Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Unconscious Bias: A Legacy of Patriarchy


After my June post on Unconscious Bias, Kelly left an intriguing comment. She wanted to know where this bias comes from and why it is present. I get this question frequently, so I thought I would take this opportunity to reply in more detail. Unconscious bias is one of the many unfortunate legacies of patriarchy*. Not so sure you believe me? Well, just think about it. We have lived in a civilization that has been dominated by patriarchy for over 5,000 years! The rules, conscious and unconscious, are written into the very fabric of our society. Not only do we live and breathe by these rules, but so did our ancestors, going back for many generations.

Patriarchy imposes unnatural double standards. Let’s take a common example: your family name. Other than pregnancy/motherhood, nothing has generated more comments on our blog or feedback on AASWOMEN than items about changing or not changing your name when you get married. Here are some examples of what women have told me:

  (1) I never liked my family name; I looked forward to getting married so I could change it.

(2) My father never supported my mom and me; I don’t want to have his name.
(3) I want to have the same name as my husband and child so we’ll be considered a family by anyone we meet.
(4) I want to have my husband’s name, not my father’s name.

All of these comments (and many more) came from astronomers. They changed their name despite the complications for their publication record. No one would think that any of these women was unreasonable, and many of us would support them in making this very personal decision. In today’s world, there is no “right” answer about changing your name.

So here is where the double standard kicks in: reread comments (1) thru (4) as if a guy had said them:

(1) I never liked my family name; I looked forward to getting married so I could change it.
(2) My mother never supported my dad and me; I don’t want to have her name.
(3) I want to have the same name as my wife and child so we’ll be considered a family by anyone we meet.
(4) I want to have my wife’s name, not my mother’s name.

They do not sit right, do they? Why is the family name the father’s name? It is another legacy of patriarchy. Patriarchy accounts for the fact that most presidents, legislators, generals, admirals, CEOs, popes, and priests are all men. It is responsible for terms like chairman (because women could never chair a committee or a department), businessman (because women would never own or operate a business), foreman (because women were not even allowed to serve on juries), and manned space flight (because all the original astronauts were men).

Did you ever read a book that changed your life? I did. It has the provocative title of, When God was a Woman. Before reading this book, I thought that patriarchy was the natural order of things and that modern society was slowly changing the traditional way we live and think about gender issues. It turns out that this is NOT the case. There was a time, before the Indo-European invasions made patriarchy a way of life, when society was more balanced, egalitarian, and matrilineal**. I find this whole subject fascinating. If you are interested, here are some of my favorite books:

When God Was a Woman by Merlin Stone
The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler
The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner

And some of the original scholarship:

The Language of the Goddess by Marija Gimbutas
The Living Goddesses by Marija Gimbutas
The Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images by Marija Gimbutas

All these books appear to be available on Amazon. Happy summer reading!

*Patriarchy is a system of society or government in which the father is head of the family. It can also describe a society in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. Descent is traced through the male line, which (before the age of paternity tests) sets up an unnatural double standard about sex; “boys will be boys,” but girls must be virgins until they are married and then must be faithful to their husbands.

**Matrilineal societies are based on kinship with the mother. As far as I know, no serious scholar of history has ever claimed that there were matriarchal societies (where women ruled and men were oppressed). However, history and prehistory are full of matrilineal societies, where descent is traced through the mother. Since this descent is both natural and obvious, it requires no double standard about sex.