Psychoanalyst probes the persistence of patriarchy

Naomi Snider to speak on the system that ails our society and ourselves.

Daneet Steffens '82
March 3, 2021

Knocking down the patriarchal system in favor of one in which everyone has a voice is not only more equitable — it’s better for our mental health.

That’s where writer and psychoanalyst Naomi Snider is coming from in Exeter’s next virtual discussion before next month's symposium, “From ‘Studying Her Absence’ to Finding Her Voice: 50 Years of Coeducation at Exeter.” Snider lectures publishes on the intersections of social injustice and psychological struggle with a particular focus on the tensions between patriarchy and democracy at both the personal and political levels. Her published works include the 2018 book, Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, co-authored with feminist developmental psychologist Carol Gilligan who, in 1982, published the groundbreaking In A Different Voice.

Snider will perform a reading and then join a conversation at 4 p.m. ET, Sunday, March 7. Her virtual visit is part of a series of discussions in the windup to an April symposium to be headlined by feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem.

We chatted with Snider about her work and her visit:

Q: How did you originally become interested in the topic of your session?
A: I was a lawyer trying to forge a career in human rights, often feeling a sense of a frustration with how the system works, but without quite having a name to put to it. I was going to NYU to do a master’s in law, and a course called “Resisting Injustice” caught my eye: it was about literature and the law and psychology and finding your voice. It was co-taught by Carol Gilligan. As part of the curriculum, we read Carol’s 2002 book The Birth of Pleasure, and if I can pinpoint a moment where this question, “Why does patriarchy persist?” came alive to me was reading this book. It documents some of Carol’s discoveries in her research around children and developmental crises. We know that there’s this crisis in development that happens to boys and girls in different ways at different stages: in adolescence, at about the age of 12 girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer from mood disorders — depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation — and we know that boys around the age of 4 to 7 start having issues of acting out behaviors, more externalized mental health problems. This book captures Carol’s discovery that boys and girls were coming up against something in our culture that they were responding to that was causing these mental-health crises, and that something is patriarchy.
It’s important to understand the forces behind something if we want to change it."

Part of her thesis is that we’ve been telling ourselves a kind of false story about human development: we’ve been saying that this is all inevitable, that patriarchy persists because in the Hobbesian world view the “stronger” sex are going to want to dominate the “weaker" sex and we all have this inner drive for power for domination, etc. But that isn’t what matches up with Carol’s research, and it isn’t what matches up with this paradigm shift that’s been happening in the human sciences which actually says that we are by nature relational beings, we’re hardwired to cooperate, to communicate, to empathize — all of us, irrespective of gender — and that’s in fact what has been so crucial to our survival as a species.  


Q: You began as Carol’s student. How did you come to collaborate on a book with her?
A: That came out of one of my response papers that we did for class: Birth of Pleasure says that within each of us is a capacity for ethical resistance and that that capacity is rooted in our desire for love and to be loved, in those very relational capacities, and that love has the power to transcend authoritarian boundaries. I thought, “If that’s the case, then why do we sacrifice that love for hierarchy? I know I do it all the time.” I recognized the way that I would silence myself for the sake of quote unquote relationships. I raised the question, “Does patriarchy persist, do we assume this place on this hierarchy not just because it has this social benefit, but also because it defends us against vulnerability?” The “good woman” performance that we all know how to do — saying the right thing at the right time — there’s something protective about assuming that role. You also see it with men assuming an “I don’t care” stance: it’s a way of denying and defending against the vulnerability that opens them up to being ridiculed. Carol found my question really interesting: we worked on a paper together, and it ultimately became a book — and a real journey of discovery: could it be that alongside all the material, social, and political forces holding patriarchy in place, are there also psychological forces, and how do they all interact? It’s important to understand the forces behind something if we want to change it.
Equal rights and progress have been looked at in terms of giving women access to a patriarchal system; it’s been about giving us seats at the table where the rules are already structured in a way that oppresses everybody."
Q: What do you hope the audience will take away from your discussion?
A: Something I constantly have to be reminded of myself because we’re so trained to forget it, is that there are forces that are creating these struggles that we experience. We need to hold in mind that the struggles that we face aren’t necessarily to do with an individual failing, that it’s the culture at large that we are reacting to. To ignore and deny these forces is an ongoing gaslighting, really. It’s good to remember that our first response is always resistance. I have this tendency, especially now, to feel this sense of despair, but all of us have this capacity to resist; the desire and longing for genuine responsive connection is in all of us. So, it’s about finding ways to cultivate that and be responsive to it.


Q: What does it mean to create an equitable environment for women and girls instead of just allowing women and girls to join a school community?
A: A lot of people think the opposite of patriarchy would be matriarchy, and Carol and I make clear in our book that no, that’s just flipping the structure. The opposite of patriarchy is democracy, which is where everybody has a voice that is listened to — not necessarily agreed with, but listened to. There’s conflict in a democracy, it’s just that it’s responded to with respect rather than with violence.

Equal rights and progress have been looked at in terms of giving women access to a patriarchal system; it’s been about giving us seats at the table where the rules are already structured in a way that oppresses everybody. Some people are sitting at the table with a chair this low, others with a chair this high, and you’re always trying to raise the chair. But then, what are we bringing women up to? What is the ideal human that we are trying to make? Is it in the image of the patriarchal man? I want us to get rid of the table; let’s change the whole thing. And that’s about making these environments responsive to the needs of girls and boys: what we need to do to make the system equitable or democratic is to have a system that doesn’t just allow them in and now they have to play by the rules, but a system that listens to their voices and is responsive to that. But then that’s about changing the whole system not just for the girls. It’s about changing the whole system for everyone.

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