Chapter 1: Have Women Always Been Oppressed?

“Men have broad shoulders and narrow hips, and accordingly they possess intelligence. Women have narrow shoulders and broad hips. Women ought to stay at home; the way they were created indicates this, for they have broad hips and a fundament to sit upon, keep house and bear and raise children.”


For centuries biologically based arguments have been used to portray inequality and the “division of labor” between men and women as “natural” and “eternal” – with women having responsibility for children and the family and men being the economic providers.

Today, most women would burst out laughing if they were told that they earn less money than men because they have broad hips, because their brains are smaller, or because of their reproductive organs. Science and social attitudes have moved on! But even in the 21st century, some evolutionary psychologists tell us that “universal” behaviors such as male promiscuity, rape, and violence against women – and even men not doing laundry – are determined by our genes, which are the product of natural selection. The arguments may have become more “sophisticated,” but the idea that “biology is destiny” has not disappeared.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the women’s movement set itself the goal of challenging male dominance in all its forms and had an important effect on attitudes and social policy. But some feminist ideas were themselves rooted in biological differences between men and women – focusing on women’s “caring” and “nurturing” natures and men’s “violence” and “aggression.” Other strands of feminism eschewed these more extreme forms of biological determinism. They concentrated instead on social structures – in particular patriarchy, which has many different definitions but can be summed up as the institutionalised dominance of women by men in society. But whether they focus on biology or social structures or a combination of both, most feminist theories view male supremacy as universal and having existed for all time, regardless of the economic basis of society. Socialists and Marxists, however, argue that the oppression which women experience today has not always existed but is rooted in the rise of societies based on private property and divided into classes – a process which began to take place around 10,000 years ago.

These differences might appear at first sight to be hair-splitting, with little relevance for the struggle today. But that is not the case. For socialists and Marxists, theory is a guide to action – to changing what is wrong with the world. If patriarchy exists as a social structure independent of class society, then the conclusion could be drawn that the main struggle – perhaps even the only struggle – that needs to be waged is one by women against men. This has in fact been the position of many feminists. Socialists and Marxists, however, view male dominance, both in its origin and in its current form, as intrinsically linked to the structures and inequalities of class society. The decisive struggle is therefore a class struggle, in which the struggles by women against their own oppression are connected with those of the working class in general for a fundamental restructuring of society to end all inequality, oppression, and the dominance of one gender over another.

The Origin of the Family

The most famous Marxist contribution to the discussion of women’s oppression is The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which was written by Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s closest political collaborator. Published in 1884, the ideas in this book were politically explosive – challenging not just the prevailing ideology about the roles of men and women in society but the whole social system itself.

In the Origin of the Family, Engels took the Marxist method and applied it to existing archaeological, anthropological, and historical evidence to develop his revolutionary ideas on how and why women came to be oppressed and how they could be liberated. He argued that people’s social arrangements and the institutions, ideas, and values in society are products of particular historical circumstances. So, for example, the family unit of male head of household and economically dependent wife and children was not, as existing capitalist ideology maintained, a natural, eternal, and unchanging institution. Societies had existed where the “bourgeois family,” as Engels termed it, had not been the basic unit of society – other social arrangements had predominated and women were not systematically oppressed.

When the economic basis of society changes, wrote Engels, as new methods of production develop, then institutions and beliefs also change, albeit in a complex and non-mechanical way. And if this had been the case in the past, then it could also be the case in the future. A transformation of the economic basis of society from capitalism to socialism would in turn alter social relations and lay the basis for ending all social inequalities and achieving the liberation of women.

These were powerful arguments which undermined official ideology – representing capitalist institutions as fixed and unchanging – and potentially threatened the continued existence of the capitalist system itself which relies on unequal social relations, including those between men and women in the family and in society generally to maintain the status quo.

