The word “family” comes from the Latin word “familia” – meaning the total number of slaves belonging to one man. It’s not just the word, however, that can be traced back to Roman slave society (an early form of class society) but many of the laws which have governed the family in capitalist society in Western Europe and the U.S. In fact, most of the discrimination and oppression which women continue to experience today in the Western world cannot be fully understood unless placed in that historical context.
The “patriarchal” family of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times was a hierarchical economic and social institution which invested in the male head of household – the “paterfamilias” – total authority over his wife, children, apprentices, and slaves – including, at least in theory, control over whether they should live or die. Economic production, based on the ownership and exploitation of slaves, was organized through the family, which was also a means of passing on wealth to male descendants of the ruling class. While couples who married might feel some love and affection for each other, marriage for the ruling, slave-owning class was primarily concerned with forming alliances with other families in order to increase their wealth and status.
Marriage and divorce played a similar role for the landowning aristocracy under feudalism, the class society which replaced ancient slave-based economies. Its main purpose was to obtain new land and allies while enhancing the power and wealth of the ruling elite. Songs and stories from the Middle Ages frequently referred to love as something quite separate from marriage. Similarly, with industrialization, the rising capitalist class used marriage as a means of consolidating and extending capital while furthering their economic and political ambitions.
This didn’t mean that couples had no feelings for each other, but marriage was mainly viewed as another business contract. Marriage and the family were important for inheritance, for passing on wealth to legal heirs, and divorce laws were primarily centered on dividing and allocating property. This has continued to be the case in most countries, with even children treated as the “property” of parents by the courts.
For those who were not from the ruling class, however, family reality was very different. Slaves in Roman society not only had no property; they were property themselves, forbidden by law to marry. Couples could be separated from each other and from their children and personal relationships ripped apart whenever a slave owner decided to sell his property. In the same way, as capitalism developed, the emerging working class, unlike the capitalist class, had little economic wealth to extend and consolidate for its children to inherit.
However, from the Medici family in Italy to the Hapsburg family in Austria to the Rockefellers in the United States, the ruling classes throughout history have held up their own family arrangements as the ideal, to be emulated by other classes in society. As the dominant economic class, they have also controlled the legal system, religion, science, education and ideas generally and used this control to consolidate and perpetuate their economic rule.
In Roman society, women were, in effect, commodities to be exchanged through marriage and divorce. Until they married, they were the property of their father, then authority and control passed to their husbands. Husbands expected complete obedience from their wives, and this was enshrined in the legal system. Early marriage laws “oblige the married women, as having no other refuge, to conform themselves entirely to the temper of the husbands and the husbands to rule their wives as necessary and inseparable possessions.” Whereas men were engaged in the “public” arena of politics, business, culture, etc., women’s role in society was normally confined to the family and the “private” sphere with restrictions placed on their appearance in public places. Women of the ruling class had the responsibility of overseeing and managing the household where their main function was to give birth to and raise the children who would inherit property and wealth. This was very different from hunter-gatherer societies where women’s caring role was a public, not a private, function carried out for the benefit of the whole kinship group and not an individual family.
Whereas women in early pre-class societies experienced sexual freedom and relationships were quite flexible, in slave society, women’s sexuality was heavily regulated and controlled, backed up by religion and the law. The worst crime that a woman of the ruling class could commit was adultery – adultery by women of other classes was not considered a problem. This was because men wanted to be able to guarantee the paternity of the children who would inherit their property – something completely unnecessary in an egalitarian communal society where there was no private ownership of the means of producing wealth. In Roman times, adultery, defined as sexual activity between a married woman and a man not her husband, was a crime against property (as was rape) punishable by divorce and even death.
The Roman censor Cato summed up this double standard in one of his speeches: “If you should take your wife in adultery, you may with impunity put her to death without a trial – but if you should commit adultery or indecency, she must not presume to lay a finger on you, nor does the law allow it.” Severe punishments were also meted out to women who drank wine, walked unveiled in the street, made poisons, and any other behavior which could lead to their committing adultery or aborting an unborn child. Men, on the other hand, were not expected to be monogamous and regularly took concubines or went with prostitutes. Prostitution in fact developed as the “other side” of the monogamous (for women) family.
Religion and Control Over Women
All over the world, since the existence of class society, various controls and restraints have been placed on women’s bodies and sexual freedom – from the wearing of the veil, to foot binding and the brutal practice of female genital mutilation aimed at denying women sexual pleasure.
