Why Are Women Oppressed? Marxism and Women’s Liberation

By Margaret Creear


There have undoubtedly been significant changes in the attitude and position of women in society over the last few decades. However, we don’t have to look too far to realize that inequality, discrimination, and oppression continue to exist.

At work, women earn on average 24% less than men, are concentrated in low-paid service sector jobs and are under-represented at higher levels of the workplace. In most homes, women bear the main responsibility for childcare and household tasks regardless of the number of hours they work. Many women experience violence and abuse in and outside the family. A culture of oppression still exists generally in society.

Explanations as to why women continue to experience inequality and oppression are many and varied. Different explanations lead inevitably to different strategies and solutions. For some, it is primarily a question of equal opportunity. Emphasis is placed on changing the law, education and attitudes in order to “level the playing field” to allow women to become equal with men. Such equality, it is argued, can be achieved within the existing economic and social system.

Biology has been used to both justify and explain women’s oppression. Early scientific explanations, which portray women’s inferior position as “natural,” focused on the size of women’s brains or their physical weaknesses. Today such arguments can appear ridiculous. Yet quite recently socio-biology and evolutionary psychology have tried to present a genetic explanation for universal male behavior including not doing the ironing, promiscuity and rape. This pamphlet looks at some of these arguments. It also addresses the idea held by some radical feminists that women’s reproductive role holds the key to understanding why they are oppressed.

Many theories of women’s oppression stress the need for a fundamental change in the way that society is structured and organized. However, there is not necessarily agreement on what kind of change in needed, nor how it can be achieved. Debates have centered on what is “primary” — class society or male power and dominance (patriarchy), and the relationship between class and gender inequality.

This pamphlet looks at all of these issues. It presents a Marxist analysis of the origins of women’s oppression, which is rooted in the development of private property, class society and the family as an economic and social institution. It also gives a glimpse of how socialism could transform the lives of women, economically socially and culturally.

Inequalities Women Face Under Capitalism in the U.S:

  • Among full time workers, women’s wages amount to only 76% of men’s (Census Bureau, August 2004). When measured by annual earnings including those of part-time workers, though, women earn just 59 cents for every dollar earned by men.
  • Working mothers face child care costs up to $10,000 per year per child, while averaging 80 hours per week between paid labor and unpaid household chores, according to financial writer Ann Crittenden.
  • The proportion of women in the workforce has increased to 48% with most new jobs going to women. However, this is not because they have replaced men in jobs normally done by men— there has only been minor change in this direction. Male workers have lost decent-paying jobs mainly because the Democrats and Republicans have deregulated industries and because corporations have been relocating manufacturing jobs to southern states and countries with cheaper labor and fewer regulations. The new jobs being created in the U.S. are mostly service sector, low-paying jobs with few benefits. Women employees made up more than 69% of those in education services in 2001, as well as 82% of social-service employees, 77% of hospital employees, and 51% of all retail employees.
  • More than 55% of all contingent workers (temporary, contractual, or part-time) were employed in the service sector (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2001). These workers are often treated as disposable, quickly fired if they get sick or have to stay home with a sick child. Healthcare, pensions, and other benefits are often not available to these workers. In 2001, around 91% of all contingent employees did not receive any healthcare coverage from their employer. Women workers bear the brunt of this economic insecurity because they make up 55% of temporary workers and 70% of part-time workers.
  • Even in those sectors dominated by women, they are not found in the top jobs. For example, women constitute 72% of Walmart’s workforce, yet 90% of managerial positions are held by men (ksworkbeat.org). This applies to unions and other progressive organizations as well, where women are underrepresented in relation to their numbers in the membership.
  • Women do two-thirds of household chores. Men would have to increase their household labor contribution by 60% to achieve an equal level with women’s work (Ohio State University Extension Factsheet, ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5316.html). This distribution of labor has changed compared with earlier generations, as more women have gone out to work and traditional ideas have broken down. The majority of both men and women think that the jobs predominantly done by women in the home should be equally shared. But they are not. Women spend more hours a week on household chores, even when both partners work full-time.
  • Women are subjected to a tremendous amount of violence related to their role as women. 21% of women experience sexual harassment at their workplaces (2002 Employment Law Alliance survey). Every day four women die in this country as a result of domestic violence — that’s approximately 1,400 women a year, according to the FBI. One out of every three women will be raped in her lifetime (FBI, 1994).
  • Culture in capitalist society is full of portrayals of women which belittle and ignore the role they play and the contribution they make to society, often representing them as sex objects for the enjoyment of and domination by men or as a means to sell products. Usually only one body type is presented in the media and advertisements – a very tall, thin, often white woman who generally meets the weight criteria for anorexia as 15% below normal. There is overwhelming evidence that the current body shape promoted by the fashion, cosmetics, and media industries is physically unattainable for 99% of women.
  • The Harvard Eating Disorders Center reports that 80% of women wake up each morning feeling depressed about their appearance. One survey of sixth grade girls found that 70% first became concerned about their weight between ages 9 and 11 (Shisslak et al., 1998).
  • 5-10 million women and girls suffer from anorexia and/or bulimia. About 1 of every 10 people afflicted by anorexia will die of starvation, cardiac arrest, or another medical complication of the disease, making its death rate among the highest for a psychiatric disease (National Institute of Mental Health).
  • In many areas of the world, women are bought and sold as brides not just in agricultural societies but between ex-colonial countries and the advanced capitalist countries, where, for example, Filipinos are advertised on the Internet for sale to Western men. Sex tourism has been integrated into the economies of several ex-colonial countries. All this is the product of an ideology which consigns men and women to very rigid and restricted roles, which belittles the role women play, undermines their confidence, and tries to give the impression that this is all natural and unavoidable.

