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  • "Patriarchy":A Black Feminist Concept
  • Matty Hemming (bio)
Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation by Imani Perry. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018. Pp. 304. $104.95 cloth, $27.95 paper.

The concept of patriarchy inhabits a fraught position within the history of feminist thought. While recent years have seen a resurgence of the term's use within popular culture, with media coverage of the US-originated women's march producing headlines such as "The Twenty Best Protest Signs to Dismantle the Patriarchy This Weekend," the concept has not always held such seemingly evident descriptive appeal.1 Women of color feminists have long decried the term's single-issue focus on gender-based inequalities conceptualized within a US-based academy, suggesting that "patriarchy" offers little of use to a more radical, transnational, and context-specific critique of power's workings. Not so, according to Imani Perry's Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation (2018). In this generative and at times breathtakingly sharp work of interdisciplinary Black feminist theory, Perry argues that not only do we need analyses of "patriarchy" in order to practice feminism, but that the term can be used to do precisely what it has seemed to foreclose: it can account for the "layers of domination" produced by globalized systems of inequality. Responding both to what she regards as the vagueness of current popular usage of the concept, as well as the fraught problematic of its universalizing potentiality, Perry re-tools the term to be simultaneously more specific and more [End Page 303] capacious, her methodologically and historically ambitious project drawing citational energy from a still undervalued, she argues, corpus of radical Black and women of color theorists.

Often choosing the less specific "feminism" and sometimes "liberation feminism" as key terms, Perry makes a subtle argument: she assumes, or rather implicitly asserts, that "feminism," "liberation," and even "patriarchy" are concepts whose usefulness is vitally tied to the theoretical and creative insights of women of color, postcolonial, and Black feminist thinkers. This claim builds upon, even as it departs from, earlier critiques of the term, a troubling of "patriarchy's" conceptual prevalence exemplified by the work of influential postcolonial and women of color feminists Hazel Carby and Chandra Mohanty. Writing in the 1980s and problematizing the assumptions of second wave and predominantly white, western feminist scholarship, both argue that the concept of patriarchy imagines a system of subordination along binarized gender lines that is imposed cookie-cutter style onto analyses of divergent global contexts. For Mohanty, the concept of "the patriarchal family" (61) is one of many ethnocentric constructs discursively productive of a monolithic "third world woman."2 For Carby, the term's application to the experiences of Black women in Britain fails to account for the extent to which race, class, and histories of colonial domination contribute to marginalization.

If Perry's concept avoids such universalizing pitfalls, what then, is patriarchy? What does the term allow us to see that others cannot? Seeking to trace "a more detailed architecture of patriarchy than what commonplace understandings in the US offer, something more complex than the binary gender constructs of Western bourgeois domesticity" (5), the first five chapters of Vexy Thing tell a long history of patriarchy's multifaceted workings, ranging from sixteenthcentury European colonialism to twenty-first-century neoliberalism. What emerges is a densely reinvigorated term: here, "patriarchy" does not simply describe a social system that coerces humans into violently maintained categories of masculine/feminine but is better understood as a constantly evolving system of racial capitalism that produces subjects as "patriarchs," as "ladies" and "lieges," or, most importantly for the concerns of liberation feminism, as "nonpersons." This structure functions as an analytic for theorizing racialized personhood, for asking who, legally and discursively, has access to it, and emerges from a reading of Enlightenment and early capitalist thought approached through the work of radical Black theorists. For example, building on Hortense [End Page 304] Spillers's argument that a genderbased analysis cannot account for the "ungendering" of slavery, Perry returns to the writings of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith to identify how a theory of personhood-through-patriarchy was formed at the dawn of global capitalism. For...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 303-308
Launched on MUSE
2021-08-07
Open Access
No
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