Introducing Marxism: How can women’s oppression be ended?

Continuing our Introduction to Marxism series, CHRISTINE THOMAS looks at the roots of women’s oppression and explains how socialism offers real choice and liberation for women.

According to the World Economic Forum on present trends it would take 132 years to achieve gender parity globally. Around the world, women are more likely to experience low pay and suffer from poverty, and they carry out the majority of childcare and domestic work. Violence against women, sexual harassment and sexism continue unabated. Why is this still the case and what can be done about it? How can we end gender inequality and oppression?

For Marxists, women’s oppression is a class issue. This doesn’t mean that only working-class women suffer from oppression. Clearly that’s not the case. They are especially economically disadvantaged, but when it comes to violence against women, attacks on reproductive rights, sexual harassment and sexism, these affect all women regardless of their class background, although class, ethnicity, etc, will impact on how they experience that oppression.

Women’s oppression is a class issue because it is rooted in the emergence of societies where a small minority, an exploiting class, owns the means of producing wealth in society and exploits the class that actually produces that wealth. Although there were other class societies before capitalism – in the case of Britain and Europe it was preceded by feudalism, and before that slavery – capitalism as a system inherited the gender inequality that existed in previous class societies, and the institutions on which it was based. It then attempted to adapt them and exploit them to suit the economic interests of the ruling capitalist class, thus reproducing and perpetuating gender inequality and oppression.

In the earlier article in this Introduction to Marxism series, The Marxist View of History (in Socialism Today No.259, July-August 2022), we explain that in pre-class hunter-gatherer societies, which existed for 99% of humanity’s history, there was no private ownership of the means of producing wealth, no economic exploitation, no classes, and there was no systematic oppression of women either. There was, in general, a division of labour based on gender. Men tended to hunt and women generally gathered fruits and other edible plants, as well as being mostly responsible for childcare. However, this was often quite a flexible arrangement, with evidence emerging quite recently of women being buried with hunting tools – a sign that in some societies they did hunt animals. And in some societies men did take part in caring for children. Most importantly, although this division of labour was mainly based on biology, it did not confer economic or social advantage to men or disadvantage women in any way.

Kinship groups, the basic social unit of hunter-gatherer societies, were organised collectively and cooperatively with all adult members economically interdependent and involved in procuring and producing the necessities of life, as well as in decision making. Childcare was a public task, carried out for the benefit of the whole social group.

This could not be more different from the situation in capitalist society, where raising children has been predominantly the responsibility of women within an individual ‘private’ family, and is one of the main reasons for the continued existence of gender inequality. In pre-class societies, all in the group looked after each other and women were not economically dependent on a single male. So if relationships – which could be quite fluid – broke down, there was no economic hardship, as is often the case today, especially when women become lone parents.

‘Defeat of the female sex’

In the book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, Friedrich Engels, Karl Marx’s closest collaborator, was the first to give a historical materialist explanation of why the situation for women changed. “The historical defeat of the female sex”, as he called it, was the result of the Neolithic revolution, outlined in The Marxist View of History article, when some hunter-gatherer societies discovered new methods of meeting their needs based on cultivating crops and domesticating animals. This historical process, which in some societies eventually gave rise to inequality, classes, exploitation and women’s oppression, unfolded over thousands of years, and each society had its own dynamic.

The power of Engels’ argument, the general thrust of which is backed up by modern anthropological and scientific evidence, if not all the detail, is that because women’s oppression has not always existed, and because it is rooted in historical material processes, material processes can also lay the basis for its elimination.

For women, and working-class women in particular, struggling with low pay and cuts to public services, suffering violence, harassment and sexism on a regular basis, it can in itself be liberating to know that it’s not ‘natural’, that it’s not your fault, that it hasn’t always been like this. It can be the starting point for getting organised to fight back and change the conditions that perpetuate inequality, gender violence, sexism and oppression.

