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What Lies Behind...
The Oppression of Women
In the first article in an occasional series on Marxist classics Christine Thomas looks at Friedrich Engels' book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State
Apart from a few deluded "post-feminist", most people would agree that women are still discriminated against and oppressed. The facts are all-too-familiar; women earn less money than men, still have the main responsibility for looking after children and household tasks - even when they work full-time.
One in four women will experience domestic violence at some time in their lives and two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week. Many women will ask why this is still the case and what can be done to change it.
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State gives a Marxist explanation of women's oppression and how to fight it. But can a book written as long ago as 1884 still have relevance today?
Engels argues that the institutions and social arrangements of capitalism are not universal and have not always existed in their current form, but are a product of particular historical circumstances.
Social institutions change as the economic basis of society changes; they are linked to how production and reproduction is organised and how we produce what's necessary to secure a living. Of course this is not a simple, direct relationship: a complex interaction takes place.
Women's oppression, Engels argues, has not always existed but developed in conjunction with the rise of private property, the division of society into classes and the development of the family as an economic and social institution.
These ideas had revolutionary implications - if the institutions and social arrangements of capitalism have not always existed then they can be changed. This potentially threatens the stability and existence of capitalism itself.
It was particularly explosive to question the universal nature of the family in the late 19th century. The family was essential for consolidating and extending the capitalist class' wealth. It also played an important role in bringing up and socialising the next generation of workers, instilling discipline and deference to hierarchy - all necessary for the stability and functioning of the capitalist profit system.
Women's role in the family also underpinned women's subordinate position in the workplace and in society generally.
FOR MOST people today, families are about personal relationships. But the family also still plays a vital economic and social role for capitalism. It's the place where women (and it still is mostly women) work unpaid bringing up children and often caring for elderly and sick relatives.
In 1997 it was estimated that women's unpaid work in the home saved Britain's capitalist economy £739 billion a year!
When governments promote 'family values' they're not thinking of the well-being of family members but how much money they can save on public services by making women take up the slack in the home, or how to avoid the benefit and housing costs that arise when relationships break down (estimated at £5 billion a year).
And if things go wrong - which, given the pressures most families are under, sometimes happens - the family and women in particular are scapegoated rather than placing the blame where it really lies - on the capitalist system itself.
As socialists, we want to see a society where relationships are freed from the economic and social pressures and constraints which this system places on them; where women are not treated as second-class citizens but have full equality and freedom from discrimination and oppression in every aspect of their lives.
Engels argues that for this to happen, there has to be a fundamental change in the way that society is organised and structured - away from a system based on private ownership of the means of producing goods and wealth.
The capitalists, who make enormous profits out of the double exploitation of women, promote the idea that it is impossible to organise society in a different way to the current system, to make us think that it's always been like this.
But it hasn't, as Engels explains in the Origin. Scientific evidence discovered since Engels' time backs up his premise that the family, as a social institution, has not been around for all time, and that societies have existed where there was not a systematic and institutionalised oppression of women.
Societies have existed, often referred to as hunter-gatherer societies, where the basic social arrangement was the kinship group or band, not the family. These societies were not divided on the basis of class, had no private ownership of the means of producing goods and wealth, and no exploitation of one group by another. They were based on the values of co-operation, mutual dependence and a complex network of socially accepted rights and responsibilities.
Engels of course was working with the limited scientific knowledge of his day, so some of the detail has since been found to be incorrect. For example, the complicated evolutionary sequence of stages which he outlines to explain how kinship groups (which he calls gens) developed.
Also, he thought that women's contribution to the group was looking after children, when in fact they were also responsible for gathering food which made up as much as 80% of the diet of hunter-gatherer societies.
ENGELS ARGUES that the "the world historic defeat of the female sex" came about with the rise of private ownership of the means of production, the division of society into classes and the development of the family, which grew out of, and gradually replaced, the communal band as the basic unit of society.
There is general agreement that a revolutionary change took place independently in many parts of the world around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, based on changes in production and technique and new ways of obtaining the essentials of life.
By learning to cultivate crops and domesticate animals, societies could produce a surplus over and above the group's immediate needs, In turn, this laid the basis for specialisation and the division of society into a class of exploiters and exploited.
The family arose as part of this process of control and inheritance of the means of producing wealth and society. Women of the ruling class shared in the wealth of exploiters but were themselves oppressed within the family.
Under slavery for example, in Roman times, men (fathers and husbands) controlled women's sexuality. The crime of adultery, which could potentially put a question mark over the paternity of children and wealth inheritance, was subject to severe punishment.
The ruling class used the legal system, religion and ideology to legitimise, institutionalise and perpetuate women's oppression and second-class status to suit its own economic and social interests.
As class society from slavery to feudalism and then to capitalism, the family's structure and role also changed. Capitalism has adopted and adapted the family to meet its own needs, which themselves vary, giving rise to contradictions.
So for example, capitalism needs women's unpaid work in the home but, especially over the last 30 years or so, has also become more and more dependent on women's cheap labour in the workforce.
BUT WITH so many women now in the workplace, the potential for collective struggle both as workers and as women has increased, as Engels himself foresaw.
To secure real equality, women need to organise collectively, linking up with working-class men, who are themselves economically exploited, to change the system.
Capitalism as an economic system is based on exploitation, oppression and inequality, which is reflected in and reinforces the discrimination and oppression which women still face.
Socialism on the other hand, based on co-operation and equality, would lay the basis for real economic independence for women, public provision of quality childcare and other services women need, freedom to organise our personal relationships as we choose and an end to violence, sexism and abuse.
The Origin of the Family was a groundbreaking book, revealing the material basis of women's oppression and explaining how to end it. It is of course a product of its time, with gaps and mistakes due to the scant scientific evidence available in the late 19th century.
But the general ideas outlined by Engels are still valid today. To get the most out this book it should be read in conjunction with other Marxist publications which developed, built on and updated Engels' basic revolutionary ideas.
In The Socialist 12 April 2002: