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Stacey Abrams: The Patriarchy, Power, and Politics

by Confluence
Reading Time: 9 minutes

By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.

Here in Georgia, we have “the first black woman” to be nominated by a major party in the governor’s race. Stacey Abrams is the Democratic candidate for Georgia.

The first.

Let that sink in.

….. The first.

In 2018.

We have had women governors and we have had African-American governors, but this is the first time that we have an intersectional candidate. We talked about intersectionality in these series previously and it is when two or more marginalization aspects come together and compound an already complex situation. In this case, race and gender.

So, no one enjoys speaking about race and gender issues because they are fighting to be heard and to be understood. And no one likes listening to this information because invariably, the listener feels beaten up and blamed for all the ills of the planet.

Yet, if we do not reflectively engage with this material, there is no hope for change – both within us and for all of us as a whole.

Prior to seminary, I never thought that I needed to study race and gender. I thought I knew what I needed to know experientially. I had my biases: Most feminists were “rabid,” “men haters” and “lesbians.” Therefore, what could I learn from them, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I felt that women should be given the same opportunities as men and I would not go to a church that did not allow women to preach and I sure was not going to be home “barefoot and pregnant.” And by the way, I was sure I could do anything a man could do if I could just put my mind to it.

I remember, as a very young child, my father grinding in the need for an education in my head. He would say things like, “You must get a good education. You have to take care of yourself as an adult. You cannot depend on a man to take care of you. You are better than that.” I was raised by a feminist. Why would I need to study feminism?

I thought that was all the feminism I needed. I thought feminism was for women who came out of a family, culture, and system that told them their value was in their bodies only and the women were now trying to discover more of an identity that gave them permission to be more than how men valued their bodies. I thought their focus was things like working against female genital mutilation, abortion rights and the education of young girls in Islamic countries.

And when it came to race, I was not African American so why would I need to study what I already knew so much about? I had watched “Roots” in the 70’s. I read Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and other black literary greats. I listened to mainstream R & B music. The particularities of being African American was steeped in chattel slavery which no longer applied. So, what was the problem? Let us all get an education, work hard and get good jobs and we will be fine. 

Psssstttt…..(whispering – I was such a classist snob! But I had no clue!)

Whenever someone spoke about discrimination at work or “glass ceilings for women,” I thought these were isolated unfortunate incidents that revealed a person exerting an abuse of power. I probably secretly thought, “Are you sure that was discrimination, or do you have a victim mentality?” Honestly, I believed that hard work is all I, or anyone else, in this country needed to succeed at work and break through discrimination of race and gender.

My first full encounter of awareness with patriarchy was when I found a lump in my breast. Almost everyone told me to read Christiane Northrups, “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing.”

In the foreword of this book, I discovered a language that shook my world. It must have been 1995. The author talked about her medical training as a doctor and how patriarchy worked in the emergency room. Someone, usually a male doctor, yelled out instructions and basically, everyone would follow the leader and they would save a life. There had to be one voice giving out instructions otherwise there would be confusion.

Therefore, a patriarchal surgeon’s approach to cancer is to “cut it out, kill it, make disappear” as opposed to questioning the visitation of the cancer and inviting in wisdom that the body holds to heal. It is a mentality of war and of treating the cancer as the “enemy.” She was not opposed to surgery but felt that the initial combative approach to illness never addressed the underlying “invitation” (if you will) for the disease to show up.

The author talked about how the patriarchal approach was absolutely required for the emergency room but with other forms of illnesses, and with lifestyle issues that affect medicine, this approach to medicine was not necessary and often harmful.

This opened a whole new world to me. My thinking changed. Later on, with other female issue diagnoses, I came to appreciate the more gentle approach to medical intervention. Although I went on and had surgeries, I became more aware of the interconnectedness of my body and my mind. This mind-body connection is a distinctively non-patriarchal view of illness.

Years later, when I encountered Theology at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, I began to reframe my life with a different lens. I began to unravel my unconscious biases. I began to understand how patriarchy works and how it is truly embedded in systems.

Old white men set the standards and everyone else has to follow in their footsteps and look and behave just like them just to get accepted. And even then, your human difference is still an issue.

In Georgia this week, Stacey Abrams was attacked. She is a single person, she has a personal debt from taking care of her parents and she has a sibling who has mental health/opioid problems and is currently incarcerated.

Her attackers talked about her debt as an aspect of moral failure, claim that she is “soft” on crime, and are now calling her a “lesbian.”

This is what patriarchy does. Patriarchy attacks because she is a threat to the status quo. Because she does not look like an old white man, she is not being attacked for her policies and her brain, but for things that do not speak to her incredible intellect and resilience.

Patriarchy, at its worst, refuses to see a woman as having any value unless she is in a relationship with a man that is patriarchal in nature. Abrams, as a single woman, is a threat and although she addresses men that she dated in her book because she is single today, somehow, that disqualifies her in the minds of some.

Let us understand how insidious patriarchy is.

Patriarchy is defined as “a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line. • a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it. • a society or community organized on patriarchal lines.”


