equalism – for a fairer world

one word .. just try it .. use it .. share it .. discuss it here

Feminism, patriarchy and family conflict

One of the main reasons for naming equalism – and creating this website too – is the need for a better neutral term for gender equality than the usual gendered terms. These gendered terms are feminism, (anti) sexism – usually as female oppressive – and (anti) patriarchy.

Of course we are all supportive of important equalist gender-based approaches to family conflict and in general. We all want all abuse to stop and we all want a more equal world. We argue that this will all be better achieved if ‘gender equalism’ is allowed to exist separately from it’s usual gendered home in ‘feminism’. In particular, the more extreme ‘gender-based’ ideology is that a patriarchal society means that men can always be assumed to have power over women (and children) and therefore blamed for everything that goes wrong. Women (and children) by that extreme account are always victims. Victimhood is not what feminism set out to achieve for women.

The moderate and the extreme feminist views are very different so it is confusing if they both use the same label.

Gender can carry real differences for women and men in experiences of family conflict – in terms of number of cases, severity, endurance, outcomes and so on. By specifying gender equalism on its own we can step away from the more extreme uni-factorial universalising crusade that clamours against opponents, steamrollers thinking, and silences people, issues and clients. Most worrying of all is how children’s needs get lost in the battling. We need to strengthen reason, reasonable discussion, social change, and better professional awareness and services.


The headings are: Thoughts to start with, Gender equalism in general, Men can suffer too, Family conflict, Feminism is gender equalist, Firmer than eggshells, Common core values, The categorical error, Avoid stereotypes & archetypes, Good and bad in both genders, Don’t switch off thinking, The victims of switching off, Summary.

Thoughts to start with

It helps to remember that we are all human beings with the same attachment needs and vulnerabilities as babies and children even if adults are shaped into gendered roles too. It helps to remember that conflict and harm in relationships happens to people of all genders and ages, including lesbian gay bisexual and transgendered people … and even others who do not fit  those categories based as they are on a binary view of gender.

It helps also to remember that equalism here means equality of opportunity. To be forced to be equal when you / your gender makes you feel or be different wouldn’t be much better than being forced to be unequal.  This blog article is on the specific topics to do with family conflict and (the binary view of) gender and how thinking can be improved. But, in case you have come straight to this gender specific post, there are some broader equalist ideas to help pave the way. Further discussion for those that want it continues in More on feminism, patriarchy and family conflict.

There is an unusually gender inclusive Wikipedia page on Domestic Violence. Cooler recent overviews of the gender symmetry / asymmetry debate – confirming what the blogs here try more roughly to address – are in Zeev Winstok’s (2013) article and in Jane Lawrence’s (2014) research (neither freely available yet). An entertaining and intelligent documentary exploring gender equality is Norwegian Harald Eia’s ‘The Gender Equality Paradox’ in his series ‘Brainwash’.  In contrast to overpowering ideological discourse, Christina Hoff Sommers in her Factual Feminist series sketches out what a more balanced and objective overview of gender and patriarchy might look like. Compare the polarised positioning that has developed from the women’s movement’s focus on protecting women (and children) from abusive men – a world where the genders are kept well apart and men are out of the family and home – with an organisation like Work Care Share which aims to promote what was originally the feminist aim of gender equality in all things. See More on feminism etc for more from these overviews.

The focus in this essay is driven more by what practitioners and people of all ages and genders need to do at the front line of conflict situations. The argument throughout is that ‘gender equalism’ is a useful and less problematic term than ‘feminism’ with its confusing combination with ‘women’s rights’. It’s not that women don’t have those rights and may indeed have particular reason to fight for them. But by definition, both genders have rights to gender equality. Both genders have reason to work on this -ism.  Equality may entail a struggle, but it also means teaming up to find a solution for all.

Gender equalism in general

Feminism advocates equal rights for women. Feminists seek gender equality. So feminism is, should be by its definition, equalist. Of the vast mountains of argument between women’s rights and men’s rights over feminism, Erin Pizzey’s contentious account deserves a reading. She saw violence by all genders in her own and other families. She was involved in setting up the very first women’s refuge too. Her story, by implication, tells how different from hers is the mainstream story of feminism. A straightforward statement of feminism as gender equalism is, in Sweden, said to have caused uproar.  Here is Emer O’Toole’s cool clarification of the general basis of feminism (i.e. not focusing on specific situations like family conflict). She uses “equality” as if it is a simple concept (e.g. without including respect for difference too). Men who fight for gender equality do not have their own name or group.  (Masculinism gets used by men who resist equality, and men’s groups can be for or against gender equality.)  In a patriarchal world, male feminist is more logical than it may seem. But it is never going to be the most popular identity for men who support gender equalism.

