It took all my willpower not to title this post "DICKtion". GET IT?! Moving on:

So, Southern/Alpha is sponsoring an event called Spark Nashville, which will feature some startup pitches, general tech-ey networking, and some speakers -- Marcus Whitney and Nicholas Holland, who were referred to in the press release as "patriarchs" -- a truly unfortunate choice of words.

Why is this a problem?

First, the definition of patriarchy, courtesy of wikipedia:

Patriarchy (rule by fathers) is a social system in which the male is the primary authority figure central to social organization and the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property, and where fathers hold authority over women and children. It implies the institutions of male rule and privilege, and entails female subordination. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.

Now, stay with me here, but some wacky feminists of late have suggested that female subordination is a total bummer and should be avoided. If you stretch your imagination a bit, you can prrrrrobably imagine how this particular word might be a little off-putting to any women that read it.

Given that, do I think it likely that the author of the press release intended to promote the subordination of females? Not likely. Both Hanlon's and Occam's razor apply here. It's more like that whoever chose the word was simply ignorant of its implications. There really is no common ungendered colloquial sense of "patriarch", especially when so many other words would have sufficed (start with "leader" and go from there), so it's a bit weird. There it is. Patriarchs. A truly unfortunate choice of words in a city trying desperately to get women involved in many traditionally male-dominated fields, technology foremost among them.

I won't get into the details of any actual patriarchy in the industry (which of course does exist), and how hegemonies tend to be promulgated despite the best conscious intentions of everyone involved. I can't speak for Nick or Marcus, but I know that if anyone ever described me as a "patriarch" of anything I'd be annoyed and politely but firmly ask them to choose another word.

Related: this older blog post.

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  • http://twitter.com/denniswage Dennis Wage

    There are many male gender words in the English language, like it or not, that have dual meanings; i.e. man, actor. etc. etc.

    Definition #4 of patriarch in Webster’s New World Dictionary is: the oldest individual of a class or group. No gender mentioned.

    Your wrong, now come over here and pick up this computer before I change my mind.


    • cwage

      Citing a dictionary written in the 1950s is not exactly helping your case.

      Your Son

    • http://womenshealthnews.wordpress.com/ RachelW

      Also, when women are telling you, “This word has negative connotations for us, and combined with the persistent gender problems in this industry, it makes us feel unwelcome,” then if you want to be inclusive in event-organizing, you have a problem, old dictionary or not.

  • http://twitter.com/denniswage Dennis Wage


  • Aziz Shamim

    BOOM! Diction’d.

  • dionysius

    Arguing low-ranked alternate definitions of the word “patriarchy” in ancient dictionaries is to be truly disingenuous.  The word is sourced in greek and it LITERALLY MEANS “father” + “rule” and anyone that’s had beyond a 5th grade education can tell you that the word is synonymous with male hegemony.

    Educate yourself please. You sound like a fool.







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  • http://twitter.com/denniswage Dennis Wage

    Person above, who doesn’t use their real name because they’re an asshole, “Wise men learn more from fools than fools from the wise.”

  • http://womenshealthnews.wordpress.com/ RachelW

    “I won’t get into the details of any actual patriarchy in the industry (which of course does exist), and how hegemonies tend to be promulgated despite the best conscious intentions of everyone involved.” – Platonic, consensual hugs for this line. It’s delightful. Thanks for discussing this issue respectfully. 

    It’s so easy to convert the loaded term to one like leader (visionary, maven, ninja), one wonders why folks need to persist in defending the term that has been identified as problematic by part of the audience the event hoped to attract.

  • http://elizabrock.com Eliza Brock

    Thanks for posting this, Chris.  I really appreciate that you took the time to writing out this explanation for why the word choice was offensive.

  • Jason Orendorff

    The change from “patriarchs” in the actual press release to “patriarchy” in the critique isn’t totally fair. It would be logical if the two words had all the same connotations, but they really don’t. Typical uses of “patriarchy” are like, “[…]her mutilation was just one manifestation of the many brutal ways in which patriarchy tries to control women.” Typical uses of “patriarch” are like, “Ellis Marsalis: Jazz patriarch and pianist is a New Orleans institution.” (I’m not making this up; those are real-world uses from the Corpus of Contemporary American English. http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/ )

    But there’s no getting around the plain fact that “patriarchs” isn’t gender-neutral either, by any stretch. That word choice reflects poorly on Southern/Alpha and, unfortunately, on Nashville. It is understandable for anyone who cares about equality to take offense. If I were in their shoes—I’d like to think I wouldn’t make that particular mistake, but if I did—I’d change it and make an apology.

    DISCLAIMER REPEATS: I am a feminist. S/A fucked up. I am not defending them or their stupid press release.

    And thanks, Chris, for taking this discussion off Twitter. That wasn’t going anywhere good. This is much better.

    • cwage

      I disagree. The fact that patriarch is used often doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unrelated to the more hegemonic sense of the word “patriarchy”. We *live* in a patriarchy, so of course the word is going to be thrown around quite a bit (consciously or unconsciously) as an acceptable term representing the norm.

      Ironically, the example you chose kinda proves my point — ask a woman jazz musician sometime about how welcoming the jazz world is to women artists. (Hint: until recently with a much younger generation, not very welcome at all)