Truthout About Kyriarchy: An Open Letter To “Feminist” Writers, Bloggers, and Journalists

In April 2008, I wrote a post on my blog about and introduced the word “kyriarchy.” At the time, I was writing in response to a feminist blogosphere blow-up.  The feminist blogosphere in April of 2008 was busy unveiling the torrent history of feminist-identified white women writers and presses co-opting and adopting the work of women of color writers, and ignoring the lines of power and oppression between women.  Or, in other words, it was about the long history of white women acting as the authority on subject matter that clearly were out of their lines of experience.

And then it resulted in an unprecedented fallout when Seal Press, whose tagline is “publishing ground-breaking books by women, for women” publicly disgraced itself by insulting women of color writers and bloggers.

It was because of these incidents, I began thinking of kyriarchy.

I studied in one of Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s classes, one of the most searing feminist theologians of our time, and, afterward, took a personal vow and role of academic vigilante.  Such thoughts and transformative insights, I thought, should be made available to those outside the ivory tower.  I began incorporating kyriarchy into my poems, criticizing the criminal cost and hoarding of knowledge by universities.  I even dipped into recorded spoken word, which resulted in a CD compilation of work by other women of color.  The CD was used as a fundraiser to financially assist mothers to get to a powerful Allied Media Conference in Detroit.  Kyriarchy became the bedrock of my activism.

That was the origin of bringing kyriarchy out of the academic walls and into the blogosphere; that it would be (more) available. I thought that by offering a new term for folks to chew on, a deeper understanding of who we are and why we are the way we are would bubble.  At the very least, an on-going and informal conversation of patriarchy vs. kyriarchy would be achieved.

To date, the piece about kyriarchy is correctly linked and cited by nearly fifty articles and posts, and one urban dictionary even added “kyriarchy” to its pages. It became apparent that kyriarchy, a neologism by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, caught fire.  A few months after writing about kyriarchy, I was contacted by the research assistants of feminist writer, Shira Tarrant, who asked for permission to use my name and properly cite my work in her forthcoming book, Men and Feminism.  I gave my permission, reminding the author that the term was clearly not my own, just my effort to bring the compelling word to a non-academic audience.

I was ecstatic it was so well-received by so many different circles of thought.

And then two months ago, I received a link to a recently published article in The Guardian entitled, “The Patriarchy is Dead, But the Kyriarchy Lives On,” by Nichi Hodgson.  After reading it, two questions immediately popped in my head:  “How is this article covering the emergence of kyriarchy in the feminist sphere with not one attribution and where had she learned it from?”  and “What have I done?”

(I’ll tackle the second question first because it’s ten fold more important than the first.)

Hodgson pats kyriarchy down to a nice and quasi-intelligent term that relegates the freedom to complain about oppression to include The Men, too.  It turns a highly flexible academic term by a feminist theologian into a pop cultured meat loaf: a soft, feel good term that everyone can chew and swallow.

Hodgson uses the pornography industry as an example to illustrate kyriarchy’s clarifying power.  She posits that both women and men are exploited by the porn industry. With kyriarchy as your scapel, you can see how: not only are women exploited and objectified (who could potentially benefit and profit from this work) while men, with their overexposure to the X-rated world, may experience problems keeping their sexual organs and libido “up” in high gear.

And then Hodgson makes a common and dangerous jump about kyriarchy and contemporary feminisms in general:

It helps us to recognise the interconnection of education, class and eating disorders such as anorexia, and of domestic violence and poverty, rather than encouraging us to indiscriminately blame men.

It helps to explain how women themselves can in some cases morph into the supremacist bully, when paranoid mothers pass on anxieties about food and bodies to their daughters, ground down themselves by years of trying to live up to constructed notions of beauty.

