor at problem-solving. Both treat women as unequal. Yet the motivation is so opposite that a different analysis applies.

Applying this to abortion:

Misogynists can regard women as receptacles for the next generation for whom abortion is disallowed. Conversely, they can regard themselves as entitled to consequence-free sex and therefore launch unwanted pregnancies and push for aborting them.

Patriarchs – while they can, of course, also be misogynists – can instead have a sense of beneficent rule over women that would protect women and children from abortion. Conversely, they can also rule that abortions should happen. Discussing the Roman Empire in the first three centuries of the Christian era, sociologist Rodney Stark observes:

Once married, pagan girls had a substantially lower life expectancy, much of the difference being due to the great prevalence of abortion, which involved barbaric methods in an age without soap, let alone antibiotics. Given the very significant threat to life and the agony of the procedure, one might wonder why pagan women took such risks. They didn’t do so voluntarily. It was men – husbands, lovers, and fathers – who made the decision to abort. It isn’t surprising that a world that gave husbands the right to demand that infant girls be done away with would also give men the right to order their wives, mistresses, or daughters to abort.


Discovering God, HarperCollins, 2007, p. 321

Both misogynists and patriarchs can be on either side of the abortion issue.

Patriarchy and the Pro-Life Movement

It’s impossible to be a misogynist consistent-lifer; it would be like being a racist consistent-lifer. Both are a contradiction in terms. But is it possible to believe in patriarchy of a non-misogynist type and still be a consistent-lifer?

Technically, yes. You don’t need to beat the wife-beaters to protect women. If protecting women and children is your motivation, then the issue of whether society is better off if men rule women is a side-issue – perhaps a question of strategy.

But, I must say, I’ve never met a patriarchal consistent-lifer, and would be surprised if I ever did. Many of our member groups are pro-life feminists, and pro-life feminism is so enmeshed in our literature that we pretty much regard it as integral to the consistent life ethic. I’ve never known of an instance when anyone thought that bringing up pro-life feminism was off-topic. (I myself was president of Feminists for Life, 1984-1994). The point that greater equality and more genuine choices for women is one of the prominent solutions to abortion is a point we make frequently.


March for Life, 2019

What about the pro-life movement as a whole? This is a female-dominated movement, and always has been. While there might be a difference in multi-issue groups such as the Knights of Columbus, in activist right-to-life groups, any man who wants to participate has to be accustomed to working with women, taking our ideas seriously, and taking instruction from us.

Just this last time at the March for Life Expo, two men gave me literature showing a Roman centurion outfit and having clear patriarchal wording, of the men-are-supposed-to-protect kind. Nevertheless, they listened to me intently as I explained the finer points of boycott strategy.  Their idea of male obligations on protection didn’t include discounting female expertise. It couldn’t. That’s just not the dynamic of how the pro-life movement works, or ever has.

This was one of the things that struck me when I joined the pro-life movement back in the 1980s. I was well-versed in peace and anti-nuclear activism at that point, and those movements weren’t nearly as good at including women as the pro-life movement was. There was much talk about how women had been expected to get coffee while the men did the decision-making, and this was no longer acceptable. Yet the effort to do otherwise in the groups I was involved in was very conscious and deliberate. I got pushed into a lot of leadership based on the need to address gender balance in leadership; fortunately, my predilections worked well with this.

When I joined mainstream pro-life groups, though, female participation in leadership was natural and never required attention to ensure.

Male politicians, of course, are another matter.

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