Elaine Graham-Leigh traces the roots of women's oppression in this excerpt from Marxism and Women's Liberation
The question of the origins of sexism is key to understanding how to fight for women’s liberation, yet it is not undisputed. One issue with feminist campaigns that concentrate on the sexist harassment experienced by women in daily life, such as Everyday Sexism, the Hollaback campaigns and so on, is that they carry with them an implication that sexism is primarily located in the minds and the behaviour of individual men, whose attitudes are what women must struggle to change. Even when women’s oppression is recognised as systemic, embedded within and arising from the structures of society, explanations for the existence of those structures are various. A clear understanding of the origins of women’s oppression, however, is essential to appreciate the role it plays in capitalist exploitation. Women’s main enemies are not individual men but the system of oppression from which the bourgeoisie benefits. Women’s oppression is rooted in the class society that has existed for thousands of years, and has been shaped by the priorities of that class society.
The class origins of women’s oppression
The idea that Stone-Age men were buying women’s sexual submission with aurochs steaks also ignores the fact that these early human societies would have been egalitarian. Individuals would most likely not have been hunting and gathering for themselves, but contributing whatever they got to the communal food supply. The idea that some people could have power over others through the control of specific resources is one that could only come from within a class society, which these early human societies were not. When class societies did start to develop, following the Neolithic agricultural revolution which began in the Middle East around 11,000 years ago, it was this that enabled the development of women’s oppression.
Frederick Engels analysed how this came about in his 1884 work The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.9 The shift from hunting and gathering to farming, with concomitant developments in things like metallurgy and animal husbandry, meant that human societies could amass many more resources than had previously been possible. Greater material prosperity, however, created the conditions for private property. Once private property was built up by a household, this provided the basis for the idea that property should be heritable. If men wanted to ensure that their property could be inherited by their biological children only, they had to be able to control the women with whom they wanted to produce their children, otherwise they could never be sure of their paternity. Thus developed the patriarchal family, with a man at the head and the women as chattels. It was, as Engels said, ‘the historic defeat of the female sex’, but it is important to note that it was always for the benefit of the comparatively small number of men who controlled the bulk of the private property in these early class societies. The patriarchal model of the family might have spread to poorer households – if nothing else, it gave the responsibility for supporting poor women and children to the poor men who owned them – but the system benefited only the wealthy, not all men equally.
This description of how material conditions allowed the development of class society might make it sound as if it was inevitable: that women’s oppression would always be the consequence of any level of material prosperity and that the alternative would be living in caves. Fortunately, however, this is not the case. Class and women’s oppression were not the inescapable result of agriculture but historical events which, if we could go back in time and run the tape again, might well play out differently.
Women’s oppression under capitalism
It is the historical nature of women’s oppression that explains the varying degrees to which women have been able to escape total domination by men in different societies. The comparatively high status of women in Anglo-Saxon England, for example, compared to their position under the Normans, or the ability of women in the south of France in the medieval period to inherit property and in some cases even exercise political power, are demonstrations of this. When we talk about women’s oppression under capitalism, therefore, we have to be aware that we are talking about an oppression that takes the forms it does in order to best suit the needs of the capitalists, not an unchanging oppression inherent in the same form to all class societies.
Under capitalism, the site of production changed from the household, where it had been under feudalism, to the factory. Goods from clothes to cheese were no longer being produced at home, but were made on an industrial scale for those who could afford them. This shift meant that working-class women themselves could no longer be confined to the household, but along with their children were needed to provide cheap labour for the factories. Because for modern feminism being able to go out to work is a key liberty for women, it might be easy to see women’s shift from home to factory as an advance, but the conditions under which it occurred made it anything but. Women who fought alongside working men against this and for a family wage for the men were not fighting for their oppression but for a system that would give their children a chance to survive.
The terrible experience of industrialisation in the first half of the nineteenth-century showed that employers could not simply work their existing employees to death without thinking about how their labour would be reproduced, or eventually they would find themselves lacking a next generation of workers. Since state intervention to pay for childcare and housework while working-class women were at work would have been unthinkable, the creation of the patriarchal nuclear family was the only option. This social institution, in which the man went out to work and the woman stayed at home, was a way to provide for the reproduction of labour by building on the existing understanding of household matters and childcare as women’s work. This, as Lindsey German points out, ‘set the pattern for the working-class family for around 100 years’. It was set not by men invested in patriarchal control of their families but by the needs of the capitalists.13
Similarly, more recent shifts in women’s ability to work outside the home can also be traced not to the desires of men but to the requirements of the capitalist system. An example here would be the retreat from employment into early marriage and housewifehood after the Second World War, described by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique.14 This was a retreat justified by arguments about women’s proper place and their innate need for marriage, children and housework. It was, however, driven by the need to ensure that the men being demobbed had jobs to come back to and would not, for example, fall prey to any pesky revolutionary ideas. To point out how the needs of capitalism have shaped women’s oppression is not, of course, to minimise the achievements of women’s struggles against it. However, an understanding of the historical nature of women’s oppression under capitalism does lead to particular conclusions about how we can continue to fight it.
 Laura Bates, Everyday Sexism (London 2014).
9 Frederick Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (London 1972).
13 Lindsey German, Material Girls: Women, men and work (London 2007), p.55.
14 Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (New York 1963).
Before you go...we need your help
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
More articles from this author
- Dead Epidemiologists. On the origins of COVID-19 - book review
- Too Hot to Handle? The Democratic Challenge of Climate Change - book review
- Bit Tyrants: The Political Economy of Silicon Valley - book review
- The limits of identity politics - video
- Dust Bowls of Empire. Imperialism, Environmental Politics and Injustice of ‘Green’ Capitalism - book review
- Is a society without oppression possible? - explainer
- Limits: Why Malthus Was Wrong and Why Environmentalists Should Care - book review