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Below is a speech given by Shahidah at the FiLiA Conference in 2018. A collection of her speeches and articles, including those made at Conferences, International Women's Day celebrations and other events, will be published in September 2022.

Neoliberalism and Patriarchy

FiLiA Conference, Manchester 2018


I have used the work of several women for pulling some ideas together. The women include, Bea Campbell, Robin Morgan, Gerda Lerna, Andrea Dworkin…..

Robin Morgan said, in her book ‘Demon Lover – On the Sexuality of Terrorism’.

“If I had to name one quality as the genius of patriarchy it would be Compartmentalisation, the capacity for institutionalising disconnection.  Intellect severed from emotion.  Thought separated from action…The personal isolated from the political.  Sex divorced from love.  The material ruptured from the spiritual. 

If I had to name one quality as the genius of feminist thought, culture and action.  It would be connectivity.”

I hope to bring connectivity to what I’m going to say to you about patriarchy and neoliberalism.

A number of historians and anthropologists have identified, as closely as they could, the beginnings of patriarchy and hierarchy, the conditions which brought about slavery and the structure of classes, or the division of people into classes.  They have shown how these hierarchies were institutionalised and therefore embedded into cultures and societies.

Patriarchy, or male dominance has been identified as the singular most active force in these developments.

The historian Gerda Lerner defines patriarchy as,

“The manifestation and institutionalisation of male dominance over women and children in the family, and the extension of male dominance over women in the society in general.  Men hold power in all the important institutions of society and women are deprived of access to such power.  It does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources, but the essence remains: some men control property and hold power over other men and over most women; men or male-dominated institutions control sexuality and reproduction of females; most of the powerful institutions in society are dominated by men.”

The consensus in anthropology is that the small hunting/gathering societies, which were the norm for most of human history, 200,000 years, were generally egalitarian, with no institutionalised dominance of male over female, or vice versa.  Social systems around the world varied but most were neither hierarchical nor male dominated.

There are examples of matrilineal societies/ communities in history, these were the egalitarian societies.  Some of them have survived and exist in a few different locations in the world today.  These were the egalitarian societies of the past, which have survived in similar shapes and forms, having had minimal contact with people from other societies.

MOSUO -Living near the border of Tibet in the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces.

MINANGKABAU - West Sumatra, Indonesia, are the largest known matrilineal society today, 4 million.

AKAN - The Akan people are a majority in Ghana, where they predominantly reside.

BRIBRI - The Bribri are a small indigenous group of just over 13,000 people living on a reserve in the Talamanca canton in the Limón province of Costa Rica.

We know that the powerful write history.  Patriarchy would have us believe that patriarchy, has always existed, that it is the natural order of things.  This is a lie.

Women were the first class of people to be enslaved and/or exploited.  Women’s bodies were the site for all other oppressive practices to be learned and refined.  There is historical evidence to support this.  Men installed the institution of marriage to ensure that their own sons inherited what they owned. Before this there was matrilineage. In the patriarchal family father right and boy children were most important.  Marriage was used to control women’s sexuality and also to divide women into good women, bad women.  Marriage was institutionalised to maintain control.  It became embedded. In any system of dominance by one group over another or other, there is the use of violence or the threat of violence.  There is no context anywhere that shows that this not the case.  Violence and/or the threat of violence is largely what has kept and still keeps women in a subordinate position. Women live in constant fear.  There are many myths created in order to blame the victims, and to obscure, or hide where the real danger comes from.

We have to seriously consider whether we can see the past through any lens that has not been constructed by patriarchy.  What we can do is work out women’s place in whatever story is being told.  So the first question is always where are the women in this story, what are they doing, what is happening to them, what are they saying. (Cynthia Enloe in all her books, the last two, ’Push Back’ and ‘Seriously’ encourages us to always ask about where women are located, in any conditions, in any discussions.)

Patriarchy tells us that hierarchies are inevitable, men’s nature is to dominate, but at the same time to protect women.  Science is used to justify these and other claims. It wasn’t that long ago that science said women have smaller brains than men, are not as smart as men.  It also said black people were not fully human in order to justify slavery.

Patriarchy builds on its own propaganda.  We have lived with it for millennia, so of course it is hard  for us to question it.  It is hard to see through this framework, the parameters are set by patriarchal history, language, science, art…..  We ask many questions about it, but it’s tough, because how and what and in what ways we ask, is still within a patriarchal framework. 

I will bring my focus to the geographical location we are in now, the UK, and more recent history, to illustrate the ebb and flow of rights gained and lost by women.

The 1960s was a period of significant social change. Economically people started to become better off.   It was also a time when social laws were liberalised, for example in relation to divorce and to abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. The position of women in the workplace also improved.

In the 60’s & 70’s feminists had begun meeting to talk and share experiences. For many the isolation they had felt was broken, by coming together and through finding out they were not the only one who had been raped, abused, assaulted, harassed, defiled, denied and silenced.  It was a revelation.  Making spaces to talk and share was named Consciousness Raising. Women set up services for women, run by volunteers and as collectives.  They were not hierarchical.

Well, we were getting a little less crazy.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of ‘divide and rule’.  Patriarchy has done this very successfully with women.  Women have guarded their own status as good women in exchange for men’s protection.  I don’t blame them, men are dangerous, men are predators, better to be in service to one man who will protect you from other men.

But everything was not hunky dory, many women were still missing from the women’s movement, black women, lesbians, disabled women, working class women, prostituted women.  These separations already existed and served to benefit patriarchal society and its culture.  It benefitted men.  It took time and fiery discussions to begin to break them down in the feminist movement.

