Breaking Down Patriarchy: An Essential Texts Book Club
Few things are as exciting to me as thorough explorations of origin stories–especially if they revolve around badass women, challenge my assumptions, and elevate my thinking. So I rightly suspected I would love Amy McPhie Allebest’s podcast, “Breaking Down Patriarchy: An Essential Texts Book Club” when a mutual friend recommended it. Each week Allebest and a reading partner discuss a different text that addresses the history or patriarchy and the women (and sometimes men, thank you John Stuart Mill) that have challenged it through the ages.
I met with Allebest (badass) to get the origin story of the podcast, because I knew there had to be a good reason behind starting a book group that centered on texts most of us have heard of, but, and I say this with embarrassment, never read. Even us English majors. She shared that when she started on a masters at Stanford in Liberal Arts, she always found herself asking ,“Where are the women? What were the women doing?” And as she investigated PhD programs, most focused on gender theory but not the origins and effects of patriarchy on societies, and the various movements and people who have challenged it. Instead of enrolling in a program, Allebest is doing what many of us have done during the pandemic: home school and remote learning, except she has crafted her own master class where she is both teacher and student.
Each week Allebest is literally breaking down patriarchy, both as she dissects texts that explore millennia old assumptions about the sexes and then as she and her various guests explore the implications and ways to disentangle themselves from the toxic web of bias that is baked into our culture, that oppresses not just women, but men as well (though in less obvious ways).
She begins with The Chalice and the Blade, by Riane Eisler. Eisler, an archaeologist “proposed theories about humans’ prehistoric past that caused quite a stir . . . and gave rise to a spiritual ‘goddess’ movement within feminism in the 1980’s and 90’s.” She covers early Christianity, exploring how and when women were excluded and erased from religious history. She explores European writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, the American suffragists, and does not let them off the hook for turning on their Black allies.
The show delves into the complexity of people like Margaret Sanger who championed birth control but then was in favor of eugenics to kill poor people. She doesn’t “cancel” Sanger, but doesn’t explain away her views as “a product of her time.” Some people are warriors for women, but only white, cis het women. People are messy and I enjoyed the absence of either/or thinking in these discussions, the willingness to sit with complexity, even at the expense of our comfort.
I was worried that the podcast would be too white, too straight, too Mormon, but Allebest brings in voices from a wide spectrum to share diverse perspectives (of her first four guests, only one is white). She shines light on tricky topics like how Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was actually rewritten by a white woman for dramatic effect and wisely had a Black co host for that episode. As she gets to more modern times, the texts explored get more diverse as well, with the two latest episodes featuring Black women discussing Black women’s texts from the 1960’s. When I asked what was coming up for the summer, Allebest shared there will be books on queer theory and she will “also include wildly successful CEO’s with Ivy League educations, and undocumented workers who clean houses, and everything in between.” I cannot wait.
The most moving episode for me focused on the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which discusses why certain texts make it into the canon of scripture and some don’t. The text was discovered in the late 19th century and there are three copies of it, all partial. It was ignored for years. But what is there is amazing. Hearing Mary speak authoritatively as a disciple to male disciples blew me away. Maybe I cried for something I didn’t know how desperately I had been missing.
Allebest is Mormon and will bring up aspects of her religion in conversations with co-hosts, but there is no Latter-day assumption and no attempt to fit everything into Mormon cosmology. This isn’t “Feminist Relief Society.” The Family Proclamation is examined at times as an example of Allebest’s religion’s cultural expectations, and Allebest doesn’t seem to feel the need to either justify or eviscerate it. Once again, breaking down is a great metaphor as it allows you to dive in, break apart, and examine for the purpose of greater understanding. And if you choose to piece things back together, you may find yourself consciously examining which parts you want to keep and which to set aside.
One of the things that is hard for me when people “discover feminism” is the lack of interest most show in learning the history of those who came before them to challenge patriarchy. It’s part of what drew me to Exponent, the need to learn about the women who came before, what work they had done, and how I had benefited. For me, Exponent is a Mormon feminism origin story (with lots of badass women). So I love that Allebest and company are not just exploring patriarchal oppression, but are going down to the seeds, the roots, the soil. They will introduce you to texts you will wish you had read in school, texts that will make you nod your head and say yes, exactly, and be freaked out that the author lived hundreds of years ago. There is so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know. And I am so grateful for a podcast that shows me just whose shoulders I am standing on.