Patriarchy and the ‘Crisis of Masculinity’

by Sam de Boise

Part of our Patriarchy 2013 series: why men and patriarchy are not in decline.

First published: 14 October, 2013 | Category: Gender equality, History, Inequality, Philosophy and Theory

Apparently men are in decline. Last year, David Benatar's The Second Sexism: The Discrimination Against Men and Boys and Hana Rosin's The End of Men and the Rise of Women, became the latest additions to an ever-increasing body of literature which laments the death of male dominance. Building on claims in Susan Faludi’s infamous Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man, Rosin’s book, especially, garnered attention for its assertion that men’s economic and social stranglehold over women was at an end. She suggested, crucially, that women now possessed the traits which were most desirable to employers and that ‘traditional’ male employment had disappeared, meaning that men were increasingly economically dependent on women. Similarly earlier this year, Labour MP Dianne Abbott warned about the emergence of a ‘fight club’ generation where young men with diminished employment prospects would increasingly turn to lawlessness and other, less economically productive, ways of proving themselves, to compensate for their lack of economic autonomy.

Authors in the UK have also pointed to a ‘softening of masculinity’ as men ‘adapt’ to deindustrialised society.[1] New Labour’s policies looked to stress that the archetypal 1950s patriarch was a thing of the past; that men wanted (and should be encouraged) to take a more active role in their children’s lives. Men’s increasing consumption of beauty and styling products, supposedly increasing fashion-consciousness and their willingness to display greater homosocial affection in public, have also all been taken as evidence of a less domineering form of manhood; more in touch with its softer side and no longer premised on brute force. Despite different political motivations, many of these accounts seem to indicate a similar sentiment; that patriarchy as a system, whereby men exercise power over women in largely economic terms,[2] is drawing to an end.

Patriarchy and Masculinities

Marx’s notion of ‘patriarchal relations’ was significantly developed by Engels in his analysis of the family.[3] This was one of the first uses of the term patriarchy, as a systematic explanation for how male privilege was perpetuated.[4] The term – suggesting ‘rule by the father’ – has generally been applied to refer to a system whereby men maintain dominance over women through adopting the symbolic role of the father, emphasising a rigid, vertical hierarchy between men and women.[5]

Critics of the concept have noted that it suffers from the idea that all men are the cause of social inequality, meaning that women either lack agency or that all women are subjected to inequality in the same way.[6] This is problematic when we consider that there are other forms of social discrimination that produce different types of oppression; for instance racism. As the Combahee River collective noted in the 1970s, female black feminists in the US had often struggled alongside black men against white supremacy, long before ‘second wave’ feminists came along. During the ‘second wave’ of feminism (the women’s liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s), the demands of white, middle-class women often ran contrary to those of other women, or were even directly at odds with non-white women and men’s demands for equality. This was also true of ‘first wave’ feminism (demands for women’s rights or suffrage in the 1800s and early 1900s).  Kimberlé Crenshaw notes, for example, that many ‘first-wave’ feminists advocated for abolition in the US as a means of pushing for enfranchisement. However when black men received the right to vote, some feminists involved in the abolitionist movement were quick to stress how they felt it was illogical to give power to ‘lower-ranking’ ‘ignorant Negroes’; thus they prioritised their whiteness over initial egalitarian rhetoric. Creshaw’s concept of intersectionality has also been crucial in challenging the idea that inequality and oppression operates in the same way simply on the basis of sex difference alone.

The idea of patriarchy is, furthermore, complicated by the idea that ‘men’ and ‘women’ do not represent mutually exclusive, or even natural, categories. Our knowledge of sexual difference is itself rooted within specific forms of knowledge that do not necessarily tally with experiential realities. The ‘two-sex’ model, or the idea that men and women represent fundamentally different bodies which determine our opportunities, are themselves a product of numerous historic changes in medical, legal, scientific, economic and social professions. As intersex and transgender individuals have also demonstrated, supposedly ‘natural’ sexual differences, defined in terms of reproductive organs, are open to contestation.[7]

As Raewyn Connell argues, men’s notion of ‘masculinity’ is constructed not in relation simply to women or ‘femininity’ but in relation to other men along axes of class, race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality.[8] Her theory of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ suggests that adherence to certain cultural constructs of gender is the means by which some men protect their privileged positions. The initial formulation of patriarchy, based on a binary of men and women, was too over-generalised; white, heterosexual men (over the course of the 20th century at least) tended toward denigration of gay and black men’s practices to construct their own gender identities, not just women.

Furthermore whilst some men dominate military, economic and social institutions, this is not the core issue; it is the means by which culture shapes and legitimises men’s everyday behaviour into appearing natural that enables certain inequalities to continue. Barriers to economic opportunities for women are often no longer (directly) legislative, however informal barriers are still maintained through how men act in their workplaces; this is not determined by their genitals, but through years of reinforcement. The importance of this is that it places the focus on men’s practices, at all levels, as explanations for continuing inequalities without resorting to essentialist ideas of sex differences. In this case, relations of domination and subordination are much complex and often unconsciously reproduced than the concept of patriarchy allows for.

In Defence of (the Concept of) Patriarchy

So far I have suggested that gender oppression is not the only form of oppression, ‘men’ and ‘women’ are contestable categories, and gender identity is constructed in relation to myriad social factors, not just the ‘opposite’ sex. In addition, the fact is that some men do not have economic power over some women, and some men have been made distinctly economically powerless. Since the 1970s we have seen heavy industry and mining (areas of ‘traditional’ working class male employment) decline and the 2007 financial collapse and ensuing austerity measures have impacted on male employment figures. Similarly some women’s rise to elite positions has given the appearance of ending men’s virtual occupational monopoly in many professions, despite the fact women are still in the minority.

However this does not render the concept of patriarchy obsolete; neither does it suggest a crisis of masculinity.

Patriarchy as an analytic framework is unfairly criticised for paying little attention to the relative social position of some men. This is taken as evidence of its unsuitability for contemporary usage. However in Engels’ initial formulation the concept itself was concerned with the relationships between men as well as between women. Whilst some have opted to use the term fratriarchy (rule by the brother) to capture the symbolic or literal complexity of male relationships, Engels initial analysis of patriarchy did actually focus on the unequal arrangement of power between males in the family.[9] In early capitalist and feudal societies the social power of some groups of men was never absolute, therefore the notion of a patriarchal society does not necessarily exclude the possibility of some men falling victim to it. As Jeff Hearn suggests: ‘just as within capitalism, certain capitalists will be powerless [or] may be killed off in the struggle for competition, so too are certain men within patriarchy.’[10]

Some have pointed to men’s feelings of powerlessness in contemporary society as an actual indication of their lack of power (on this point Warren Farrell’s the Myth of Male Power is hilarious and disturbing in equal measures). The disjunction between some men being socially powerful and many men feeling relatively powerless in their personal lives, however, does not in and of itself represent a destabilising of material inequalities. A perceived lack of powerlessness has manifested itself in the UK in vehement attacks on immigration, asylum seekers and feminism in seeking to explain the causes of men's apparent decline – especially regarding employment. However this assumes that there was some golden age where gender roles were clearly defined, everyone instinctively knew their place, there was full employment and men’s emotional lives were uncomplicated. This is what the crisis of masculinity arguments hinge on; a transhistorical sense of men’s ‘true’ identity.

The apparent personal insecurities that some men’s privileged positions entail are not contrary to social hierarchies but essential to them. Constructs of masculinity (essential to patriarchy) which emphasise rational detachment and emotional stoicism as an ideal, in a society where many are economically alienated, are not conducive to carefree living.[11] In the current economic climate of zero-hours contracts, increasing precarity and wage stagnation, anxieties are obviously amplified. However it makes more sense to look at men’s increasing insecurities through the lens of economic power relations, rather than the end of patriarchy. This is not the same as saying that 'men are victims' too. Instead I would suggest that some forms of power that men enjoy socially lead directly to feelings of insecurity, powerlessness and a constant sense of threat to precariously balanced ideas of ‘normal’ gender.

Looking at economic data, many of Rosin’s assertions are incorrect. Whilst the economic collapse did affect men disproportionately overall in terms of job losses, as Michael Kimmel has pointed out, in the US, the so-called ‘mancession’ that Rosin documents, fails to acknowledge that job recovery has also been much quicker for men. In the UK the picture is slightly different. According to Labour Force Survey data, from 2008 to 2012, the total number of men in employment has fallen by 0.5% overall, whereas women’s employment has actually risen by 1%. The amount of full-time workers over the same period fell for both groups (2.3% for males and 0.4% for females), however as of December last year there were still 13,917,000 males in full-time employment, compared to 7,682,000 females, and 3,048,000 males compared to 7,533,000 females in part-time employment[12]; this is particularly telling given that part-time workers tend to be paid less. Another issue is the gender pay gap: based on calculations from the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings (ASHE) data, women in full-time work in the UK earned only 82% of the median, gross, weekly male wage. More shockingly, using the same measure, when taking into account both full and part-time employment, they earned only 64%. Financial services in the UK – one of the highest paid industries which Rosin claims women are gradually taking over – also saw over double the rates of female compared to male job losses over the same period. Of course this is a crude analysis and as already noted the data are more complicated than ‘men vs. women.’ Yet in almost every profession men still earn more on average than women.

Ultimately, tying patriarchy exclusively to economic power is implausible. Patrimonial institutions existed long before capitalism and amongst left-wing and activist organisations, as the recent SWP case indicates, anti-capitalism is not always (if ever) antisexist. Power is, of course not simply expressed in how much people earn.