Is Inequality Natural?

Capitalism and earlier societies based on private property explain the position of women by “natural inferiority.” These explanations vary from the mythological explanations such as those in the bible, where a woman was created as an afterthought because Adam was lonely. Eve was created from a spare rib and, due to her weakness of character, everything has gone wrong ever since.

Other explanations, as religion gave way to science as the main means of justifying capitalist policies, were that women’s brains were smaller than men’s, their shoulders and hips were a different shape, and that they were governed by their emotions, physically weaker, and less rational than men.

Most of these explanations, although popular from time to time, seem ludicrous or hypocritical today. For example, the difference between men and women’s wages was justified because men did work which was more physically demanding. When it came to allocating wages and salaries amongst men, however, physical strength was devalued in favor of dexterity and skill or intellectual activity.

The Family

The most relevant explanations of women’s role are those which link it to the family. Conservatives assert that the nuclear family as we know it today – a man, dependent wife and dependent children – has always existed and is the natural and best way of organizing society.

They say that women’s low pay is justified because work is secondary to bringing up a family. Since a woman will spend most of her adult life depending financially on a male breadwinner, therefore she can be paid less, and any attempt to deviate from this role by women remaining single, for example, or by living as single parent families will lead to socially disastrous consequences.

Conservative Republicans – often echoed by Democratic politicians – have blamed many of the symptoms of social degeneration, such as increased crime and vandalism, on such developments. Quite apart from replying to such ideological attacks, an understanding of the family is vital to an understanding of women’s oppression.

What Role Does the Family Play as a Social Institution?

When most people think of the family, they think of their relatives – mothers, fathers, partners, children etc. Obviously personal relationships, friendships, and practical cooperation between people have always existed. They are one of the main features of human development. But it’s important to understand that when politicians and many commentators refer to the family, they are referring to a social institution. It is a unit of organization which is part of the social structure of capitalism.

(a) The ideal family of capitalist ideology is a unit based on the economic dependence of “non-productive” members of the household on an individual wage earner, traditionally the man, has been identified as the head of the household. The obvious implication of this, very useful to capitalism, is that the full financial burden is borne by the family without recourse to the state. The family, of course, does not have the material or psychological resources to carry such burdens. At various points in history this led to starvation, malnourishment, and disease.

The isolation of women in the home as sole caretakers for pre-school children is a major source of depression and nervous problems. Some alleviation was brought about by the welfare state in Europe, although to a much lesser extent in the U.S. This was partly a recognition by capitalism that to produce a workforce capable of operating industry and to avoid social revolt, concessions would have to be made. It is also the result of the struggle by working-class men and women who found the family incapable of carrying such burdens.

However, right from the beginning the economic dependence of women was built into the welfare system, which was based on reinforcing the patriarchal family. So widows were treated as “deserving poor,” whereas divorcees were regarded as responsible for their own poverty, forced to seek alimony or left to fend for themselves and survive as best they could.

The financial dependence of wives on their partners is central to capitalism’s views of the family. Whenever possible they attempt to maintain a financial relationship when personal relationships break down. The Bush administration, for example, spent $300 million for marriage promotion and counseling to women on welfare, as if pressuring women to return to their former husbands were a solution to poverty caused by the capitalist system.

(b) Within the family, women carry out unpaid domestic labor in terms of servicing other members of the family through cooking, cleaning, washing, and repairing clothes. They also care for children, and in some cases elderly or sick relatives.

In 1998 the value of unpaid domestic household work was estimated to be worth a total of $1.911 trillion. This amounted to nearly one quarter the size of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) that year. It is also estimated that 80% of the labor that keeps seniors out of nursing homes and off the government’s Medicaid and Medicare budget is performed by unpaid female family members. None of these roles are essential for the maintenance of good personal relationships.

It’s not necessary to care for the physical needs of a child 24 hours a day, 7 day a week to have a good personal relationship with the child. In fact, many mothers would say that it’s a positive advantage not to have to carry out such continuous care. This role, which leaves many women physically and emotionally exhausted, carried out in the isolation of the home, was alleviated to some degree by the limited development of day care and residential care for the elderly, by greater access to healthcare as well as the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, by education and nurseries and by a variety of other provisions.

This also provided jobs, often done by women for low pay, but as a social function, not in isolation. For these reasons, women have often fought hardest to establish and retain welfare provision. The rolling back of the welfare reforms threatens the small advances made by women in the course of the postwar boom.

Unfunded care in the community means a return to women in the home, caring in isolation for relatives with a range of complicated problems and needs which they are unable to meet. It means inadequate help, isolation, and hardship for women. This is one of the reasons for the current ideological offensive in relation to the family. It is a crude justification for cuts in public spending, by portraying such work as the natural role of women in the family.

(c) The family is also traditionally a unit of control. It has been organized as a hierarchy with the husband as the head of the household followed by the woman and children. In the past, law reflected the power which men had over women, of physical force and coercion, and which parents had over children. It’s only recently that domestic violence was seen as more than a man exercising his proper authority. As late as 1978, marital rape was illegal in only three states in the U.S.

It is to this tradition that capitalist politicians appeal, when they refer to the need for discipline in the family. They believe that it is an institution which must accustom its members to respect, or rather to obey, authority. In a class society, this doesn’t just apply to the head of the household but to those in authority in society – the state forces and the bosses.

In Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky highlights this aspect of the family to explain why Stalinism relied on the same form of the family as in capitalist society. In consolidating the bureaucracy’s power in the USSR, Stalin launched an ideological cult of the family.

“The retreat not only assumes forms of disgusting hypocrisy, but is also going infinitely further than iron economic necessity demands.” [This is a reference to the retreat from communal provision of the services and care, which otherwise women had to do in their own homes]. “To the objective causes producing this return to such bourgeois forms as the payment of alimony, there is added the social interest of the ruling stratum in deepening bourgeois law. The most compelling motive of the present cult of the family is undoubtedly the need of the bureaucracy for the stable hierarchy of relations, and for the disciplining of youth by means of 40,000,000 [a reference to the number of families] points of support for authority and power.”

Has the Family as We Know It Today Always Existed?

For years there has been a lively debate about the fundamental causes of women’s oppression. Opinions tend to revolve around two positions and sometimes contain elements of both. On the one side, an explanation is found in the origins and role of patriarchy, i.e. the institutionalized dominance of men in society. On the other side, the oppression of women is closely linked to the development of private property and class societies. The one does not exclude the other.

It’s possible, while recognizing the specific oppression of women, including ruling class women, to explain that oppression as arising from class society itself. Although opinions exist at both ends of the spectrum, most analysis gives recognition to the existence and relevance of both. The difference arises over what is fundamental. This debate matters a great deal since whether or not private property and class society is crucial to the oppression of women will effect the degree to which socialism, the class struggle, and the overthrow of capitalism are seen as relevant to the struggle for the liberation of women.

Engels wrote his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, at a time when official ideology pointed to a natural division of labor between women as the carers, slaves to their biology, restricted in what they do and even the way they think by their role as child-rearers and -bearers; and men, who “naturally” participated in public life, went out to work as the providers and protectors of their dependents. Any attempt to depart from this by women would have terrible repercussions in moral and mental illness.

But the hypocrisy of these views was becoming more apparent as capitalism in establishing the factory system, the developing textile industry, the service industries to the docks, etc. drew women out of their allocated sphere to work as cheap labor in the factory.

