Monday, June 30, 2008

The Marxist Theory of Women's Oppression


The Marxist Theory of Women’s Oppression

In last month’s column I argued that patriarchy theory, although very widespread in feminist circles, is unable to provide a coherent or convincing explanation of why women were and are oppressed. In contrast, however, Marxism is able to provide such an account.

A satisfactory theory of women’s oppression must be a) materialist and b) historical. By materialist I mean it must explain how the inferior or second class status of women is rooted in real material social relations which in turn are related to the level of economic development in society. It cannot simply say that is a matter of human nature, or all in the genes; nor can it just say that it is ‘cultural’ if by cultural is meant that women are oppressed because men believe themselves superior or women believe themselves inferior, without an explanation of the material causes of these beliefs.

By historical I mean it must be able to show when and how women’s oppression began, (approximately, of course – it is not a question of a blow - by- blow account), why it has continued up to the present day, and, if it is to be a theory of women’s liberation, how circumstances have changed so as to make equality now a real possibility.

We have already seen that patriarchy theory fails all these tests; we shall now see that Marxist theory passes them.

Marxism begins by arguing that although the oppression of women has been in place for millennia, it is NOT universal or eternal. On the contrary, for hundreds of thousands of years, during the period when people were hunters and gatherers, which is how ALL humans lived prior to the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, women were not systematically oppressed at all. In other words for most of human history, well over ninety per cent of it, women and men lived in rough equality. Equality not oppression is thus the norm of human society. How do we know this to be the case?

We know it primarily through studies of hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and have been investigated by anthropologists. There was the pioneering work on Native Americans by Lewis Morgan on which Frederick Engels based much of his classic Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.(Some of this anthropological data is now considered false but the method remains valid). There is Eleanor Burke Leacock’s Myths of Male Dominance which investigated the Montagnais-Naskapi people of Canada, William Turnbull’s The Forest People on Pigmies in the Congo, and, especially, Richard Borshay Lee’s The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society which studied the so-called Kalahari bush people.

What these studies show is that in hunter-gatherer societies general material equality was guaranteed by the fact that as nomadic people (following the game) foragers were unable to accumulate more property than could be carried daily on each person’s back. Broad gender equality was a product of the fact that more than half the community’s food was supplied by gathering which was mainly done by women.

The emergence of women’s oppression, Marxism argues, was the result of two great and interlinked social transitions: from foraging to agriculture and from classless to class divided society. It is impossible to put a simple date on this process since it develops at very different times in different parts of the world. However it probably begins about 12-10 thousand years ago with the first signs of agriculture in the fertile crescent of the Middle East (from today’s Iraq to the Nile) and takes about 5-6000 thousand years to fully establish itself as the dominant form of social organisation.

The coming of agriculture, a development in the forces of production, brought with it human settlement, first villages, then towns, and the first production of a social surplus – goods over and above what was needed for day-to-day survival - and thus the possibility of wealth accumulation. However because this early surplus was very limited and insufficient to provide a comfortable life for the majority, it meant that the wealth accumulation, the private property, was concentrated in the hands of a small minority, the ‘ruling class’.These new ruling classes used their property (cattle herds, land etc) to force others to work for them – as slaves or peasants – and to construct state apparatuses (armies, castles, prisons, judges etc) which would defend their property and privileges.

The shift from foraging to agriculture also meant changing from a form of production in which women’s labour – mainly gathering – was equal in importance to that of men, to a form- ploughing and herding - where the bulk of society’s wealth was produced by men. This was because pulling the heavy plough all day and herding cattle were incompatible with nursing and rearing young children. Consequently control of the social surplus and, with it, of the state passed mainly into the hands of men

With this came the abandonment of the loose pairing and collective child rearing practices typical of hunter-gathering societies and the development of the male dominated, exclusive, religiously and legally policed family in which wives were seen as the property of their husbands and as restricted to domestic duties and rearing their own children. This type of family, which took many sub-forms (for example polygamy) in different societies, was most strongly established in and for the ruling classes. It had the economic function of securing the inheritance and non-dissolution of accumulations of property (land, herds. etc) and power but socially it meant the subordination of women to men everywhere. Engels called it ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex’.

The Marxist theory of women’s oppression therefore sees it as deriving from a definite stage in the development of the forces and relations of production. It also sees it as linked to biology (woman and man are, after all, biological categories) but only at a particular long passed moment in history, and not at all in the sense of biology determining the destiny of women now or in the future.

This raises the question of why women’s oppressive, beginning so long ago, has continued through thousands of years and still continues, albeit in moderated form, in modern capitalist society. Obviously, the whole story cannot be told here but in ancient, feudal and Asiatic or tributary type societies the function of securing property inheritance was probably the key to the survival of the male dominated family. In capitalist society this is still a factor but there are a number of other aspects of women’s oppression which benefit the system and in which the ruling class has a huge vested interest.

First, making the care of husbands and children the ‘natural’ duty of women enables the capitalist class to obtain the refreshment and reproduction of this and the next generation of its workers, for almost nothing. Second, by stressing the primacy of loyalty to the family the ruling class is able to foster a narrow conservative view of the world which cuts across wider class consciousness and class solidarity. Third, undermining the ‘ right’ of women to work, especially in leadership roles makes women into a second class sector of the workfoce , who can be paid less and exploited more.

This vested interest of the bourgeoisie in the family and in the oppressed condition of women is why the full liberation of women requires the overthrow of capitalism through a united struggle of the working class. While the unity of the working class requires that working class men , as well as working class women, fight for women’s equality and women’s liberation.

John Molyneux

29 June 2008


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