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.


Posted in Anarchism, Feminism, Intersectionality, kyriarchy

The Systemic Birdcage of Sexism

“The root of the word ‘oppression’ is the element ‘press’. The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gasses or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce.

“The mundane experience of the oppressed provides another clue. One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features of the world as experienced by oppressed people is the double bind situations in which options are reduced to a very few and all of them expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation. For example, it is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful. If we comply, we signal our docility and our acquiescence in our situation. We need not, then, be taken note of. We acquiesce in being made invisible, in our occupying no space. We participate in our own erasure. On the other hand, anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous. This means, at the least, that we may be found “difficult” or unpleasant to work with, which is enough to cost one one’s livelihood; at worst, being seen as mean, bitter, angry or dangerous has been known to result in rape, arrest, beating and murder. One can only choose to risk one’s preferred form and rate of annihilation….

“Women are caught like this, too, by networks of forces and barriers that expose one to penalty, loss or contempt whether one works outside the home or not, is on welfare or not, bears children or not, raises children or not, marries or not, stays married or not, is heterosexual, lesbian, both or neither. Economic necessity; confinement to racial and/or sexual job ghettos; sexual harassment; sex discrimination; pressures of competing expectations and judgments about women, wives and mothers (in the society at large, in racial and ethnic subcultures and in one’s own mind); dependence (full or partial) on husbands, parents or the state; commitment to political ideas; loyalties to racial or ethnic or other “minority” groups; the demands of self-respect and responsibilities to others. Each of these factors exists in complex tension with every other, penalizing or prohibiting all of the apparently available options. And nipping at one’s heels, always, is the endless pack of little things. If one dresses one way, one is subject to the assumption that one is advertising one’s sexual availability; if one dresses another way, one appears to “not care about oneself” or to be “unfeminine.” If one uses “strong language,” one invites categorization as a whore or slut; if one does not, one invites categorization as a “lady” – one too delicately constituted to cope with robust speech or the realities to which it presumably refers.

“The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable, but are systematically related to each other in such a way as to catch one between and among them and restrict or penalize motion in any direction. It is the experience of being caged in: all avenues, in every direction, are blocked or booby trapped.

“Cages. Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere. Furthermore, even if, one day at a time, you myopically inspected each wire, you still could not see why a bird would have trouble going past the wires to get anywhere. There is no physical property of any one wire, nothing that the closest scrutiny could discover, that will reveal how a bird could be inhibited or harmed by it except in the most accidental way. It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment. It will require no great subtlety of mental powers. It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.

“It is now possible to grasp one of the reasons why oppression can be hard to see and recognize: one can study the elements of an oppressive structure with great care and some good will without seeing the structure as a whole, and hence without seeing or being able to understand that one is looking at a cage and that there are people there who are< caged, whose motion and mobility are restricted, whose lives are shaped and reduced….

“As the cageness of the birdcage is a macroscopic phenomenon, the oppressiveness of the situations in which women live our various and different lives is a macroscopic phenomenon. Neither can be seen from a microscopic perspective. But when you look macroscopically you can see it – a network of forces and barriers which are systematically related and which conspire to the immobilization, reduction and molding of women and the lives we live.”

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality: essays in feminist theory
Crossing Press: Freedom, California, 1983; p.2-7;

[Download PDF version: US – Bird Cage of Sexism]

Posted in Feminism | Tagged