Today, many of the most severe restrictions to which women are subjected internationally have become associated with Islam. In fact, Islam, which arose in the seventh century in Arabia, was quite enlightened in relation to women’s rights, given the prevailing attitudes to women at that time in most of the world, including Christian Europe. According to the Quran, women were permitted to inherit property, were expected to enjoy sex and had the right to divorce – rights which women in Europe were still fighting for well into the 19th century.
Practices such as the wearing of the veil, honor killings, or female genital mutilation are not specific to Islam but have also been imposed by other religions such as Hinduism and Christianity. The incarceration of thousands of women such as “unwed mothers” – deemed to be “fallen” for having challenged moral norms – in the Catholic-run Magdalene Laundries in Ireland is a stark example of vicious mistreatment in a modern, Western society.
Women’s sexuality was being controlled long before the rise of Islam, from the time that the first class societies emerged. But as Islam spread throughout the world, it adopted practices which were already being enforced in the conquered territories and then integrated and incorporated them in the interests of the ruling elite. In all class societies, religion has been used by the economically-dominant class to legitimize inequality and oppression in order to maintain its economic and social control.
The Quran is the product of the society and times in which it was written and it is open to many different interpretations. The right-wing fundamentalist rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, enforced a brutal oppression of women. There, and in other countries, women have risked their lives to fight against restrictions imposed by reactionary theocratic regimes, including the mandatory wearing of the burqa.
The veil is historically a symbol of oppression which progressive women, including in Muslim societies, have fought against. However, it is not necessarily viewed as oppressive by all Muslim women who wear it in the West. There are many reasons why they might freely choose to wear the hijab (or, less often, the full veil or niqab): as a means of asserting their identity in the face of increased racism and Islamophobia; as a statement of solidarity with Muslims facing oppression around the world; or as an act of defiance against imperialist aggression. Some also view it as empowering and liberating – a reaction against a capitalist society which objectifies women – forcing people to see them as individuals and not as merely bodies or sex objects.
Socialists and Marxists oppose and expose the role that all organised religions have historically played, and continue to play today, in maintaining inequality, exploitation, and oppression. At the same time, we support an individual’s right to freedom of religious expression. Women should not be forced to wear the veil against their will, but they should also have the right to wear it if they choose to. So we have supported the struggles by women in Iran, for example, for democratic, religious, and personal freedoms and those of young female Muslims in France and other parts of Europe for the right to be able to wear the headscarf in schools and workplaces. Socialists have also backed the struggles of women in many countries who have challenged the role of religious fundamentalists in denying women reproductive rights.
Violence Against Women
Under capitalism, the stereotypical representations of women which abound in the media, advertising, and general culture have their roots in the rise of class society. The same is true of violence against women. Worldwide, women aged 15-44 are more likely to be maimed or die from violence at the hands of men than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, or war combined. Even in the developed industrialized countries, a quarter of women at some time in their lives will suffer from domestic violence.
Many reasons have been advanced in an effort to explain why this abuse still continues today at such a high level.
Some people blame economic problems such as unemployment and bad working conditions. But such a crude “economic reductionist” explanation is completely inadequate. Domestic violence takes place across all social classes and is not just confined to the poor and the working class. Alcohol is also often cited as a cause. However, while some perpetrators are abusive after drinking alcohol, others are violent while completely sober. Alcohol, like unemployment, long working hours, and the general pressures and strains of life in capitalist society can contribute to and trigger domestic abuse, but they are not the underlying cause.
Women also suffer from stress. In fact, it could be argued that, as working-class women usually have to juggle work and assume most of the responsibility of looking after children and the home, their lives are even more stressful than those of men. Sometimes women will themselves resort to violence within relationships, but the overwhelming majority of domestic violence is perpetrated by men against women.
So why is it that men feel justified in using violence in situations where women normally do not? Male abusers often seek to justify their behavior by blaming the women themselves: they provoked them by saying something that set them off, by not getting a meal on the table in time, not keeping the house clean, or the children quiet. As a consequence, many women who experience domestic violence, especially if the abuse continues over a period of years, come to believe – incorrectly – that the violence is their own fault. They may then try to modify their behavior, to avoid anything which might “provoke” the abuser, but the violence and abuse does not stop; in fact, in many cases it escalates.
