Patriarchy and Neoliberalism

Presentation by Inge Kleine at the FiLiA-conference in Salford/Manchester 20-21 October 2018


First and foremost I want to thank FiLiA, that is the great organising team, for creating this conference and this opportunity to meet so many great activists and feminists.


My topic is the resilience of patriarchy and how difficult it is not to fall into its traps as we struggle against it.

As patriarchy keeps reasserting itself, it succeeds, and has succeeded, in making our struggles, at least in western countries or those of the global north, appear obsolete (1), sending us straight into the first series of traps. The idea for men is to point to other countries, “elsewhere“, preferably south or “east“, and to societies there. This is in fact a very old trick, as liberalism and colonialism are linked (2), and it works like this: “We don't have any real problems here, but look beyond! This is where you should look. Arab countries!“ The immediate reaction to this could easily be for a German feminist at least to point out that Algeria has in fact more women as representatives in parliament than Germany does, and the immediate satisfaction to see the smug wiped off the 'splainer's' faces. But the reaction is faulty, as it already traps us in typical though implicit fallacies, that of “our“ superiority, because why shouldn't Algeria have more women representatives than Germany, or what kind of mindset accepts that Algeria can be used as an insult to smug Germans? And this goes further. Having already planted my right foot firmly in the bog that is patriarchy, let me pull my left foot along and in there, too. Denying differences, or pointing out that patriarchy is everywhere and that our struggles are the same everywhere, can lead us to miss important information about our sisters, it can lead us, in this case western feminists, not to see where their struggles are different or where the concrete framework is different. It also serves to divert attention, and to draw it nicely back to ourselves. And while I can feel myself sinking into this bog, let me add the third trap, when a recognition of differences in our daily challenges and struggles leads to ideas like those once proposed in a “favourite“ article of mine, which stated that Muslim girls in Pakistan had values of family solidarity which mean that they don't want, or need individual freedom.

So here we have brushed past three traps already, and I'm only on the first half of my first page.

Another trick, worse, is for those who benefit from from patriarchy and from (neo-)liberalism to pose as allies, while supporting only certain aspects of women's struggles for liberation, and to do this in ways that make sure that women will not really benefit from any successes, at least not to the cost of men.

Of course this is easier to analyse looking back and harder when we're stuck in the middle of it. The whole sexual liberation idea from the late 60s and early 70s comes to mind. Sexual liberation was and is a feminist struggle. When women spoke of wanting sex without being married, or the right to divorce, or the same moral standards for women and men as regards sex, men understood complete sexual access to women without any obligations. They were and are happy to support this right, although they are restricting it somewhat to younger women, and unmarried ones. Abortion is a similar issue. We know why we want the right to abortion. And why many men want it.

From women's demands for sexual liberation we get led to the rhetorics  of “sex work“ and the myth of the “happy hooker“, and to her right to engage in this “profession“ if she so chooses. In Germany, the pro-prostitution side will always remind us of a woman's right to choose her profession, granted in article 12 of our basic law and guaranteed by a supreme court ruling regarding “sex work“ – it is truly encouraging and heart warming how many men are dedicated to the cause and will in no time stand up for women's rights to be in prostitution! This in a country that has one of the lowest rates of women in parliament, in management positions, or in science.

From women's fights for access to paid work and for childcare we get a realignment of pension rights that practically pushes every woman with children who is a single mother into poverty, all in the name of equality, independence, and feminism, and from our struggles to include men in childcare we get the “fathers' rights movement“ which, together with so-called “pick-up artists“ form the worst kind of MRAs (3).