While under egalitarian, communal, hunter-gatherer societies the gender division of labour was not disadvantageous to women, it gradually became so under the new economic and social relations that the Neolithic revolution ushered in. This revolution laid the basis for the production of an economic surplus, over and above the immediate needs of the group.

The surplus could be drawn on in times of hardship due to drought or other disasters; could allow some members of the group to withdraw from directly producing food and take on other tasks; and could be traded with other groups. While to begin with this was administered and distributed for the benefit of society as a whole, over time, in some societies, the most productive and successful groups and individuals came to use their control over the production and distribution of the surplus for their own economic interests.

As agriculture became more intensive, men tended to be mainly responsible for ploughing and irrigation works, and other tasks linked to the production, trading, distribution and control of the surplus. The changing techniques of production also elevated the importance of the individual family-household, which gradually replaced the kinship group as the main social arrangement. Increasingly women became economically dependent on an individual male, their work taking on a more private character within the household.

Wealth inheritance

With the rise of ruling classes, expropriating the wealth created by others, inheritance assumed a growing importance as the economically dominant groups and elites looked to keep wealth and economic control within their hands. As a consequence, there was now an economic basis to controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction, which had not existed in communal kinship groups.

Women of the emerging ruling elites shared in many of the economic and social privileges of men of their class, while at the same time their sexuality and reproduction came under the control of their husbands or fathers within the ‘patriarchal’ household. As a more complex state apparatus developed, their status and roles became more restricted. Laws and codes regulated the sexual behaviour of women of the ruling class, and stipulated how transgressing socially prescribed norms and double standards could or should be punished.

Chastity and monogamy for women were to be strictly enforced. So, while men could freely commit adultery, adultery by women was considered a violation of a husband’s property rights and could be severely punished, as could walking unveiled in public. Rape was also deemed damage to male property, with women often forced to marry their rapists to preserve the ‘honour’ of the family.

Also related to the control of women’s sexuality and reproduction, in some societies the penalty for procuring certain kinds of abortion was death. Other brutal punishments meted out against women for stepping outside of their roles sanctioned by custom or law included tearing out breasts, cutting off the nose and ears, and impalement.

Ruling-class women’s main role was to give birth to children – their value in society flowing from their ability to procreate. Through marriage they became commodities to be exchanged as a means of consolidating and extending the wealth, power and prestige of the ruling elites.

Patriarchy, culture and class society

The patriarchal family had now become the ‘building block of society’, replacing the communal kinship group, and performing both an economic – in the sense of organising production – and a social function. Prostitution arose alongside it.

 Of course, the experiences of women of the exploited classes were very different from those of women of the ruling elites. For slaves in slave societies, for example, families could be ripped apart at any time, with members sold on to new slave owners.

Although these processes took place thousands of years ago, they are important because they explain the origins of women’s inequality and oppression today. Economic inequality, domestic violence and abuse, rape, sexual harassment, restrictions on reproductive rights, double standards and stereotyping of male and female roles, behaviour and dress, and sexism and misogyny in general, all have their roots in the historical processes that gave rise to the development of the first class societies based on economic exploitation and private ownership of the means of producing wealth.

It’s quite common today for women’s oppression to be attributed to ‘the patriarchy’, a ‘sexist culture’ or even a ‘rape culture’, but the reality is that there is no patriarchy or culture that is separate from class society. Women’s oppression, and the patriarchal structures that enforced it, emerged as part of the same economic and social processes that gave rise to class-based societies. And in the capitalist class system that we live in today, both are still inextricably linked together. Consequently, women’s oppression cannot be eradicated without ending capitalist exploitation itself.

The family under capitalism

How does capitalism reinforce and perpetuate women’s oppression? The pre-existing gender inequality and patriarchal family institution that capitalism inherited from previous class societies have over the years been adapted and moulded to suit the economic and social interests of the capitalist class. The capitalist class is not though, and never has been, a homogeneous group with undifferentiated interests, nor has it always been in complete control of the processes taking place in its own system. This has led to big contradictions that capitalism in crisis can never resolve.

