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The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy 3rd Ed.

reviewed by Katherine Cumings Mansfield - July 23, 2015

coverTitle: The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy 3rd Ed.
Author(s): Allan G Johnson
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439911843, Pages: 322, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

One of my all-time favorite movies is mystery-thriller, Gaslight, about a husband who manipulates his wife into believing she is going insane, in order to profit from her inherited wealth. The insidious nature of the protagonist’s actions lie in his use of the subtle—the barely-perceptible tweak of the everyday—rather than any ostentatious act that would grab the attention of anyone other than the person whom he wished to deceive.

Similar to women’s instant recognition of the problem that has no name, described by Betty Friedan in her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, women can at once relate to the way Charles Boyer’s character dispassionately twists, spins, and selectively omits information to disarm and dominate Ingrid Bergman’s character in the 1942 film. Fortunately, the opposite is true in the case of The Gender Knot: Unraveling our Patriarchal Legacy (The Gender Knot). Instead, it was the commitment to revelation, coupled with determined identifying and painstaking de-twisting, that Allan G. Johnson had in mind when he set out to write this book. He writes:

Things are often not what they seem, especially when it comes to the deep roots of the patriarchal system that shape the world we live in . . . Even those who would never call themselves feminists often know there is something terribly wrong . . . There are many reasons for this . . . that thread together to make a tangled knot. Finding a way to unravel that knot is the major purpose of this book (p. 21).

The content of The Gender Knot is presented in three major sections: Part One: What Is This Thing Called Patriarchy?; Part Two: Sustaining Illusions, Barriers to Change; and Part Three: Unraveling the Patriarchal Legacy. While each section could potentially stand alone, the concepts presented are so intricately woven into the fabric of Johnson’s overall narrative, that I do not recommend reading one section without the other. Since the concepts build on each other, I believe it is imperative that the reader takes on all the chapters and reflects on the sections as a whole.

Johnson defines patriarchy as an oppressive system that is male-dominated, male-identified, male-centered, and above all, control-obsessed. Thus, power and domination are pervasive (and perverse) goals in almost all human experiences and endeavors—from controlling one’s emotions to being the master of nature, to accumulating (and hoarding) resources. Due to patriarchy’s emphases on control, power is defined narrowly as power over rather than power with (which might be defined as using cooperation to solve problems). Johnson revisits this definition throughout the book, and shows with specific examples how patriarchy, as a social system, can be considered the root of all other social evils such as racism, homophobia, and classism.

Especially effective was his use of examples, associated with race relations and the civil rights movement, as a way to explain patriarchy and its effects—not only on relations between women and men, but between men as individuals and groups. I was especially impressed with Johnson’s ability to tease out a number of under-theororized areas of patriarchal influence by giving specific illustrations of how other oppressive systems (unbridled capitalism, slavery, destruction of the environment, and warfare) are, in reality, manifestations of patriarchy or, in other words, by-products of a society that is obsessed with power and control. Johnson tackles these exceptionally thorny, complex issues by presenting them in manageable prose using accessible examples, in effect, opening up the feminist critique of patriarchy to a comparatively larger readership.

For me, one of the most vital features of the book was Johnson’s attention to what he referred to as the mythopoetic men’s movement (Chapters Eight and Nine). I am not ashamed to admit that despite earning credentials in Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS), I was completely unaware of the major claims of some so-called, men’s rights groups. Quite frankly, Johnson’s overview of these major theorists was not just disturbing (Deborah Tannen and Warren Farrell), but oftentimes outrageous (Robert Bly and Sam Keen). Thus, in addition to being thankful for Johnson’s decision to expand this discussion in his latest edition, I have also added a handful of books from this genre to my reading list as I found my ignorance anything but blissful.