Against those, however, who look to clean-shaven teen icons and men buying moisturiser as a progressive reworking of gender relations (what has been cringeworthily referred to as the ‘One Direction Effect’), or a ‘crisis of masculinity’, I would say that these are not historically novel phenomenon. Men adopting more self-focussed, luxury-based lifestyles has continually been linked to an increasing ‘effeminacy’ with very little change in material distribution. Given that the English word ‘masculinity’[13] originated in the 1700s, the supposed crisis has either been ridiculously long – spanning the golden ages of patriarchy – or politically expedient at particular times of social change. Men’s engagement in consumption practices does little to change the overall structure of inequality in contemporary society; fashion is not de facto ‘feminine’ any more than premier league footballers hugging each other represents a more progressive form of masculinity. What Connell’s ideas on hegemonic masculinity suggest is that men’s gender practices are subject to change in line with broader societal shifts to make them seem legitimate. The entry of women into workplaces, the public visibility of gay men or even the election of black male MPs does not throw patriarchy into disarray, it merely forces the presentation of certain gendered practices to change.[14]

This is why both a historical-materialist focus, as well as thorough understanding of discursive and non-economic relations must be incorporated into an understanding of gender and patriarchy. In doing so this does not mean relying on ‘a slightly old fashioned feminism that understands women as endlessly victimized within systems of male power’.[15] But it is important to point out the way structural constraints influence gendered behaviour and perceptions about individual choice. As I have already suggested, in looking at many men’s sense of powerlessness, anxieties and insecurities, what is clear is that the fact that some groups of men still dominate economic and political institutions, clearly does not entail the psychological wellbeing of many people (be they male female, queer, trans or non-gendered). Adherence to certain ideas around how people ‘naturally’ behave, on the basis that men and women are mutually exclusive categories, plays a role in shaping not only forms of discrimination that women face but also in many men’s own sense of alienation too. There is, of course, a need for a more nuanced view of gender performance and how personal agency and bodies are changeable. Doubtless, this also requires a more global view of economic power. What is clear however, is that the end of gender inequalities in the UK are still a long way off.


Sam de Boise is a teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology at the University of York who writes and lectures on gender, masculinities and inequalities.


[1] This is not to say that we live in a post-industrial world. Consumer capitalism requires large scale manufacturing, however many of these occupations are now located in Asia and South America.

[2] Sylvia Walby’s, comprehensive, Theorizing Patriarchy (1990), provides six levels of analysis at which patriarchy operates: household; paid work; state; male violence; heterosexual relations; culture. She also notes that capitalism is not necessarily a precondition of patriarchy as these systems were established long before capitalism. However from a materialist perspective, in contemporary capitalist societies like the UK power is largely tied to issues of economic self-determination.

[3] Friedrich Engels (1884) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

[4] Though Wollstonecraft’s (1792) A Vindication of the Rights of Women discussed the implications of male dominance

[5] Though as Sylvia Walby points out, different feminist perspectives (radical, Marxist, liberal) tend to see patriarchy in different ways.

[6] Good critiques of the concept include Anna Pollert’s (1996) Gender and Class Revisited; or, the Poverty of `Patriarchy', Joan Acker’s (1990) The Problem with Patriarchy and Heidi Gottfried’s (1998) Beyond Patriarchy? Theorising Gender and Class.

[7] For details on the construction of sex-identity and intersex individuals see Suzanne Kessler (1990) The Medical Construction of Gender: Case Management of Intersexed Infants. Zowie Davy’s (2011) Recognizing Transsexuals: Personal, Political and Medicolegal Embodiment is an excellent analysis of transgender, transsexuality and the role that the medical profession plays in constructing ideas around ‘natural’ sexual identities.

[8] Formerly Robert Connell

[9] Walby’s (1989) earlier article Theorising Patriarchy makes this point explicitly (p.214). 

[10] Hearn (1987) The Gender of Oppression: Men, Masculinity and the Critique of Marxism  p.43

[11] Whilst women are more likely to be diagnosed with certain mental health issues, as Branney and White (2008) note in their article Big Boys Don’t Cry: Depression and Men, this does not mean that men are less likely to be depressed. Low diagnosis rates in official statistics may be partly explained by the process of diagnosis being based on a distinctly gendered history of ‘feminine malaise’ and the fact that men are less likely to present themselves to doctors in the first place. They link this explicitly to historically much higher rates of suicide amongst young men,

[12] As numerous authors have pointed out, women are more likely to take on part time work in order fit around family commitments; again this is due to continuing inequalities around domestic and non-domestic labour.

[13] As distinct from the German word männlich which simply meant ‘manly’ As Chris Forth suggests being ‘masculine’ was something more than just being a man. It required certain codes of conduct which were distinct from their biological sex. As Judith Jack Halberstam (1998) notes in their book Female Masculinity, cis and transgender individuals often perform versions of masculinity which are not defined by their genitals.

[14] Connell (1995) argues that representations of gender are not fixed and will always change to ensure their legitimacy. As she states: ‘hegemonic masculinity embodies ‘a currently accepted strategy. When conditions for the defence of patriarchy change, the bases of dominance of a particular masculinity are eroded … Hegemony then, is a historically mobile relation (p.77).

[15] Judith Jack Halberstam (1998) Female Masculinity p.17

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