It reflects:

  • A system,
  • Men are valued,
  • Descent is an entitlement,
  • Preservation of holding on to a position,
  • Relationship to ownership, and
  • Non-men are not valued.

Historically, patriarchy evolved out of “That is the way things are.” Men had all the power. Men called all the shots and men competed with each other to be at the very top of the apex. I think of patriarchy as a triangle with room for only one person at the top.

Leadership studies help us understand patriarchy. These studies started in business and military schools. People wanted to know what it takes to succeed and what worked to win a war, lead a country through independence, create a world-class company, manage a global crisis and most of all, restore a sense of order and normalcy. I never took a class on race or feminism in college or law school. But as I studied leadership, I saw the need for me to study feminism and race academically, especially as it relates to living in the US and how it impacts the everyday person. 

I discovered that my concepts of feminism were ridiculously poor. I became more curious and began to read widely. I also read works by womanist writers and even Mujerista (Latino feminism) writers. I read works by African women writers as they grappled with culture and gender issues.

My eyes opened to things that I had never considered. First of all, I became aware of interconnectedness. My ability to be a fully functioning woman in society is based on everyone having unfettered access to be a fully functioning whosoever in society.

Therefore, just because I had an amazing daddy and had a phenomenal education, did not mean that feminism was not necessary, for me in the world around me.

As I studied leadership, I came into awareness that there are multiple models of leadership globally. Also, leadership is evolutionary. Our more archaic models were based on a large population of people not having a formal education or required skills. Those that had formal education became empowered to be bosses, managers and leaders. They were supposed to have the criteria that would allow them to lead successfully. These tended to be the white men.

These days where a college education is almost like a high school diploma, education is no longer the qualifying factor. A simple google search can yield a ton of valuable information that educates, and free classes on any topic abound online. 

The concept of “Empire” informed these outmoded models of leadership. Leadership was based on acquiring “power over” others and accumulating the most power possible.

Patriarchal models of leadership advocate for brute force. The strongest wins. The loudest wins. The one with the most longevity wins. The one with the most money wins. And winning equates to the imperialist effects of “Empire.”

Empire is based on power, and dictates that one must be in charge, at the top, and must never admit failure or defeat. Everything under the auspices of empire must continue to uphold the sanitized, whitewashed image of an impossible mirage of power and glory.

That, Beloveds, is patriarchy’s root.

The problem with patriarchy is that the power that is accrued through this form of leadership is based on fear and scarcity. Therefore, it is finite.

So, if you are the CEO of some high ranking, muckity muck company and you are fired publicly, who are you? When you no longer hold the finite power that patriarchal leadership models yield, what happens to your identity?

You must become aware of how patriarchy has shaped each of us, even women, in order to unravel and remove it from your consciousness. You also have to know that options that are more liberating and not based on oppression, exist and you, and everyone, can thrive and flourish with the alternative. Leadership models exist that are based on collaboration and resourcefulness and continuously regenerate infinite power. We just have to learn them and practice them in the various contexts of our lives.

These days, more and more innovative businesses are looking at transformational leadership models where power is shared from the leader to those under the person so that the employee can make decisions that benefit the company. You see this in many technology startups. Collaborative leadership models are more popular in other countries than the US and a leadership studies are also addressing women’s leadership models. As locales explore asset-based community development practices, they find that their solutions are within and not from some outside controlling entity trying to get them to conform to the outsider’s image of a status quo.

Unfortunately, patriarchy, too often, is based on a grand transaction that the oldest whitest male person, who subscribes to societal norms, is the one who gets to dictate what kind of society, organization, or structure we operate in. And, beloveds, a patriarchal view has only one intention: To preserve the status quo.

Patriarchy will never nourish the soul of any person as it is merely a role that a person plays.

There is no creativity, no inclusion, no equity and most of all, no justice in patriarchal models. It is about domination and ending the lives of others and not creating new life. It is about restrictions and not liberation. 

Now, I do not believe that we can fully and practically function without patriarchy. I think in certain limited situations patriarchy has its place. For instance, we live in a world where we do have wars. The military is necessary for wars. That is a pure patriarchal model. It is about fighting, eliminating, removing and winning. Which means there must be a loser, death and debris to clean up.

So maybe a non-patriarchal model of leadership does not work in a military setting and we are satisfied with the lone female who chewed her way up to be a leader. A closer look at her may unveil that she is a woman operating with a male model of leadership.

In these limited settings, I think we have to live with patriarchy.

That is why I do not believe in “Smash the patriarchy.” As long as we live in a word where there are wars and emergency rooms, we need some patriarchy as a model of leadership during these times of crisis.

Also, we have to be clear about what we are replacing it with otherwise, we will be all lost and rudderless.

So, patriarchy, thank you. Thank you for serving us all this time and thank you for where you have been effective. But it is time to make room for others, especially women, to lead with their own style and their own wisdom.

I ask that you support Stacey Abrams. Not because she is the first African American woman who is running for the governorship of Georgia. But because she is competent, and she is real. I want a person with that kind of resilience to lead my state.


More by Iyabo:

Learning to Bridge Human Difference Lesson 3: Privilege




Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).

Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).

Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com


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