On Defeating the Kyriarchy (post 1/3)

Kyriachy is a term coined in 1992 by Fliorenza and adopted by many third wave feminists as a more encompassing view of power and privilege than the concept of patriarchy, which dominated the analysis of most second wave feminists.  Understanding the concerns of, in particular, women of colour, third wave feminists have attempted to go beyond the narrow “ranking of the oppressions” which caused so many difficulties towards the end of the second wave, causing division and resentment within feminist ranks.

Everyone has personal attributes – most obviously– gender, race and sexuality.  Beyond that they have other attributes such as age, weight, hair colour, medical conditions.  These all intersect to form an unjustified source of power or its lack.  There are overarching structures of power which tend to privilege males over females; whites over Blacks and straight over gay, however to assert a universal dominance is simplistic.  Within any given situation, certain attributes will be privileged, while others are denigrated.

These binaries are not rigid – the existence of gender-queer; mixed race and bi-sexuality pose challenges to the the bilateral structure which is required to assert dominance.  Those who do not fall neatly into one category or another challenge the “natural order” on which the power is based..  As well as being excluded from the dominant grouping and its privilages, they also frequently come under direct attack from both the weaker of the dominant partners.  Sections of feminists have been extremely hostile to those identifying as trans; “mulattos” were derided by some in the Black power movement and the reception of Bisexual women into lesbian and gay spaces in the late 80s/early 90s was lukewarm at best .

Secondly, although one group may be privileged in a particular manner, this privileging is not universal, and in some arenas, the recessive group may have more power than the dominant.  Traditionally, women had the rule of the domestic domain – dictating household routines for example – this is of course based on sexist assumptions, however within that particular arena it gives the recessive partner an unjustified level of power.   Dominance plays out situationally.  Although there overarching power structures, in any particular situation the recessive element may be privileged through the duality in a particular situation, a Black musician may find it easier to get a recording contract through the assumption of Black musicality; a woman may find it easier to get a childcare job; a gay man may find it easier to obtain a role as a women’s hairdresser, given equal levels of skills against the dominant group.  This privilege however is localised and only reinforces the overarching power structures to which they are subject. While overachingly society preferences a straight, white male value system, within that there are elements where that value system is subverted in favour of the recessive group.

Finally dominant and recessive elements combine in particular combinations.  Although the traditional straight white able-bodied male comes in at the top of the kyriachy, the majority of people have recessive identity element.  Where this recessive element is unique or easily identifiable the identity power differential becomes explicit, however where multiple recessive identities come into play the situation becomes more complex.  A Black lesbian for example finds herself within competing discourses of women’s expectations as the gatekeepers of sexuality; but at the same time within the discourse of animalistic Black sexuality; and within the discourse of homosexuality as a sexual aberration; these discourses shifting and moving situationally dependent on which identity aspect is promoted to the forefront at any given time.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Morag Eyrie
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 17:08:55

    Nice intro to the concept of “kyriarchy” Mhairi.

    However, I’m not sure about the wording of your statement that a “narrow “ranking of the oppressions”” caused “difficulties towards the end of the second wave, causing division and resentment within feminist ranks”. I would say (and it could be this is what you meant!) that what caused division and resentment during the end of the second wave (and it continues today) was an overwhelmingly white, middle class, cisgendered and largely heterosexual women’s movement refusing to own up to its own privilege, even when called on it comprehensively by women of colour, poor and working class women, lesbians, disabled women, latterly bisexual women and trans women, etc., etc. Feminism certainly existed amongst these groups (in some cases it was other movements of women who wanted liberation but didn’t identify with feminism, such as the Black womanist movement) but the groups setting the wider public agenda, getting the big funding and creating the mainstream discourse were made up of the women furthest up the hierarchical ladder, and many of them seemed blind to their own ability to oppress and exclude other women.

    I do agree that the third wave (I don’t entirely agree with carving feminism up into ‘waves’ by the way, mainly because I’ve never been able to identify personally as belonging to one of these supposed ‘waves’) could be defined almost as wider feminism attempting to grapple with this situation through examining the intersectionality of oppressions, how to recognise and challenge ones own and others’ privileged status(es), how to be a good ally to those different from you, and the naming of “kyriarchy” rather than patriarchy as you point out.


  2. scottbw
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 18:17:56

    I’m not sure to what extent ideas of *-archies are useful in a more complex system of interacting values. While:

    “This privilege however is localised and only reinforces the overarching power structures to which they are subject.”

    – seems on face value reasonable, but when looked at in terms of the intersection of “privilege attributes” discussed earlier in your post it looks more like an unhelpful generalisation.

    In some circumstances some properties have greater impact than others as you point out, and I think going forward we need to look at some sort of map of “privilege networks” to identify niches where privilege is being abused; and perhaps this can be applied functionally as you’ve alluded to in the examples to reflect a more utilitarian view of power.


  3. mhairi
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 22:34:54

    The “ranking of the oppressions” thing is a reference to radical feminist assertations that gender was at the root of all power structures – something challenged by socialist feminists and by anti-colonialist feminists, who considered that oppression on the basis of labour exploitation, or resource depletion were at least as fundamental as gender oppression if not more so.

    You are right, Scott, that the localised privilage that oppressed groups sometimes possess isnt generalisable in quite the same way that I have suggested – as it does intersect with others.

    So homosexuality might be privilaged in entering the hairdressing profession only so long as the subject is male. A gay female hairdresser may well find it more difficult than a straight male.


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