Mothers of The Patriarchy

“My wife had a nasty accident with the car this morning. She backed it out of the garage, completely forgetting that the night before, she had backed it in.”

I’ve often wondered if the expression, “I bust my gut laughing” was a reference to the spleen, the pancreas, or some other digestive organ. Whatever the case, the experience appears to involve some form of abdominal rupture, and presumably the leakage of bile.

Bile is not generally considered to be one of the funnier humours.

Every once in a while, the stars produce a moment of such perfect, crystalline clarity that I’m left winded and wondering how it’s possible for anyone to question the existence of…(drumroll)…the Patriarchy.

I had one of those moments this week.

Before I begin, I’d like to state for the record that in over 15 years of driving I have never once so much as scratched either the car I was driving, or anyone or thing else. I have been stopped by the cops exactly once, for putting a car on cruise control at 123 km/hour on a highway. I’m not trying to boast, but it seems like a reasonably decent testament of my ability to drive.

With that kind of a track record, you’d think I might trust myself. But internalized oppression is like a virus, with self-doubt as the pathogen. It worms its way into the mind of the victim and makes her do its dirty work. So instead of (again) saying a firm but polite “No, thank you,” the third time my older, white, male neighbour offered to back my car out of my snowy driveway, I faltered. All it takes is a hairline crack, and the voices are there, foaming at the mouth and piling on top of each other to drown out any resistance. The ghosts of relatives, acquaintances, television personalities, you-name-it, shouting out lame women-driver jokes and mocking the outrageous thought that I could possibly drive better than a man.

For the first time since my family and I have owned a vehicle, I broke my own golden rule and allowed a relative stranger to get behind our wheel, because I allowed those voices to make me believe that a man is somehow better endowed to drive a car than I am.

Ridiculous, right? How could a little innocent fun result in a smashed fender, a dented snowplow and a three-way insurance fiasco, with me, the only person who wasn’t driving, right smack-dab in the middle? Surely the dour feminist needs to relax a little?

Except that jokes aren’t always innocent fun. According to humour theorists, one of the functions of humour is to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and to enforce social norms. Is it insignificant that all these jokes are hinged on a woman’s ability to direct her own mobility, or to successfully operate machinery that would make her more powerful? It suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched that those Ghosts of Patriarchy Past are wittingly or unwittingly toiling tirelessly to remind me of my place in the hierarchy.

But this isn’t about them, because I’m not so into ghost stories. I’m into ghost back-stories.

Specifically, I’m interested in the women who either actively teach or refuse to correct the men who tell the jokes that have so many of us make so many of us convinced that we’re innately less able to operate heavy/automotive machinery etc (I don’t know why she swallowed that fly, I guess she’ll die). At the heart of it, I suppose, is the seminal (sorry, I had to) conversation-stopper that’s always thrown at anyone who complains about sexism:

If it’s so terrible, why do so many women buy into it, hook, line and sinker?

Which I’d like to refine even further:

What incentive or deterrent could be so powerful that it has some mothers totally sold into teaching their children how stupid people of their own gender are?

Unless, of course, those mothers considered themselves to be the exception.

Exceptionalism of the oppressed (a play on Paulo Freire’s iconic Pedagogy of the Oppressed) is the idea that an individual can be raised above her oppressed class without upsetting the position of the class as a whole. As in,

“Son, I may be a great driver, but in general, women behind the wheel are a recipe for disaster.”

Now I’m not scrambling for a spot on the mother-blaming train, but there’s admittedly something a little, shall we say, primordial about a mother’s potential influence on her child’s development.

But who, you might wonder, actually cares? Notwithstanding occasional moments of weakness, I’m a relatively strong and stable person. For the most part, patriarchy has not killed me (yet). So what’s the big deal?

The big deal is that I have daughters. And those other mothers, who are so busy stepping on other women’s faces trying to reach the glass ceiling of their own social worth, they are, in some sense, the progenitors, or at the very least, a linchpin in the perpetuation of a logic that will directly harm my daughters, making them doubt themselves, holding them back and impeding their good judgement.

I don’t like things that harm my daughters.

So to all of those women who have said to me, “You’ll understand when you become a mother,” I’m a mother now, and I understand. I understand that as intelligent adult women you made a choice to advance your personal interests ahead of the interests of all women. In fact, inasmuch as sexism hurts all of us, you chose to put your personal interests ahead of everyone, including your own sons and daughters.

Oh, and one more thing. I will be all right, and so will our car. But if you so much as come near one of my girls with your wisecracks, I can’t say for sure what might happen to your fenders.

classic 70s feminist graffiti, via


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