But for the emerging capitalist classes, marriage and the family within the ruling class’s own relations continued to play an economic role, in the sense that pairings were mainly forged with the aim of securing and increasing wealth for the families involved.

Capitalist ideology, especially in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, through the capitalist class’s control of religion, education, etc, actively promoted the idea of the ‘natural’ family comprised of a male breadwinner and economically dependent wife and children. This reflected the ‘bourgeois’ family of the ruling class, in which an economically inactive wife was considered a sign of increasing wealth and prestige, and the principal role of the woman was to give birth to children and manage the household, as well as repress her own needs in order to tend to those of her husband.

This ‘ideal’ became the norm that all classes were expected to aspire to, although very few working-class families ever completely succeeded, with most working-class women having to work in some capacity in order for families to survive.

But there was also a material interest for the ruling class in promoting what has become known as the traditional nuclear family. Working-class women were responsible for rearing the next generation of workers, who would then go on to make profits for the bosses by working in the factories and mills. Also, they looked after the needs of their own generation of workers and took care of the members of society that the capitalists considered ‘unproductive’ – ie those who could not be exploited in the creation of profits because they were sick, disabled, elderly or unemployed. All of that caring work carried out by women was unpaid, because it was done in the home and was part of their ‘natural’ role.

The patriarchal family has also played an important social role for the capitalist class. Based on hierarchy, with the male head of household economically responsible for other family members, and with authority and control over them, it has been a useful socialising and disciplining tool, including for replicating traditional gender roles. It has also, at times, become a useful scapegoat; for example ‘feckless’ and ‘inadequate’ mothers have been blamed in particular for poverty, delinquency, etc, deflecting from the real culprit – the unequal and exploitative capitalist system.

And because the nuclear family has been such an important institution for capitalism, both economically and socially, then alternative social relations and arrangements not adhering to this norm have been stigmatised, such as lone parents, or even criminalised, as in the case of homosexuality.

Women and work

The ideology of natural gender roles was also used to justify the fact that when women did go to work outside of the home they were paid lower wages than men, employed in worse conditions and generally treated as second-class workers. It was also a useful tool for dividing male and female workers, with some men actively fighting to keep women out of the workforce and the trade unions, fearing a ‘race to the bottom’ and competition for their jobs. If male and female workers were fighting each other, they were not uniting to fight the bosses and their system.

However, women workers did organise and form their own trade unions as well as fighting to be admitted to existing unions, and many male trade unionists came to understand that unity was strength, and that men and women should be fighting together for equal pay and conditions for female workers.

Engels wrote that the liberation of women would necessitate both bringing them out of the home into “public industry”, and the “socialisation” of the labour women perform unpaid within the family – which would become the responsibility of society as a whole, provided collectively by the state.

With regards to that first prerequisite, the drawing of women into urban workforces in large numbers in the more developed capitalist countries has been one of the most important processes affecting their lives, particularly in the period during and since the second world war.

The post-war economic boom generated more demand for labour by the capitalists. As women moved into the workforce in increasing numbers they secured a degree of economic independence that they hadn’t had in the past. It was combined with greater control over their reproduction through improved availability of contraception and the legalisation of abortion, greater access to divorce, and the expansion of welfare services such nurseries, housing and benefits during the boom years – which women and working-class organisations generally fought to achieve. So, women’s choices expanded dramatically compared to previous generations.

In turn, their aspirations and attitudes have also changed: going out to work has become the norm, even for women with young children, and is accepted as such by the vast majority of society. Women are less likely to be prepared to put up with abusive and unhappy relationships, with the overwhelming majority of divorces now initiated by them. They also have a greater confidence in their sexuality, and society in general today is much more accepting of lone parents and same sex relationships.

