"The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy" by Allan G. Johnson

A Review by Kim Allen


Do you ever get the feeling that we, as a society, are "stuck" when it comes to gender issues? We trudge over the same rhetorical paths again and again, and all the arguments start to sound stylized and stale. We disagree about how much progress has actually been made, and a lot of people, both men and women, are getting tired and frustrated. Allan Johnson agrees-- and offers an illuminating metaphor. Gender problems are a complex knot, and it's very easy to just pull on the knot, which of course makes it worse. Wouldn't it be more effective to step back, really look at what's before us, and then tease it gently to unravel it?

"The Gender Knot" is a fabulous book about gender issues. In spirit, it reminds me of another groundbreaking book--"Natural Capitalism"-- in which the authors found a way out of the deadlock between environmentalists and profit-seeking businesses, by showing how the two are not always at odds (green production can be very profitable). In a similar way, Johnson shows us a way out of the deadlock between radical feminists and men. The two groups have come to see themselves as fundamentally opposed, but Johnson shows that in the larger picture, "patriarchy" is not the same thing as "men" and indeed, both men and women can gain from its dismantling. We can break the cycle of guilt, blame, and defensiveness without personally insulting men or patronizing women's oppression.

Johnson is a systems thinker who is capable of describing complex, seemingly paradoxical situations with clarity. When you are engaged in his prose, you can see the contradictory threads that make up the gender knot, but avoid being muddled by them. So many discussions about sexism end with smug accusations of inconsistency from one side or the other, which usually serves to dissipate the conversation in a puff of frustration. Johnson treats these subknots as he does the larger knot, gently separating the strands to show where all sides are getting caught up.

Here at last is a book about gender relations that both men and women can feel connected to. Johnson validates women's feminist work, holding it up as an example of both moral and intellectual achievement. In fact, he takes feminism absolutely seriously, which made me realize just how rare that is. And yet, he's not a guilt-ridden "sensitive 90's guy" who is merely kow-towing to anything female because of the long history of our mistreatment at the hands of his gender. Instead, Johnson takes a far more responsible role than passive guilt. He is actively working to understand patriarchy from a male perspective in order that he can be part of a large-scale, societal (not individual-level) solution to the gender problems we are mired in. Men will not feel personally attacked by his stance on patriarchy, and yet, women will feel validated.

"The Gender Knot" starts with a frank assessment of "where we are." Johnson provides definitions of important words and concepts that he will use throughout the book-- words that are very frequently misunderstood and misused: patriarchy, feminism, and the system, for instance. Read this part carefully.

Patriarchy means that our society is male-dominated, male-identified, and male-centered. "Male-dominated" means that positions of authority and power are generally reserved for men. The few women who achieve such positions are the exceptions that prove the rule. "Male-identified" means that the core values of society and cultural worth are measured in male terms and resemble the core qualities of the ideal male. For instance, control, strength, competitiveness, and rationality are positive qualities in the most valued endeavors of society (such as business, athletics, politics, law)-- and they are also ideal male qualities. (The concept of male identification is explored more fully in Carol Tavris' book "The Mismeasure of Woman"). "Male-centered" means that the focus of attention is generally on men and what they do. Pick up any newspaper and you will see that it is filled with stories about and pictures of men. Men tend to be the central characters in popular movies, and the male perspective is widely understood to be the human perspective, while the female outlook is specific to women. The end result of this pervasive maleness is the cultural devaluing of women. Even if most men are not specifically sexist and don't treat women badly, patriarchy is a cultural phenomenon that diminishes women and glorifies men.

A key concept that Johnson manages to get across is that there really is a "system" that is larger than all of us and which none of us are to blame for, and yet we all participate in it whether we want to or not, and can choose to take responsibility for it if we dare to. This is the first of many complex concepts that Johnson presents, and I won't try to paraphrase him in a short space. This is a hard idea for the average person, because our politics is polarized around the idea of complete self-determination on the one hand, and the existence of irresistible forces on the other (like "Big Government" and "globalization.") Johnson explains clearly how these ideas can both be true, and, even more importantly, how we can take responsibility for playing a role in "the system" without being made to feel guilty for the system's evils, since we didn't personally create the system.

