The study of masculinities, and how patriarchy plays out in practice, is a matter of urgency for anyone engaged in the struggle for gender equality. It was thrown into stark relief by the fact that as we were finalizing our book, Patriarchy in Practice, in 2022, Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in the largest military conflict in continental Europe since the Second World War. Putin is one in a line of new strongmen that Ruth Ben-Ghiat describes in her book Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present, whose autocratic style has a distinctly hypermasculine foundation. The unaccountability allows—and amplifies—its effects and projects it onto the world stage with catastrophic consequences.
A close examination of masculinities, patriarchy and their role in current events is critical to understanding the volatile shifts taking place in the world today. Indeed, it was the twin events in 2016 of the election of Donald Trump as US president and Brexit that drove us to organize a conference at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London in 2019 to explore the nature of masculinities in this context from an ethnographic perspective. The events in the world are not just confined to the corridors of state power, but cascade into wider social contexts. From continued and increasing violence by men against women around the world, to men’s attempts to control women’s bodies, to the current surge in far-right politics and its evident associations with hypermasculinity and misogyny, we are reminded time and time again that patriarchy is far from dead.
Our book grew out of papers that were presented at the event, which was originally titled “(Towards) Post Patriarchal Masculinities.” Our intent was to interrogate the relationship between personhood, patriarchies, and masculinities from an anthropological and ethnographic perspective. Yet as we prepared the manuscript, it became clear that we risked implying that we were already done with patriarchy. While envisioning post patriarchal forms of masculinity is an ultimate aspiration, it can be achieved through patient examination of different, situated examples. To the extent that masculinities might be considered patriarchies in practice, close attention to the various local, social contexts is an avenue to understanding and opening possible avenues for liberation, transformation, and healing. Yet it is dangerous—perhaps now more than even in 2016—to only dream of a Utopian future when faced with a dire present. The current wave of autocratic populism and backlash against feminism and women’s rights is not the first and will not be the last. As US feminist Susan Faludi pointed out 30 years ago:
The last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women. ….And in every case, the timing coincided with signs that women were believed to be on the verge of breakthrough. In other words, the antifeminist backlash has been set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it.
Today’s backlash, as with others in the past, points towards the success of feminist and women’s rights organizations as much as it now risks such work being undone. These are familiar tropes of masculinity’s “crisis tendencies,” as Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell says, coupled with a renaissance of far-right, misogynist politics. Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who focuses on political extremism and populism in Europe and the United States, notes: “It is clear that gender, and specifically masculinity…plays a role in terms of the propaganda and appeal of radical right parties and politicians.’’ Right-wing movements—old and new, online and offline—have spilled over from the margins to the mainstream.
While the current situation in many countries cannot be reduced to a conflict based only on gender, it remains a powerful axis of mobilization with enormous potential consequences, from the significant increase in online abuse towards women to far-right terror attacks founded on the notion that masculinity in the West is in decline.
These backlashes can be seen at least in part as a reaction to the continuing resistance of feminist organizations, individuals, and their allies against patriarchal practices. The struggle for reproductive justice—especially access to safe and legal abortion—is a particularly notable case in point. While many countries have liberalized abortion laws, huge numbers of women around the world (and disproportionately in the Global South) still lack access to safe reproductive healthcare.
Women’s bodies have always been a key locus of male control, and this is also true today.
In June 2022, despite its being law for nearly 50 years, the US Supreme Court, its balance of power having shifted in favor of conservative, antiabortion justices, overturned Roe v. Wade. In Poland, after a series of legal challenges since 2011, the government passed a controversial law amounting to a near-total ban on abortion in October 2020, which was met by widespread protests. The consequences became real all too quickly: in 2021 a mother died of septic shock in Pszczyna hospital after doctors refused to remove a non-viable fetus for fear of the new legislation.
Yet victories still occur; in Colombia, abortion was decriminalized in February 2022, marking an historic achievement for women’s rights. While it may generally have been possible to speak of a slow and steady improvement in access to abortion since the 1960s, we should be wary of assuming that such trends will necessarily continue without a hard fight. No situation is immutable, in any direction; freedoms that are hard-won can be lost, just as seemingly insurmountable barriers can be overcome.
While the gains made over the past decades in women’s rights are a cause for celebration, each advancement has galvanized various forms of right-wing resistance. Movements organized around the achievement of justice in gender, race and sexuality represent an almost existential threat—not just to individual men, but to the wider patriarchal systems and structures that they valorize and seek to defend. Indeed, as we and other contributors explore in our book, there is a sense of disenfranchisement and alienation among many men, some even going so far as to believe that patriarchy has been supplanted and replaced by a “matriarchy” that is actively hostile to their interests as men.
A perception among many of these groups is that there is a “war on masculinity,” a particular flashpoint being the American Psychological Association’s identification of “toxic masculinity” as a threat to men’s mental health. US podcaster Joe Rogan has made the claim that “woke culture” is designed to “silence straight men.” Other countercultural public intellectuals continue sustained attacks on so-called “cultural Marxism” and “critical race theory,” which they claim are infiltrating public life. Yet the surge in antifeminist rhetoric and strongman politics also presents a unique opportunity to interrogate masculinity’s relationship with patriarchy as well as how it may be extricated from it.
It is this moment of crisis for masculinity, particularly its relationship with patriarchy, that sets the frame for Patriarchy in Practice. To what extent is patriarchy expressed in and linked to masculinities, or the various shapes that they take? In what ways and contexts can specific enactments of masculinity make visible, undermine, challenge, or reconfigure patriarchal power structures? And perhaps most importantly, what might masculinity look like if it were not linked to patriarchy, but rather grounded in feminist principles of gender justice?
We believe that one reason—though by no means the only one— for the continued backlash is an absence of meaningful alternatives to patriarchal masculinities. In many ways, this is the core preoccupation of our efforts; insofar as masculinity is inextricably bound to patriarchy, the diminution of its power and privilege is indeed an existential threat to men, for there is no other way to live or find meaning. Gender is not by any means the whole of an identity, but it is certainly a potent part. We are inspired by bell hooks, who wrote two decades ago that “If men are to reclaim the essential goodness of male being, if they are to regain the space of openheartedness and emotional expressiveness that is the foundation of well-being, we must envision alternatives to patriarchal masculinity. We must all change.”
At its simplest, the current crisis of masculinity opens a vista onto the relationship between masculinities, patriarchies and the various individuals or groups that enact, sustain, challenge or subvert them. Our book features a collection of ethnographic chapters from a range of countries and contexts, intended to explore the spaces where masculinity and patriarchy are at work. We are interested in the question of the extent to which masculinities may be thought of as patriarchy in practice. In doing so, we hope to open space for exploring the alternatives that hooks speaks of. It is a long and winding road, considering patriarchy’s resilience—yet we hope that the chapters assembled here might give some thought (and some hope) as to how it might be accomplished.
Dan Nightingale’s doctoral thesis focused on the politics of vaccination in Ireland. He has long been interested in feminism, masculinities, and gender justice.
Nikki van der Gaag is a longtime independent gender consultant and a senior fellow at Equimundo, a leading global organization engaging men and boys in promoting gender equality. She is the author of the 2017 book No-Nonsense Guide to Feminism, and 2014’s Feminism and Men.
Amir Massoumian’s doctoral work focused on the far right in London. Following his thesis, “‘We Want Our Country Back’: Attitudes Toward Immigration in London Pubs,” he is currently focusing on aspects of masculinity, humor, and identity. Excerpted, with permission, from Patriarchy in Practice: Ethnographies in Everyday Masculinities (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023).