From the crucial understanding of the difference between “sex“ and “gender“, with gender in the definition of sex roles, i.e. a set of stereotypes imposed on us according to the current needs in a society, we get a policy that seeks to deny sex and our bodies, and our possilities to speak about them. This is definitely where patriarchy reaches a full circle – the female body as the unspeakable, as that which must not be named, which must be repressed because it is so offensive, so threatening, a body that triggers whole civilisations so that entire religions had to be invented to guard us against it, that body is now again pushed away as it always has been: by not mentioning it, declaring it as off limits or off discourse, or as dirty, by using violence against it when it is visible, often directed against our sexual organs (4), or by hiding it under images of that body that aestheticise or codify it out of recognition, always firmly tied to the male gaze and male evaluation of that body. We are told not to mention menstruation, or name our uterus or vagina as female, as parts of our female physiology,  because this could trigger those who don't have that physiology. Well! Look, come back patriarchy when you've got something new, so much of patriarchy has been constructed around our bodies being our bodies.

Since the female body exists, the struggle is about representation, i.e. language. This body is not supposed to have any meaning other than that which men assign to it, and if society, or the men in it, feel better by not hearing about it, or by not calling it female, or by replacing it with references to various functions or body parts (uterus-bearer, or menstruator) that is somehow supposed to be progressive. Because we don't want to be tied to our reproductive capacities, do we?

Well, heck, no we don't, and yes, that's a trap. While we are at it, pondering its settings, let me return to the title of this session – what's it all got to do with neo-liberalism?


In brief:


The body, our physicality, the fact of being born and one day dying, resists interpretation. We will die, and that is inacceptable, our great minds will stop working and be gone, and we wouldn't be dying if we hadn't been born in the first place, and that is mummy's fault. And since you're bringing up birth, whose children are these anyway?

Note: I am not saying that births, and death, and as a corollary women's bodies have to be seen like this or through this lense. I'm saying that this is the dominant view in patriarchy.


Neo-liberalism needs the free agent in a free society in free engagement with other free agents, and the idea of bodies, births, deaths are just as inacceptable to neo-liberalism as they were to earlier patriarchal societies, they still need to be repressed for society to function, but in a way that suits neo-liberal demands.

Join in technological and medical advances and a logical extention of the idea that human beings as the crown and glory of existence (best rendered in French, I suppose, as more honest: Les Hommes!) can do whatever they want and that mind dominates matter, and we have – finally – reached paradise! Surrogacy, “sex work“, sex robots, gender identity – at last! Complete divorce of body from mind, the mind has it all, and the fact that this doesn't work explains the aggressiveness of the MRA movement and of those parts of the trans movement that happily takes up these demands of access and replacement of our bodies, and respective propaganda stunts. It sheds light on the expediency of splitting patriarchal concerns into a traditional, conservative movement and a progressive one, one seeking to own the female body flat out, the other to deny its very existence or meaning. It re-enacts a perpetual male drama of forever rejecting the female body, or women, femaleness and feminity, only to reappropriate all of it when developments in captialism and liberalism demand a re-positioning of men for the current order to function and for its rationalisations, justifications to be accepted by societies.

It also helps explain the classism and racism we struggle against, as “supply“ in female bodies is delegated to those of us who are marginalised, racialised, working class. Who may put up a fight, but who won't be heard.

There are more aspects to this, in this relentless appropriation of our struggles while rejecting their core, about the inconsistencies of basing a liberating struggle on “identity“ while pretending or attempting to criticise the society that gave rise to this “identity“ - and still avoiding yet another trap of giving up some of our core concepts too fast. Like sexual liberation, both “identity“ and “feelings“ as a woman, as women, have been central to our engagement, of consciousness raising, and we get a lot of problems by rejecting these ideas as a basis for our politics too fast. 

Since I haven't got a fast answer to disentangle myself from that one, let me derail this by bringing my talk back to the more immediate challenges brought by patriarchy, the ones we are presented with in the perpetual “crisis of masculinity“, reorganising itself in dangerous ways.