While the ruling class and increasing sections of the middle class aspired to live up to their ideology, working class women were becoming involved in organization and struggle. Even for some middle and upper class women this confinement was too much and the battle was under way for legal equality, access to the professions, to share in the economic and social position of the men of their own class. Some of them, at least temporarily, made common cause with working class women over the vote. Such cross class alliances, while temporarily quite effective, often foundered on disagreements on the methods to be used in the struggle or, for example, on whether the demand should be for universal suffrage (including African Americans as opposed to only white women) and whether the property qualification for the vote for men should be extended on the same basis to women.

It was in this period of change that Engels, using the data available to him at that time, tried to show that in the earliest societies, women had not occupied the inferior position allocated to them by capitalism, and that their systematic oppression was much more modern. As the title of the book suggests, he linked it to the development of private property – i.e. the private ownership of the means of production – and the state.

The basic position of Marxism on the biology versus environment debate is that biology obviously plays a role in enabling and restricting what humans can do. But one of the main features of the development of human society is the role played by culture, i.e. by technology, knowledge, traditions and ideas. Even if it were the case that the inequality of women was based on the division of labor between men and women in relation to childbearing, there is no reason in modern society why this should continue to be decisive.

The struggle for maternity rights and childcare illustrate the potential for breaking down such a division of labor. It is a social and political decision whether it should be done or not. In his Theses on Feuerbach Marx wrote:

“The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that therefore changed men are a product of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances.” (Marx used ‘men’ where today we would use “people” as a generic term).

Why Does It Matter What Happened in Early Societies?

If it is the case, as some people argue, that the role and position of women is rooted in biology, then clearly it is more difficult to change their position than if it arises from the way a particular society is organized, where the possibility would exist to change the position of women by changing the way production and social structures are organized.

Similarly, if we believe that the fundamental power structure is primarily to ensure the dominance of men over women, then the struggle for women’s liberation is by women against men. If the basic power structures perpetuate the rule of class but, as part of that class rule, institutions also entrenched a more powerful position for men, then there would be struggle by women around their own oppression but that would tend to converge with the class struggle. At the same time, a battle against capitalism would address the discrimination and specific oppression of women.

What Happened in Early Societies?

Firstly, (a) Although anthropology and archaeology were much less developed than today, the main conclusions drawn by Engels are borne out by more recent studies. The earliest societies are usually referred to as hunter-gatherer societies. Their name expresses the division of labor which were a feature of these societies where women would gather plant food and men hunted. This was an extremely successful partnership as the ability of humans to exist on such a varied diet allowed them to colonize almost every area of the planet.

Those who try to portray inequality as fundamental to human society point to this division of labor as evidence that it is biological or “natural.” But this is to regard early societies through the eye of capitalism. Just because people play a different roles in society doesn’t mean they have to be unequal. Nor is there any fundamental reason why the bearing and raising of children, vital to the continuation of society, should relegate those responsible to an inferior position. As we’ll explain, the reason for this lies in class society.

(b) Aggression or Cooperation. Aligned to some of these arguments is the theory of “Man the Hunter” as a justification for women’s inferior position. Some argue that because meat was scarce – plant food contributed usually at least 75% of the diet – meat and therefore men, must have had a higher status. Although this scarcity may have led to meat being prized and its appearance celebrated, there is also evidence that in other societies, e.g. those which developed horticulture, women’s role was esteemed as was the bearing of children. That again does not argue for different status or oppression. In fact, one of the most striking features of early societies is the absence of hierarchies.

In subsistence economies, the contribution of everyone was vital to the maintenance of life. There was no surplus produced, so no means through which differences in status could be expressed and no specialized roles through which power could be exercised.

The more popular argument is that the willingness of men to use violence and domination is a fundamental feature of human society. This is assumed to effect not just a division of labor but the very character of men and women. Men are described as dominant and aggressive, women as docile and caring.

Raymond Dart, who wrote, among other material, an essay entitled The predatory transition from ape to man, and Desmond Morris in The Naked Ape, have popularized crude misrepresentations of the “nature” of both animals and humans.

They have found an echo among both right-wing politicians, who use these ideas to justify expenditure on weapons, and some feminists to explain the oppression of women. Such arguments misrepresent the Darwinian idea of the “survival of the fittest” as the most aggressive rather than the best adapted. Hunting is portrayed as an act of aggression or violence. This shows an ignorance of the character of early societies and of hunting itself.

In many early societies, hunting was preceded and sometimes coexisted with scavenging, which involves no violence but the opportunistic carving of meat from something which had already died. Secondly, the evidence from existing hunter-gatherer societies is that women participate in the tracking of animals in the course of their gathering, and the trapping of small animals. Hunters’ knowledge of the behavior and habits of animals, as well as cooperation and stealth, are all important if they are to get close enough to kill the animal. The amount of violence is minimal.

