Is Patriarchy Even a Real Thing?

            One of the definitions of patriarchy is male control of families and government. But what many are referring to when they use the term is a culture and socialization process that privilege men and boys while oppressing, disadvantaging, and subjugating women and girls. In practice, patriarchy often means the simple assumption that males have it better than females and that they work, often deviously, often with the complicity of blinkered females, to maintain their advantage.
 
            I'm skeptical that there even is such a thing as patriarchy, at least in that latter sense of the term. I can imagine my feminist friends reading that line and getting set to unload a barrage of anecdotes and snippets of history lessons. Before you begin your attempts at setting me straight, let me be clear about what exactly I'm suggesting. It's undeniable that the treatment of women in third-world countries is often abysmal. It's undeniable that some cultures—usually the religious sectors in particular—explicitly preach that women are to be submissive to men. Those explicit teachings are rightly called patriarchy.

            There is an important distinction to be made, however, between a system of family hierarchy and social governance on the one hand, and the suggestion on the other hand that an entire culture is biased in favor of men. Keeping score on both sides of the gender divide by adding up all the miseries and subtracting all the privileges to see who has it worst is exactly the type of tribal behavior that makes this sort of politics so divisive and incendiary. So let me just point out that there are a lot more people monitoring the travails of women and not bothering to consider for a second that men might be going through things that are just as bad or worse. Often small groups of men prey on women and other men alike. And women often enjoy certain advantages over men, especially if they're intelligent or attractive or both, even in third-world countries. (The case of third-world countries, incidentally, ought to give feminists pause before they spout off about the evils of civilization.)

            I'm not a Pollyanna. There really are groups who suffer from severe societal and generational disadvantages, even in this first-world country. In fact, their plight offers a helpful template for how we should expect oppression to appear in various measures. Here, for instance, is a graph of how African Americans and whites have responded to surveys investigating their subjective well-being since the early 1970s.
Source: "Subjective and Objective Indicators of Racial Progress," by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers
            Two things stand out in this graph. One is that whites have a significant advantage in terms of subjective well-being, just as we might expect. The other is that the gap between the races has been narrowing, albeit at a disconcertingly sluggish pace, over the past forty years. This is probably due in large part to the victories of the civil rights movement, and other deliberate social efforts to right injustices.

            Based on the conventional wisdom regarding the plight of women, we might expect the happiness divide between the sexes to demonstrate pretty much the same trend. But it turns out the two graphs look nothing alike. 
Source: "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness," by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfters

            First, men didn't start out with a clear advantage. Second, it seems women have actually gotten slightly less happy over the past forty years.

            Yes, men continue to make more money, men continue to hold more positions of power. So, you could argue that men are still privileged and women are just disappointed that they haven't made much progress. And I bet at least a few of you reading this are wondering how girls might be socialized to claim to be as happy as men even when they're not. But neither of these special pleads really accounts for the pattern anyway.

            We need an alternative hypothesis. Maybe it is human nature to develop different roles for women and men. These roles may even be influenced by regular developmental differences, like the production of hormones, and then over time become somewhat exaggerated through a process of observational learning and norm generation. Insofar as this is the case, it’s simply wrong to point to the different roles and claim their existence is proof of one side’s privilege.

            With each role comes a set of privileges and burdens, and maybe, just maybe the two cancel out pretty well. Many men probably feel the need to make money is a burden. Many women probably feel the greater burden of child-rearing placed on them is a privilege.

            None of this necessarily works as evidence for the superiority of traditional sex roles—and I certainly don’t advocate any enforcement of them. Indeed, we need to do our best to support people who for whatever reason want to step outside the bounds of our common expectations. But we also have to be prepared to accept the conclusion—should it be arrived at with a threshold degree of certainty—that people are happier when they embrace their differences, whether those differences are the product of biology, culture, or both.

            And, if you are wont to insist on the existence of male privilege, how will you demonstrate it? How can you be sure it isn’t limited to circumscribed domains? How would you convince a reasonable and informed skeptic that patriarchy is a real problem?