The idea of using a tree as a metaphor for social systems came from Beyond Race and Gender by R. Roosevelt Thomas, Jr. Esther L. Danielson was kind enough to render the drawing that was included in The Gender Knot.
“Like all social systems, patriarchy is difficult to change because it is complex and its roots run deep. It is like a tree rooted in core principles of control, male dominance, male identification, and male centeredness. Its trunk is the major institutional patterns of social life as shaped by the roots – family, economy, politics, religion, education, music and the arts. The branches – first the larger and then the progressively smaller – are the actual communities, organizations, groups, and other systems in which we live our lives, from cities and towns to corporations, parishes, marriages, and families. And in all of this, individuals are the leaves who both make possible the life of the tree and draw their form and life from it.
“Obviously, we’re in something that’s much larger than ourselves, that isn’t us. But equally obvious is our profound connection to it through the alternatives we can choose from. As a system, patriarchy encourages men to accept male privilege and perpetuate women’s oppression, if only through silence. And it encourages women to accept and adapt to their oppressed position even to the extent of undermining movements to bring about change. We can’t avoid participating in patriarchy. It was handed to us the moment we came into the world. But we can choose how to participate in it.
“In this sense, we are far more than passive leaves on a tree, for human beings think and feel and, most important, make choices through which we either perpetuate or challenge the status quo. But as later chapters show, our relationship to the system of patriarchy is complex and full of paradox, challenging us to do the necessary work to understand what’s going on and what it has to do with us”
From The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. For more information, click here.
The tree metaphor works equally well to describe all forms of privilege as systems, including those based on race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability status.