Or maybe it will! … David Cameron, UK Prime Minister, has said that, if feminism means equal rights for women, then he is a feministElsewhere he also said that men and women should be treated equally and that governments need to help correct the ‘historic disadvantage that women have faced’. So here is a welcome lead from the top man saying he is a feminist and explaining the gender equalist position. There are, of course, many criticisms of David Cameron failing to put those principles into practice. But his declaration has to be warmly welcomed here. In his position and party, and given the heated debates about various versions of feminism, this is a daring step to have taken. Salwa Mansour discussed feminism with Natasha Walters on BBC Radio4 – how being a father of  a daughter belatedly raised his awareness of objectification and inequality of females (and not wanting his daughter to suffer this). He accepted that this should not be the first time a man thinks about the issue. This report shows how fathers are marginalised in the presentation of services for families.   Men can be objectified too. Salwa said it was a human rights issue as much as a gender one.

These examples show the benefits of having both neutral concepts and words, as well as gendered ones – even though feminism and its definition manages to be both. Using ‘gender equalism’ can enfranchise more men and unites them with more women in the shared cause of gender equality. ‘Gender equalism’ can also clarify the differences if not unite those of different feminist camps (see below and in More on). All equalists of any gender support gender causes such as feminism, anti-sexism and anti-patriarchy since they all imply equalism as their aim. Even in their more extreme versions, they have been massively important movements in huge social and cultural changes across the world over decades.

Inside and outside family life, there is still a great deal for feminism to fight for to create a safer and more gender equal world.  Everyday Sexism and this report on it log the extent of general sexist behaviour. Our blog here focuses on the more traumatic abuse found in family conflicts.  A fourth general wave of feminism has been declared as a result of social and internet media. (The first wave was women getting the vote 100 years ago. The second was women’s liberation in the ’70s and ’80s. The third was in the ’90s when the next generation of women focused in on a range of more serious issues but got diluted  as a new celeb tell-all culture turned empowerment back to just ‘sexy’ again.)

Equalism helps the gender equalism bit of feminism where it may get lost under the women’s rights bit  of it. This problem with the term is best shown in “women against feminism” movement, where women who clearly believe in gender equality protest aspects that go beyond that score. See More on feminism, patriarchy and family conflict for ways that are more likely to succeed in building the case for these causes – e.g. than popular facts about gender that turn out to have been massaged into myths.

There is of course a huge amount of stuff about abuse outside of the family and the home that cannot be covered here. But this NZ video aimed at preventing party night abuse and rape is a good example of several important constructive points.

  • It aims at prevention, showing how friends and others can play a part even if the potential abuser and victim are on their way to abuse that may be hugely worse to deal with afterwards.
  • Though the film portrays a potential male abuser and female victim, it notes that men may be victims too. That means that it invites the viewer / reader to always bear in mind that what is applied to one gender pattern may apply to other gender patterns.
  • Compared to contentious, preoccupying, grander social and system changes that are much harder to argue and achieve, this shows in a more pragmatic “Saturday night” way , how ordinary human concern at the frontline can be the most effective intervention.
  • It shows how abuse that happens more in private, and is done by more familiar and trusted family members, is several degrees harder to see and prevent in the way this video proposes.

Men can suffer too

The simplistic assumption in feminism is that men have all the power and happiness that women don’t, and that correcting this patriarchal pattern will make women as happy as men are and the world will generally be a better place. This is only partly true. First, patriarchy is supported by large numbers of women, not just men, while large numbers of men want a more equalist world too. Secondly, there are men who are not powerfully happy, and this may be very much tied up with their socially prescribed gender roles just as women’s suffering can be. Powerful men may find that power doesn’t make them happy. Their solution may be to seek more power which means those under them are more miserable.

Another view is that men too suffer from what a patriarchy makes them into, so that they will benefit from a more equalist world too. Thirdly, the character and qualities a man has – as long as they are not harmful to others – are just as much a subject for local equalist respect and support for that difference as character and qualities of a woman. That is, equalism is not just about upping women and downing men. So, before we head for family conflict, note the wider gender-based concern and campaigns for how girls and women face all kinds of oppression and risk, but so do boys and men too.

Here is a gem of BBC Today interview  (6 mins) with a gem of a man, Adrian Strain. Following Robin Williams’s suicide he talks about his son Martin’s suicide on the day of the funeral. The gender issues show clearly. Adrian works as a Samaritan where the vast majority of callers are women. The police say 90% of suicides they attend are men. Women talk rather than die. Men die rather than talk. So men suffer and die outside of statistics about who comes for help. Just because women come in numbers for help from services, doesn’t mean that men don’t suffer too. And in some ways they may suffer more and need more help because they suffer quietly. So how do we equalise this? How do men talk at least a bit more? How do they get help like women do? How do they get into the statistics of being troubled not just silently suffering or dead? But if services are set up to expect women mainly, men are going to be less likely to use it. And if the  patriarchal culture values strong silent males, this example shows that men may suffer from that “strength” even if they can sometimes cause harm with it too.

Presumably we all want ALL oppression and abuse to stop, not just particular categories or degrees of abuse. In contrast, note the strange competition that instantly develops and blocks thinking (as we will see in family conflict). If you mention concern for one gender, it may be taken as denial of concern for the other gender. Thus, this article on disposable boys around the world, has a “there are no sides” preface that applies to this blog too: “Addressing … boys is not ignoring or in any way minimizing the appalling situations many of our world’s girls and women are enduring right now. … There is often hostility … because there’s the assumption that the speaker is choosing sides. This isn’t a game and there are no sides.”

