“Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” 3: Hierarchies

Roy Herndon Smith

This post is the third in a series of discussions of Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, by Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider (Polity Press 2018).

The first post in the series concludes: Patriarchy persists, in part, because it institutionalizes the contradiction between the good we believe we are doing (in Gilligan and Snider’s case, resisting patriarchy) and the cruelty (in Gilligan and Snider’s case, the emotional abuse exemplified in The Still-Face Experiment) we unconsciously perpetuate. (https://wheredustis.com/2019/08/07/why-does-patriarchy-persist-1-the-still-face-experiment-2/)

This second post concludes: Patriarchy persists because the hierarchical ghost continues to possess those of us who have identified it and think that, in so doing, we are, in Gilligan and Snider’s words, “leaving patriarchy” (p. 121). (https://wheredustis.com/…/why-does-patriarchy-persist-2-the…/)

This post concludes: Patriarchy persists because of the persistence, in the professional hierarchy, of the traditional patriarchal devaluation of domestic caregivers, those who remain “in the House” (Virginia Woolf, quoted in Gilligan and Snider, p. 65).

In the Kingdom of
the One, there will be no more
care—for homes, bodies

each other, children;
others will do the work, while
we play with ourselves.

The previous post in this series ends with the question, Why does the hierarchical ghost continue to possess those who, like Gilligan and Snider and myself, identify it?

A hierarchy organizes reality in concentric circles around or widening layers below a presumed-to-be single source of being, truth, value, security, necessities, and gratification, which are presumed-to-be valuable objects we strive to possess. Hierarchy constructs closeness to this single source as providing more access to these goods, and distance from it, less access. A patriarchal hierarchy constructs males as closest to this source and, thus, as possessing what Paul Tillich (1954) calls “the power to be,” and, through this power, the other goods; non-males can only gain access to the goods, including being, through men. For instance, in a patriarchy, males claim to possess the power to define who and what non-males can and cannot be and whether they live or die.

In hierarchies, “closer” and “farther” also organize, into more valued and less valued or wholly devalued categories, not only identities (for instance, male versus female and other genders), but also relationships, language, activities, emotions, thinking, space, and time, all construed to be objects. For instance, in a traditional patriarchy, valued males gather in valued formal, public, work, and informal, private “male-only” spaces they possess. In these spaces, they “spend time” engaging in and building their relationships around purpose-driven, often competitive, activities, that are also construed as inherent male possessions (as in the assumption that males possess leadership, women don’t), that have largely to do with the ownership, use, and control of construed-to-be objects, including other people. Traditional patriarchies often limit less valued women and people of other (often not acknowledged) genders to informal, private “female,” and domestic spaces, designed as refuges to which men can retreat from the male world of striving. Women (and, when recognized, people of other genders) serve men by maintaining these spaces for them; they nurture and gratify men in them; and they care for men’s possessions, including each other and children, in them. Such patriarchies divide time into valued and dominant linear time, which moves from a flawed present toward an idealized future to be fully achieved, occupied, and possessed only by men, and devalued circular, “women’s” time, the time of ongoing nurturing and maintenance of men and their possessions, but also of the obstacles that prevent men from achieving desired ends.

As Gilligan and Snider observe, the hierarchical ghost does not just divide social actors into dominating and subjugated groups; it also organizes subjectivity into dominating and subjugated, valued and devalued, categories of possessions. For example, a traditional patriarchy constructs intentional, controlled, thinking and agency as valued male possessions and emotional or affective, receptive feelings as female possessions, which are, at best, a means of motivating good male thinking, but are, more often, a frivolous distraction and, at worst, the dangerous source of seductive and destructive illusions and delusions.

In the complex civilization of late 20th and early 21st century America, multiple hierarchies—gender, sexual, class, racial, age, political, religious, and other—derive from, overlap, and sometimes conflict with each other. At least two overlapping hierarchies construct the video of the still-face experiment, which Gilligan and Snider discuss (p. 11).

The video constructs a traditional patriarchal drama in which Edward Tronick, the originator of the experiment and narrator of the video, dressed in the trappings and displaying the emotional detachment of a dominant male, uses a woman and a child to gain public status and power. The drama occurs in spaces and times the patriarch, Tronick, rules.

Most viewers, even explicitly feminist viewers, such as Gilligan and Snider and, initially, myself, do not perceive this scene as patriarchal because a more widely assumed and accepted class hierarchy overlays it. This hierarchy constructs professionals—for instance, researchers, scholars, and professors, such as Tronick, Gilligan and myself, and lawyers, such as Snider—as possessing authorized, or “true,” knowledge that nonprofessionals lack and have access to only through professionals.

The video places us, its viewers, in the position of students (or clients or consumers) who are receiving truth from the professional, Tronick. For those of us who are or have been professionals, this position is familiar and valued. Being “good” students and clients, who consume authorized knowledge our teachers, therapists, supervisors, mentors, and other professionals provide, is how we have moved from the devalued position of non-professional into the valued position of professional.

