The patriarchy is upheld by those opposed to women’s liberation and equality—and those people can include women. It is here that I must introduce one of the most infamous anti-feminists in popular culture/fiction: Aunt Lydia.
But first, who is “Aunt Lydia?” In The Handmaids’ Tale by Margaret Atwood, a dystopian Republic of Gilead imposes a highly oppressive patriarchy. The Republic enslaves women who are still fertile to be assigned to government officials, for whom they must bear children for the entirety of their reproductive years—women are made to be forced reproductive objects (“handmaids”) and little more. Aunt Lydia, an official herself, is responsible for the indoctrination, enforcement, and “care” of the handmaids, and has become a symbol for woman-on-woman oppression, in which women cling to status by enforcing the patriarchy. (A copy of the novel can be purchased here).
While Atwood’s novel is fiction, the Canadian author insists she “didn’t put in anything we haven’t already done, we’re not already doing, we’re seriously trying to do, coupled with trends that are already in progress.” For women across the world, Aunt Lydia is an all-too-real reminder of how other women become instruments in their own oppression.
A common representation of women participating in misogyny is by imposing draconian fashion rules on each other. Most “dress codes” for plus-sized women – including the exceptionless prohibitions on belly-hugging dresses, horizontal stripes, crop tops, wild patterns were created and are enforced by other women. The outfit in question changes, but the refrain is consistent: “you shouldn’t be wearing that–don’t you know?”
“At my private school,” wrote another respondent, “it is the women who lay out the uniform rules–and enforce them. One of the rules is no nail polish, except for pastel colors. What man knows what ‘pastel’ even means?”
A New York journalist I spoke to said that in the high-pressure, fast-paced environment of a newsroom, she often finds that women are the ones who are most hostile to her. She explained that while the men at her office tend to be terse, her women coworkers can be downright rude. In male-dominated environments, one of the ways women vie for power is by showing their male superiors, “I’m not like the rest of them–I can be tough like you.” Women who are secure in their identities and abilities stick together, finding strength and community in other talented women.
She added, “Unfortunately, sometimes women ape the most aggressive ways of men to gain power and exert authority. When a woman gets into a position of power, sometimes she reverts to very demeaning and aggressive and unkind ways of relating, whether or not her inferiors are men or women. According to Acton, ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Because women are not used to being in positions of power, they think that being unkind, unfriendly, inflexible are part of what it means to be a leader. In fact, a good leader is kind, flexible, generous, and collegial.”
In school, I once sat in an all-girls’ classroom in which the female instructor shared her insight that “men and women are inherently unequal.” It is very rare that I hear similarly abrasive comments – stripped of the platitudes and metaphors misogyny is usually composed of – from men. And I found that other young women were the quickest to jump up in defense of this instructor: she just meant that we have different roles, couldn’t you tell? I don’t think that’s what she meant. You’re overreacting.
And in the context of intersectionality, the Aunt Lydias of our world become even more harmful. While the Seneca Falls Convention, for example, is often touted as a crucial moment in women’s history (which, no doubt, it is), it is important to remember the racism that clouds the victory. While one Black man was in attendance – Frederick Douglass – not a single Black woman was invited. White suffragists felt it necessary to exclude Black women from the struggle in order to gain the alliance of white Southern women, who could tolerate women’s suffrage but could not stomach the idea of Black women voting.
Black suffragettes such as Mary Church Turell led the fight for Black women’s suffrage long after white women had been granted the right through the nineteenth amendment. Poll taxes, reservation exclusions, and literacy tests kept Black and Indigenous women from participating in their own democracy until The Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Nowadays, “white feminism” addresses the phenomenon in which white women rally for inclusivity and social reform–at the expense, or the exclusion of, women of color. “TERF” – trans-exclusionary radical feminism– explains that some women exclude intersex or transgender women from their activism. Ideas like TERF activism are necessary to make feminism more inclusive to all—not just those who are “accepted” according to antiquated ideals.
Stigmatizing abortion care
It is often women at the front lines of anti-abortion efforts – who set up predatory “crisis pregnancy centers” (clinics or mobile vans, according to Planned Parenthood) that shame women into keeping pregnancies they cannot afford or care for.
