Joan Acker and the Shift from Patriarchy to Gender

by: Tristan Bridges and James W. Messerschmidt

We’ve read some of the tributes to the feminist sociological genius of Joan Acker.  And much of that work has celebrated one specific application of her work.  For instance, Tristan posted last week on Acker’s most cited article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations” (1990)—which examined the ways that gender is so embedded in the structure of organizations that we often fail to appreciate just how much it shapes our lives, experiences, and opportunities.  But, this specific piece of her scholarship was actually her applied work. It was an application of a theoretical turn she was suggesting all sociologists of gender follow.  And we did.  Acker was involved in an incredibly important theoretical debate that helped shape the feminist sociology we practice today.

“Patriarchy” is a concept that is less used today in feminist social science than it was in the late-1970s and 1980s.  The term has a slippery and imprecise feel, but this wasn’t always the case. There were incredibly nuanced debates about patriarchy as a social structure or as one part of “dual systems” (capitalism + patriarchy) and exactly what this meant and involved theoretically. Today, we examine “gender.”  Indeed, the chief sociological publication is entitled Gender & Society, not Patriarchy & SocietyAcker - The Problem with PatriarchyBut in the 1970s and 1980s, patriarchy was employed theoretically much more often.  Feminist scholars identified patriarchy to focus the critique of existing theoretical work that offered problematic explanations of the subordination of women.  As Acker put it in “The Problem with Patriarchy,” a short article published in Sociology in 1989: “Existing theory attributed women’s domination by men either to nature or social necessity rather than to social structural processes, unequal power, or exploitation” (1989a: 235). The concept of patriarchy offered a focus for this critique.

Joan Acker was among a group of scholars concerned about the limitations of this focus; in particular, patriarchy was criticized for being a universal, trans-historical, and trans-cultural phenomenon—“women were everywhere oppressed by men in more or less the same ways” (1989a: 235).  Concluding that patriarchy could not be turned into a generally useful analytical concept, Acker proposed that feminist social science move in a different direction—a route that was eventually largely accepted and taken up.  It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Acker was among a small group of feminist scholars who shifted the conversation in an entire field.  We’ve been relying on their suggestion ever since.

Acker’s short 6-page article was published in the same journal that had published Raewyn Connell’s article, “Theorizing Gender” (1985), which spelled out her initial delineation of the problems with sex role theory and what she labeled “categoricalism.” Connell was also concerned with how feminist theories of patriarchy failed to differentiate among the categories of “women” and “men”—that is, femininities and masculinities. Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne’s “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology” (in Social Problems) was published that year as well (1985), specifically criticizing sociology for solely including gender as a variable but not as a theoretical construct. Acker (1989a) explained why feminist social scientists ought to follow this trend and shift their focus from patriarchy to gender relations and the construction of gender in social life.  As Acker wrote, “From asking about how the subordination of women is produced, maintained, and changed we move to questions about how gender is involved in processes and structures that previously have been conceived as having nothing to do with gender” (1989a: 238).  And in another piece published in the same year—“Making Gender Visible” (1989b) in the anthology, Feminism and Sociological Theory—Acker argued for a paradigm shift that would place gender more centrally in understanding social relations as a whole. Acker suggested a feminist theoretical framework that was able to conceptualize how all social relations are gendered—how “gender shapes and is implicated in all kinds of social phenomena” (1989b: 77). Today, this might read as a subtle shift.  But it was monumental when Acker proposed it and it helped open the door too much of what we recognize as feminist sociology today.

Acker published what became her most well-known article—“Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies”—in Gender & Society (1990) as an illustration of what the type of work she was proposing would look like.  She was concerned with attempts that simply tacked patriarchy onto existing theories which had been casually treated as though they were gender-neutral.  She explained in detail how this assumption is problematic and limits our ability to understand “how deeply patriarchal modes are embedded in our theorizing” (1989: 239).  And Acker illustrated this potential in her theorizing about gender in organizations.  But her suggestion went far beyond organizational life.

And by all measures, we took up Acker’s suggestion:  “Gender,” “gender relations,” and “gender inequality” are now the central foci of sociological theory and research on gender.  But Acker also concluded her short 1989 article with a warning.  She wrote,

[T]here is a danger in abandoning the project of patriarchy.  In the move to gender, the connections between urgent political issues and theoretical analysis, which made the development of feminist thought possible, may be weakened.  Gender lacks the critical-political sharpness of patriarchy and may be more easily assimilated and coopted than patriarchy. (1989a: 239-240)

Certainly, Acker’s concern leads us to honestly ask: Will shifting the theoretical conversation from patriarchy to gender eventually result in simply a cursory consideration of gendered structured inequality? Will the shift to gender actually loosen our connections with conceptualizations of gendered power? We don’t think so but one way to commemorate the legacy of Joan Acker is to both celebrate gender diversity while simultaneously visualizing and practicing gender equality.  This means continuing to recognize that inequality is perpetuated by the very organization of society, the structure of social institutions, and the historical contexts which give rise to each.

Acker, Joan. 1989a. “The Problem with Patriarchy.” Sociology 23(2): 235-240.
Acker, Joan. 1989b. “Making Gender Visible.” Pp. 65-81 in Wallace, P.A., Ed., Sociological Theory and Feminism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
Acker, Joan. 1990. “Hierarchies, Jobs, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.” Gender & Society 4(2): 139-158.
Connell, Raewyn. 1985. “Theorising Gender.” Sociology 19(2): 260-272.
Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology.” Social Problems 32(4): 301-316.