The cost of being good students, clients, or professionals is the devaluation of what we know outside of the professional hierarchy. The professional hierarchy deems such unauthorized knowledge to be, at best, partial and, at worst, dangerous (as in the adage, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”) or false. This devaluation applies not only to what we know indirectly, from sources other than professionals, but also to what we know directly, through our own observation and experience, including of our own bodies, minds, emotions, and selves. For instance, when we go to see doctors, what we know from our own senses about our own bodies only becomes valuable, or even “true,” when the doctors process it through their medical ways of knowing and reach or do not reach a diagnosis. As in the video, professionals first alienate us from our own knowing and then possess, process, and use our alienated knowledge to dominate us.

The professional hierarchy rewards movement towards the one source in ways other than granting possession of authorized knowledge. As Gilligan and Snider recognize, professionals generally earn more than nonprofessionals, they often wield greater political power, and they are often deemed to be more moral and worthy of respect. The video advertises these rewards. It introduces Tronick as a highly respected and likely well-paid academic professional with his own “unit,” consisting minimally of an office, a lab, and a crew of assistants. His dress, manner of speech, and the fact that he narrates the video reinforce this introduction of him as an authority. The video enacts the assumption that, because he is an authority on “child development,” he also is also an authority on the moral ways to relate to children.

This professional hierarchical construction of Tronick as a moral authority partly explains why almost all viewers overlook the moral contradiction the still-face experiment and the video construct. Since the video was released in 2007, professionals have used it primarily to demonstrate, not that, as Tronick states (and Gilligan and Snider repeat), “babies this young” are socially “responsive,” but a corollary of this “discovery,” that the still-face experiment demonstrates the deleterious effects of emotional abuse. Yet, these same professionals have not recognized that, even if we can concoct an ethical excuse for the original experiment as a tragic product of professional denial and ignorance, this excuse fails as a moral justification for the repetitions of the experiment, over the last almost fifty years, with babies of different ages and sometimes with the same babies, to explore how lasting, extensive, and severe the acknowledged injurious effects of the still face are. Abusing a baby in order to explore the injurious effects of the abuse is wrong.

Overlooking the moral contradiction inherent in the still-face experiment and the video is a second sign of possession by the professional hierarchical ghost, the first being the forgetting of non-professional knowledge. Gilligan and Snider also inadvertently enact other signs of this ghost’s possession of them.

They identify themselves primarily as professionals, Gilligan as a scholar and professor, and Snider as a lawyer. Both view their professions as providing them with ways of analyzing, resisting, and, in the words of the title of the closing chapter of the book, “Leaving Patriarchy” (p. 121). But even when they do not use their professions to resist patriarchy explicitly, they imply that simply being a professional woman is a way of leaving patriarchy. Snider cites
Virginia Woolf’s description of the Angel in the House, the nineteenth-century icon of feminine goodness who “never had a mind or wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others.” Woolf wrote these words in her 1931 essay, “Professions for Women,” recognizing that even more pernicious than formal restrictions on women’s access to higher education or professional opportunities are the cultural expectations perhaps that would block a woman from having access to her own mind. Thanks to the efforts of pioneers such as Woolf, I (along with many other women of my generation) have benefitted from the educational and financial opportunities denied to all women in previous generations (p. 65).
Snider and Woolf thus oppose being “in the House,” the domestic sphere, in which women not only lack access to public and political power, but also to their own minds, to the “professional” sphere, in which they can escape patriarchy, exercise power, and possibly have access to what they know.

The professional hierarchy was, up until a century and a half ago, almost wholly a patriarchal one; males were professionals, women were not. Gilligan and Snider are critical of continuing patriarchal inequities among “professionals”—of, for instance, the pay gap between those in traditionally “female” professions, such as nurses, teachers, and caregivers, and those in traditionally “male” professions, such a lawyers, doctors, and executives; the restriction of women’s access to “male” professions; the difficulties women face in moving up the professional hierarchical ladder, especially in “male” professions; and the often contradictory restrictions on and prescriptions of how “professional” women should and should not speak and behave (pp. 65-67).

However, Gilligan and Snider do not recognize another answer to the question that is the title of their book: Patriarchy persists because of this persistence, in the professional hierarchy, of the traditional patriarchal devaluation of domestic caregivers, those who remain “in the House.” While they explicitly affirm “the intelligence and the abilities that go into caring,” they immediately associate these abilities with paid, professional caregivers, who receive unjustifiable “low wages” for their work (p. 68), not unpaid, nonprofessional caregivers, whom they describe as “compulsive,” “anxious,” and “compliant,” and as engaging in “psuedo-,” rather than “actual,” “relationality” (pp. 48, 61, 63).