Women were drawing attention to the things that hurt us, oppressed us.

The backlash to women’s actions came in many forms.  Men passed laws to say that only professional women could listen to raped and abused women.  Women could get funding but only if they ran their organisations like a business, a hierarchy, with a management committee, a manager, workers.  It was illegal to run an organisation on the grounds and on the terms that women had been doing, or you simply didn’t get any funding.  Women fought each other for funding.  This works in regard to racism too.  Groups and organisations made to vie with each other for scarce resources.

The gains made by women are subverted.

We need to remember that Patriarchy splits things off from each other. Then we need to remember that everything is connected, patriarchy, misogyny, racism, economy, culture, law, science, art…….

As Bea Campbell so eloquently says, "Gender doesn’t explain everything but it is in everything."


Women were invited onto government panels to help change laws, to broaden the definition of rape, to reframe consent.  The government paid women money to do endless research, taken up in good faith by women.  The research was often about many things we knew already, but we had to collect the evidence, the statistics, the numbers, to make our case to the men who sat in the seats of power and made all the decisions.  For years we have been telling them that men murder women at the rate of two per week.  That one in four, if not one in three women are sexually abused as children. There are 600 million women missing in the world, through murder, infanticide and neglect.

These are some statistics provided by the Rape Crisis Federation.

  • Approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped in England and Wales alone every year; that's roughly 11 rapes (of adults alone) every hour. These figures include assaults by penetration and attempts.

  • Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales each year

  • 1 in 5 women aged 16 - 59 has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16

  • Only around 15% of those who experience sexual violence choose to report to the police


Approximately 90% of those who are raped know the perpetrator prior to the offence

We got crumbs from the patriarchal table.  We got a law saying women could take their husbands to court for rape, but a judicial system that doesn’t believe women, and the conviction rate for  rape is now 5.8% of reported rapes that are taken to trial.  Women are still blamed and not believed.  Dr. Christine Blasy Ford being a recent example, when she named the presidential nominee for the Supreme Court in the US, Brett Kavanagh, as her rapist.

So what is the economic context which is at the heart of politics today and the backlash against women.

Margaret Thatcher an ardent believer in the new capitalism, namely neoliberalism, brought it into the country in 80’s. It was the brainchild of two economists the Austrian Friedrich Von Hayak and Milton Friedman of Chicago University.  The idea is to put market forces above everything else. Government support is given to businesses. All services provided to citizens by the State were contracted out and privatised for profit. We have seen some of the consequences of that.  MRSA did not exist before the privatisation of hospital cleaning services.  It isn’t that the workers didn’t work hard enough, it’s that they didn’t know the particular requirements in that environment.  

Thatcher famously said ‘There is no such thing as society’.  What that meant was there was only each individual person, no community, no working class, no popular movements, no feminist movement, only individuals.  The idea was to break the power of collective action. According to neoliberal ideology there is only the individual, the customer, the consumer, with choice, with agency, but only in regard to what is bought and sold.  This is the ideology of neoliberalism.

It is not surprising that women have become confused about this issue of choice.  Choice is a patriarchal idea, that tells women we have choices, in a world in which we are reviled, not believed, raped, beaten and forced to make a living either by selling our bodies, or selling our labour for a pittance. A great deal of our work is not paid at all, as carers, as farmers…..

Some women say yes, we choose to be prostituted, we choose to be pole dancers, strippers.  We choose to be pimped by the boyfriends we have chosen.  We choose to be trafficked.  Patriarchy is clever at making us believe that what hurts most is of our choosing.  Patriarchy is clever at soliciting our subordination and manufacturing our consent.

We have a great deal to thank women for.  Everything they have fought for, every change in law, all the research which has increased our knowledge and understanding of how patriarchy works, finding the language to name our experiences, every small and large gain we have made.  I thank them. 

There are many questions that arise as a result of what we have experienced and been able to learn.  Some of these questions are:-

How do we keep the history of our movement and women’s experiences alive?

How do we pass them on to the next generation of women?

How do we maintain the continuity of our movement?

How do we make use of what we have learned?

How do we make and keep connection with each other, especially face to face?

How do we keep our ability to discuss, disagree, debate alive without insult?

How do we continue to consciousness raise?

How do we get from where we are now to act in ways that will bring about long lasting change?

What new strategies do we need to do this?

How do we tear patriarchy and its institutions down?


Andrea Dworkin in her speech to the Prostitution Collective of Oregon said,

“I'm going to ask you to remember the prostituted, the homeless, the battered, the raped, the tortured, the murdered, the raped-then-murdered, the murdered-then-raped; and I am going to ask you to remember the photographed, the ones that any or all of the above happened to and it was photographed and now the photographs are for sale in our free countries. I want you to think about those who have been hurt for the fun, the entertainment, the so-called speech of others; those who have been hurt for profit, for the financial benefit of pimps and entrepreneurs. I want you to remember the perpetrator and I am going to ask you to remember the victims: not just tonight but tomorrow and the next day. I want you to find a way to include them -- the perpetrators and the victims -- in what you do, how you think, how you act, what you care about, what your life means to you.

Now, I know, in this room, some of you are the women I have been talking about. I know that. People around you may not. I am going to ask you to use every single thing you can remember about what was done to you -- how it was done, where, by whom, when, and, if you know -- why -- to begin to tear male dominance to pieces, to pull it apart, to vandalize it, to destabilize it, to mess it up, to get in its way, to fuck it up. I have to ask you to resist, not to comply, to destroy the power men have over women, to refuse to accept it, to abhor it and to do whatever is necessary despite its cost to you to change it.”

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