The Enduring Feminist Sociology of Joan Acker

Joan Acker recently passed away.  I read the news on Twitter—someone in my news feed shared, “The world lost a giant.”  It’s true.  Her scholarship was titanic.  Acker quite literally altered the way we understand gender and provided a framework for understanding the ways gender becomes embedded in social structures and institutions that we have all been relying on ever since.  Joan Acker is my favorite kind of sociologist—she questioned something the rest of us had been under the assumption was unquestionable.  As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas wrote, “It takes an earthquake to make us aware that we had regarded the ground on which we stand everyday as unshakable.”  Joan Acker shook the very ground upon which sociologists of gender stood in this sense.  She questioned the unquestionable in the best of all ways.  She lay bare a theory and method of understanding gender inequality that helped us better understand just how pernicious it is.

Acker’s theory never gained the same kind of popularity associated with West and Zimmerman’s interactional theory of gender.  But we all rely on Acker.  When we refer to formal and informal collections of jobs, people, and organizations as “gendered,” we’re relying on her work.  Society is organized in ways that cause some people to experience a more seamless “fit” in some positions than others.  Stay-at-home fathers have a unique set of struggles associated with lacking a clear “fit” in similar ways to women who occupy jobs in the upper echelons of organizations dominated by men.  Society is organized in ways that cause us to experience this.Screen Shot 2016-06-23 at 2.31.13 PM

Acker labeled this and theorized a language to study it and shine some much-needed light and attention on the ways that gender difference and inequality are part of the very structure of society at a fundamental level. Acker’s most cited and celebrated publication was published in Gender & Society in 1990: “Jobs, Hierarchies, Bodies: A Theory of Gendered Organizations.”  In it she begins:

“Most of us spend most of our days in work organizations that are almost always dominated by men.  The most powerful organizational positions are almost entirely occupied my men, with the exception of the occasional biological female who acts as a social man.  Power at the national and world level is located in all-male enclaves at the pinnacle of large state and economic organizations.  These facts are not news, although sociologists paid no attention to them until feminism came along to point out the problematic nature of the obvious.  Writers on organizations and organizational theory now include some consideration of women and gender, but their treatment is usually cursory, and male domination is, on the whole, not analyzed and not explained.”

Building on many other feminist scholars (including Heidi Hartmann, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Dorothy Smith, and more), Acker helped to show how gender differences in organizational behavior and outcomes were best explained by structural and organizational characteristics.  Gender difference was/is embedded in organizational structure, and Acker designed a language and theory for examining just what it means to consider gender inequality as “institutionalized.”

Within the logic of organizations, jobs are technically open to anyone; and they are stratified by complexity and responsibility.  This is how we create workplace hierarchies.  And they feel gender neutral.  Acker questioned this assumption.  Abstract jobs have the appearance of gender neutrality until we try to take a concrete example which necessitates something else—an ideal worker.

“Such a hypothetical worker cannot have other imperatives of existence that impinge upon the job…  Too many obligations outside the boundaries of the job would make a worker unsuited for the position.  The closet the disembodied worker doing the abstract job comes to a real worker is the male worker whose life centers on his full-time, life-long job, while his wife or another woman takes care of his personal needs and his children…  The concept of ‘a job’ is thus implicitly a gendered concept, even though organizational logic presents it as gender neutral.”

These are, today, routine assumptions from which scholars of gender from a range of disciplines proceed to study gender and inequality.  But they weren’t when Joan Acker was studying.  Acker’s theorization of institutionalized forms of inequality is a dominant theoretical perspective in the sociology of gender today.  At the conclusion of her article, she theorizes what it would take to dissolve the institutionalized forms of inequality in organizations.

“Such a transformation would be radical in practice because it would probably require the end of organizations as they exist today, along with a redefinition of work and work relations.  The rhythm and timing of work would be adapted to the rhythms of life outside of work.  Caring work would be just as important and well rewarded as any other; having a baby or taking care of a sick mother would be as valued as making an automobile or designing computer software.  Hierarchy would be abolished, and workers would run things themselves.  Of course, women and men would share equally in different kinds of work.  Perhaps there would be some communal or collective form of organization where work and intimate relations are closely related, children learn in places close to working adults, and workmates, lovers, and friends are all part of the same group.”

Like much of the structural theory of gender—particularly that work being published in the late 80s and early 90s—Acker proceeds from an unapologetically Marxist orientation.  And while we continue to study gender inequality from Acker’s vantage point, less has been done toward her vision of social transformation than she might have imagined would be when she published this a quarter century ago.  It still sounds so radical listed out above.  But is it really so radical a notion?  She concluded that article with a simple point.  We can organize society differently, in ways that continue to ensure that what needs doing gets done without all of the dominance, control, and subordination currently connected with these tasks.  The battles will always be fought over what actually comprises the “what needs doing.”  But Acker’s proposal for what needs doing is beautiful in its simplicity: “producing goods, caring for people, disposing of the garbage.”  Why any of the three of those should be considered more important than the rest is something we should continue to question.