It is NOT a needle in a haystack: Unearthing Patriarchy in a Rural Landscape

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The concept “rurality” often conjures two opposing images – first, of a bucolic farm, a long gravel road bordered by bales of hay, and a pasture with a herd of cows grazing lazily off the land. The other image is in stark contrast to the first- a vision that has been broadcast by the television and film industry to the mainstream public. In this light, “rural” takes the form of toothless inbred locals rocking back and forth in creaking chairs on the porch and staring down at passersby from an ominous and dilapidated house. It is this second image that we will direct our attention toward because it has had the most problematic consequences for those who make up rural populations.

Rural crime has been one of the most overlooked and understudied social problems in criminology to date (Donnermeyer & DeKeseredy, 2014). Lack of interest in the rural landscape has allowed for the promulgation of false stereotypes, misconceptions about criminal activity, and the social othering of an isolated population. Significantly, cultural representations of rurality generate simplistic perceptions of what it means to live in a rural community. Carrington, Donnermeyer, and DeKeseredy (2014) suggest that one of the most notable challenges arising from false representations of rurality is that the domination of men over women is portrayed as unproblematic and even normal. In what follows, we will consider how the masculinization and normalization of the rural has impacted some of the vulnerable populations that inhabit these areas. In order to understand this, the concept and role of patriarchy must be examined.


Patriarchy may be understood as a system that communicates norms and behaviors that habitually expose women to violence and oppression in every aspect of their lives. Underlying patriarchy is the presence or threat of physical and/or psychological oppression, which occurs in every aspect of a woman’s life; whether it is in the home, in the city, suburbs, or in a rural landscape (Carrington et al., 2014). Patriarchy is persistent in contemporary societies as women continue to battle conservative ideologies to achieve gender equality and protect themselves from patriarchal violence. However, manifestations of urban patriarchy are often portrayed as more subtle and defensive in nature than is the case with rural patriarchy. For example, this past year Time Magazine produced an annual publication about suggested words that should be banned in 2015 (Steinmetz, 2014). The author provided a list of seemingly offensive words and phrases as well as a brief description about why they made such a list. On the list included popular slang such as “bae,” “yaaaaas,” and “I can’t even.” However, the word that received national attention that was included on this list was “feminist.” Ironically, female columnist Katy Steinmetz proposed the ban on feminist with the following justification:

“You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade” (Steinmetz, 2014).

If urban patriarchy is as dominant as it seems to be in the media and on the internet, it has the potential for being more insidious and socially destructive than rural patriarchy. As urban landscapes are typically the focus, as well as the home of the media industry, the cultural representations they reproduce have the capabilities of reaching a wide audience and reproducing a destructive cultural ideology in both city and rural locations. In this discussion I will address the impact of rural ideology.

The extent to which staunch denial of the present-day existence of patriarchy exists in all landscapes is uncertain. It is difficult to ascertain how the dynamics of power, inequality, sexism, and discrimination reveal themselves in large populations. Therefore, research examining rural society may be vital in understanding how patriarchy affects distinctively smaller communities of women. Websdale’s ethnographic research studying battered women in Eastern Kentucky led to his development of the concept “rural patriarchy.” Websdale (1998) sees rural patriarchy as “that articulation of patriarchy found distinctively in rural areas” (pp. 48). Websdale describes how social structures of the household, paid work, the state, and male violence are markedly different in a rural versus urban location. In what follows, I will identify and expand upon some of the social structures, which Websdale suggests are distinctively affected by patriarchy in a rural context.

Employment (and lack thereof)

Regardless of age, class, or ethnicity, all women are affected by the difference in gendered median earnings, known as the gender pay gap (The American Association of University Women, 2015). Research has consistently shown a contrast in salaries of men versus women over the past decades. As recently as 2014, American women earned 82.5% of men’s salaries based on median weekly earnings for full-time workers, compared to 62.1% in 1979 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015; 2013). Though the median gap has decreased, it is still a significant problem for women, especially for those living in rural America.

