“Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” 4: Scapegoats

Roy Herndon Smith

This post is the fourth 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…/)

The third 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) (https://wheredustis.com/2019/08/11/why-does-patriarchy-persist-3-hierarchies/).

This post concludes: Patriarchy persists when those who seek to leave it unconsciously perpetuate it, as Gilligan and Snider do, by implicitly constructing mothers as scapegoats who carry the sin of patriarchal cruelty away with them into death or disappearance.

For the pain of birth
For the pain of care
For the pain of love
For the pain of hate
For the pain of life
For the pain of death
We cast you out

The conclusion of the previous post in this series raises the questions of why patriarchy and the professional hierarchy devalue the domestic sphere. Answering this question requires closer examination of this devaluation.

Gilligan and Snider implicitly equate non-professional domestic caregivers with mothers. They transform the patriarchal and professional devaluation of the domestic into a rejection of mothers. Out of forty-five references to “mother,” “mothers,” or “Mommy” in the body of their book, only ten are positive. Two of these positive references are the “good” parts of ambivalent comments; negative references immediately follow them (p. 44). Two of the other positive references are not the authors’, but occur in quotations from a speech at a 2017 march by Women Wage Peace, in Israel (p. 125). Gilligan immediately follows these quotes with her own comments at the march, in which she is critical of mothers. The remaining six positive references are to the mother in the video before and after she afflicts her child with the still face; the negative description of the mother dominates the presentation of the experiment as a whole (p. 11). Almost half (twenty) of all the references to mothers are explicitly negative—“still-faced,” “wounding,” “abandoning,” “silent,” “absent,” domineering, falsely idealized, playing favorites, and complicit in patriarchal cruelty (pp. 11, 23, 24, 27, 40, 48, 49, 54, 67, 101, 103, and 126). The remaining references (fourteen) to mothers are neither positive nor negative.

This predominantly negative portrayal of mothers is in contrast to the predominantly positive portrayals of daughters and, in a surprising and telling irony in a book claiming to be a critique of patriarchy, fathers. Of the nine references to daughters, six are positive; the one negative reference is a rejection of the patriarchal depiction of daughters as “always kind” (p. 40). The other two references are neutral. Nineteen of the fifty-eight references to fathers are positive and eleven are negative. Almost all (seventeen) of the remaining references are to fathers who are absent, most of them because of death.

In the book, mothers are the only people in family roles who do not speak for themselves. Both Gillian and Snider explicitly identify themselves and speak as daughters and, more rarely, sisters. A majority of the references to “father” are to Snider’s father, who died when she was almost five (p. 26). As an adult, Snider tries “to unravel the mystery of who my father was.” She finds him, speaking in his own voice, in his papers and especially his diary (pp. 97-98). The book opens with an account of a son and “brother,” Adam, who tells, in his own voice, how, as a teenager, he had been “initiated into a framework of patriarchy” (p. 2).

Gilligan and Snider imply that daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, fathers, and men in general, but not mothers, can forgive each other for the patriarchal cruelty they have visited on each other, reconcile with each other, and thus leave patriarchy. They cite studies of those in the categories other than “mothers,” but none of mothers. They recount stories of fathers, sons, brothers, sisters, and daughters, who are “leaving patriarchy,” but none of mothers who are doing so.The four major case studies in the book are of a daughter, Snider, who finds her way back to and rebonds, in spirit, with her father, who died when was a child; a son, Adam, who finds a way to reach out to and to attempt to re-establish a loving bond with his “best friend” and “brother,” whom he rejected as a teenager; a student, Jackie, who writes a letter to her rapist, who responds with an apology for the rape, which, while inadequate, results in Jackie realizing what he would need to do in order for reconciliation to be possible (p. 140); and a daughter, Gilligan, who resists, separates from, and, from what she writes, does not reconcile, or even seek to rebond, with her mother, “who appeared as the wife of my father, ensconced in being Mrs. Friedman” (p. 44)—in other words, as wholly in her patriarchal role.

The book closes with this rejection of mothers. Gilligan recounts her participation in the 2017 march by Women Wage Peace, in Israel (p. 125). She quotes singers or speakers who honor and identify with and as “mothers” (pp. 124, 125). She then summarizes her own comments, made at the march, which begin with a discussion of “the pain suffered by” the Biblical “foremothers” Sarah and by Hagar (p. 126).

