On Naming Patriarchy, and an Advocacy of Trusting Children’s Leadership

by Rachel Rudi, Youth and Family Coordinator, Circle, Washington County

“Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy children do not have rights. Feminist movement was the first movement for social justice in this society to call attention to the fact that ours is a culture that does not love children, that continues to see children as the property of parents to do as they will. […] Simply calling attention to male sexual abuse of children has not created the climate where masses of people understand that this abuse is linked to male domination, that it will end only when patriarchy is eliminated.”

                                                                        – bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody

Six weeks ago, as I stepped into Circle’s Youth Advocate position, a longtime anti-domestic violence worker said to me, “Just to be clear, we don’t think of ourselves as a social service. We think of ourselves as a social justice movement.”

I’ve been chewing on this clarification, this seemingly clear delineation, as I try to see how I’ll wear the role. I have no social work degree, little formal schooling in education or psychology, no firsthand experience with intimate partner violence. I’ve been both panicked and calm about the learning curve: lessons in childhood development, statistics on violence, Vermont law and its shortcomings, endless acronyms, fear of saying the wrong thing to a person in pain. As I meet with survivors, children, medical professionals, family members, social workers, local politicians, law enforcement, advocates and counselors, I scrutinize my own credibility and question my ability to advocate for youth.

But in even the most clinical of these meetings something is invariably said that knocks the wind out of everyone and we sit in an unscripted moment of grief. There’s that communal sigh, a bewilderment at such a normalized culture of terror, a grasping for a word that could possibly explain each violence, each microaggression. A word that might put our respective trauma into an examinable structure, let us identify the source and the way out. A word that might galvanize a social justice movement. Someone murmurs how did we get here and we gaze into an abyss where the solution should be. It’s in this stillness that I find my advocacy fits.

Patriarchy is the word. Do we say it often enough? Does it feel familiar on the tongue? For me the word brings clarity. There is not an epidemic of violence; it has always been. There is no isolated violent act; there is a continuum. No one exempt from oppressive norms or repressive shame. The man who speaks over me, the person who threatens a partner, the white officer who beats a Black student. My pain is bound up in them, theirs in me. The differences are technical, the narratives intertwine.

I cannot discuss domestic violence nor its effects on young people without a framework of patriarchy and racism. They are utterly foundational. Social justice movements are strategic attacks on the ancient, tangled roots of systemic oppression. Say it: Patriarchy. Historical trauma of binary, of repression, of invasion and exploitation is so imbedded in every body that we have to get wildly vulnerable and creative to uproot it. We can’t do this without the limitless imagination of children. I hope to advocate in a way that unleashes gender, deconstructs reliance on othering. Children don’t have time for the world to feel unmagical or for identity to be dictated. They’re working on reenvisioning.

When we speak of trauma, we describe an overstimulation the body cannot comprehend. Some manifestation of domination floods the immune system and resets the most extreme possibility for grief. It is unexpected, it is not formulaic. Oppressors craft trauma to maintain submission. Their own trauma taught them how.

When we work toward the other extreme, we must seek patriarchy’s inverse, which no body has ever comprehended. Intersectional feminism will gain its own deep roots and reset what we understand as a greater possibility for joy. It will catch us off guard, it will not be formulaic. Children will craft language of equity to let our bodies be bodies. If we tell them all we know of patriarchy, if we dismantle gender and privilege with them, if we hand them these words which feel too heavy, they will see them as tools and know what to do. They will build collective liberation and say we helped them teach us how.