Research regarding poverty rates in rural areas has unsurprisingly, demonstrated that rural poverty is more extensive than urban poverty (Wodhal, 2006). Industrialization has taken a heavy toll on rural communities. As the service economy flourishes, traditional rural industries such as farming, logging, and mining have declined. The impact of an economy based on urban industrialization and service industries has resulted in rising unemployment rates and declining wages which are particularly acute in rural areas. Women who are able to obtain jobs in the service sector earn half of what their male counterparts receive for doing equal work (Smith, 2008). Even in securing such work, service sector jobs do not pay well, the hours are erratic, and the positions are easily replaceable.

Residents in rural areas do not have access to a wide spectrum of employment opportunities. This, coupled with a traditionalist ideology surrounding appropriate gender roles leaves the majority of available economic opportunities the province of men, however arduous and low paying the work is. Websdale (1998) concluded that women are most likely to be involved in household production-the care of children and elderly, cooking, cleaning, etc. Domestic work for women is unpaid and more importantly, not recognized as legitimate work in a social or legal context. Therefore, the traditional role of a woman as housekeeper or stay-at-home mother puts her in an economically and socially disadvantaged position. There is little emphasis within this gender role description for women to be self-supporting. Both economically and socially disadvantaged positions stem from a lack of cultural guidance to individual financial solvency.

The Household (Marriage & Religion)

It is challenging to address the topic of marriage without including religion. As previously mentioned, rural areas are more likely to exercise a “traditional” ideology than urban areas. Ideological perspectives are often rooted in religious beliefs. Families living in a fundamentalist religious and traditional patriarchy are at greater risk for acts of violence to women and children. This risk occurs not just in Christianity, but in Judaism and Muslim religions as well (Fortune and Enger, 2005).

Websdale (1998) discovered that religious values in rural communities appear to be much stronger than in urban areas. Though the three dominant religions mentioned above have influenced the increase of violence against women and children, for the purposes of patriarchy in America, we will focus on Christianity. Christianity, particularly in most fundamental forms has disproportionate influence in the United States and especially in the rural South.

Potter (2013) argues that the scripture from major religious texts have been utilized to tie women to subordinate roles and purposefully misconstrued to uphold the power and authority of men. Christian fundamentalism has repeatedly generated the notion that according to the rule of God, men are entitled to sex with their wives. This is noteworthy to the history of women living under oppression. Until the late 1970s there was no conception of rape within a marriage in the United States. It was not until the 1980s that most states enacted marital rape laws. In a traditional rural state such as Kentucky, marital rape laws were not passed until 1990 (Russel, 1990, pp. 379). Even now, though marital rape is technically illegal, there are still a number of obstacles that pose problems for an effective prosecution against a marital rapist.

Rural patriarchy has used religion to foster a more palatable “how-to” manual instructing male heads-of-household how to “coerce” their wives into sexual intercourse, without explicitly raping her. This past May, an anonymous male Christian blogger wrote a blog post on his website, “Biblical Gender Roles”, in which he provided men an 8-step solution to confronting their wife’s sexual refusal. He included an important disclosure in his blog, making it clear that he was not advocating the use of physical force or abuse on a woman. Rather, he explained that the issue being discussed was “how a husband can confront a wife who chronically or willfully denies his sexual rights in marriage without just cause (be it legitimate health or mental conditions).”

The anonymous writer argues that a man has the right under Biblical and American law to reason with his wife and attempt to persuade her to “willingly (even if grudgingly) yield herself to him, thereby fulfilling one of her most important duties in a Christian marriage.” Some of the steps the author suggests include rebuking her before witnesses, taking her before the Church, stop taking her on dates or trips, no unnecessary household upgrades, and removing her funding. (He makes note that it may be difficult to remove your wife’s funding if she is gainfully employed). Though this individual anonymous blogger may not represent the entire population living beneath a rural patriarchy, it is important to note the way in which this writer has seemingly blurred the lines between sex, rape, force, coercion, marriage, and slavery. When these lines are blurred, risk for abuse and domestic violence increases.

Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse is a widespread problem but it is especially problematic in rural areas highlighted by isolation and close-knit communities (DeKeseredy & Rennison, 2013; DeKeseredy & Schwartz 2009; Websdale, 1998). There are many obvious reasons why women stay in abusive relationships, including fear, keeping the family intact, children, economic necessity, lack of opportunity or alternatives, lack of resources, and/or religious reasons. The vicious cycle of domestic abuse with no financial means or social support to escape is one of the key aspects of patriarchy in a rural context.