Engels wrote the Origin of the Family over 130 years ago when archaeological and anthropological evidence was extremely scant in comparison with today. Inevitably some of the details which he outlines in the book have been proven incorrect in the light of subsequent scientific advances (particularly true of the first part of the book). Nevertheless, research by anthropologists over the years has vindicated the general thrust of Engels’ analysis (Myths of Male Dominance, 1981, Politics and History in Band Society, 1989). There is ample evidence to show that societies existed in the past which were not organized on the basis of private property and the division of society into classes, where there were no institutionalized hierarchical and exploitative social relations and women were not systematically dominated or oppressed by men.

Such societies are usually referred to as “hunter-gatherer,” because of their economic basis and account for 99% of human history. The basic social organization of these societies was the kinship group, whose size would vary depending on the environment. While most people in the group would be biologically related to each other, this was not necessarily the case. These were subsistence economies, with members of the group producing just enough to satisfy their immediate needs, and in general they were organized around a division of labor based on sex, with men hunting and women gathering fruit, nuts, berries, etc. Women also usually had the main responsibility for childcare.

Division of Labor

Despite clear evidence backing up Engels’ core argument that class-based societies and women’s oppression have only existed for a fraction of humanity’s existence and that conditions can change, this has not gone unchallenged. Strands of sociology have argued that since this division of labor existed in early societies, and men and women have continued to assume different roles throughout history, these differences must have a genetic base, that they represent behaviour which is the result of genes that have been selected over time because of their importance for the survival of the species.

Some pro-capitalist sociologists and psychologists have argued, even in the relatively recently, that it is natural and socially expedient that men should go out to work and “hunt” to provide for the family while women stay at home and look after the children and the household. At the same time, they said that “man the hunter” is by nature aggressive, competitive, dominant, and promiscuous while women are genetically programmed to be nurturing, passive, and monogamous. These ideas are certainly more isolated today, yet the underlying claims and expectations are still part of gender norms.

Some feminists have also attributed women’s oppression to innate male aggression and the fact that men are physically more powerful than women and therefore able to assert control over them, particularly over their sexuality (Susan Brownmiller, Against Our Will, 1975).

Sociobiologists have often referred to aggressive and dominant behavior in other animals to back up their arguments. However, studies of animals including primates – such as baboons and chimpanzees who share over 90% of our genetic makeup – show that animals display a vast variety of behaviors which are influenced by their environment and subject to change. Human behavior is biologically based, and biology places certain limits on what we can and cannot do. Human beings, for example, are not born with wings and therefore cannot naturally fly in the way that birds can.

Nevertheless, our culture has enabled us to develop the technology to manufacture airplanes which allow us to overcome our biological constraints and fly all over the world. It is this cultural evolution, which is the consequence of our ability to labor and control our natural environment, which distinguishes us from other animals and is the most important factor influencing most human behavior (Richard Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon Kamin, Not in Our Genes, 1984).

The picture that is usually painted of early societies is one of an aggressive male striding off alone with his spear in order to hunt down ferocious wild beasts and then come back to camp, victorious, with food to feed his dependent wife and children who are patiently waiting for him. Evidence of hunter-gatherer societies which have continued into the modern era suggests, in fact, that this is a false picture. Hunting, when it took place, was not generally a solitary, aggressive pursuit but involved group members cooperating together to stalk and catch their prey. There was often flexibility in the tasks which people undertook. Men would also play a role in caring for children, and in many societies women were, in fact, involved in scavenging and hunting, particularly if they were not pregnant or nursing small children. Gathering foodstuffs such as fruit and nuts (which accounted for the majority of the diet of hunter-gatherer societies) often involved women travelling long distances away from the group’s base.

In modern capitalist society, the system in which we currently live, the fact that women give birth to, and have the main responsibility for bringing up, children can place them at a big economic and social disadvantage. Lack of adequate or affordable childcare means that working-class women in particular are forced into part-time, low-paid, low-status insecure jobs. Taking time off to have children can seriously harm women’s future job prospects. Low pay and insecurity can make it difficult for women to leave unhappy or abusive relationships and, when they do, they can face severe economic hardship as a single parent.

