Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I use that word that I use: Kyriarchy, kyriarchal, and why not patriarchy

A cartoon speech bubble with a question mark in quotation marks inside it.
Kyriarchy and kyriarchal are handy words in intersectional feminist and social justice language. They define the uneven distribution of basic rights broadly; they show that privilege and power injustices do not only exist in the case of men benefiting at the expense of women. Kyriarchy goes beyond patriarchy to recognize the way systems of inequality work together to hurt everyone.

Kyriarchy are the structures of domination working together as a network - not just one group dominating another. Its branches include but are not limited to racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ageism, and ableism. In a kyriarchy, our kyriarchy, this kyriarchy, different forms of supremacy on different axes are independent and interdependent.

Kyriarchy gets at the nastiness of privilege by implicating all of it: Almost everyone holds unfair advantages and disadvantages granted by the kyriarchy based just on who they are.

Kyriarchal describes actions that promote the kyriarchy. It is the adjective form of kyriarchy; it describes actions (and other nouns - words, attitudes, habits) that back up, reflect, or otherwise contribute to existing power structures. It can refer to an individual exercise of privilege, or it can refer to actions that reinforce an intersection of oppression.

If you're not familiar with kyriarchy, you may know the second-wave word it modifies, patriarchy. Patriarchy and patriarchal are staples of feminist lingo; it's a common way to refer to sexist actions and systems.

So why do I prefer kyriarchy to patriarchy?

Patriarchy is a strictly defined term: it's just about sexism. And that has its uses. But focusing on only sexism can undermine our understanding of how colossal and all-encompassing the functions of privilege are. Feminism is not just about sexism, because women as a group are not solely oppressed on the axis of sex. Used overbroadly, patriarchy defines social power as belonging to only men, and denies the oppressive advantages that women can hold.

Kyriarchy is more descriptive of the approach I try to take to feminism. The word considers all parts of the oppressive structure we live in evenly - no one oppression is worse or better or more important than another. We are all subject to kyriarchy, and we all benefit from kyriarchy; we all share the burden and the blame in different measures and proportions. (The previous statement may not be universal, but it's close.) But with patriarchy, only men are profiting and only women are subjugated; only women are acquitted of responsibility and only men are admonished.

In intersectional discussions, patriarchy is usually too narrow: patriarchy puts the emphasis on solely sexism and erases other experiences of injustice (particularly the various oppressions men bear). Kyriarchy allows for the complexity of abuse that this world can bring down on al l bodies; it allows for both how we suffer from and participate in its tyranny.


Kyriarchy is not my word; it was coined by radical feminist theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. In her book, Wisdom Ways: Introducing Feminist Biblical Interpretation (published by Orbis Books in New York in 2001), Schussler Fiorenza defined kyriarchy as:
Kyriarchy – a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein) which seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination…Kyriarchy is best theorized as a complex pyramidal system of intersecting multiplicative social structures of superordination and subordination, of ruling and oppression.
The best explanation of kyriarchy I've read comes from Lisa Factora-Borchers of My Ecdysis, who studied with Schussler Fiorenza. In her post, Factora-Borchers writes:
When people talk about patriarchy and then it divulges into a complex conversation about the shifting circles of privilege, power, and domination -- they're talking about kyriarchy. When you talk about power assertion of a White woman over a Brown man, that's kyriarchy. When you talk about a Black man dominating a Brown womyn, that's kyriarchy. It's about the human tendency for everyone trying to take the role of lord/master within a pyramid. At it best heights, studying kyriarchy displays that it's more than just rich, white Christian men at the tip top and, personally, they're not the ones I find most dangerous. There's a helluva lot more people a few levels down the pyramid who are more interested in keeping their place in the structure than to turning the pyramid upside down... So when we talk about woman asserting power over other womyn, we're talking kyriarchy. When you witness woman trying to dominate, define, outline the "movement" or even what an ally should be - that's the kyriarchal ethos strong at work.
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This and other "Why I use that word that I use" posts are a 101 space - if there's something that you're not getting, you have greater room than usual to ask basic questions.


  1. This was a fascinating introduction to the word, as well as to the social realities it encompasses.

  2. Kyriarchy is my favorite sociological word, but I disagree that Patriarchy treats *only* the sexism axis. Most men are not Patriarchs! The word comes with a heaping scoop of partner privilege, reproductive privilege, and age privilege baked in.

    BTW, "a question mark" would probably be a more usefl accessability caption up top? I don't think speech synthesizers are on good term with punctuation marks meant to be read as words.