There is an attempt in this theory to confuse different sorts of behavior, i.e. the act of killing an animal for food which otherwise you would have no animosity towards, and acts of aggression related to social violence and warfare.

Aggression and violence are obviously part of the wide range of human actions and attitudes. However, they are no more fundamental to early societies than many others.

If a single feature of humans were to be chosen as having contributed most to the development of human society, it would be cooperation, with its major impact on the development of language, technology, social living, and the sharing of resources and knowledge. There would certainly be an evolutionary disadvantage for any species where violence was continually directed at other members of the same group, especially when life was so precarious.

Parallels have also been drawn with aggression among animals. Such comparisons can in any case be misleading, as humans have a highly developed culture. Nonetheless, an examination of the behavior of animals would lead to the general conclusion that aggression and territoriality is not constant but is linked to lifestyle.

For example, fish on coral reefs with limited space and food available will defend their territory aggressively, while fish which range more widely and live in shoals show no aggression to one another. In other examples, the same animal or bird will be more or less aggressive, depending on the space for nesting, food, etc. In other words aggression is just one form of behavioral response to the environment.

Modern anthropology shows that the conclusions drawn by Engels in his book and in his essay on the Role of Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man were broadly correct. It was the fashioning of tools, not weapons, and the importance of labor which gave humans an important advantage in being able to shape and change their environment. These tools not only included the scrapers and cutters used for cutting meat and cleaning animal skins but also digging sticks and carrier bags used by women, which made of less durable material, would have perished.

(c) Did families exist? Although Engels refers to “marriage” in early societies, what he and most recent anthropologists describe is not the nuclear family of capitalist society but pairing relationships, often temporary, which had no impact on the economic position of women and children. Early societies were organized loosely around groups of blood relatives.

But such groups often incorporated other unrelated individuals. These groups were working relationships. The economic security of any individual in the group depended on the viability of the group as a whole. Although Engels, resting on the information available to him, puts forward a scheme of relationships progressing from general “promiscuity” to pairing relationships foreshadowing monogamy, it’s clear from an overview of subsequent anthropology that relationships were much more flexible and varied than this. They were a matter of choice in the context of the lifestyle of particular groups. All societies need not have passed through the same stages in the form taken by particular relationships until other factors intervened.

Early societies, looked at objectively, show a great variety of arrangements. The need to survive in a particular environment was fundamental. Social relationships which worked and improved the situation in a given environment were adopted.

(d) Engels refers to “mother right” or “matrilineal” societies – the tracing of kinship through the female line. Engels attached importance to them because he was writing in a society which was patrilinear and strongly patriarchal, trying to show that this has not always been the case. In fact, in early societies and existing hunter-gatherer societies, both types of kinship systems existed. Usually they were related to the type of food “production.”

Societies dominated by hunting tended to be patrilinear, while those which progressed from gathering to early forms of agriculture and horticulture were matrilineal. Again, this describes a social arrangement, not a power structure. It was the way individuals related to the group. Because membership of a group arose from your relationship with your mother, doesn’t mean that therefore women or the mother was in charge or had power over the rest of the group. They were not matriarchal societies. In these societies decisions were made by those who carried them out and consensus was used to take decisions which related to the whole community. Humanity spent most of its history in these societies until the development of class-based societies some 8-10,000 years ago.

How Did This Change?

The forces which gave rise to the fundamental features of the family as a social institution arose as these early societies developed. Some hunter-gatherer societies have been extremely resilient and have existed, living a similar lifestyle through to modern society, or at least until imperialism altered or destroyed them. Others branched out into new areas, when the struggle for food posed them with new challenges. In the area which is today the Middle and Far East, very productive agricultural and pastoral societies developed in river valleys. As societies became more productive, contradictions began to arise within them, which led to massive social changes.

As they developed a surplus, as their population and the area in which they were settled expanded, a greater differentiation of roles took place, allowing for specialists in particular skills and crafts and a stratum of administrators. Initially, these people administered the surplus or access to water supplies on behalf of the community. In some societies, they administered a special store which was used in times of hardship or to cater for visitors and festivals. As societies developed at different paces, some of the surplus was used to provide for war parties to plunder or colonize neighboring areas.

It seems likely that these were among the groups who developed into a ruling class. There was also differential developments among kinship groups, depending on the productivity and fertility of particular pieces of land. Gradually, these developments set up contradictions between the production of wealth and common ownership. Goods for use were replaced, as the surplus developed, by commodities for exchange.

