The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy, by Allan G. Johnson, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, ISBN 978-1-4339-1184-6, 2014, 245 pages, $29.45.
Allan G. Johnson is a nationally recognized sociologist best known for his work on issues of privilege and oppression, especially in relation to gender and race. The Gender Knot is divided into three sections that show Americans the daily struggle that men and women experience by living with gender inequality. Johnson addresses those living in America under an unrecognized patriarchal society, as well as those who recognize the patriarchy but are doing nothing to combat it. In The Gender Knot, Johnson’s goal is to make readers believe in and want to change the patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a form of society in which men hold the power and women are excluded, but women’s place in society is more complicated than simple subordination, especially in a contemporary society that requires cross-gender competition. Traditional arrangements of shared understandings, relationships, patterns of feeling, and social behaviors are being maintained, with masculinity being culturally associated with males and femininity with females, but these traditions are being challenged by feminism.
Feminism is described in a general sense as a way of thinking critically about gender and its place in social life. As the opposite of patriarchy, feminism is the only critical perspective on patriarchy that exists. Johnson makes the strong point that without feminism, we are left to understand gender inequality in patriarchal terms that invariably ignore it or justify it. Without feminism, it is easy not to see male dominance at all or to explain it away as human nature or what every woman really wants.
In the second section, Johnson anchors several false illusions in contemporary patriarchy. Readers will note that he does not relegate patriarchy to the historical past, but rather to the illusions of male independence, self-sufficiency, and primary provider role. None of these notions are a contemporary reality, but adherence to these false values creates a barrier to the erosion of the patriarchy. One final and major point of this section is how difficult it is to challenge patriarchy in our society. Those who do break the silence about patriarchy are being oppressed by the patriarchal system without sufficient resources to demand change. Therefore, their voices are not heard.
In the third and final section, Johnson discusses his ideas on how we should unravel the gender knot that sustains patriarchy in our society. The knot is everything that prevents us from seeing patriarchy, and our participation in it. Patriarchy organizes social life around powerful dynamics of fear and control that keep it going. Patriarchy makes victims of us all. The first step to ending patriarchy in American society is to realize that it is an issue and then take responsibility for it. We must stop believing myths that surround and sustain it.
This book provides a very direct way to obtain information about our society today in America. Johnson’s opinions are well constructed and explained in a way that any person can understand. Social workers and social work students value equality and egalitarianism. Reading this book will open some eyes and challenge us to be agents of change.
Reviewed by Katherine Bice, BSW student at the University of South Dakota.