My contention is that “masculinity in crisis“ and the behaviour from that are also just another instance in patriarchal strategies, as the backlash resulting from this “crisis“ enables men to split the male movement into a “traditional“, “reactionary“, and a “liberal“,  “progressive“ one. Men can align themselves with the opponents of “traditional“ patriarchy and make sure nothing happens while this allows drama, grandstanding, and for younger men to finally replace older men in power with the help of women in an oedipal triangle of political sorts (and apologies for going all Freudian here) – some  aspects of some men supporting the #metoo movement come to mind.

Above all, it helps them to push us around, into these camps, to call us “bigot“ “slut“, “prude“, “feminazi“ and “nazi“ all at the same time.  

At the same time we see the far right marching, we see fascist rallies in our streets, and fascist and/or right wing parties in the parliaments of our countries, “traditional“ masculinity in action.

The impact of the rise of the far right for us are: Use of our time and work in anti-fascist demonstrations, and yes – I am urging all of us to take part in those; with that a tacit acceptance that our concerns are secondary to the matter in hand; tacit acceptance of both the casual and open sexism in the anti-fascist movement, evidenced in sexist and violent slogans, music, raps, in sexist depictions of women of the far right (“nazi-slut“) - all in the name of unity, all in the service of the “progressive men“; the understanding that we must not address sexual harassment or assault either within the movement nor incidents of sexual harassment or assault committed by men who are asylum seekers or refugees, be those within their communities or outside of them. It is important to stress here that there has been no increase in sexual crimes following the arrival of refugees in Germany in 2015. It is also important to stress that declaring the topic as taboo, both for “white feminists“ and for feminists and women from immigrant communities, is not going to help countering a nazi threat, and is definitely not going to help any woman. Intersectionality in our feminism, right here where we are and whereever women are, is what is definitely going to help.

The nazi, or fascist, or far right wing threat which is being explained to us as a “masculinity in crisis“ matter works very well for the left as it does for the right – from the right wing, it's direct threats: “Be nice, or else!“, and from the left it is a threat by intermediary, or proxy: “Be nice and support us against these guys, or else“! While this exposes the “masculinity in crisis“ as merely another form of patriarchal strategies to keep itself intact – and let us face it, masculinity has been in crisis for the last 7,000 years at least – it means that women are forever asked to rally behind certain groups of men, and set against each other.

And yet, we cannot ignore the threat posed by the current rise of the right wing worldwide. The last “masculinity in crisis“ in Germany gave us fascism and WWII.

On a practical level the rise of the right binds our times and possibilities for feminist struggles, for organising and for feminist analysis and how to apply it – simply because we are tied down in keeping abortion accessible (those who are lucky enough to have abortion rights in the first place) or to make it accessible, or to protect a women's shelter from being shut down, or securing funding for it – and then someone comes along and lectures us on the perils of “single action feminism“.

So we are being squashed from two sides here.

Which brings me to the decisive part of my talk here – what are our strategies? What can we do, other or in addition to what we are doing already?

What we can do is step out of these issues as far as they are male dramas, separate the foreground from the background (5), apply analysis, and always centre women. This means every woman, wherever she is, and to get her to speak. And to listen.

It means not throwing out our basic tenets because of neo-liberal destruction. Abortion, sexual liberation, “gender“ as sex roles, identity, are important to us. Not let either side dictate the framework in our debates. As Pragna Patel pointed out in “Feminism is a secular issue“ – not let them take terms like “tolerance“ away from us.

As we centre women, never trash a woman. It doesn't matter who she is, she is a woman trying to survive in patriarchy. Challenge her statements or her policies, views, but any trashing has to stop.

Be visible as feminists. In every demonstration. If the call is “agitate“, “educate“, “organise“, the more immediate one is: “write“, “speak“, “molest“. Write letters to the MPs, to the editors, use social media, share group knowledge, go to the offices of NGOs, of party members – be a pain in the where it hurts.


(1)   Suggested reading (among so many books): Kat Banyard, Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today. Faber&Faber, 2010.

