How the oppression of women began, and what that implies for fighting oppression today. By Lilian Thomson
As long as recorded history has lasted, so too has women’s oppression. To many people, it just seems natural that women are worse off— it’s because of women’s smaller size or their capacity to bear children. Men comfort themselves with the thought that women need looking after.
It’s hard to combat that when history shows that not just the present capitalist system is to blame: in feudal society, and in earlier societies too, women occupied second place to men.
But in the late 19th Century, the work of anthropologists began to question that assumption.
Early anthropologists began to speak of an earlier time when women, not men, ruled society. Friedrich Engels gave a Marxist, that is a materialist, analysis of the ‘woman question’ in his pioneering work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
Engels wanted to trace the prehistoric roots of women’s oppression, so he could prove wrong those who claimed women’s inferior status was ‘natural’. Drawing on the work of anthropologist Lewis Morgan, Engels argued that a “predominancy of women generally obtained in primitive times”. Its ‘material foundation’ was the ‘communistic household’ headed by women.
In these times, descent could only be traced with certainty through the mother, since women were not tied to any one man, and indeed, men’s role in procreation was for a long time unknown.
This household became threatened, according to Engels, when domestication of animals developed. The breeding of herds meant that human groups no longer had to live hand to mouth. They could now possess fixed wealth, in the form of animal herds.
“But to whom did this wealth belong? Originally, undoubtedly, to the gens (kin group). But private property in herds must have developed at a very early stage… On the threshhold of authenticated history, we find that everywhere the herds are already the property of the (male) family chiefs.”
Wealth came into these men’s hands because of a sexual division of labour that had existed previously. A division of labour by sex alone does not mean oppression will follow. Probably the earliest divisions of labour occurred for reasons of convenience —men and women did different jobs because of different physical capacities.
But, “according to the division of labour then prevailing in the family, the procuring of food and the implements necessary thereto, and therefore, also, the ownership of the latter, fell to the man… Thus according to the custom of society at that time, the man was also the owner of the new sources of foodstuffs—the cattle. ..”
The fact that human labour could produce a surplus above what was necessary for bare survival also gave an impetus to making slaves of prisoners taken in war. These slaves belonged to the men who had captured them, thus further raising their status and power.
This power gave men more status than women in society. The desire by men to pass on their wealth and power to their descendants led to men’s overthrow of the female order of inheritance in favour of father to son inheritance.
Engels saw this overthrow of ‘mother right’—inheritance through the female line — as “the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man seized the reins in the house also, then woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of man’s lust, a mere instrument for bearing children”. Women thus became the world’s first oppressed class.
“However, within this structure of (primitive) society based on ties of sex, the productivity of labour develops more and more, with it private property and exchange, differences in wealth, the possibility of utilising the labour power of others and thereby the basis of class antagonisms… until, finally… the old society, based on ties of sex, bursts asunder in the collision of the newly developed social classes; in its place a new society emerges, constituted as a state… a society in which the family system is entirely dominated by the property system…”
“Recorded history—the history of class struggles—shows the continuing effects of the “world historic defeat of the female sex” interweaved with and subordinated to class relations of exploitation.”
Engels was aware that there were gaps in his account. He could not explain how ‘mother right’ had been replaced by domination by the father. His work can also be corrected on at least three other points.
Later researches by Marxist and other anthropologists alike have established that a system of tracing descent through the mother does not necessarily mean female dominance over men. Most researchers now think that no period of female dominance over men ever existed.
The development of society from primeval horde to kin group to family is also unsatisfactorily explained by Engels. Following Johann Bachofen, Engels saw this as primarily brought about by women, who found sex with many different men ‘degrading and oppressive’, and who thus wanted marriage with one man only. This seems to be a case of applying contemporary morality retrospectively. After all, biologically, women’s capacity for sexual enjoyment is greater than men’s.
Engels also cannot explain why the sexual division of labour developed the way it did, or even at all. All known societies have some division of labour, though what it is, and how rigid it is, varies. But the point is— why have one at all? Engels cannot explain it.
Later writers and theorists have tried to fill in the gaps and have come up with different theories. What distinguishes Engels’s account is that he tackled it to prove that women’s oppression was not ‘natural’.