Financial and psychological dependencies are obvious variables that make women more vulnerable and more likely to remain in abusive relationships. However, the sanctity of marriage in rural areas is another commonly utilized ideological toll to convince domestic violence victims to stay in toxic relationships. Many Christian women use religion to validate their choice to stay, reciting excerpts from scripture and resorting to defending marriage vows in which they made a promise before God and the church to stand by their spouse “for better or for worse”-even if worse exceeded their wildest expectations of worse. Unfortunately, even those women who decide to seek help encounter significant difficulties. In the next section, these difficulties will be discussed. 

Social Support/Services (and disservices)

Social services and governmental programs are scarce in rural America. Physical isolation is another key indicator of what it means to live in a rural area. But isolation takes a unique turn in rural settings. While the extent of rural physical isolation is great, social interaction is relatively common. Rural areas have uniquely high levels of acquaintance density (the average proportion of the people in a community known by the community’s inhabitants) (Wodhal, 2006, pp. 34). High levels of acquaintance density can promote community support and connectedness, but it can also pose significant risks for women.

Populations with high levels of acquaintance density are likely to know intimate details of an individual’s personal relationships within the community. On the one hand, the support of friends and family could be beneficial for a woman facing a vulnerable situation. Unfortunately, however, a tight-knit community dominated by rural patriarchy can also create challenges for her to reach outside the community. A rural woman seeking outside support services in response to domestic violence faces a potentially hazardous and even deadly situation. Even if she does receive support from service providers, she still risks community exposure, ostracism, and loss of family and community support networks (Carrington et al., 2014, pp. 470). Additionally, a growing literature affirms that rural separated/divorced women have a greater chance of being abused by current/former male partners than women living in urban or suburban locations (Rennison, DeKeseredy, & Dragiewicz, 2012, 2013).

The risks faced by rural women often exceed their opportunities to escape abusive relationships. Even when rural women are able to seek outside help to leave their abusive relationships, several studies have found that the services they received have hardly been accommodating. The equivocal response and minimal aid that battered rural women have received has been inadequate and even discouraging – with responders coming from the church, law enforcement officers, and even social service providers.

In a study of battered women, 54% of religious victims and 38% of nonreligious victims went to clergy members for assistance (Horton, Wilkins, & Wright, 1988, pp. 242). Results indicated that 71% of religious and nonreligious victims were dissatisfied with advice from the clergy. Dissatisfied respondents found that clerics reiterated similar themes, suggesting that the victim make a greater attempt not to provoke her abuser or to continue praying that God would make changes in the abuser (Horton et al., 1988).

Websdale’s ethnographic research signifies problems that women often face when reaching out to law enforcement in rural areas. Despite some of the legislative changes that have occurred on a national level, lingering small town patriarchal attitudes may mean that police officers are less willing to intervene in cases of domestic violence. Websdale interviewed an Eastern Kentucky police officer, who expressed his concerns about arresting suspects in domestic violence cases,

Ronnie: We need to catch both sides of the story. Not just one. It seems like the female is always the one believed. And a lot of times that’s wrong. Female pulled a gun on the male, the male goes to jail. Wait a minute. That’s not justice (Websdale, 1998, pp. 94)

Websdale considers a few ways in which this quote is problematic. First, Ronnie’s comment is highly problematic in that he does not take into account the pervasive threats of violence that may motivate a female to pull a gun on her partner. Second, this quote indicates that Ronnie may not recognize that in domestic violence cases, men typically initiate the most extreme forms of violence.

One point that Websdale fails to mention is the rate of domestic abuse that exists within police families. A recent study from the National Center for Women and Policing (2015) found that law enforcement officers have higher rates of domestic abuse within their own homes than the average American family. Thus, this may make a victim of battering hesitant to seek them out in emergency situations. Domestic abuse that occurs within police families often goes without proper documentation and is addressed informally by other members of their police force.

Wodhal (2006) notes that people in rural communities tend to be less “trusting” of social support or outsider services. However, he fails to mention why this might be the case. Websdale (1998) found that the battered women from his research felt that social service providers not only stigmatized them because of their economic status, but also that they “implicitly accuse women of being accomplices to their own intimate victimization by lacking the willpower to leave” (p. 167).