Such crisis pregnancy centers often mass-distribute dangerous misinformation through “counseling” – that abortion care puts a woman’s future fertility in danger or can lead to death, even though abortion is almost 15 times safer than childbirth.
Because crisis pregnancy centers are not real medical clinics, they are not bound by HIPAA or any other medical privacy laws, meaning women who come to seek guidance about unwanted pregnancies that may put their physical or mental health (or both) at risk may face harassment from anyone who obtains their information.
A common practice at CPCs is to lie to women about how far along their pregnancies are to make abortion seem like it is not an option, or to provide other misinformation about women’s healthcare.
Women who lie to other women about life-saving healthcare are not only enforcing the patriarchy like in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, but they are also putting people’s lives on the line by using misinformation to force people to adhere to their religious doctrines.
According to the WHO, more than 200 million women alive today have undergone female circumcision, an excruciatingly painful mutilation of women borne of cultural stigma and medical misinformation. It is not condoned by any religion. Complications include problems with urination, menstruation, childbirth, and psychological illness and need for future surgeries. FGM is practiced around the world, and has not one benefit and countless risks to women’s psychological and physical wellbeing.
According to the United Nations Population Fund, Zainab, an eight-year-old girl, describes being tricked into the dangerous operation: “We really thought we were going to die because of the pain. You have one woman holding your mouth so you won’t scream, two holding your chest, and the other two holding your legs.” She added, “We were lucky, I suppose…We didn’t die. But the memory and pain never go away.” In some countries, elderly women are the primary proponents – and enforcers – of FGM, despite contrary belief.
The elderly women who aid in the mutilation of countless young girls have likely undergone the procedure themselves. But fear of the patriarchy – and the belief that participating in it can keep them safe – leaves them with blood on their hands from the deaths and suffering of so many children.
In a co-written article The Myth of the Catty Woman, Adam Grant and Sheryl Grant cite the example of Norwegian cross-country skiers Therese Johaug and Marit Bjorgen competing in a 30-kilometer race. Johuag landed the gold, while moments later, Bjorgen earned silver. The article describes, “The two Norwegians are the top two female cross-country skiers in the world and fierce competitors. Instead of being bitter rivals, they are best friends. ‘She has given me an incredible amount of confidence,” Ms. Johaug said, ‘and because she has done that I have become the cross-country skier I am.’” When Bjorgen announced her pregnancy, Ms. Johuag jokingly offered to serve as the baby’s aunt, added the authors in the heartwarming New York Times story.
If anything, Bjorgen and Johuang’s story is a reminder that women in power are capable of protecting other women’s interests– that patriarchy will not always succeed at pitting us against other women whose experiences, ideas, passions, and loves are so similar to ours.
Avoiding Aunt Lydia: Practical Suggestions
Here are some ways to avoid becoming an instrument of the patriarchy:
- When you’re about to shame another woman about her lifestyle choices, diet, or anything else, consider: What do I have to gain? Is this patriarchy – or a genuine character criticism – that I’m engaging in?
- Include all women in your activism. At its worst, patriarchy pits us against each other. Make sure to include all women – regardless of their sexuality, race, color, ethnicity, immigration status, level of physical or mental ability – in your rallying cry for change.
- Gently correct when you notice shaming. Is a friend laughing at someone’s too-tight dress or judging another woman for moving on too fast from a relationship? Try to politely steer the conversation to a new topic–or use the conversation as a teachable moment.
- Notice yourself using misogyny to gain status. Think about common group associations of both men and women– do you believe them? Why or why not? Can women be good mothers and good employees? Is it possible to be a good person and also wear tight jeans? Is it possible that men and women are distinct – but still inherently equal?
What is it about other women’s liberty to do, act, and feel as they wish that makes you feel threatened?
The danger of abortions compared to childbirth: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22270271/
What are crisis pregnancy centers and how do they harm women? https://www.plannedparenthood.org/blog/what-are-crisis-pregnancy-centers
What happens when we stop pitting women against each other? https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/23/opinion/sunday/sheryl-sandberg-on-the-myth-of-the-catty-woman.html
Voting rights of Black and indigenous women