Genital mutilation of children is done by long established coercive collaboration of cultural values and custom with adults within and outside of a family holding the child down and wielding the knife. It has been hugely profiled as an issue for females (FGM) as practised in cultures that are strange to our Western ones. Asking equivalent questions about male genital mutilation (circumcision) is fair enough, isn’t it? But most of us haven’t thought once about this. Here’s some in depth thinking about it, and a 15 min radio discussion. Responses to this issue tend to be confused and irrational. Can genital cutting of children be condemned in those from distant – supposedly primitive – cultures, yet simultaneously accepted as entirely ok within respected and familiar cultural settings at home – e.g. Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or even medical?  And it seems that it is everywhere unquestionably ok to do it to boys. The NSPCC might be thought be concerned about children of both genders, but their website page focuses entirely on girls and FGM. An equalist should use the gender inclusive term “genital cutting of children” to replace both “female genital mutilation” and “male circumcision”.  The exquisitely clear social targeting of genital cutting of boys must surely be an early ritual communication and confirmation to the youngest of children – supported by all of us by-standers – that boys are already tough and can take it, or that they had better toughen up if they aren’t.  If male circumcision is a first step on a boy’s road to patriarchy, then feminists of all kinds should be just as interested in this as in the genital cutting of girls.  (In case it’s not clear, gender equalism suggests that what is wrong for one gender may be wrong for both. But equalism is not just technical equality; it does not mean that something is ok as long as both sides get the same treatment. Equalism does not propose that everything is fine as long as boys and girls are equally mutilated.)

For more evidence of our broader culture and reactions, here’s an experiment that shows how different people’s reactions are to a public display of abuse by a man to a woman, compared with the same scene with a woman abusing a man. And here is a fun, intelligent and balanced look at nature and nurture in gender, exploring the paradox of how Norway is top of the gender equality tree, but still has very high gender differences in job choices. Harald Eia – who won a prize for promoting free speech through this series of “Brainwash” – visits rather rigid ideological social scientists in Norway and rather more flexible biological behavioural scientists in England.

Harald Eia’s useful conclusion is: When a culture is genuinely open to any gender doing anything, then an individual’s natural aptitude or preference will have most chance to happen. Of course the resulting culture massively shapes children further into making those gendered choices too. The paradox is that genuine gender equality allows full choice and differences. That means a degree of gender similarity maybe, but not complete sameness. To make both genders choose the same jobs and so on would require sustained purposeful social pressure and imposition to over-ride the natural gender differences that show even in a 1-day old baby. But of course the genders are not that hugely different (except in reproductive functions). Men and women can choose or quite easily be shaped into unisex behaviour if anyone cared to do that. This TV programme suggests that a highly equalist society needs ideological drivers, but to make men and women the same might take an unethical level of ideological  agreement to move from gender equalism to gender sameness. In Norway they keep trying to get men into nursing and women into engineering, but the traditional pattern persists.

As we move toward gender and family conflict, this webpage on how words CAN hurt you emphasises several useful things. It shows two reality based art projects that make the point well. Look at the photographs, but don’t miss the short video of the Chinese project. That shows the part that the weapon of words can play in the genesis of later actual abuse and crime. This is rare because understanding “gender-based violence”  is usually restricted to being sympathetic to women victims only, not to perpetrators or to men. Both art projects show understanding of victims of verbal abuse of all ages and genders. The Chinese one shows “gender-based” understanding of how the abuse shapes future male perpetrators. Finally these projects underline why emotional abuse is integrally important, how it is not just a minor version of physical or sexual abuse.

The family creates and reflects our culture. Family conflict is a more specific and important aspect to sort out. This post is about gender equalism in relation to the more serious kinds of family conflict. Men and women in general and in particular have differences of biology, ability, experience and choice. Remember that equalism includes respect for these differences; it does not seek to eradicate them were that even possible. While feminism has helped men review some of their   culturally shaped gender traits, there is also an argument (from feminist Camille Paglia here) against neutralising masculinity. Equalism is a general principle to be applied locally.  So individually and together, men and women in their own particular situations may consider the best balance of equality and respect for difference that suits them.

Family conflict

Domestic abuse and other family conflicts are universally terrible. Gendered arguments about abuse, at all levels, are important. But the natural passionate concern generates crusading and increases smoke and heat. This is a shame just when we all do agree – that all abuse is terrible – and just when we all need some cooler clearer thinking. Equalism can help here. First to state and agree with the valid core of a any approach to domestic violence and abuse, we can fully accept:

  • that domestic abuse of the coercive control and intimate terror kind happens and is terrible and must be tackled
  • that there are typical differences for women victims and male perpetrators as opposed to male victims of female perpetrators
  • that cultural values and learning contribute to this (and that patriarchy is a fair enough widely used word for it)
  • and that social structures, research, law, police and services need proper attention so that we understand and intervene well

Here are some examples where power and abuse are linked to gender. A horrible example from the Mexican drug scene – read the section headed El Chapo’s Women. Layers of collusion and power among men at all levels positively enable men there to have unfettered control and abuse of women even though they are inmates in prison.  Or for a reminder of something less plain criminal but still depressing, watch the first episode or two of Dennis Potter’s TV series Lipstick on Your Collar graphically conveying his own oppressive experiences of bullying and patriarchal values (with men and women as victims and survivors).  And here a more clearly patriarchal society, Saudi Arabia beginning to recognise domestic abuse even if the patriarchal power of the men will get in the way.