From the “excuses” given by male perpetrators, it is clear that traditional beliefs about the need for women to be loyal and obedient to their husbands and men having the right to use fear and coercion to keep them “in their place” still influence behavior and attitudes today. The hierarchical, patriarchal family based on male authority and control served the economic and social needs of the ruling slave-owning class in Roman times. And the family has continued as a social institution central to all class societies, although its form, of course, has not remained the same.
In the feudal societies of medieval Europe, for example, the family of the landowning aristocracy was organized differently to that of the peasant/serf household which was an economic unit at the center of production of goods consumed by themselves and the Lord of the Manor. Feudal society was hierarchical, with God at the top and the peasants/serfs at the bottom. Everyone knew their place in a rigid order based on obedience to authority and unequal rights and responsibilities.
The patriarchal peasant family, with male authority sanctioned by the legal system and legitimized by God and King, both reflected and reinforced the hierarchy of society in general and functioned as a means of social control. The double oppression peasant women suffered was clearly reflected in the lord’s right to have sex with a bride on her wedding night.
For centuries men have been legally and morally obliged to control the behavior of their wives. It was perfectly legitimate, in fact expected, that a husband would use physical coercion against a “nagging” wife or one who failed to fulfill her “wifely obligations.” Laws that did exist were mainly concerned with setting limits on how far they could go. For example, the English saying “rule of thumb” is thought to stem from the fact that it used to be stipulated that the thickness of the stick used by a man to beat his wife could not be greater than his thumb.
In Britain in 1736, a dictum from Sir Matthew Hale, the head of the judiciary, stated that rape in marriage could not take place because “by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.”
Such ideas became deeply embedded in society over centuries. It was only in 1993 that marital rape became illegal in all 50 states! Prior to that, the idea that women’s bodies became the property of men on marriage still prevailed in law. Although there has been a big shift in social attitudes in relation to domestic violence and rape over the last few decades, backward ideas still hold sway. There is still reluctance, for example, on the part of the criminal justice system to prosecute in cases of marital rape, and the courts often view it as less serious than rape by a stranger.
Capitalism itself is a hierarchical system, based on inequality and exploitation by a minority in society. The ruling capitalist class will resort to violence if necessary to maintain its rule – by the use of the police against striking workers and protesters, police brutality in black and immigrant communities, and waging wars abroad for profit and prestige. The capitalist system of inequality, dominance, and control, in which the family plays a crucial role, permeates the whole of society including personal relations, resting on and perpetuating backward ideas which originated in the early class societies thousands of years ago.
Violence Against Women
In the U.S., more than one million women are sexually assaulted every year. Violence against women takes many forms, with sexual harassment often threatening – implicitly or explicitly – physical assault or abuse. The economic oppression of women underlies this systemic violence. Often, women can’t break from abusive relationships without facing dire economic hardship.
The number one reason women stay with abusive partners is that their partners control their access to money, leaving them without the economic ability to leave. And if they do leave, there’s very rarely a straightforward path for them to gain economic independence. Domestic violence is the third-leading cause of homelessness within families.
Like all other forms of systemic violence, the constant threat of sexual violence acts to reinforce systemic exploitation and material inequalities. Women who work low-wage, tip-dependent jobs often feel unable to call out harassment at work for fear of losing tips or even of being fired. There is even penalization in some parts of the country against women who report domestic violence to the police too often. In 2017, a lawsuit was filed against the city of Maplewood, Missouri over a policy that evicts domestic violence victims if they call the police for help more than twice in six months.
Violence against women is not just one issue, it’s fermented by the various forms of oppression produced by capitalism. For millions of undocumented women, calling the police against an abuser brings along the threat of deportation. A vast majority – 82% – of prosecutors report that, since Trump took office, domestic violence is now underreported and harder to investigate. This is because of the fear of immigration consequences should the case be investigated or go to court.
Women of color are more likely to experience police brutality in their families and are statistically more likely to be arrested themselves if they call the police to report domestic violence. LGBTQ couples may fear reinforcing stigma around same-sex relationships or losing their jobs or housing if their employer or landlord learn their sexual orientation through any kind of legal process. In the same vein, trans people are highly vulnerable to domestic abuse and yet often face severe discrimination in shelters, leaving them trapped in abusive relationships. A recent report cites that 31-50% of trans people have experienced domestic violence, compared to the general population where that number is 28-33%. In this way, racism, homophobia, and other oppressive relations in society reinforce a culture that tells women not to get raped or abused, rather than developing institutional responses to end systemic sexual violence.