CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Éric Macé’s latest book begins with the observation that though European countries support the principle of sexual equality, and though women’s and men’s statuses and practices have come to resemble each other more closely in several areas, gender inequalities and discriminations persist. To explain this “inegalitarian egalitarianism” the author puts forward a historical analysis of gendered social relations in Europe and elsewhere. It is not his aim to demonstrate continuity but rather to study the different modes of gender production over time. The historical perspective is a means of highlighting the specificity of contemporary gender relations, which Macé describes as post-patriarchal.

2In the first chapter, he presents his main conceptual tool, a term borrowed from Erving Goffman: “arrangement between the sexes”, or in the author’s version, “gender arrangement”. He defines it as “the way each type of society culturally relates the question of sexual difference to those of sexuality and masculine and feminine identity, and how it fits this together with the social organization of work, the family, politics, etc.”. This notion enables him to point up the historical, contingent nature of gender: there is nothing necessary, or necessarily permanent, about sexual inequality. The book therefore stands opposed to interpretations of gender relations that associate contemporary inequalities with those found in traditional societies. In direct contrast to Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination, cited as a counter-example for its claim that gender relations in modern Europe are anthropologically continuous with gender relations in traditional Kabyle society, L’Après patriarcat insists on the historicity of social relations (in the broadest sense of that term) between the sexes.

3Specifically, the book draws attention to the major historical break in continuity represented by the arrival of Western modernity in the late fifteenth century. This event divided the world into a “before” and “after”. Before, there was traditional patriarchy; after, there was modern and modernized patriarchy; last came the post-patriarchal period – the present time of Western societies. He defines patriarchy as “the move to establish a necessary and legitimate asymmetry between men and women”. In its traditional form, this asymmetry was based on cosmological or theological principles. While this constituted a particular gender arrangement (occurring as it did in history), it was also universal in that it characterized all traditional societies. That model was radically changed by Western modernity, which brought about the shift from one world to another. Traditional patriarchy was not abandoned at that time but rather reconfigured, “modernized”: the asymmetry of feminine and masculine was no longer legitimated by religion but by science, which naturalized sexual difference and inequality. However, modernity also introduced conflict, for at the same moment as all men were declared free and equal, feminism emerged as a demand for sexual equality. Gradually, convergence between different developments worked to erode the legal, scientific and economic foundations of women’s subordination, with the result that the conditions for maintaining the patriarchy were no longer in place: gender no longer appeared necessary (sexual division was no longer constitutive of social organization) or legitimate (feminist struggles had successfully imposed the principle of sexual equality). In the post-patriarchal society characteristic of contemporary Western European countries, it is now “the equality and autonomy of individuals that appear necessary and legitimate, not only from the perspective of institutions but from that of individuals as well”. And yet sexual inequality persists. Macé reviews several types of it in the book’s longest chapter, which draws on a number of social science studies of gender inequality in different spheres of social life: family, work, school, the media, and others. He also describes the “inegalitarian egalitarianism” of the current situation in terms of both the subjective tensions and pathological breaks in continuity it causes and the political positions (progressive, reactionary and conservative) that fuel it.

4The last chapter turns to countries outside Europe, which the author explains have been shaken up by Western modernity. In those societies, patriarchy is no longer traditional but neither is it modern; rather it is “modernized” patriarchy. Under the influence of colonialism and resistances against it, and later under that of postcolonial transformations (economic and cultural globalization, the globalization of legal standards represented by the dissemination of United Nations norms, for example), what we have is a hybridization of identities and practices that produces what Macé calls composite gender arrangements. The interpretative framework of his book, he explains, is meant as a means to compare contemporary gender arrangements. “Given the diversity of societies in the world, of their trajectories and ‘globalization’, we should ask first whether we are dealing with a post-patriarchal or composite arrangement between the sexes, derived from a modern patriarchy or a modernized one.”

5According to some studies, gender history is nothing more than the history of how inequality has been reproduced and/or displaced onto other areas of life. However, the changes that have been observed in women’s living conditions and social status, notably in Europe over the last decades, are profound. Éric Macé’s book takes those changes seriously. In doing so, it distances itself from a critical sociological approach where the verdict is that nothing has changed. L’Après-patriarcat suggests the relevance of a comprehensive reading of the many changes that gendered social relations have undergone, and in this respect it is a welcome contribution. However, it can be criticized on two counts. First, the table of four arrangements between the sexes (traditional, modern and modernized patriarchy, and post-patriarchy) is based on a reading of history that homogenizes it. Whereas the author’s aim was to provide a finer-grained analysis of gender relations, more contextual and more dynamic, the end result is the opposite. Contemporary European societies are seen through a magnifying glass, described in their complexity (as societies where gender is contested, renegotiated and reconfigured) whereas earlier societies and societies elsewhere are presented as homogeneous wholes. Likewise the author’s analysis of “inegalitarian egalitarianism” is open to question. Contemporary European societies are defined above all by their (egalitarian) values; meanwhile, a whole series of (inegalitarian) practices, presented as “resistances”, “inheritances” or “contradictions”, conflict with those values. It is as if current society did not itself generate inequalities but that they originated elsewhere. In this connection, the vocabulary used in the chapter on post-patriarchy may seem surprising. First, gender inequalities are described as “discrimination” and “stereotyping”, that is, acts that should not occur given the principles in effect in society. Second, post-patriarchal arrangements between the sexes are conceived as having “incompletely” superseded tradition, as if history were out of phase with itself. Clearly, a sociological study that began by observing practices would reach different conclusions. Contradictions would be understood as constitutive of gender relations (here and now, but surely also earlier and elsewhere) rather than a paradox to be resolved. The enigma that gave rise to L’Après-patriarcat seems to lie in part in the way the research question was constructed; that is, the surprising distinction between historical logic and social practices.

Uploaded on on 11/01/2017
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