The purpose and measure of kyriarchy – and feminism in general – is not to increase our time at the microphone so we can more accurately assign BLAME.  The purpose and measure of kyriarchy is to further understand the power and crippling tendencies of the human race to push, torture, and minimize others.  It is in our nature to try and become “lord” or “master” in our communities, to exert a “power-over” someone else.  Kyriarchy does not exist to give us tools to further imprison ourselves by blaming our environment, upbringing, or social caste.  It is the opposite.  Kyriarchy exists to give us tools to liberate ourselves by understanding the shifting powers of oppression.  It is not about passing the megaphone to men so they can be included in the oppression olympics.  Simply check-marking our gender, sex, race, ablity, class, citizenship, skin color and other pieces of identity will not free us from the social ills of our stratified society.  Kyriarchy is not the newly minted alarm clock to wake us up to what’s wrong.  It exists to radically implement our finest strategies to deconstruct our personal and political powers for the liberation of self and community.  For self AND community.

Which is why I so vehemently disagree with Hodgson who believes that the most helpful piece of kyriarchy is “its emphasis on individual liberation…”

Please indulge my own theory-making right now:  There’s no such thing as liberation if the word ‘individual’ precedes it.

I cannot speak for Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza.  I cannot pretend to even guess what Hodgson herself means in writing that phrase “individual liberation.”  However, in the spirit of feminist theology, in the spirit of radical understanding of power, I would argue with 100% confidence that the absolute LAST thing that kyriarchy strives for is individual liberation. Solely pursuing your own liberation often comes at the expense of others.  That’s not liberation, that’s mainstream feminism.

Which brings me to the second question, and my personal slant/issue on this article: where did Hodgson find kyriarchy and, knowing the migration of this term from the ivory tower to the digital masses, why is there no attribution?

After I send my message to The Guardian, in which I congratulate her for the published article, but state my concerns and ask why her references are not included, Hodgson acknowledges my message and promises to reply in a few days when she is more readily available.

A reply lands in my inbox after a few more days in which she explains her source, which is the book by Shira Tarrant, who she makes no mention of and is the author who had contacted me to cite my work on kyriarchy, and some of Schussler Fiorenza’s original texts.  Hodgson, upon rechecking Tarrant’s book,  acknowledges my name in the credits to which she offers a sincere apology if I “felt plagarized.” It concludes with a request to list where my other work is so – the next time – she can properly include my name.  I wanted to ask, “You mean other than the “FAQ” section of my website where it’s the first term under my own lexicon?”

“Felt plagarized?” What I found most ironic is that I was brought back to 2008, to the originating circumstances of what drove me to introduce kyriarchy to the US feminist blogosphere: the blantant and irresponsible disregard for (at minimum) thorough research and (at best) moral and ethical journalism. But, for me, this incident just tacked itself in the ongoing practice of appropriating, ignoring, and assuming authority on and of the work of women of color by feminist-identified white women.  Or, as Hodgson writes:

Perhaps most importantly, kyriarchy exposes a sin within the women’s movement itself: that of feminist-perpetuated oppression.


17 thoughts on “Truthout About Kyriarchy: An Open Letter To “Feminist” Writers, Bloggers, and Journalists

  1. Lisa

    Power can be defined in multiple ways; a general, wide-breadth version might be: the abilities and capacities in relationship to privilege, preference, strength, and access.

    Power can be used for empowering or destructive reasons. I’d argue that power is and should be defined by the person most vulnerable or likely to be impacted by a negative consequence.

  2. Kav

    Can we get a definition of “power”? I’m wondering about certain relationships in which there is a mentor/student arrangement. Where does “power” become a bad thing?

  3. yellowmix

    I’m sorry you’re experiencing people’s privilege in this way.

    >Hodgson pats kyriarchy down to a nice and quasi-intelligent term that relegates the freedom to complain about oppression to include The Men, too. It turns a highly flexible academic term by a feminist theologian into a pop cultured meat loaf: a soft, feel good term that everyone can chew and swallow.

    That’s one reason I no longer use this term. If there’s anything I learned about anti-oppression education, it’s that people with privilege are going to use the analytical tools you give them as weapons against you. “Kyriarchy” is much too nebulous and unwieldy, not unlike using a steel I-beam to hammer a nail into a wall. Give it to someone and they’ll whack you with it. It’s even more dangerous when that person intends to whack you with it.

    “Kyriarchy” has become a dog whistle word for oppressors who use it to describe their own “oppression” in order to derail discussions. “Patriarchy” is immune to this treatment.