There were many other developments: specialization of labor in connection with trade; warfare to control trade; intensive work on land, unequal access to land, and eventually the privatization of the best land; competition among lineage groups leading to individual families as economic units; institutionalization of political functions; distinction between the public and private spheres; difference in economic status expressed in classes; and the subjugation of women as part of a patriarchal family structure.

The institutionalized subjugation of women was part of this transition to class society. Engels’ conclusion after his examination of this transition was:

“Thus monogamy does not make its appearance in history as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest form of such reconciliation. On the contrary, it appears as the subjection of one sex by the other, as the proclamation of conflict between the sexes entirely unknown hitherto in prehistoric times. Monogamy inaugurated, along with slavery and private wealth, that epoch, lasting until today, in which every advance is likewise a relative regression, in which the well being and development of one group are attained by the misery and repression of the other.”

A significant development of the family for western societies, and through imperialism for much of the rest of the world, arose in Roman society based on slavery. Through the influence of Roman culture on Christianity, many of the laws and traditions associated with the family in capitalist society have their origins in the Roman “familia.”

The Roman family of the wealthy classes was a legal, educational, and religious institution. But it was also a household through which private ownership and economic activity was organized. It included the male head of the household, his wife and children, apprentices, and slaves. The head of the household had the power of physical chastisement and even of life and death over all the members of the household.

Punishments for sexual transgressions were severe for women and non-existent for men. From its origins, violence, and coercion were built into the family as a social institution. The fact that violence was and is not more widespread is due to the conflicting roles of the family as a social institution, while being for the majority also the way in which their personal relationships are arranged.

In these societies where goods were being produced for exchange, not just for use, women were seen very much as commodities. They were used in marriage to form alliances which enriched particular families, and their chastity was extremely important. It was important for the head of the household to be sure that any children produced were his to inherit his property and that this property was not dissipated by claims from “illegitimate”children.

Women were generally confined to the home and guarded. Marriage and divorce, initiated by men only, were business contracts. Adultery was a crime against property, as was rape. Even today, the divorce laws and procedure concern themselves, not so much with ending a personal relationship which has broken down as amicably and easily as possible, but with the allocation of property as well as the custody of children, which until this century was always given to the father in wealthy families.

Hierarchical, patriarchal families were backed up by the full weight of the state. But this was the family system of the ruling class. As Marx explains in The German Ideology, this family form is referred to as “the bourgeois family” because, “marriage, property, the family…are the practical means on which the bourgeoisie has erected its domination” – this form of household was the way in which the capitalist class organized its existence as a property owning class. This is an important point. The family, and with it the subjugation of women, flowed from property relations and the system of production, and was not the cause.

Obviously this family did not apply to slaves, who owned no property but were considered the property of others. Slaves were allowed no personal or family life of any kind. Partners were sold separately at the whim of the owner. Parents could be separated from children. But because the ruling class controlled religion, law, any education and other forms of communication, this form of household, was held up as the ideal for society at large. Many propaganda campaigns were waged, with varying degrees of success, especially through religion, to try to enforce it on the rest of society. Far from being natural, it required draconian laws and the exclusion of women, at least of the ruling class, from public life and work.

Why Did Men Become the Dominant Sex and Why Did Women Not Revolt?

As society became more complex, in what was a lengthy transitional period, the divisions of labor between different families and men and women became more complex and produced different results. The main wealth of many of the societies, which made this transition, was in pastoral activities and forms of agriculture associated with the labor of men. Likewise, as very lucrative trade developed as an offshoot of their activities along with warfare, the wealth generated also became closely associated with men.

There is no evidence of any revolt against this institutionalization of male dominance. Hunter-gatherer societies had no state, there was no power system to overthrow or to defend the old society. The women most affected also benefited from the new arrangements. They belonged to the kinship groups who were rising above the rest of society, accumulating wealth and power. Their existence was becoming relatively more comfortable and secure.

This process set up a contradiction for ruling class women, which still exists today. On the one side, they are oppressed as women. They are affected by domestic violence, rape and by the cultural stereotyping of women in capitalist society. However, they benefit economically and socially from the class system, from the exploitation of working class people which gave rise to this form of the family. If they want to achieve equality and liberation as women, then they would have to make common cause with the working class in its struggle against capitalism – a commitment which few have made.