An example of  British cultural values that pattern the way some men go on to abuse women is in a small part of Nancy Lombard’s research with Glasgow school children – 11 year-olds are almost all clear that a girl should take responsibility for making a relationship work by doing what her boyfriend asks. And lastly an example of how society can fail to address the worst kind of abuse explains why the term ‘abuse’ replaced ‘violence’. See Evan Stark’s book Coercive Control (2010) where the Introduction summarises well.  Police and courts cannot do anything where the law only covers severe single incidents of violence, not the sustained terrorism of the worst domestic abuse.

Note that we go on to broaden the very useful concept of coercive control, but the originators use it within the strong feminist view of domestic abuse – e.g. Evan Stark writes on p 379: “The Gendered Nature of Coercive Control …  I have never had a case that involved a female perpetrator of coercive control, and no such cases are documented in the literature.”  It would take another book to explore this position properly but we note the different uses of the concept of coercive control – and the immediate conflict that will arise between the two uses: strict feminist and more general uses! We will argue how these important points – including the gender differences – do not however support a simplistic crusade exclusively for women against men and a patriarchal world.

  • Social values and structures are sustained by both men and women
  • Societies will need both genders to work together to change them
  • Social patterns and options clearly impinge on those who abuse and on their victims, but they don’t on their own make all men abuse their partners … one key factor that might make men (and women) abusive lies in their upbringings and the abuse they received before as children or adults (see also Lewis, and Pincus). Evan Stark’s case studies in “Coercive Control” show how couples may customise their own private patriarchal coercive control when they take their traditional culture and values to migrate to a more liberal much less patriarchal one.
  • Men can at least sometimes be victim to women’s coercive control and abuse. Sometimes as in this case this looks very like the full intimate terrorism of coercive control known for men abusing women. Denise Hines et al have more thoroughly researched men as victims of women.
  • Some (but not all) of what applies to women victims of male abuse may be useful in comparing, contrasting and understanding male victims of female abuse. Research shows that they can experience the same things – e.g. staying to protect the children.
  • Statistics in Western countries broadly show a significant minority of male victims of female abuse (e.g. Scottish data.)  Feminist writers distinguish categories to show that women suffer the worst. While holding all perpetrators – male or female – as responsible for their abusive actions, whatever the factors are can apply for both genders where often it is only considered for female abusers. Men are often seen as just unmitigatedly bad.
  • Simple statistics of child abuse in Western countries show that mothers and fathers fairly equally perpetrate it (e.g. US data here. It may be that mothers / female carers may spend many more hours with their children, so fathers / males may abuse relatively more for the time they spend with children. But these valid general research questions about gender do not help the particular child victim or the worker at the frontline who needs to do something immediately.)

Some gender- and age-inclusive wording needs to be repeated to get our collective thinking and values agreed. We are all against all abuse and violence. We are against it whether men, women or children suffer it. We are against it whether men, women or children do it. (Note your likely shock at reading “children do it” there – it shows how easily we forget that bullying and abuse of all kinds often happens between children.)

Family conflict and abuse includes children – as direct victims of the abuse, or emotional abuse from indirect experience of adult conflict. Children tend to get forgotten when the adults around them are fighting and arguing about who is to blame. We saw above how there is much to be concerned about how girls get brought up and oppressed and generally abused. But we also saw how there may be a gender bias even for children. So we saw how boys seem to be more disposable around the world. We saw that genital mutilation is fine for boys but appalling for girls. Closer to home in the UK, Carol McNaughton Nicholls in a report for Barnardo’s wrote:

… we also identified the difficulty of recognising exploitation by female perpetrators. Scenarios that would be immediately deemed sexually exploitative if they involved a female victim and older male were being overlooked when the younger person involved was male. …. We also found that deep-rooted gender stereotypes can mean boys are overlooked as victims, by professionals as much as by others in their lives.

So the systematic emphasis that feminism gives, and gives with much good reason, to females as underdogs outside and inside families, can have the consequence that there can be an imbalance of concern according to gender even with children. We would usually and legally consider children as equally vulnerable by definition of their age. Using the term “gender equalism” means more unbiased attention to all children than “feminism” does – despite its gender equalist definition

Feminism is gender equalist

Feminism is defined as equalist. But there are various feminisms that set out different routes to achieve gender equality. Gender equality is likely to continue forever as a debate and process of negotiation. Both feminism and equalism lead us to address this inequality. But the powerful gender bias often makes feminism seem anything but equalist. And in general discussion and specific local situations the equalist aim can fail.

What gets clearer around family conflict may have more general application for feminism and anti-patriarchy. We will show that in some places feminism needs to be more effective, while in others it is so dominant that it promotes gender inequality and also fails to protect children at risk (see Einat Peled’s review of abused women who abuse their children). A constructive and unifying way forward for family conflict – one that builds in sustained teaming up – begins with promoting gender equality in family life. Gender equality is central to the definition of feminism. Teaming up between parents (whatever their gender) applies inside as well as outside the family and home.

But when family conflict happens, this seriously knocks back the the parenting team and the teaming up. Gender rights thinking and policy moves in to protect one gendered side against the other. The result is that women’s (and men’s) rights groups seem opposed to the original feminist aims. The debate turns into one about men as dangerous and powerful. Women’s groups seek to keep men and fathers out of the house and home as much as possible. So, teaming up reminds us that we all DO want the gender equality feminism originally set out.

Clarifying these very different types of feminism allows us all to team up with the defined core value of gender equality. With the clarification of gender ‘equalism’ we can team up with that kind of feminism. Improved teaming up through gender equality in families is likely to decrease conflict and prevent family separation. Where separation does happen, established gender equality will improve the teaming up needed then too.

When families don’t stay together, then gender equality means we value shared parenting or custody as the optimal pattern after separation. This does not have to mean dividing the child exactly down the middle. Shared parenting sets the culture and framework for expecting that as the norm. It means we all ask “Why is shared parenting NOT happening?”. Google <shared parenting> for more resources. For example, the International Council on Shared Parenting has got the support of the Council of Europe to influence laws in member states.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 12.36.56Private Eye’s spoof news article “All Men are Paedos” is a humorous way to underline how far from equalist thinking the polarised gender debate has taken us. By making it explicit, it shows the key categorial error of overgeneralising. Critical and equalist thinking requires that we can spot it. Karen Woodall’s Huffington Post blog also illustrates how gender equality has somehow been lost or actively opposed by the generalised concerns about men being safe let alone competent in families. Women’s rights thinking strangely turns into the opposite of feminism’s avowal of gender equality.

In general the whole heated gender debate about family conflict and abuse has sustained a singular gendered focus in our thinking that rather prevents any other ways of thinking about it. See this plea to one helping profession to keep an open mind for all kinds of more reasoned and more useful ways to approach these very serious problems than just the gendered ones that this blog explores. Here is some more about non-gendered explanations of family conflict and abuse, particularly those that draw on attachment and its disturbances. Here is a Family Court Review index (part 1, part 2) dedicated just to applications of attachment to separated families and their conflicts.

Firmer than egg-shells

We want to strengthen the weak points in anti-sexism, feminism and anti-patriarchy to make them work better for the gender equalism they seek. As well as more effective abstract discussions, there are immediate practical situations to sort out better. Some conflict patterns in families, we will see, are not always as gendered as often is claimed, so they benefit from more gender neutral approaches. For a victim of abuse, the gender of the abuser will be searingly memorable. There are differences between genders. But the patterns of coercive control are largely similar whatever the gender of the victim and the perpetrator. Compare this Womens Aid information with this information for Abused Men for example. Both sides acknowledge that both genders can cause and suffer abuse with different experiences depending on culture and context.

Here is the CRFR’s (2013) briefing paper on Domestic abuse and gender inequality.  The strongest feminist view is that, through culture and social structures – even when women are abusive or murder men – it is women who are always the victim of or resisting intimate terrorism (Michael Johnson) or everyday terror and coercive control (Evan Stark’s book or see his well-sumarised short youtube which accidentally doesn’t mention gender at all!).  The ‘gender symmetry debate’ concludes that there are differences for female victims unlike male ones – women reporting more abuse, more forms, greater intensity, more repetition, more sexual and other humiliations, fewer options to exit abusive situations, more disorders as a result. But the ‘symmetry’ debate is still running – symmetrical or not, victims and abusers of both genders need to be understood properly; the understanding and mitigations for women (victims and perpetrators) may apply in general or in particular for men (victims or perpetrators). Partly, these are areas of rivalrous subjective surmise because more evidence, definition and research is needed.

There is relatively little research on male victims – see Prof Denise Hinds and colleagues’ work, and this article and video describe at least one case where a man reports equivalent suffering, triggering all the same questions in the listener that women victims get asked of the “why didn’t you leave?” variety. As far as those offering services are concerned, it is the fact that clients of both genders may present as victims or perpetrators, that matters, not the relative numbers or the causal theories.

To imagine clients will always present as one pattern – however overwhelming the ideology or the general statistical pattern – is to be blind to the other pattern. So in at least a few cases, men face gender-based abuse and violence and the women are using abusive, not just resistant, power (even though it is a patriarchal world in general). In patterns of separated families with parental and child alienation women (and men) can use their children’s voice through courts to achieve a less direct kind of abusive power.

