The Patriarchy Is Not A Fractal

Karen Willard Ribeiro
5 min readOct 7, 2020

Women hold half the sky, as Sheryl WuDunn has reminded us in her book by the same name. In no uncertain terms, the age old and tired phrase, “behind every good man is a good woman” demonstrates the lack of credit or recognition Woman gets for holding up her half — of the sky, of the conversation, of everything. And each infraction leveled against a woman — every slight, every “himitation”, every mansplain or agonizing listening session with him droning on, hypercontextualizing the obvious — is that extra straw about to break the camel’s back, making unbearable the literal pain and suffering of women everywhere.

It may feel like the Patriarchy has influenced everything in life like the air we breathe. It has not. It is not on par with the natural world, it never has been and it never will be. We humans have collectively assigned it this power and we can collectively call it back.

Rarely I write about the experience of a coaching client, but here (with permission) is one about deep seated patriarchal trauma that has been with me for a bit and call me into further expression.

“Lydia” reached out to talk through a work situation with me after learning of a colleague’s decision to resign. This colleague was one who was described as the epitome of patriarchal complicity. He left their company, jumping ship for the same competitor two other male colleagues had recently boarded. None of these men were ushered out her company’s door upon resignation and all were afforded great time and respect for their transition. Shocking, I know.

All three of these men Lydia worked with held a great deal of assigned power — the kind of energy that buoys the spirits, makes the step a lot more confident and lighter by virtue of the credit and recognition they received day in and day out — in meetings, around the office, during breaks, etc. Apparently two of these men left after “sucking the company teat” for a long while and one left the company even after his request for more money was approved. My client, a woman, had at this same time made her request for more money for the same reason of “going above and beyond.” His was approved and hers had barely been considered.

When I personally reflect on Lydia’s experience I flash back to many conversations where assigned power continues, after hundreds of years, to unequivocally favor men over women despite what feels like a social majority wish for equality. It hurts less to observe this happen to other women because we can always take steps to intervene on another’s behalf. It hurts like hell to experience it oneself because we all struggle to advocate for ourselves while in pain.

These chronic and unresolved “slights” cause women deep pain and suffering. It’s not just the damn wage gap, also in no uncertain terms demonstrating the fractional credit and recognition she gets for her time and talents. It’s the constant and strategic complicity of holding on to broken, maligned and life sucking ways of being that are not just killing women’s spirits but their interwoven mental, emotional and physical bodies. It’s also the constant and misguided assignment of power, and our faith, in the wrong places.

Robin Wall Kimmerrer is a heroine to me, a model of how to live in harmony with the Earth and the four dimensions of being I just described (which hold space in the sacred Medicine Wheel as our indigenous elders like Robin remind us). She is an incredibly poetic writer about the multidimensional living world. Dr. Kimmerer has embodied the essence of mosses, perhaps the most competent and complex beings on the planet, and she shares this expertise in her book Gathering Moss.

Most mosses, if I am reading her book well, have evolved to be female. You’ll have to read the book to learn why, but one gift we receive from Gathering Moss is an appreciation of the fractal nature of mosses and rainforests, each one a reflection of the other at dramatically (3,000 times) different scales. Her hope in the power of mosses to restore the most brutalized regions of the Earth helps to sustain my hope for all life on Earth.

It is not just the Earth that is heating up, everyone’s emotions are too. Every non-Native woman learns that she has to take the emotional temperature of a room and then speak only when it is deemed safe (I understand that Native women and men alike read spaces in this way out of respect for one another rather than fear of ones own safety). This can lead women to join men in the complicity of perpetuating the patriarchy. Women often unwittingly subconsciously say to men in the room (yes, even Zoom rooms), “you speak and take up whatever oxygen you’re going to take, then I’ll get whatever is left over.” No Bueno.

No man wants to hear that they are complicit due to centuries of social programming. No wealthy person wants to hear that their wealth factors into the poverty of others. No comfort willingly seeks discomfort. So the uncomfortable, impoverished, and despairing must band together, find each other like tuning forks, and resonate like a chorus of truth so that the light of truth gently exposes the darkness of isolation and the construction of walls to hide behind, whether emotional or national.

It sure is hard to sing when you are exhausted. I ask myself and “the world” theoretical questions all the time, like “what is the remuneration or compensation for pain and suffering from:

  • women's chronic fatigue in teaching right from wrong?
  • the 100,000 times she’s had to say a thing before the disruptive or “inappropriate” behavior of a child or student or employee/employer or husband changes (if at all)?
  • … the holding of petulance and belligerent energy directed at her from the same?
  • the keeping of rules not set by or aligned with her own nature?

And then I go outside and wonder how tired my Mother is. I hear her birds sing, I see trees making their way toward the sun, and then I see my own petulance and realize that human rules are not and will never be on par with natural symbioses.

Instead of worrying about the gut-infected reaches of “the patriarchy” we can actively and collectively choose to call back all the assigned power we have given it, and return it to our Mother Earth where it belongs. She has, after all, been holding the entire sky without our help since the beginning of time.

I know it will take time to make this shift in our consciousness; even with my current focus on calling back all the assigned power I have given away it is hard. But it is time. I smell it in the air and in the Earth.



Karen Willard Ribeiro

Beyond Karen: emerging from the depths of an epic epithet is available at and at your favorite independent bookseller. Thanks for reading.