As subjugation was institutionalized, there were protests by women. The following is a speech made by a Roman Consul around 200 BC after a demonstration by women against new restrictions on their clothing and activity. It exemplifies both the attitude towards women and links their protest to those of subjugated classes:

“Romans, if every married man had made sure that his own wife looked up to him and respected his marital authority, we should not have half this trouble with women in general. But now, having let female insubordination triumph in our homes, we find our privileges trodden and trampled on in the public forum. We have failed to control each woman individually and we find ourselves quailing before a body of them. (We cannot allow) laws to be imposed on us by demonstrating women, as done formerly by a secession of the common people… Woman is a violent and uncontrolled animal, and it is useless to let loose the reins and not expect her to kick over the traces. If you allow them to achieve complete equality with men, do you think they will be easier to live with? Not atall.”

Alongside women, of course, the vast majority of men lost control over their own lives, as they became part of the exploited classes. The law and custom gave them power within their own families; domestic work was unequally distributed, and so were formal rights in society. However, the family also imposed on them the responsibility for the economic well-being of dependent women and children.

Men are expected to work throughout their adult lives, and when unemployment leaves them unable to fulfill this role, they often suffer ill health, depression, and even suicide. Having to provide economically for a wife and children is also seen by the capitalists as a form of discipline, which will make them think twice before, for example, going on strike. Although ruling class women withdrew from productive labor, the same is not true of peasant or working class women who did casual and seasonal work or to some degree were involved in employment under capitalism. At the end of the nineteenth century a mother’s role consisted not only in ensuring that her husband’s wages went as far as possible, but she would often supplement those earnings through her own casual work.

Alongside the development of the family, the view of women as property or a commodity and the separation of family relations, which amongst the ruling class was primarily for the production of heirs, and of sex and personal relations, was accompanied by the rise of prostitution, pornography, violence against women and the cultural stereotyping familiar today. These were and are two sides of the same coin.

The Family in Capitalist Society

Although we’ve described this form of the family as the “bourgeois” family, the ruling class has always tried to impose its own ideas and institutions on the rest of society. Propaganda campaigns were run, particularly at crucial stages in the development of feudalism and capitalism.

For example, in an attempt to undermine the feudal lords by the monarchy, religion was used to promote the man as the head of the individual family and to draw a parallel with the king as the head of the society, weakening the connection between individual families and the feudal lord.

In 1609, King James I of England said, “Kings are compared to fathers in families.” A similar campaign was run at the beginning of the eighteenth century in France, prompting Montesquieu, a philosopher, to comment that there was clearly a link between “the servitude of women” and “despotic government.”

The family as a social institution has been a feature of all societies based on private property. Its form has sometimes changed. For example, the extended family of agricultural societies gave way to the nuclear family with industrialization and the mobility of labor required by it. Capitalism, while it adopted and molded feudal institutions, including the family, also set in train other developments, which have undermined the family as a social institution and have laid the basis for the liberation of women.

The most important of these is the drawing of women into productive work outside of the home. While this in itself does not liberate women – it simply means more work – it develops a consciousness of the possibilities of collective action to fight for their rights. Through social contact at work, women see that many of their “personal” problems – for example, domestic violence or those associated with bringing up children – are actually not personal but social problems.

This raises morale – they stop blaming themselves – and it offers the possibility through collective action of finding solutions to these problems. Women workers have always seen the trade union movement as a legitimate place to raise social as well as workplace issues.

Women workers were involved in the formation of the earliest trade unions and in struggle. The difference today is the degree and relative continuity of women’s participation in the workforce. Even for those women not in paid employment, their dependence on the pay of working-class men has meant a tendency to be involved in spite of the difficulties caused by their role in the family, their isolation in individual households, and the prejudice they often encountered in the labor movement, reflecting the ideology promoted by capitalism. So apart from their involvement in trade unions, they have been involved in labor movement women’s auxiliary groups and strike support groups.

The development of social welfare programs, as limited as they were in the U.S., gave women an insight into what could be possible if resources were allocated and control given to those who used and provided the services. The post-war boom, along with higher living standards and better housing, allowed women to enjoy better health and safer childbirth and pregnancies. Federally funded programs and the public sector also had a major effect on the lives of middle-class women, opening up new employment opportunities, as well as providing services which they also often used.

Because of the double oppression working-class women and many middle-class women face, the struggles they involve themselves in can take a variety of forms. Their struggle takes place sometimes around the same issues and through the same organization as men, e.g. on wages or conditions. At other times it varies. For example, women tend to predominate on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, etc.