Gilligan describes Sarah as being responsible for a particular act of patriarchal cruelty; she “urged Abraham, her husband, to send Hagar and Ishmael into the desert where presumably they would die” (p. 127). In the first of five generalizations or displacements, Gilligan implies that, through this particular act, Sarah became the first cause of “the willingness to sacrifice children for some higher purpose” (p. 127).

In five more displacements or generalizations, Gilligan does with Sarah what patriarchy does with the biblical Eve. Patriarchy generalizes the judgment of Eve to all women; women in general are the source of the original sin that afflicts and corrupts the whole of humanity. Gilligan displaces the pain of child sacrifice to the pain women suffer in relation to one another in patriarchy (p. 126). She generalizes the judgment of Sarah as bearing responsibility for being the primal cause of this pain, to Hagar, the victim of Sarah’s and Abraham’s cruelty. She writes that Sarah and Hagar “caused one another” this “pain” (p. 126).

Gilligan implicitly explains this generalization of responsibility to Hagar with another displacement, “Sarah [was the cause the pain] by being the one who was chosen, Hagar by being the one who could bear children” (p. 126). Sarah and Hagar are thus the cause of the pain not because of what they did or did not do, but because they were mothers patriarchs, God and Abraham, chose or impregnated.

Two final generalizations follow. Gilligan writes, “If we were now to reconcile as the daughters of Sarah and Hagar, our Jewish and Muslim foremothers, we had to acknowledge not only the pain they had suffered but also the pain they had caused. Because although women have for the most part not waged war, we were not simply bystanders. We were the mothers, and however indirect our relation to power, we did have a hand in what happened. Or in any case, we did not stand in the way or lie down in the street to stop it” (p. 126). In this statement, the pain of child sacrifice, displaced to the pain women cause one another in patriarchy, becomes the pain of war and, Gilligan implies, all the other pain associated with patriarchy. The statement generalizes responsibility for this pain from the particular mothers, Sarah and Hagar, to all mothers.

This statement completes Gilligan’s construction of Sarah as the new Eve. To repeat the steps in this construction: Gilligan names Sarah as bearing primary responsibility for the willingness to sacrifice Ishmael and Isaac. She generalizes Sarah’s responsibility for the particular act of giving Abraham the idea of sending Hagar and Ishmael into the desert to responsibility for the idea of child sacrifice. She displaces the pain of child sacrifice to the “pain” women cause “one another” in patriarchy. She generalizes responsibility for this particular pain from Sarah and Hagar to all mothers. She generalizes this particular pain to all the pain associated with patriarchy. She generalizes responsibility for this general patriarchal pain to all mothers. Just as patriarchy constructs Eve, and, generalizing, all women, as the cause of original sin, Gilligan constructs Sarah, and, generalizing, all mothers, as the cause of patriarchal cruelty.

In the statement in which she ascribes to mothers in general responsibility for “war,” Gilligan uses the pronoun “we” to refer to “mothers” (p. 127). This statement is the only place in the book in which either Gilligan or Sider identifies with “mothers.” But this identification is not with or of themselves as present “mothers,” it is a generic identification with past and dead “foremothers” (p. 127). When Gilligan and Snider identify themselves as particular women in the present, they never identify themselves as mothers, but as “daughters” (p. 127) or “children,” a category which includes “men,” but implicitly not “mothers.”

At the end of the book, Gilligan implies the reason for the rejection of mothers. She writes, “Once Abraham sets out to sacrifice Isaac, Sarah disappears from the story—we hear nothing of her until she is dead” (p. 127). Gilligan closes her story of Sarah with the speculation, based on the Midrashim, that Sarah dies when she “realizes … what she had done in her willingness to sacrifice Ishmael” (p. 127). Sarah’s guilt, which, Gilligan has informed us, has its ultimate source in her being a mother and thus is shared by all mothers, even those who, like Hagar, appear to be wholly innocent victims of patriarchal cruelty, is the cause of her disappearance and death. This implicitly ascribed connection between the inherent guilt and resulting disappearance of a mother suggests why, in the book, no particular mother, other that Sarah, makes more than a brief appearance before she disappears, like Sarah, unforgiven.

In this discussion of Sarah, Gilligan and Snider inadvertently provide another answer to the question, Why does patriarchy exist?” Patriarchy persists when those who seek to leave it unconsciously and ironically perpetuate it, as Gilligan and Snider do, by implicitly constructing mothers as scapegoats who carry the sin of patriarchal cruelty away with them into death or disappearance.