(Anyone who has studied solid-state physics or chemistry understands this concept. The whole is not just an exaggeration of the parts. A chunk of iron has far more complex properties than an iron atom, which is barely magnetic. And yet, iron is made entirely of iron atoms. Similarly, modern society-- which is made of individual men and women-- is patriarchal, suppresses women, and unduly glorifies men. And yet, most individual members of society are not consciously sexist).

Johnson unabashedly uses the word "patriarchy" to describe modern society, and he's right. Both men and women play roles in this system, simply by following the path of least resistance that it offers to us. It takes effort to follow a different path, which is consistent with the fact that systems are self-sustaining: they will tend to offer paths of least resistance that preserve their structure. (If they didn't, they wouldn't be systems). And yet, systems can and do change over time. They may be relatively stable (on a human time scale), but they are by no means static.

The second part of the book gets into this concept in greater detail. It is about how patriarchy acts to preserve itself by hiding huge falsehoods in plain sight. Patriarchy is so pervasive that it is nearly invisible-- many people don't believe it even exists-- which guarantees that it can perpetuate. Johnson whisks the curtain away quite deftly.

The final chapters are about unraveling the messy knot that the earlier parts of the book revealed. If "the system" is truly bigger than us and was never a conscious creation by anyone, how can we hope to affect it? And why would men choose to do that anyway, given the advantages they currently reap? And what will keep us from just following the paths of least resistance, etching deeper and deeper ruts in the tired old tracks of patriarchy? Johnson gives a reasonably convincing argument about how change is brought about in complex systems. We all know that it can happen-- look at the churning of whole socio-political systems throughout history. Look at South Africa, look at Rome, look at America, for goodness sake. Johnson offers hope that patriarchy can be dismantled-- to everyone's benefit-- but he is also realistic enough to say that it won't happen in one human lifetime.

Johnson writes for both men and women, but the suggestions at the end for working against patriarchy are primarily aimed at men. This is, as he himself notes, proper: women don't need men to tell them how to combat oppression by men. Men can help in unique ways, mostly through working with other men, and ought to focus on those ways.

But Johnson does not uniformly approve of men's efforts, which I found enormously gratifying. One myth we have (that, not surprisingly, helps preserve patriarchy) is that anything a man does that is not overtly sexist is worth cheering on and congratulating him for. If he does one chore, he's a hero. If he says one non-sexist comment, he's a great guy. With such extreme grade inflation, it's easy for men to think of themselves as brilliant, straight-A students of equality. Johnson bursts that bubble, in a clear, coherent, and not unkind way.

Best of all, Johnson has no patience with the mythopoetic men's movement-- ala Robert Bly and his ilk. These guys go off in the woods and drum in order to get in touch with their "inner Wild Man." They focus most of their attention on improving relations with their fathers-- which is not a bad thing, but one does have to ask what that will do to help women. Johnson picks apart Bly's trite philosophy, revealing it for what it is: just more patriarchy in disguise. I salute his ability to cut through the bullshit and help other men to see that some of their supposed efforts at equality are more effective than others. It is not true that anything with the word "equality" in it somewhere is going to be worthwhile.

Johnson's indictment of some men's efforts is enormously helpful to women because most women have been bullied into not criticizing such efforts. Men have set up a false dichotomy: they insist that the only alternative to whatever paltry effort they are making at equality is extreme chauvenism-- "How can you complain about my doing the dishes just on Sunday night? Would you rather I was a complete sexist and didn't do anything?" When the choices are set up like that, most women will relent and say thank you in the name of good relations. And patriarchy trundles on. Thanks to Johnson for separating the small amount of wheat among men's movements from the overwhelming amount of chaff.

As I said, this is a fabulous book. I have met relatively few women with as much insight into gender issues as Johnson, and no other men of his caliber. (And that's not a sexist statement. Men and women understand patriarchy differently because they play different roles in it, just like whites and people of color understand racism differently. And it's just plain true that the oppressed group understands more because they have to. The dominant group enjoys the privilege of not having to-- and one way they exercise their dominance is by not paying much attention and by "not getting it.")