    The other problem with the term is that other tools already existed to address the same issues. Intersectionality and Matrix/Politic of Domination predate the term by decades. In fact, these tools are useful because they are flexible yet precise.

    That brings me to the next point, which is that kyriarchy was invented to address Biblical interpretation through antiquity. Kyriarchy might be more useful for that purpose, but intersectionality is a lot more relevant for people who are struggling against oppression today, right now.

    It’s not old school, it’s classic, and for good reason: I still blame the patriarchy (and all its intersections).

  4. PJ

    Wow. Two and a half years after your original post. I’m sorry some people are so very blind to idea that we all possess the same flaws they’re writing about, and then demonstrate the exact term’s meaning in their actions/writings/responses.

    “Felt plagarized” – how very dismissive. :-/

  5. What Jen said… I’ve been seeing the word used more and more, and some of it is pretty bizarre and/or meaningless. Thank you for updating.

    PS: I just linked you to the Wikipedia entry on Kyriarchy… it may get edited out or not, but I don’t think it will. This properly establishes you as the first voice ON THE NET to employ the term, while crediting the originator of the idea. :)

  6. What? Kyriarchy makes it easier to blame mothers? Someone get Nichi Hodgson’s mama on the phone. Ugh.

    I totally agree with the statement: “Solely pursuing your own liberation often comes at the expense of others.” Feminism ought to be about highlighting connection, not fragmentation. Thanks for an excellent read.

  7. I arrived here from Shakesville. Quite surprised I hadn’t found you sooner. I dig this post and the one referenced. I plan to do some more reading in your archives.

    Don’t recall exactly where I’d first come across the term Kyriachy (twas some years ago), but it resonated with me. Twenty years ago, as a college student, I took a class with Judith Butler (“Colonization, Sexuality, Resistance”) as well as some other women’s studies classes that shaped my politics and (fluid/changing) identity. Among other books, “This Bridge Called My Back” taught me about Womanism and made me sensitive to the “othering” that mainstream Feminism wrought upon women of color. I am startled and distraught that this still happens. I really thought that we’d be further along by now (in many ways).

    As a 40-year old Feminist (I am white, straight, divorced, cis-gendered and nulliparous), I am well aware of the ways in which I have privilege as well as the times I don’t (but I don’t let that get me down – I step aside when the stakes are low, and shout when I need to be heard). The Kryiarchy is, as you say, an ever-shifting pyramid. Sometimes, I’m up; sometimes, I’m down. Rarely am I equal.

    I don’t want to be looked up to or down upon. The pedestal is as lonely as the gutter. I prefer the eye-to-eye. So I do my best to walk tall and engage, give everyone respect and attention. I listen more than I talk. This is the way to learn.

    Thank you. I’ll be checking back in. I enjoyed my time with you this afternoon.

    a.

  8. Thank you for writing this, Lisa. And the struggle continues…

  9. Jen

    I’ve been watching the progress of the word ‘kyriarchy’ with gritted teeth across the blogosphere since you first made that post in 2008, and hoping you’d eventually write this. Glad you did!

  10. becca

    I had encountered the word, but did not know anything of its origins. It’s a very helpful word, all the moreso now that I understand it a bit better.

    I cannot, of course, presume to speak for Nichi Hodgson. But I don’t think of kyriarchy and ‘personal liberation’ the same way you interpreted her.

    When I find myself wishing for more money, or more ‘respect’ (read: status), or a more conventionally attractive body, or *whatever*, I frequently experience some cognitive dissonance. I was raised with strong admonishments to not value the pyramid too much, though I did not term it that way. Intellectually, I don’t want to yield power, although I want to be free from other people’s power over me. But emotionally, the drive is still there. In all kinds of weird ways. Being able to look at my unhappiness with where I am and say ‘that’s just the kyriarchy talking’ *IS* personal liberation. It allows me more emotional resources to deal with deconstructing the pyramid for others. Ultimately, it’s extraordinarily difficult to deconstruct power systems by changing social structures- that seems to just shuffle things around (ala communism). But deconstructing them in our own hearts, not just our own minds… that is personal liberation. And I think it’s entirely necessary (albeit insufficient) to tackling the whole mess for the community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *