Abstract Considering the intersection between gender, public/private patriarchy and governance, this paper explores the legitimacy justifications of female unemployment in the Arab Middle Eastern country of Lebanon. Our analytic framework integrates institutional theory’s notions of legitimacy (i.e., validity and propriety) with notions of public/private patriarchy to examine the microlevel processes resulting in women’s legitimacy judgments of their (un)employment. Qualitative in-depth interviews with 31 married women were analyzed using QSR NVivo10. Results show that when facing prevalent patriarchal pressures to limit activity to the private sphere, these women tend to judge the legitimacy of their own unemployment in terms that are either instrumental for the household or relational to family members. Other findings suggest that the pattern of responses to the patriarchal pressures do not fully match the advice they offer to other women. That is, where most women’s responses to patriarchal structures are aligned with patterns of personal acquiescence and compromise; their advice to other women includes a larger range of responses from strategic maneuvering and self-development, to defiance. We conclude with a broader discussion of female unemployment and argue that it cannot be fully understood without a multidimensional and multilevel perspective that critically reflects on patriarchal governance structures and the associated processes that limit women’s perceptions of opportunities for employment and the legitimacy of participation in the public sphere more generally.