Working outside the home has enabled women to understand that the problems they face, such as domestic abuse, are not the result of their own individual failings and are not problems they have to suffer alone. They are shared by other women and they don’t have to put up with them – it is possible to collectively organise and fight back.

Women have come together in the workplaces and trade unions and fought alongside working-class men for better pay, improved working conditions, and to resist privatisation and cuts to jobs and conditions that affect all workers.

They have also campaigned for the trade unions to organise on issues that affect them specifically as women in the workplace, whether it be equal pay, sexual harassment, or the menopause. And for the trade unions to add their collective strength to wider struggles such as the fight for abortion rights and against domestic abuse.

However, although these processes have led to some significant improvements in women’s lives, in and of themselves they have clearly not led to gender equality, let alone liberation. Women are still concentrated in the lowest-paid jobs, many of which are traditionally considered ‘women’s work’ such as caring, cleaning, and work in the service sector. In whatever sectors they are employed, they tend to be overrepresented in the lowest echelons.

Cultural stereotypes and ongoing discrimination have clearly been a factor in this. But the fact that childcare and other domestic responsibilities still fall overwhelmingly on the shoulders of women is a key factor in restricting their employment choices, with many either forced against their will to only work part-time, or not able to work at all because of a lack of affordable, suitable childcare, and the closure, privatisation and slashing of other public services.

Lack of support services

During the boom years, the expansion of the welfare state created jobs for women in the public sector as well as lifting off them some of their family responsibilities, allowing them to participate in the workforce more generally. But even in this more favourable period, the provision of state funded nurseries and other childcare facilities always fell well below what was necessary, as did the statutory level of maternity pay and leave.

Now, because of the inherent crisis of capitalism, we are in a period of general economic depression in which the capitalist class is constantly looking to offload its crisis of profitability and markets onto the working class.

This means that, despite all the advances women have undoubtedly made, the capitalists still have an economic interest in exploiting the historically based unequal gender relations in the family. They have access to a flexible, low-cost labour force and at the same time, women are expected to be there to pick up the slack, unpaid, within the family, when public services and benefits are cut and privatised. Those attacks on public services are in order to reduce taxation for the capitalists, open up potential markets for those services, and boost their profits.

For most working-class women with childcare or other caring responsibilities, this has meant not just increased exploitation but increased stress as they try to juggle the different demands of work and home. For those experiencing domestic abuse – which in Britain will affect one in four women at some time in their lives – the closure and underfunding of refuges and other services, and the desperate shortage of affordable public housing, can mean being forced to stay in or return to an abusive relationship.

It is therefore not unexpected that working-class women have been to the fore in campaigns to defend local and national services against austerity and privatisation. In Britain, women constitute nearly half the workforce, and a majority of trade union members, and have played an increasingly important role in workplace struggles. In many other countries too, women have been playing a growing and prominent role in struggles.

Capitalist ideology

The economic crisis of capitalism has led in some countries to right-wing populists leaning on traditional ‘family values’ and residual backward ideas about women’s role in society to try to secure themselves an electoral base. The decline of the nuclear family and ‘feminism’ – ie increased women’s rights – are blamed for crime, male unemployment, and social crises generally.

In most cases, these ideas have only attracted minority support in society. But economic uncertainty, disillusion with capitalist political parties and the political vacuum on the left have paved the way for right-wing populist forces to sometimes come to power and attack the social gains that women and the working-class have fought for and won. These include abortion rights, as well as those of LGBTQ+ people – attacks which have inevitably provoked resistance, sometimes on a mass scale.

From cradle to grave, private capitalist control of the media, leisure, beauty, film, fashion, music, porn and other industries exploits, moulds and sustains existing gender norms and stereotypes of how we should look, dress and behave to sell their products and make a profit.

Gendered toys promote and reinforce social assumptions about male and female roles. Women are continually objectified and commodified, their worth reduced to their body image rather than what they do or achieve. Girls and women’s sexuality is shaped and restricted by ubiquitous objectifying images. Pornography normalises, eroticises and trivialises sexual violence.