A broad (and patriarchal) picture might note that the commonest victims of men are other men (eg criminal or street violence) … and there is evidence of how some men’s desperate sense of vulnerability and weakness as men leads them to briefly find it in acts of extreme violence (to men or women – see e.g. Stranger Rape by Kenny Bonnycastle). Our thinking needs to be more open-minded and nuanced so that our policies and services are genuinely equal opportunity and do not close anyone down and out. Instead, despite considerable overlap and shared concerns about patterns of abuse of women and men, when talking about the subject, people often find they are “walking on egg-shells” in case they seem to offend one or other gender group.  It is taboo to say that there can be good and bad in both genders.  Equalism makes for firmer ground than egg-shells do.

Other posts here explore how equalism goes along with ideas of social justice, fairness, respect and humanity, and how all branches of the equalist family of movements can adopt the overall shared ideal of being equalist. In this post we apply the general principles to the area of gender and family conflict. But a different example may better highlight how equalism can help.

Common core values

Being clearer about some core common values helps avoid some common upsetting and sometimes extreme conflicts. Taking religions, we know that the core beliefs of major world religions are based in very compatible values of humanity, goodness, love, and equality “in God’s eyes”. Yet many of the most terrible conflicts in the world still arise from peripheral and minor differences – eg the only prophet, the right scripture, correct rituals, and specific theological beliefs. The motivation for these hateful conflicts (that arise from peripheral differences) are fuelled by each side’s sense that the other side does not hold the main core beliefs. And the hateful conflicts prove and perpetuate that. If the peripheral and minor aspects could give way to sharing the core beliefs, then teaming up of the religions would replace hate and conflict.

OK, peace between religions is famously unusual. Yet the equalist rationale is valid. So similarly, if passionate believers in feminism and anti-patriarchy could see that their supposed detractors do in fact share the core implicit beliefs – in equalism, in prevention of abuse of anyone, for children’s well-being – then the rage, offence and conflict should moderate. We can then put more energy into our shared projects than into arguing so much with each other.

The categorical error

So we want to improve and strengthen feminism’s equalist aims, and we want to improve and strengthen the implied equalism in diminishing patriarchy. Let’s look further for where they need improving, where arguing and crusading are unhelpful? In service provisions then, here’s a clear example of unwarranted suspicion of a father out walking with his son and here’s a clear example of gender inequality in service provision, with bad effects on childcare.

Nick Child (whose words you are reading) was trained to be open-minded and aware of equal opportunities in his professional work as child psychiatrist and then family therapist. But he was also a fully paid up member of the feminist steamroller drivers’ union until he realised the blind spots, closed mind and unequal opportunities that this created for certain established fields of knowledge and for certain kinds of client families. He made a categorical error – what may be generally true is not always true. These are the result of ideological principles taken too far. Equalism helps us all get the balance right. Let’s see how:

The feminist movements certainly have a generally valid social viewpoint as we have seen. But in specific situations they can be imposed as if there were no exceptions to the rule. The result can be a very ANTI-equalist and even harmful outcome. What happens is that a mistakenly universal assumption allows no room for individual views and variations. This is a categorical error – what is true at one level, is not necessarily true at another. While domestic abuse is mostly perpetrated by men on women, it is only a minority of men who are abusers, not all of them. A patriarchal society is created and sustained collectively by men and women and our social structures. And large numbers of men as well as women aspire to more gender equality. An individual man can work to change his own ways, but he cannot do much more than an individual woman to change society as a whole.

But in meetings about gender-based approaches to domestic abuse, the valid elements (above) get heated up by constantly mixing the focus of tackling actual awful cases of domestic abuse with the wider aim of changing patriarchal society. Two unreasonable and counterproductive results of this heat are the crusade mentality and the prejudiced uni-factorial assumption. The assumption is that ALL men are culpable, bad, perpetrators (of abuse and patriarchy), while ALL women are good, blameless, powerless victims (of both abuse and patriarchy). In general, yes, women are powerless victims of the worst male domestic abuse. But men can sometimes be powerless victims of women too. And women are demonstrably not powerless victims of patriarchy and working to change it.

Avoid stereotypes and archetypes

In More on feminism we will suggest how any project to change the world, small scale or large, might best achieve its aims – and that would apply to ridding the world of patriarchy if that is the top priority. (In Finland at one time, there was a uni-factorial view of the cause of abuse. But there it was all to do with alcohol. Like most social patterns, the causes are complex and multi-factorial.)

Meanwhile here are some quotes that further describe the negative outcome of the categorical error – one from the father-son story – “The idea that you can stop bad people doing bad things by treating good people as if they are bad, thus destroying trust and fostering suspicion and intolerance (and actually making children less safe), is simple minded and socially corrosive”. And from an article exploring “slut-blaming”“That’s the trouble with gender blaming. … Saving your misanthropy for only one gender … leaves you stereotyping half of all people and archetyping the other half. … That is not to say it isn’t important to identify and challenge this kind of reductive and biased name-calling. On the contrary, the debate is skewed and divisive, precisely because it concentrates far too much on exonerating all women and condemning all men. It does exactly what the thing it professes to hate does, and insists women are always hapless victims and men are always ruthless aggressors.”

