Gender Knowledge

Growing Up in a Patriarchal Society

The search for our feminine or masculine identities is guided by a myriad of forces, both subtle and overt. The tone, hue and shape of our individual quests are marked not only by biological, familial, cultural and societal factors, but also by the sculpting hand of our perceptions and individual psyche. These forces combine and interact to shape our personality and ultimately, our sense of femininity or masculinity. Most societies are patriarchal. Traditionally, patriarchal societies adhere to the belief that the father is supreme in the family with wives and children legally dependent upon him. In contrast with matrilineal cultures wherein inheritance and descent are traced through the female line, patriarchal societies trace inheritance and descent through the male offspring.

koi2Contemporary usage of the term patriarchal also refers to a society that is “male dominated.” In patriarchal cultures, males hold a disproportionate number of the key positions of power in those societies. Beliefs, values, ethics, morals, behaviors, and standards for success are also male-defined. This is true in the United States where males have had the political power to not only determine the laws and rules that guide society, but also to determine whether females or minorities were allowed to have a voice in their own governance. This power structure creates either/or categories, with one more acceptable than the other. In our society, masculine behaviors are valued more than are feminine behaviors. Just make a list of what you consider as masculine characteristics and behaviors and a list for feminine characteristics and behaviors. What is deemed to be acceptable and desirable of the women and men in our society serves to reinforce which behaviors are valued in our culture. As social animals, we each seek a sense of belongingness and safety. We find that adherence to prescribed modes of behavior facilitates our attainment of the acceptance we desire.

This is pertinent to the study of gender because the very definition of feminine and masculine behaviors is bound by the group defining those categories. Adherence to these pre-formed gender expectations not only sets the standards by which we measure ourselves, but we find that the societal yardstick uses the same standards as well. We measure our success, attractiveness, femininity, or masculinity in relationship to these predefined standards. We blunt who we are, change who we can become in order to fit in, even when it means cutting away parts of ourselves metaphorically or psychically. We become mere caricatures of human individuality.


Humans seek order, yet the universe is not very accommodating in that respect. Chaos rules and we are continually confronted with challenge after challenge to adapt. Csikszentmihalyi believes that one of the major functions of every culture is to shield its members from chaos. One way this can be achieved is by bringing order to the various roles we assume. If we are confused or unsure of the appropriate behaviors expected of us in the societal role in which we find ourselves, chaos or confusion occurs. Take, for example the changing definitions of female and male roles during courtship. Should the woman wait for the man to initiate major turning points in the relationship, should she offer to pick up the tab when they dine, should he buy her an engagement ring that costs twice his monthly salary? With the evolution and transformation of feminine and masculine roles, those who grew up during more traditional times are confused by the blurring of gender lines. Add to this the fact that people are living longer and the change for multiple marriages is not uncommon. The era and cultural times in which you grew up may keep you from adjusting to the today’s rapidly changing mores and values in society.

Thus, the usefulness of societally defined routes helps to dispel the chaos that Csikszentmihalyi describes. Myths or stories are created by societies to serve as roadmaps for its members to follow if they are to achieve their desired goals, whether those goals are marriage, success, happiness, fulfillment, nirvana or peace. We live life believing that if we follow the “rules” set by the culture, then we will actualize that which we seek (e.g., the American Dream tells us that if you work hard, get an education, apply yourself, etc., you will be able to buy that house with the white picket fence, have two cars in the garage, a cat and dog as well as 2.5 children, and live happily ever after) Our need for belongingness undoubtedly motivates us to conform and by doing so, we eliminate the “chaos” which comes with our entry into unfamiliar territory. Living with the belief that conformity will guide us to the goal we seek, we plod along with a sense of familiarity, stability, and belongingness, but may ultimately sacrifice our individuality along the way. We act in ways that are prescribed so that we accommodate the cultural template.

