It’s relatively easy to talk about the diffusion of power when you’re a man. Because looking at recent news – from the lack of stories about sports presenter Charlie Webster to the proliferation of those about Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard – it’s clear that patriarchal power isn't showing any signs of waning.
Over three-hundred years ago, Edmund Burke offered a sage piece of advice to the world when he said, ‘the greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse’. Burke’s forewarning may seem obsolete in light of a recent talk given by Moisés Naím at the RSA where he proclaimed that power is no longer concentrated but is diffuse. Or, as Adam Lent puts it, that power is dying. However, Naím’s theory falters when we turn through the pages of world history and pay close attention to an overarching constant: it is predominantly men who wield power. Meanwhile, when women manage to grasp the reigns of power, they do so on the condition that they perform conventional maleness - think of Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister, the so-called Iron Lady. Therefore, even if we accept Naím’s thesis, the ability to possess power is predicated on performing conventional masculinity, consequently it tends to remain in the hands of men who do so. And, as Burke suggests, with their great power, men commit dangerous abuse.
It’s not new to suggest that power and traditional masculinity are closely woven together, but despite our awareness of this fact, the close bond between the two is not showing any signs of loosening. We need look no further than our own legislative branch of government to see unapologetic patriarchal power strutting around Westminster with full plumage on show. An investigation into a number of sexual harassment accusations against Liberal Democrat peer Lord Rennard has found that while allegations cannot be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, ‘the evidence suggests that Lord Rennard’s behaviour has caused distress to a number of women’. Despite this damning indictment, Lord Rennard refuses to apologise because, he explained in a statement yesterday, he doesn't believe an apology for something he ‘had not done’ is appropriate. Although he has been suspended from his party, Lord Rennard’s apparent lack of regret for causing offence and, perhaps more startlingly, his absence of an attempt to feign the lamentation that is usually shown by politicians when the public glare is shone on their alleged gross misconduct, shows the power that he feels he's entitled to as a wealthy, white man. His attitude seems to say, women feel they have been assaulted, but it’s simply not my problem.
Should we really be surprised? Men dominate the public sphere and are, more often than not, seen as superior to women. Alongside concerns over the nature of the inquiry into the allegations against Lord Rennard, consider the fact that it was Alistair Webster QC who was at the head of the investigation; whether women were involved in the process, the final say was left to a man. This gendered hierarchy is mirrored throughout society, a quick glance at organisations across the country and it is more likely that you will see men, not women, at the helm.
The inequalities between men and women are not limited to formalised structures of power. Abuse revelations go far beyond Parliament’s grandiose corridors. At the other end of the spectrum from the ostensibly ‘softer side’ of abuse claims, sport presenter Charlie Webster revealed that she was sexually abused by her male coach when she was 15 years old. Webster, who yesterday embarked on a seven-day 250 mile marathon to raise money for Women’s Aid, a charity working to end domestic violence, explained that the reason for her disclosure was to break the taboo surrounding abuse. Webster struggled to admit to her abuse because, she says, “I didn’t want my world to break down”. Often it’s hard to admit that our system is irreparable because it means that we have to shatter it entirely to form something new. Indeed, society’s desire to shy away from the damaging effects of patriarchal power has led to Webster’s admission receiving relatively scant amount of news attention. This reflects an underlying trend; for all of our proclamations of progress and civility, we aren’t properly addressing why gender abuse is commonplace, why 2 women are killed week in England and Wales as a result of domestic violence.
The causal factor: patriarchal power that is woven into the fabric of our everyday. Following on the heels of Lord Rennard’s refusal to apologise, Nick Clegg’s former aide, Bridget Harris, has castigated the ‘intellectual sexist culture and endemic sleazy culture of Westminster’. Sexism is a way of being in the hallowed halls of the Commons, Harris explains. And, again, so it is beyond Westminster. The tapestry of routine abuse displayed on Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism shows how derogatory views of women have become normalised. These views act as a gateway for men to think, even if unconsciously, on a day-to-day basis that they are worth more than women, which can and often does clear the way for gendered abuse.
Consequently, while efforts to address gender imbalances such as all-women shortlists are laudable and certainly needed, these measures only attempt to solve the surface problems of masculine power. Simone de Beauvoir explained that to delve deeper and truly achieve gender equality, ‘the point is not for women simply to take power out of men’s hand...it’s a question precisely of destroying that notion of power’. To do so, we have to start publicly questioning men and their automatic entitlement to power. For many this is an uncomfortable idea, fear is palpable in jokes we often hear, like “what are you going as for Halloween, a feminist?”. Such reactions are understandable. For those who benefit from and fully invest in patriarchal power, a form of feminism that seeks to undermine conventional constructions of masculinity in order to establish a power paradigm based on true gender equality is a very scary indeed.