He wasn’t just trying to increase the store of human knowledge for the hell of it. He was trying to arm people with knowledge they could use to fight back against oppression.
Later writers have built upon that work and gone further. But if they have seen further, it was because they stood on the shoulders of a giant— Engels’s pioneering work pointed the way.
The emergence of men’s domination may never be clearly understood since the evidence available for study is so fragmentary, and is often clouded by the prejudices and beliefs of those interpreting the data. But Engels’s work did establish that women’s oppression is not dictated by nature.
He also showed that it was not the result of of a male conspiracy or of a cataclysmic sex war, as some people would like to believe even today. He showed that women’s oppression arose out of the development of early societies in the same way that classes states, and private property emerged from those developments.
Since then, class and sex oppression have been so closely intertwined that teasing out the strands has become impossible. For sure, the underpinning of women’s oppression in most societies has been the family plot of land, handed down from father to son. The woman is an indispensable part of the family, for childrer1 are an economic necessity, but her role is a secondary one.
Jewish Hindu, Chinese and Christian ideologies all defined women as subordinate. Traditional Chinese usage bound women’s feet. Ancient Greece was particularly ruthless at imprisoning women in the home.
Ancient codes of law punished female adultery severely, while not touching male adultery.
Probably feudal Western Europe was, of all major pre-capitalist civilisations, the least harsh in its oppression of women. The sexual division of labour was not rigid. Women workers were frequently paid the same as men for the same work. Women, though their economic activity was more centred on the home, played a large role in social life.
Women dominated important trades, such as ale brewing. A widow could engage in trade as the equal of men. Women at the head of convents were important people.
Still, women were clearly subordinate. They could not hold any public office. Generally, they could not appear as independent persons in court. Rape, for example, was not treated as a crime against a woman’s body, but as a crime against a man’s property. Lords could rape peasant women with impunity.
Women’s property was likely to be seen as dowry to attract a husband. The household was headed by the father. Women were advised to try to get a ‘good’ husband as the best available course for them.
Oppression does not always mean rebellion and women’s oppression in feudal times produced no womens’ rebellion. There was no arena where women could gather collectively. Instead of rebellion, oppression of women meant women sought consolations for their lot, such as the mediaeval cult of the Mother of God.
The growth of industrial capitalism did not abolish women’s household drudgery. But it changed the nature: of it. The home became a sphere sharply cut off from social labour. In earlier times, the household was the: basic economic unit, with most production done in or around the home. In the new capitalist order, the factory became the centre of production, and it brought together people from thousands of different households.
Capitalism continued women’s oppression, but it changed it. Women were brought into the work force as independent individuals. However underpaid or overworked the woman factory or office worker may be in the workplace, she is not part of any man’s household, but an individual, independent worker. In this way capitalist laws have given a slight measure of forrnal equality with men.
Capitalism did not create women’s oppression, but it did create the conditions for the rise of the women’s liberation movement Women now had an arena for organising collectively, so the possibility of winning equality through change in society became realistic.
Women will never be liberated while class oppression exists, since so many women suffer from class oppression as well as sex oppression. Middle class women do suffer from general sexism too, but their compensating class privileges — greater wealth, better access to education and health care, freedom through wealth from sole responsibility for child care or housework — forces them to side with their class rather than with working class women struggling for liberation.
The knowledge that women’s oppression has not always existed, and thus that it can be overthrown, may seem old hat today; we may take it for granted. But many women today draw the wrong conclusions from that knowledge, so it is important to reiterate the ideas first expounded by Engels, so that we can use those ideas positively, to fight for change
Many women today still blame men solely for women’s oppression. They see the answer in men voluntariIy giving up their power over women. Others see the only solution as living in complete separation from men. Even more drastically, some women conclude that women’s oppression can only be ended by the ‘final solution’ of eliminating men altogether.
Simone de Beauvoir thought that was a bit drastic, and she was right. All the above ‘solutions’ provide no way for women to fight back against their oppression. Waiting for men to give up their power is passive (and utopian). Lots of women don’t want to live separately from men. And mass extermination of men is not an option.
The ideas of Engels state that women’s oppression comes from societal structures. These can be fought. Women are oppressed in this society, and have been oppressed in earlier societies, because it suits society economically that it should be so.
To change that, we have to change society.