Bumiller (2008) supports this recognition of the failure of social service providers for rural women and expands upon how their needs must be better addressed. She says, “Service providers encourage women recovering from domestic violence to refocus their energies on parts of their lives they can take responsibility for: the care of their children, economic viability, and developing support systems among similarly situated women” (pp. 121). 

Concluding Thoughts

Rural women are in a uniquely disadvantaged position. There are a number of factors that trap them in positions of vulnerability. While it is important to understand how patriarchy is situated within a rural context, we must remember that the oppressive nature of patriarchy looms far beyond the rural landscape. As we have seen, religious leaders, law enforcement officers, and social service providers within rural and urban communities have each done a disservice to rural women in vulnerable situations, resulting in even greater vulnerability. Scholars, law enforcement officers, social service providers, and even the media have turned to non-profit organizations as a popular solution to knowing how to adequately care for “specialized populations.” However, in Southern states such as Kentucky, this solution is still problematic.

For example, researchers such as Bumiller (2008), Wodhal (2006), and Websdale (1998) stress that even when services are available, access and interventions are less than optimal. In particular, intervention directs them back to the same patriarchal system that fosters abuse, isolation, economic dependence, and gender roles. Since the Bush administration, feminist non-profit organizations have become strange bedfellows with religious organizations for a variety of reasons, such as financial support, stronger networking and advertising. The fusion of efforts between conservative Christian organizations and feminist non-profits is just one example of how rural patriarchy sits beneath an even larger patriarchal structure of urban white male domination in the United States. As such, the assertions of authors Bumiller (2008, pp. 121), Wodhal (2006), and Websdale (1998) may deserve greater examination as a solution to a much larger problem. Until then, existing solutions reinforce the assumption that women can always find safety in the private sphere.

Molly Dunn

School of Justice Studies
Eastern Kentucky University


The American Association of University Women, [i]The Simple Truth About the Gender Pay Gap: 2015 Edition[/i] (2015), p.10.

Bumiller, K. (2008). In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement Against Sexual Violence. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 39: Median Weekly Earnings of Full-time Wage and Salary Workers by Detailed Occupation and Sex, 2014,”Current Population Survey,] (2015).

Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 14: Women’s Earnings As a Percent of Men’s, by Educational Attainment, for Full-Time Wage and Salary Workers 25 Years and Older, 1979–2012 Annual Averages—Women’s Earnings as Percent of Men’s,”Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2012 (2013): pg. 56.

Carrington, K., Donnermeyer, J.F., & DeKeseredy, W. S. (2014) Intersectionality, Rural Criminology, and Re-imaging the Boundaries of Critical Criminology. Critical Criminology 22 (4), 463-477.

DeKeseredy, W.S. & Schwartz, M.D. (2009). Dangerous exists: Escaping abusive relationships in rural America. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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Anonymous Blogger (2015) Eight Steps to Confront Your Wife’s Sexual Refusal. Retrieved August 4th, 2015.

Fortune, M. & Enger, C. (2005). Violence against women and the role of religion. Harrisburg, PA: National Resource Center of Domestic Violence. 

Horton, A., Wilkins, M., & Wright, W. (1988). Women who ended abuse: What religious leaders and religion did for these victims. In A, Horton and J. Williamson (eds.) Abuse and religion: When praying isn’t enough. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books: 235-246.

Police Family Violence Fact Sheet. (n.d.). Retrieved August 4, 2015.

Rennison, C. M., DeKeseredy, W. S., & Dragiewicz, M. (2012). Urban, suburban, and rural variations in separation/divorce rape/sexual assault results from the National Crime Victimization Survey. Feminist Criminology, 7 (4), 282-297.

Rennison, C. M., DeKeseredy, W. S., & Dragiewicz, M. (2013). Intimate relationship status variations in violence against women urban, suburban, and rural differences. Violence against Women, 19 (11), 1312-1330.

Russell, D. E. H. (1990). Rape in marriage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Smith, K. (2008). Reports on rural America: Working hard for the money. Durham, New Hampshire: Carsey Institute.

Steinmetz, K. (2014). Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015? Vote Now! Retrieved August 6th, 2015.

Websdale, N. (1998) Rural Woman Battering and the Justice System, An Ethnography. SAGE Publications, Inc.

Wodahl, E. J. (2006) The Challenges of Prisoner Reentry from a Rural Perspective. Western Criminology Review 7 (2), 32-47.


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