Some feminists have drawn the conclusion that women were similarly disadvantaged in early societies because of the division of labor between men and women. But although, in general, women and men carried out different tasks, this does not mean that women were necessarily disadvantaged or that their work and the contribution they made to the group were devalued or considered inferior to those of men. Studies suggest that hunter-gatherer societies were organized on a cooperative, collective basis in which everyone’s contribution was valued and respected. Women and children were not economically dependent on a single male provider; all members of the group were dependent on each other for their economic and physical survival, sharing and working together. So if a couple split up (and personal relations were quite fluid) women and children would not necessarily be economically disadvantaged in any way. Looking after children was considered a common responsibility which benefited the whole group and not just that of an individual, private family.

Although some individuals might have had more prestige or influence within the group due to their wisdom, experience, and ability, decision-making was collective, with people making decisions about the activities for which they were responsible (Politics and History in Band Society, 1989) Individuals were not in a position to enforce their will on others, including men over women.

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

In the Origin of the Family, Engels argued that the “world historic defeat of the female sex” came about as a result of processes unleashed by revolutionary changes in methods of production – that is the domestication of animals and the cultivation of crops. A radical transformation in production and technique meant that group members no longer had to live from hand to mouth, hunting and gathering foodstuffs, but had the potential to produce over and above their immediate needs. This in turn led to the development of private ownership of the means of producing wealth, the division of society into classes of exploiters and exploited, and a state apparatus to maintain the economic control of the ruling class. Women’s oppression was intimately bound up with these developments which involved the rise of the patriarchal (male-dominated) family.

Although Engels made some mistakes in relation to detail, anthropologists agree that hunter-gatherer societies underwent a radical transformation around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, based on their newly discovered ability to domesticate animals and cultivate crops. This is often referred to as the Neolithic revolution – which, like all revolutions, was a process and not a single event, in this case taking place over thousands of years and arising independently in several parts of the world. Whereas previously most groups were compelled to move around to secure the foodstuffs they needed to survive, they were now able to stay in one place which led to a big growth in population.

Now that they could produce over and above their day-to-day requirements, it was possible for some members of the group to withdraw from production and to specialize in particular tasks. Groups and individuals became responsible for storing, guarding, and distributing the surplus, for trade and warfare and for organizing production, which conferred on them a certain prestige and status. To begin with, these tasks would have been carried out on behalf of the group as a whole. But it was from among these prestigious groups, individuals, and households that, in some societies, the first exploiting classes arose as, over time, the wealth at their disposal and the means of producing it, came to be considered their own private property which they could pass on to their own descendants.

Women’s Oppression

The general division of labor by sex had not disadvantaged women in the communal kinship group. But as this economic and social transformation unfolded, it was those tasks undertaken by men – organizing production through irrigation and ploughing, trading, administering the surplus, etc. – which lay the basis for both class rule and the systematic oppression of women (although, of course, not all men formed part of the ruling class). This was a lengthy, complicated and contradictory process, however, as new social forces and structures came into conflict with the old collective and communal ways of organizing society. It was as part of this process that individual households came to replace the kinship group as the main economic and social unit, with women becoming economically dependent and under the control and authority of men within the family. Over time this oppression became systematized and legitimized as a state apparatus developed.

So women’s oppression and class society have not developed as separate structures, but are interlinked, rooted in the same economic and social developments that took place thousands of years ago. Capitalism, the current dominant form of class society, has incorporated some of the social structures and ideology which existed in previous class societies, including the family and the second-class status of women. These have formed an essential part of the state apparatus in order to maintain the capitalists’ economic and social dominance. However, these have not remained unchanged, either compared to previous feudal or other class societies or as capitalism itself has developed over the past 300 years or so, but have instead been modified and adapted by economic, social, and political processes. And, as the family and women’s position in society have changed, they have in turn impacted wider social developments.