Evan Stark in his book Coercive Control makes a general if debatable assumption that all men have a general personal freedom that abused women at least so markedly do not. But his core value is clearly equalist and would apply regardless of gender: ““The fundamental premises of this book are that women deserve an equal chance to become persons with men, that this right extends to their personal lives, and that we are obligated to employ every means at our disposal, including the coercive power of the state, to protect and support these rights.” 

And Karen Woodall, Director of the Centre for Separated Families, works to integrate parents back to better relationships with their children despite mixed and serious patterns of alienation and abuse. In this blog she describes how the skewed and divisive debate has real and damaging impacts on families – especially the children in the middle. These are examples of specific situations in front-line professional services to individuals and families in trouble or needing or seeking help. Faced with serious pragmatic predicaments, workers need to be pragmatic too – they cannot put the clock back and get rid of patriarchy by yesterday, however much you may rate that as the main cause. And we have seen how things also get stuck in academic and legal debates where the careful rational thinking we expect can be displaced by powerful steamrollering emotional ideology, polemic and group loyalty.

The effect of the categorical error in both settings is to raise emotions, to silence discussants, and to block the thinking process altogether. Families in trouble too may find that individuals are shut out or included purely on account of their gender and assumed worth or culpability, and children’s safety and childcare may not be properly seen to. How this happens is described further in More on feminism and patriarchy. It is important to remember, that even when someone is the abuser, it is best for everyone if they are engaged as a client by some service or other.

Abusers are a troubled part of troubled families – sometimes too dangerous, but often positively attached and part of a future solution. Rather than thinking they can be evaporated somehow, engaging with them may be part of the difficult task of finding safe ways forward. Equalism allows all to work together in the common cause. This is normal ethical or systemic professionalism by another name. This is keeping the open mind, rationality and science that characterises civilised and academic discourse since the Enlightenment over two hundred years ago.  Thinking flows instead of being blocked. Instead of falling out with each other everyone aims to team up. Rational discussion and sensitive decisions are the result. This is hard but essential to do when faced with the most traumatic family conflict situations, if we are to avoid our ‘help’ simply fanning the flames.

Good and bad in both genders

If you feel you have got the main point by now, read no further. The main point is that, whatever the dominant social patterns may be, domestic abuse and high conflict separation are not 100% one gender pattern. Watch all these C4 short videos to hear stories of abuse from both men and women. Domestic abuse figures in Scotland for example are 85% male perpetrators, 15% females – see this report. Remember that there are both similarities and differences for female and male victims. And there are complicated ways to explain abuse as a response to the other’s abuse, tied up with arguments about who has more power (and therefore responsibility).

As more single or separated fathers share more of the care of their children, the more the gender proportions for high conflict patterns will balance out, including child alienation in separated families. Now, as a result of ideology creating blind spots, sometimes there are innocent actively gender-equality-supporting men (and women too) who find themselves branded among the controlling and abusive ones. Especially if you are new to the idea of alienation in families, watch this short video or this longer one or this TV show. Click here for much more about high conflict patterns in separated families.

Patterns of pure alienation happen to any gender, and they can be described and accounted for without the use of gender theories. They are complicated and serious, but hard to assess because of the mix of actual and alleged abuse with conscious or unconscious alienation where children are drawn in to be allies against their other parent. This amounts to emotional abuse of the children and lifelong harm. The alienated children present as extremely keen allies of their favoured parent – rather like what happens in cults too. But pure parental alienation is still a ‘liberty crime’ in the same way that coercive control in domestic abuse between the parents is a liberty crime (ie on a par with slavery and forced servitude).

The allegations and common pattern of mothers being the main carer mean that a gender neutral conflict pattern is caught in the same gendered crossfire as domestic abuse. Gender obviously shapes and colours the particular family cases and merits social analysis under the heading “gender-based” approaches. Mostly though that term refers to males as perpetrators only. We need to think also about the (similar or different) ways that female abusers may use their female gender-based power and social position to entrap and control male partners and ex-partners. The Power and Control Wheel is widely known from the Duluth (Minnesota) approach to domestic abuse. It assumes women victims and male abusers and that is indeed the majority pattern that rightly attracts gender-based attention.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 14.13.05There are some differences (above) in how abuse is experienced depending on gender. But many of the features overlap across the genders. Yet much harder to find is a non-gendered version of the wheel – eventually we found the one pictured above.

Otherwise, there are some variations of the wheel half way down the huge Minnesota webpage on domestic abuse. Two of the more neutral wheels are the LGBT or elderly/disabled domestic abuse contexts which force the language in the wheel to become gender neutral.  There is no gender neutral wheel on that page, nor one for male victims of abuse. The LGBT and elderly/disabled wheels are gender neutral and the closest to what  could be used for male victims. There is an equality wheel there that would fit equalism really well if gender neutral words were used. But it clearly implies that it is men who will need to learn how to behave better, not women who (it implies) are always the victim of men’s bad ways.

One conclusion of all this is that – rather than now creating another wheel for men who are abused, and rather than spend more decades researching and arguing about which gender really suffers the worst from abuse from the other – let’s agree that all abuse is wrong. Let’s all work together to understand how awful it all is and how to stop it all. I eventually found a non-gendered wheel:

Don’t switch thinking off

So in discussion and in any particular service situation let’s look at how to think, speak and act in an equalist way in practice. We have seen how an actively thoughtful gender aware approach at the outset is  required to avoid prejudiced thinking that may get things wrong and make them worse.

Nathan Beel (2013) has put together a hugely composed and evidenced paper on a more gender inclusive understanding of domestic violence. He substantiates many of the issues this blog merely raises. He provides more key examples (than those here) of what goes wrong without more gender neutrality. Even if it is obvious in a service context who has done what to whom, everyone needs to be heard and attended to. Equalism is therefore a better frame of reference than the presumptive imposition of gender loaded assumptions from feminism and anti-patriarchy.  Here are Australian guidelines for better inclusion of men and fathers in child and family service delivery.

This is Gary Clapton with an equivalent for Scotland and “Where’s Dad?”.  This UK report – and this newspaper report of one of the cases that came to court – show examples of bad practice when one view is applied willy-nilly in every situation and is persisted with way beyond the young interviewee’s repeated answers and despite professional guidelines about how to conduct such interviews. This next example unbalances our thinking. A judge explicitly spared a convicted violent woman from jail because of her gender while at the same time he had sent a similar repeat offender man to prison. Here is the full newspaper report.

The confusion is in the contrast with the simple anti-patriarchal view that it is men who get away with abuse because of their gender. In this case a woman gets away with abuse because of her female gender. Yet many of us will read this story with praise for the sympathetic judge. We automatically think: “I bet she was justified in her violence, the man deserved it, her abused background explains and mitigates her crime, thank goodness for a rare anti-patriarchal judge”. One view would be that this is a typical patriarchal patronising judge. Another view is this shows how far the anti-patriarchal view has spread, despite our patriarchal society.

If you step away from the gender viewpoints, an equalist approach is much calmer and encourages better thinking and decision making. Equalism considers the woman and the man and their crimes and contexts and backgrounds and sentences from a more equal standpoint. Alternatively, an equally good equalist view might be that convicted men should also be given the sympathy this woman got on account of her background etc.

The victims of switching off

Some readers may still switch into resistance and feel impelled to dismiss the views in this article. The resistance can be triggered just because the author of the views is known to be a man, or a male-sympathising woman, or because of the organisation they are linked with. By some definitions these reasons will automatically make the views be faulty or at least they do not need to be taken seriously.

If you find yourself switching off because you already believe or know you are right about these things, that is your right and no great damage has been done to the writer. But if you switch some people off and out in that unilaterally presumptuous way when in more face to face discussion, or in particular real situations with families in trouble, then more serious harm can result as we saw above. Because these patterns of blocked discussion and thinking can result in such harm, it is important to explore how to recognise those patterns and prepare for how to unblock things so that all can remain engaged in intelligent thinking.

To find out more about this read More on feminism, patriarchy and family conflict. Here are some simple ways to prevent switching off. Spot gendered language that presumes only one gender is a victim. Spot when the battle between men and women forgets the needs of their children. Write and read the literature and policies so that it is not only gender neutral, but so that you actively remember that “BOTH men and women” may be victims and perpetrators of real and alleged abuse. Look for organisations that don’t take one gendered side, that instead attend to “whole family” thinking (eg Centre for Separated Families, or Helpline for Domestic Abuse) even and especially when families are separate, and particularly think of the benefit to the children of this. Note though that equalism also depends on having the arguments on all sides well presented too!


This post summarises a long-standing and complicated struggle over gender equality and its champions. The diagnosis of these very influential troubles is that the general pattern cannot be assumed to apply in all particular cases (the categorical error), that there are gender neutral ways to explain troubled patterns (of family conflict), and that the original terminology “feminism” has confused the means (anti-patriarchy) and the ends (gender equality). The solution is to separate these confusions out with the aid of a more clearly named principle and aim. That principle is equalism. To continue the detailed thinking through on this, go to More on feminism, patriarchy and family conflict.

Nick Child, Edinburgh  

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

3 comments on “Feminism, patriarchy and family conflict

  1. www.yahoo.com
    24 April 2014

    Hello there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that
    would be ok. I’m undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

    • nick234678
      26 April 2014

      Hi Frances

      We’re pleased you’re enjoying the blog. If you look at the heated arguments elsewhere on the internet on this subject, we are surprised that no one has got torn into us here! But we believe readers find the attempt to do careful thorough thinking is valuable even if they don’t comment much. Please tell us how you think we can do better.

      You can see we have structured equalism.org.uk to make space for all the categories of in/equalities. We have tried a bit to attract others to rise to our challenge to interpret their own inequality interest within this framework. There are heavy duty inequalities websites and departments – e.g. http://inequalitiesblog.wordpress.com But sadly the idea of thinking about it around a backbone of the implied equalism was not their thing!

      My Twitter name is: @Nick234678. That is me wearing several hats, not dedicated just to equalism though. You may be interested to look what you find under #equalism though!


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This entry was posted on 27 June 2013 by in Equalism in general, Gender, issues & 'ism's and tagged , , .
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