riverIn Greek mythology Procrustes possessed two beds that “fit all as if by magic”. One was large and the other was small. Procrustes would tie his shorter guests into the large bed, then hammer or stretch them like a piece of meat until they fit the bed. Taller guests would be tied to the smaller bed and the parts of the body that did not fit would be trimmed off. Like the Procrustean bed of Greek mythology, if a male’s inner nature does not fit the societal mold, he may cut off parts of his inner self or stretch himself to “fit.” He may then appear to conform, but in the alteration of his individuality he may end up feeling shallow and inauthentic. He may be a success by the conventional standards, but he may not be fulfilled. He may never realize that he has neglected a part of his true nature in order to belong to the “good ole boys” club. Similarly, females are likely to be rewarded for qualities that adhere to predominate gender role structures. For women, these qualities are the ability to communicate and establish connection with others. Also, beauty, nurturance, supportiveness, compliance, passivity and affiliation are valued feminine characteristics. Even though these narrow definitions of valued masculine and feminine qualities may not assure the actualization of our potential or happiness, they are prescribed characteristics that govern our behavior. We seem to “fit” into society and the groups to which we are assigned by gender.

Males who are assertive, competitive, logical, unemotional, achievement-oriented and team-players are esteemed in our society. Males are encouraged to compete, achieve and “get the job done.” They are to be decisive and not let emotions get in the way. In the process of growing up, the male world is personal and competitive. The more sensitive, or “soft” male is generally not able to succeed in the competitive work world because his emotionality is devalued. He is not considered a “real man.” The “real” ones have learned to behave in ways that are prized in the established hierarchical order of the patriarchy. These qualities assure success in his career, but the same qualities may be lethal in his love life.


Traditional feminine role behaviors mold women for rearing a family, not climbing the ladder of achievement. Ironically, she finds that success in the professional world requires that she act more “like a man” and reject her “feminine” self. She feels compelled to emulate male behaviors that define success. She denies her softer, feminine nature in order to be taken seriously by her colleagues, who define themselves by adherence to conventional male values. When a woman has molded herself into the patriarchal definition of success, she may initially feel that she has broken into the system, but at some point, what she thought would bring her fulfillment rings empty. She may no longer recognize the woman who stares back at her in the mirror.

By embracing more masculine ideas, behaviors and ideals, she has as Jean Bolen would describe, “dis-membered herself.” She may have “cut off” parts of her true nature because they did not work in the workplace. She may have over-identified with the more male-like qualities she thought were necessary to succeed. Women can reach back to recapture the child within who was confident about her abilities and aspirations–that younger self within our adult body who had no doubts about her direction, who knew the sources of her joy and happiness as a young girl–to go back to a time when no obstacle was insurmountable. Unfortunately, in the process of becoming adult women and men, our confidence is constrained by the molding hand of gender appropriate behavior. For both females and males, one-sidedness in our personality wrecks havoc on our personal life. The qualities deemed necessary for success may be diametrically opposed to success in personal relationships (e.g., friendships, lovers, parenting) and would therefore necessitate a balancing between the two extremes. We can “re-member” or re-join these submerged aspects of our self.

pandaOur identification with societal definitions of the feminine and masculine satisfy our need to belong to the larger social order, yet when we express parts of ourselves that do not fit the traditional definition for our gender, we may feel odd. We stand out too much. We each seek to fit into the greater whole of society, yet the will of each individual is to create a self that is authentic and individual. At the same time, however, we are driven to merge with the larger social grouping in order to gain a sense of symbiosis with others–a sense of belonging. We are driven to uniqueness, yet we are pulled to conformity. These paradoxical goals oppose one another–as we merge with the societal whole, we become less distinct; as we assert our individuality, we create separation. It is this tension and conflict that is at the root of our existential struggle.

As we traverse the road of feminine and masculine development it is befitting to explore the factors that contribute to our development, assessing whether these definitions truly fit us as individuals or serve us in our quest towards completeness and maturation. Awareness of the deep psychic influences of our feminine and masculine natures will also help us to be aware of the forces involved when we act out of unconscious motivation instead of conscious choice. On this quest of discovery, we will seek clarification regarding our own personal gender roadmap, noting the roadsigns, landmarks and pitfalls along the way. Through an evaluation of our present vision of the feminine and masculine, we may discover that the stories we believed in no longer fit our present circumstance. We may discover that we have been living by old, worn-out beliefs. The goal is to forge psychological tools that will enable us to assess our personal sense of the masculine and feminine and to revise our gender mythos to more accurately reflect our individual developmental paths. In doing so we will use ancient knowledge and wisdom concerning gender and become active participants in the reshaping of our individual and collective gender worlds.