My only critique of Johnson is actually not a censure of him or his work, per se, but, rather, ironically, illustrates why his book is necessary. Much of the book is a summary of the writings of scholars I read while a graduate student: Joan Acker, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Patricia Hill Collins, Susan Faludi, Kathy Ferguson, Mary Parker Follet, Carol Gilligan, Sandra Harding, Cheryl Harris, bell hooks, Kwok Pui Lan, Audra Lorde, Arlie R. Rochschild, and Sara Ruddick. While reading The Gender Knot, I found myself saying aloud—Women have been saying this stuff for years!—too many times to count.

This frustration led me to reflect on the many scholars of color who, over the years, have taken issue with researchers such as Jonathan Kozol (a white male scholar who writes about racism, segregation, and unequal educational opportunities for students of color), with cries such as Black scholars have been writing about these issues for decades! But, a white man writes about it and suddenly it’s true? Now, people pay attention? Johnson, similar to Kozol, could be perceived by some as just another white male savior with the power to remove the scales from our eyes.

In all fairness, though, Johnson repeatedly points out in The Gender Knot that an essential characteristic of maintaining patriarchal society is to perceive women’s voices as shrill and unreasonable. My initial regret toward Johnson paradoxically substantiated many of his assertions, and prompted me to view Johnson as a powerful ally (who can potentially bring the feminist critique to the public imaginary). Johnson’s work has a number of implications for K-12 educators and the professors that prepare them. For example, we might go beyond questioning why so few women break the glass ceiling in their quest to the superintendency, and begin to trouble over whether school systems, and school cultures should be organized around principles of hierarchy, control, and dominance in the first place.

In addition, we might further probe a number of important questions such as what role does patriarchy (and lingering sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia) play in tracking specific students into particular school programs such as higher level math and science, gifted programs, and International Baccalaureate? Why are black female students’ bodies monitored more closely and disciplined more often in high schools for dress code violations? How have patriarchal notions of control influenced national education policies around teacher accountability and high-stakes testing? These are just a few questions that come to mind when considering how The Gender Knot can better inform our understandings of how patriarchy might be discerned in educational settings—a necessary first step toward interrupting, disrupting, and revolutionizing educational policy and practice (Newcomb & Mansfield, 2014).


Blount, J. (2005). Fit to teach: Same-sex desire, gender, and school work in the twentieth century. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Blount, J. (1998). Destined to rule the schools: Women and the superintendency, 1873-1995. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Marshall, C. (Ed.). (1997). Feminist critical policy analysis: A perspective from primary and secondary schooling. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.

Marshall, C. (Ed.). (1997). Feminist critical policy analysis: A postsecondary perspective. Washington, DC: Falmer Press.

Mertz, N. T. (Ed.). (2009). Breaking into the all-male club: Female professors of educational administration. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Newcomb, W. S. (Ed.). (2014). Continuing to disrupt the status quo?: New and young women professors of educational leadership. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Newcomb, W. S. & Mansfield, K. C. (Eds.). (2014). Women interrupting, disrupting, and revolutionizing educational policy and practice. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Inc.

St. Pierre, E. A. & Pillow, W. S. (Eds.). (2000). Working the ruins: Feminist poststructural theory and methods in education. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 23, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18045, Date Accessed: 1/22/2022 6:25:34 PM

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About the Author
  • Katherine Cumings Mansfield
    Virginia Commonwealth University
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINE CUMINGS MANSFIELD is an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. Mansfield graduated from The University of Texas at Austin with a PhD in Educational Policy and Planning and a doctoral portfolio in Women’s and Gender Studies. Mansfield’s interdisciplinary scholarship examines educational policy and practice as it relates to identity intersectionalities such as gender, class, race and place across P-20 contexts. Mansfield has published in a variety of venues, including: Educational Administration Quarterly, Education Policy Analysis Archives, International Journal of Multicultural Education, and International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education and co-edited the book, Women Interrupting, Disrupting, and Revolutionizing Education Policy and Practice, with Whitney Sherman Newcomb, Information Age Publishing. A first-generation college graduate, Mansfield is an award-winning teacher and researcher, garnering two dissertation awards from the American Educational Research Association in 2012 and the VCU Excellence in Teaching Award in 2014.
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