Is the Family Disintegrating?

The alleged disintegration of the family is a theme of politicians and commentators alike. The increase in the number of divorces, cohabiting couples, and single parents have all been blamed for social problems, pointed to as indicating irresponsibility. They have been explained by the “permissive sixties.”

Cohabitation, remarriage, and birth outside marriage are not new. Historians have estimated that between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century, as many as a fifth of all couples in England and Wales were cohabiting, either as a prelude or an alternative to marriage. The rate of illegitimacy also rose to unprecedented levels. In 18th century Concord, Massachusetts, one-third of the babies were born out of wedlock. A New England midwife of the era noted that 38 percent of the 814 births she attended were the result of extramarital relationships. Undoubtedly, social services, welfare benefits, and the increased participation of women in the workforce have allowed many women to live independently, even if this was in extreme poverty.

So the family has never been universally established as the only way to organize a household and relationships. In addition, as a social institution, because it established inequality between the partners and condoned the use of coercion and violence, it undermined personal relationships. Many women rebelled against their treatment and families fell apart, no matter whether the economy was in recession or boom.

It is also the case that financial problems can undermine relationships. In a British survey in 1990, when asked what makes a happy marriage, 86% said the quality of personal relationships, 34% an adequate income and 33% said decent housing. Other research in the same year showed that male unemployment led to a 70% increase in the likelihood of a marriage breakingdown.

It would be too crude to argue that unemployment is the sole cause of domestic violence or marriages breaking down. Women also experience unemployment, poverty, bad housing, and isolation. However, they do not usually respond by using violence against their partner. It would also be a slur on the unemployed. As it is, there is well-documented domestic violence in the wealthiest of families.

It is often a combination of factors which leads to the breakdown of relationships. People are undoubtedly trying to organize their lives in the way which is best both practically and personally for them. The main difficulties are caused by a ruling class which will not recognize this variety and insists on organizing work, benefits, housing, childcare, resources and facilities as if the nuclear family were universal, because that is what serves its interests better.

What Difference Would Socialism Make?

A socialist society, by bringing together the economic resources of society through a planned economy, would make available the current wealth, as well as generating new wealth for the use of the whole of society.

Part of this wealth would be allocated to the provision of services to take off the shoulders of individual families, particularly of women, the burdens capitalism imposes.

For example, free universal healthcare would relieve women of the responsibility they take for providing care for sick and elderly relatives. Full provision for the elderly, from nursing homes to house visits, would not only assist women carers but provide seniors with more independence from their children.

Through the provision of childcare for all children whose parents want to use it, it would be possible both for parents to pursue education and work as well as have some leisure separate from their children.

Children would also benefit from contact with a wider range of adults and children in a safe, stimulating environment. This would improve rather than undermine relations between parents and young children.

As more women have gone out to work, fast food chains have developed. However, these are done for profit and the variety and quality of food can be questionable. Under socialism, it would be possible to provide good quality, cheap chains of restaurants so that there would be a choice of eating ready-prepared food or cooking at home.

Provision of affordable housing would allow people to establish and end relationships, depending on the quality of those relationships, without the fear of subjecting themselves or their children to homelessness or squalor.

It would also be possible, on the basis of providing a basic income for all, for women to achieve economic independence, to overcome the poverty in which many working class women now spend their lives, and to allow a real choice of relationships.

But socialism is much more than just a more equitable economic system. The change in economic relations, the abolition of class society, and the construction of a society based on democratic involvement and cooperation would also change social relations in society away from hierarchies and the oppression and abuse of one group by another.

Both men and women would be able to participate in running society and would gain their self-esteem from that, rather than through the exercise of power over others. This would be reflected in the ideology and the culture of a socialist society.

The transformation of society would liberate women from the double oppression they experience in capitalist society. The role of the family, as a social institution, would be replaced by community provision and responsibility for the well being of its members, leaving personal relationships to be pursued without the pressures which often undermine and limit them today.

Further Readings:

Fighting for Women: Rights and Socialism, Socialist Party of England and Wales

The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, Friedrich Engels

Hidden from History, Sheila Rowbottom

The Rising of the Women, Meredith Tax

One Hand Tied Behind Us, Jill Liddington and Jill Norris

The People of the Lake or Origins, Richard Leakey

Myths of Male Dominance, Eleanor Leacock Burke

Revolution Betrayed, Chapter 7, LeonTrotsky

Women and the Family, Leon Trotsky

Women in Soviet Society, Gail Lapidus

The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, Ruth Rosen