(2)   The link between liberalism and colonialism (very brief version): They were developed in Europe as a mindset and as a practice at the same time, roughly from the early 17th century onwards. The link between the two is trade. Columbus reaching the Caribbean, inventions in naval technologies, an increase in overseas trade, the first colonies, more trading posts founded to make the exploitation of the “new“ areas and people more systematic, and the vast profits to be made from this, needed a “new“ kind of human being – one that is not tied to any soil or ground in a feudal system or its residues, or by family, one that need not heed any restrictions or regulations agreed on within some guilds or municipal frameworks, one that can be trusted to move around, engage in trade and business, found and invest in trading companies, mind his (effectively and intentionally: his!) own business, sign his own contracts. One who won't be supervising any kids while working-trading-travelling – meaning a separation of home and workplace. One whose excellence in all of the above means that he has the right to exploit, or use “less excellent“ people. Hence liberalism with its focus on the free and able independent individual, trading with other free individuals (neo-speak: agents) who needs a society or a state only to guarantee his possessions, win wars, and facilitate trading emerged. So as Europeans began colonialising other countries they also needed a “new“ European – i.e. liberalism as a result of that need.
If you like, you can throw religion into this, with Calvinist pre-determination and much later the “manifest destiny“ ideas; the early 16th century is also the century of religious strife, splits, persecutions, and wars in Europe. This is the “linocut“ or “woodcut“ version, as yes, in Britain the feudal system had been abolished earlier, yes, there had been trade before, yes there had been religious persecution and pogroms before, and yes the Renaissance and all that, but the link stands.
During the “Industrial Revolution“ this idea of free and independent individuals temporarily crashed when it became apparent that we, in our daily lives, are not equal when when one individual using his or her right of signing any contract without state intervention is a worker, and the other one a factory or mine owner. Cooperative action led to restrictions regarding the factory owner's freedom to do and demand as he pleased on his own ground, with health regulations, (collective) workers' rights and payment regulating the businesses (and making capitalism more sustainable). Forward this to the 1980s and then to the end of communist regimes, and the idea of collective freedoms and rights could again be sold to us as restrictive (“no such thing as society“ - Thatcher; “flat earth“ - Friedman) and hence: neo-liberalism, a society that pretends the disasters of industrialisation never happened.    

(3)   The aggressiveness is visible in the way children are used by their fathers (and society) to dominate and terrorise their mothers. With the fathers' rights to decide on the whereabouts of the children, to co-sign every paper, the mothers are effectively tied to these men who use the children as a means of stalking and of control. Patriarchy and its profiters, men, turn children into weapons against mothers. In Germany, France, Denmark, Belgium and a number of other European countries, fathers can demand the right to have equal legal custody combined with equal residence of the children, meaning a change in the child's accommodation every two days for babies or every other week for children of kindergarten or school age. They can effectively prevent a woman from moving to another city for her job, if he finds a judge willing to decide it would impede on his right to custody. While some fathers engage in this model to avoid paying for the children's needs, the aggressiveness with which this model is pursued points to deeper issues of harsher misogyny. Women are to be punished for being mothers, for leaving men, and for the fact that men cannot, in a biological sense, be mothers. No matter how close the relationship between a father and his children, the fact of a mother being the one to give birth and being the one who can breast feed the child remains. It could be illuminating to study and compare the hatred directed against the mothers, especially in the case of very young children and babies, in contoversial divorce cases, to the hatred of women evidenced in certain aspects of the current trans movement. I believe it is the same hatred, once in a visibly reactionary (patriarchal) setting, and once in an allegedly very modern, “deconstructed“, or “queer“ one.

(4)   Mandatory reading: Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery (New York University Press 1979) and The Prostitution of Sexuality (New York University Press, 1996),
Suggested reading: Dee L.R. Graham, Loving to Survive: Sexual Terror, Men's Violence and Women's Lives (Feminist Crosscurrents), (New York University Press, 1994). Book can be downloaded from here:

(5)   Suggested reading: Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology,  The Metaethics of Radical Feminism. (Beacon Press, 1978). Book can be downloaded here: