How Patriarchy Works Andrea Dworkin

How Patriarchy Works: The Power of Naming

Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) was a radical feminist theorist, writer, and campaigner. In this excerpt from her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, Dworkin discusses the power of naming. In her analysis, the development of the culture of patriarchy has empowered men with almost sole access to the power to define language. This control over language allows for expansions in ideological hegemony, and has serious implications for women over the centuries. 


By Andrea Dworkin

How Patriarchy Works: The Power of Naming

Men have the power of naming, a great and sublime power. This power of naming enables men to define experience, to articulate boundaries and values, to designate to each thing it’s realm and qualities, to determine what can and cannot be expressed to control perception itself.

As Mary Daly, who first isolated this power, wrote in Beyond God the Father “… It is necessary to grasp the fundamental fact that women have had the power of naming stolen from us“.

Male supremacy is fused into language, so that every sentence both heralds and affirms it. Thought experienced primarily as language, is permeated by the linguistic and perpetual values developed expressly to subordinates women.

Men have defined the parameters of every subject. All feminist arguments, however radical in intent or consequence, are with or against assertions or premises implicit in the male system, which is made credible or authentic by the power of men to name.

No transcendence of the male system is possible as long as men have the power of naming. Their names resonate wherever there is human life. As Prometheus stole fire from the gods, so feminists will have to steal the power of naming from men, hopefully to better effect. As with fire when it belonged to the gods, the power of naming appears magical: he gives the name, the name enjoys she gives the name the name is lost. But this magic is illusion.

The male power of naming is upheld by force, pure and simple.

On its own, without force to back it, measured against reality, it is not power; it is process, a more humble thing. “The old naming,Mary Daly wrote, “was not the product of dialogue – a fact in advertently admitted in the Genesis story of Adam’s naming the animals and the woman.”

It is the naming by decree that is power over and against those who are forbidden to name their own experience; it is the decree backed up by violence that writes the name indelibly in blood in a male dominated culture. The male does not merely name women evil; he exterminates nine million women as witches because he is named them evil. He does not merely name women weak; he mutilates the female body, binds it up so that it cannot move freely, uses it as a toy or ornament, keeps it caged and stunted because he has named women weak. He says that the female wants to be raped; he rapes. She resists rape; he must beat her, threaten her with death, forcibly carry her off, attack her in the night, use knife or fist; and still he says she wants it, they all do. She says no; he claims that means yes.

He names her ignorant then forbids her education.

He does not allow her to use her mind or body rigourously, their names her intuitive and emotional. He defines femininity and when she does not conform he names her deviant, sick, beats her up, slices of her clitoris (repository of pathological masculinity), tears out her womb, (source of her personality), lobotomizes or narcotizes her (perverse recognition that she can think, though thinking in a woman is named deviant).

He names antagonism and violence, mixed in varying degrees “sex”; he beats her and names it variously “proof of love“ (if she is wife) or “eroticism“ (if she is mistress). If she wants him sexually he names her slut; if she does not want him he rapes her and says she does; If she would rather study or paint he names her repressed and brags he can cure her pathological interests with the apocryphal “good fuck“. He names her housewife, fit for only the house, keeps her poor and utterly dependent, only to buy her with his money should she leave the house and then he calls her whore. He names her whatever suits him. he does what he wants and calls it what he likes.

He actively maintains the power of naming through force and he justifies force through the power of naming.

The world is his because he has named everything in it, including her. She uses this language against herself because it cannot be used any other way. […]

Whatever contradicts or subverts male naming is defamed out of existence; the power of naming itself, in the male system, is a form of force.


You can read Andrea Dworkin’s full works on the Andrea Dworkin Online Library: http://www.nostatusquo.com/ACLU/dworkin/

4 thoughts on “How Patriarchy Works: The Power of Naming”

  1. Much like Donald Trump, Dworkin declares her truth, and restates it over and over — hoping (like Trump or Goebbels, from whom he apparently learned the method) that by restating her premise over and over, it will somehow acquire truth.

    Who is this “he” for whom she speaks, as if for men in general? Certainly no one I know, or have ever known. Yes, we all know they’re out there, just as we all know there are neo-Nazis out there, somewhere in the back country of Idaho or Mississippi. But pretending that they’re in control is several orders of magnitude beyond fearing that a Libertarian will win the U.S. presidency.

    She calls her thesis “The Power of Naming,” but doesn’t give a single example of men naming something and women being stuck with it. She points to the Western god being male, and its mythical archetype, Adam, naming his wife and the animals. That one I’ll concede. I’ll also concede a point she doesn’t even bother to make, which is that Orthodox Judaism, most of Islam, and to some degree Catholicism still maintain a male supremacist mindset.

    But it hardly explains how women have been and remain heads of government in nations as diverse as Germany, Israel, Sri Lanka, India, Myanmar, Argentina, New Zealand, Peru, Taiwan, Britain, and Denmark, or that a woman would be president of the United States, if the total number of votes received decided the issue.

    Who really “names” things today? Who “named” Merkel Chancellor of Germany, or Thatcher Prime Minister of Britain? Who, for that matter, performs the crime of genital mutilation in a few backward cultures? Uncles and grandfathers? No, it’s aunts and grandmothers who demand it be done. Who forced Stormy Daniels and countless female porn stars into their profession? Who hires male strippers at bachelorette parties? Who demands that women wear miniskirts, backless dresses, plunging necklines, spaghetti straps, lipstick, eyeliner, or fake eyelashes? I confess that I was 21 before my girlfriend educated me to the fact that this is not primarily to attract men, but rather is a kind of plumage contest between women, who know the power of sex, and use it.

    The only other point Dworkin makes is that sexually agressive women are often called “sluts,” though there is no corresponding derision thrown at men (unless they’re married).

    Another point she could have made, but doesn’t, is the shame that all men have to live with: the degrading fact that sexual and gender-based violence are overwhelmingly male crimes — though the frequency of battering in lesbian relationships suggests this is largely due to disparities in physical strength, and to the quirk of biology that involves erections.

    Due to religious bias, it is also true that the subjugation of women was a fairly routine practice in most societies until the last century or so, when most women won the right to vote, and most professions and educational opportunities were opened to women.
    But most men of past generations honestly believed that bias was necessary — and cited physical disparities and the misunderstood psychological aspects of PMS and menopause to justify it. I still cringe at the thought of women in combat — just as many women cringe at the thought of men in combat.

    But for the radical feminist fringe, there are no explanations, no recognition of the fact that most men will instinctively intervene to stop a rape, or to defend the rights of women and girls in education and the workplace. For the sexist radical feminist fringe, all men are either rapists, latent rapists, or those who have supressed the urge out of political correctness.

    It’s a bigoted myth, and one that those who preach it will have to accept, or remain bigots.

  2. Dworkin spoke to women, not to men (except in a few occasions where explicitly stated otherwise). Women do know what she’s talking about.

  3. So men are, as a group, incapable of the empathy required to understand a woman’s perspective? Are women likewise incapable of similar empathy towards men (and I would very much like you to explain your answer)? This all seems to be excessively generalised.

    But, anyway, to simply state that women know what Dworkin’s talking about is not to provide a reply at all. It’s also to ignore the huge proportion of feminist women who don’t agree with the late Ms Dworkin or her aversion to pornography which she shared as a campaigner with right-wing fundamentalist Christians.

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