  3. Great post! Kyriarchy is pretty much my favorite word at the moment, I loved it as soon as I saw it. So much more descriptive, a neologism I can love. My friend D is still clinging to using the term patriarchy instead because, in his words, "smashing the patriarchy sounds... cooler" but I feel like it's got too much baggage now regarding older waves of feminist theory.

  4. I love this word! It's a good explanation for how different things interact at different times. Especially how one person can have and not have privilege at the same time - sometimes even on the same issue, depending on whether or not they are read as members of the privileged group (e.g. a person with an invisible disability).

  5. I said this over on my own blog but I'll say it again here. This is an advanced concept to me so I'm still struggling to understand kyriarchy. I get patriarchy well enough but kyriarchy is something that's ... behind patriarchy.

    Do you play video games? I think of it like the secret final boss that only gets revealed as pulling the strings after you've already defeated whoever you *thought* was the villain all along.
    But I don't know if that's the best analogy because then it's as though there's only one boss pulling the strings instead of ... a lot of strings tripping everyone up.

    I'm still working on it.

  6. A problem with this word, and the etymology you cite shows loses any 'sting' of calling a sexist a sexist; abstracts it instead with neologistical non-gendered concepts. They etymology you cite- and I've not made any study I'm relying on your comments- the word is from 'lord' or 'master'...both words implying (institutionalized) gendered hierarchies. If the gender is removed/abstracted, to be the 'dominator' or 'ruler', an extra layer of abstraction clouds the relationship, and the reality that, as your wiki blog that brought me here...."Men still dominate every aspect of society from culture to news to sports to politics and everything in between, and they have since time immemorial" but removing the pater from -riarchal family removes that fact. I do like the acknowledgment of other '-isms' inter-related and interwoven with sexism, except that sexism becomes disembodied, yet women do not.

  7. @Natalia
    The "sting" of calling a sexist a sexist shouldn't be lost, just as calling a racist, homophobe, cissexist/transphobe, etc should all retain their respective stings!

    You make a good point that the original root word implies male institutions (although only because those words have come to be sex-differentiated [lord/lady, master/mistress] - there are definitely scenarios in which women would have been landowners and rulers of that nature].

    Possibly the originator of the term should have chosen a better root word, but unfortunately men dominate language as well!

    However, the vagueness is intentional, as I see it. "Rule by those with power" is vague, but it is accurate...because it may be white cisgendered women, black wealthy straight men, or any permutation of factors depending on context that has the advantage in a situation.

    So to sum up, you're right that it disembodies women to some degree, but I think to some degree that's the intent - it's a broad term.
    The individual problems, however, aren't rendered insignificant just because there's a larger term for their interactions.

  8. Interesting article, I actually hadn't stumbled across this word, but I like it. Etymological issues aside, it's a lot less sexist than the word patriarchy, and much more useful in a broader context.

    Also, I think whatever "sting" might me taken from it by using a more neutral-sounding word is actually a blessing, since words with a "sting" attached to them quickly start sounding more like name calling than an intellectual examination of a complex system. Ethics inflecting social criticism is nice and all, but some words just feel less objective as a result.

  9. My goodness! This was simply lovely.
    I think I may have heard this word in passing in some intro to gender studies course, but this was a great in depth analysis of the word.
    Thank you! :)

    I have a blog... it's not completely relevant to what you write about... it's more of a travel blog, however, I am in Ghana interning at a women's empowerment NGO - here's a little snippet on what I'm doing if you're curious.

  10. Natalia said...
    "... The etymology you cite- and I've not made any study I'm relying on your comments- the word is from 'lord' or 'master'...both words implying (institutionalized) gendered hierarchies."

    This is not actually correct. The word -- actually κύριος, "kyrios", not "kyrie", which is the vocative -- is translated as "lord" or "master", but the feminine form κυρία "kyria" is just as valid, and the root κυρι- "kyri-" is gender-neutral. The first definition in Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon is adjectival:

    I. of persons, having power or authority over

    which certainly fits the way I see it being used here.

    Dr. Whom: Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

  11. We must remember heightism. It's a very real phenomenon which dehumanizes our short brothers and sisters. Short people are paid less on average than those of average or tall height, the disparity is nearly equal to those (disparities) of race and gender. Something like 92% of male high level business employees are above 6'2! Would be so great if you brought this up ;)

  12. Do you feel that the concept of kyriarchy gives us a way to address the ways in which some axes of oppression are related more closely than others? I have been thinking about how trans oppression is related to patriarchy, even though these axes can in fact cross, or appear to.

    Additionally, while the concept of kyriarchy is helpful, I am curious whether its application, in practice, obscures the meaning and significance of oppression by assigning that concept to transitory and relatively minor power differentials.


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