Why no one should use that word: Kyriarchy instead of Patriarchy

As more and more bloggers adopt the term “kyriarchy”, I have to state that I’m deeply skeptical of “kyriarchy” as a coherent and novel concept and also for its likely use as reactionary propaganda. Admittedly I haven’t read the original book where the christian feminist theologian Schüssler Fiorenza  coined the term, but it seems that no one else on the internet has either, so I won’t let that stop me. [Edit: We've since read the original, and it's worse than we thought, so we're leaving this post as is]

The first problem is that there are already well-defined “umbrella” concepts for ‘intersecting structures of domination’; “intersectionality” being exactly that, but anarcho-feminism, the materialist-derived ‘complementary holism’ and even ‘radical feminism’ already describe the ‘simultaneity of multiple coercive hierarchies’ in detail. This is very well covered territory. Kyriarchy brings nothing new to the table.

Second,  a very large umbrella term like kyriarchy merely aggregates forms of domination but does not replace any specific one.  In the same way that intersectionality does not ‘replace’ race theory,  but rather describes its relationship with other also narrow theories of oppression, kyriarchy cannot ‘replace’ the narrower concept of patriarchy. Men still institutionally hold more power than women. We call this patriarchy.  Because of this any discussion of kyriarchy that goes beyond the superficial has to come back to patriarchy. Just like a discussion of intersectionality also eventually gets to patriarchy.

Third, the examples cited as “what kyriarchy is” seem to have a misunderstanding of both patriarchy and feminism more broadly. Feminism has already filled bookshelves with the analysis of “women oppress[ing] women [sic]”, “a Black man dominating a Brown womyn”, “a White woman over a Brown man [sic]”. The reasons are no surprise, they are patriarchy, racism, class, etc all working together. The wikipedia page for bell hooks reads, “Her writing has focused on the interconnectivity of race, class, and gender and their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and domination.” Put this way, the radical feminist word for “the kyriarchy” is “society”. This profound recognition of the systemic, complex and intertwining relationship of all these different forms of domination and exploitation is why so many of us want a social revolution.

Fourth, kyriarchy seems to be missing a few important aspects of these other umbrella concepts like intersectionality. Class and religion being two huge apparent omissions. Does kyriarchy include the domination by the Boss, the Priest, the Imam, and the Family Court Judge as well as the husband, boyfriend and the minority? If these are missing, and it seems likely since it appeared in a book about bible study, then it seems kyriarchy is not such an “umbrella” term after all. It’s simply an expansion of patriarchy to include some larger concepts of domination, but not all of them.

So it seems kyriarchy cannot replace patriarchy and seems a hollow replacement for intersectionality, feminism, anarchism, or the other umbrella descriptors.

Finally, the most common rational for using kyriarchy (almost exclusively used by men) is that it is less offensive as propaganda than patriarchy, since patriarchy is offensive to men. This parallels the common critique of “feminism” as also being “hostile to men”. The men I’ve seen using kyriarchy are also the ones who are “uncomfortable” with using “feminism”. I don’t think this is coincidence.

This kyriarchy-as-propaganda rationale is rotten for several reasons.

One, assuming good faith in the listener, the apparent lack of offensiveness is simply deferred until the discussion finally gets to patriarchy or “gender inequality”. We see this in anarchist circles where discussions of anarchism trainwreck in spectacular fashion when would-be anarchists find out that anarchism is anti-patriarchy and pro-radical feminism. This will inevitably happen with kyriarchy-as-propaganda. Thus it does not replace the “offensiveness” of patriarchy or feminism, it simply delays the fireworks.

The second issue is that to the degree that the term is less offensive to men, that is the degree that it is toothless as propaganda. Patriarchy makes men uncomfortable mostly because they don’t understand it, but also because it describes the painful loss of privilege for men. It sucks to have to work and iron your own shirt. I’ve personally seen many men wrestle with this as their wives rebel. No sugar coating of our terminology is going to help make this medicine go down. Put another way, no one would value a critique of capitalism by how well it was received by capitalists. Feminists should not value their propaganda by how well it is received by men, especially hostile men.

Finally, it is important to remember that there are still legions of men and women who disavow the existence of patriarchy. Giving up that term without a forceful alternative, that powerfully and concretely describes the same thing is an enormous mistake.


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