Johnson does miss the mark in a couple of places. However, I want to make it clear that none of my objections undermines the essential truth of his analysis.

First, I think Johnson repeatedly confuses patriarchy with Western industrial capitalism. That's not quite true-- he makes nodding mentions every now and then to agrarian patriarchy and patriarchy in other cultures, such as Asian societies. But overwhelmingly, he basically equates "patriarchy" with "Western capitalism" and the cultural values associated with industry, control, dominance, and money.

He is correct that patriarchy led to the establishment of industrial capitalism in that a nonpatriarchal society probably wouldn't have evolved into such a state. But it's a huge mistake to think that patriarchy somehow works more effectively under capitalism than other systems, as he implies. That makes it too easy to substitute other issues (like economics) for gender issues. It allows people to believe that by working against Western capitalism, they are also working against patriarchy, which is decidedly not true. Western capitalism is the way it is because of patriarchy, but it is not patriarchy itself. To use what is perhaps a patriarchal metaphor-- keep your eye on the ball, Johnson. (I think he knows this, actually, but it just didn't come off in his writing).

Second, I think Johnson does a poor job of categorizing various types of feminism. There is a chapter on feminism in which he compares different approaches women have taken to understanding and acting upon their lower status in society. This is both a necessary and extremely difficult task. It is necessary because not all efforts that call themselves "pro-woman" are actually working toward ending patriarchy; some are so caught up in the system that they are actually perpetuating it, and it is important to highlight that fact. (Just like in the case of various men's movements). For instance, Johnson (rightfully!) comes down hard on Deborah Tannen's work ("Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"-- give me a break).

But this sort of classification is also very difficult because there aren't really clear-cut separations between some flavors of feminism. It is easy to overfragment the movement, defining "eco-feminism", "radical feminism", "difference feminism", "Marxist feminism" and on and on. Johnson, probably aware of this, goes too far to the other extreme: he defines only "liberal feminism" and "radical feminism." The problem is that liberal feminism--which he then criticizes as watered-down and ultimately ineffective--is far too broad a category. It seems to encompass just about every popular effort to bring pro-woman ideas out of academia and other intellectual circles. For instance, Johnson lumps Deborah Tannen together with Naomi Wolf in the "liberal feminist" category-- a problematic thing to do since Wolf has publicly denounced Tannen's ideas.

I eventally figured out that Johnson was trying to separate feminism into the part that he believes is most effective (radical feminism) and "everything else" ("liberal feminism"). I worry that readers who are not expert in gender studies will come away with a distorted picture of the feminist landscape. I sympathize with the fact that Johnson had a tough task in attemting to condense feminist thought into a few categories for a nonexpert reader. But still, he could have done a better job of it. It was a mistake to label liberal feminism with the political tag "liberal," because that will bring other associations that may hinder people's understanding.

But whatever. In the end, Johnson's fundamental analysis is spot-on. He really understands that patriarchy is a whole system; it was not invented by some conspiracy nor is it continued by conscious agreement on the part of rich white males; and yet, it can be changed if we dare to take paths of greater resistance. Patriarchy is real, not some fabrication of male-bashing, whining, vindictive women who want to hurt men and make them pay for something that they didn't do. Men need not feel guilty about patriarchy, but they do need to take responsibility for it, as do women. The difference is that women already have-- through feminism. Men must do their part, and in the end, it will help them too, because patriarchy is a tangle of trouble for everyone involved in it, even those who benefit from it.

Again and again, I found Johnson saying the things that I want to say in my essays on third-wave feminism, but never seem to be able to say cogently without getting hot-headed. The greatest hope I see for dismantling patriarchy is the fact that it can produce men like Allan Johnson.

READ THIS BOOK! Learn how to unravel the gender knot.


Note: Allan Johnson is available to speak or run workshops about gender relations. For further information check his website.


Copyright © 2000 Kim Allen.