While gender inequality continues in the family, in the workforce, and more broadly in society, which will be the case for as long as the crisis-ridden capitalist economic system remains in place, the unequal power relations and ideology that underpin gender violence, abuse, harassment and sexism will be perpetuated and reinforced. So, although it is important to fight determinedly to change backward and harmful attitudes and behaviour, as well as for changes in the law regarding all of these problems, they cannot be eradicated without a fundamental structural transformation of society and the overthrow of the capitalist system.

Women in post-revolution USSR

In 1917 the Bolshevik-led revolution overthrew feudalism and capitalism in Russia. The new workers’ government immediately set about passing legislation granting women equal rights that went well beyond those of most of the capitalist states at that time. These included the right to vote, divorce, and have an abortion, equal pay and maternity rights, as well as the legalisation of homosexuality.

In 1919 the Zhenotdel was set up, a special women’s department that, amongst other things, had the tasks of raising the consciousness of women, most of whom were illiterate, and campaigning to fully involve them in the building of a new society.

But the Bolsheviks understood that in order for women to take advantage of their new legal rights it was also necessary to improve material conditions for working-class and peasant women. To this end, public nurseries, restaurants and laundries were established to relieve the domestic burden on women within the family.

However, the Bolsheviks were operating in an economically undeveloped, overwhelmingly rural country, devastated by war, imperialist intervention against the revolution, and civil war. The country became increasingly isolated as revolutionary movements in more advanced capitalist countries failed – due to the absence of revolutionary parties like the Bolsheviks to lead them to a successful conclusion.

This situation limited the material changes that were possible in the lives of women, and workers and peasants in general. It paved the way for the rise of a Stalinist bureaucracy that destroyed workers’ democracy and reversed many of the social gains that women had won. The bureaucracy strengthened and promoted the family as a social institution with the aim of increasing the birth rate and hence the labour force, and as a tool of social control.

A democratic workers’ government today in a country like Britain wouldn’t face the same economic and cultural problems that the Bolsheviks did after the 1917 revolution. Nevertheless, as well as an internationalist approach to extending a socialist revolution, a ‘cultural’ revolution would also be necessary to campaign to ensure the maximum participation of working-class women and men in the democratic running of society, and to challenge the residual backward and outmoded ideas, stereotypes and behaviour that would have been absorbed and internalised under capitalism.

Socialism would lay the foundations for the gradual eradication of those ideas, for the liberation of women from oppression, and for real choice over every aspect of our lives.

Transformation to socialism

In recent years women have risen up globally in their tens of thousands against sexism, violence and abuse. But ending those problems cannot be divorced from a fight to end private control of the main capitalist companies whose principal aim is to make a profit, irrespective of the effect this has on the workers they exploit, or more broadly in society.

As outlined above, an economic revolution around 12,000 years ago shook up social relations and gave rise to the oppression of women. Only through a struggle today to overthrow the unequal structures and power relations of the capitalist economic system, and replace them with socialism, will it be possible to lay the basis for ending gender inequality and all forms of oppression.

The key force in the fight for that transformation of society is the organised working class of all genders. This flows from the centrality of the working class in capitalist production and the creation of profits through exploitation of that class. The working class not only has an economic interest in overturning capitalist relations but the potential collective strength to do so, and to begin the building of an alternative socialist system.

That is why Marxists fight for the maximum unity of the working class, and for movements around the specific oppression of women to orientate to and involve organised workers, particularly in the trade unions.

Under socialism, public ownership of the main capitalist industries, banks and financial institutions, as part of a democratically planned economy, would release resources to guarantee everyone a decent income, ensuring women have real economic independence. Those top corporations – along with the health, education system, etc – would be placed under democratic working-class control and management.

A shorter working week could be introduced for all, leaving time to spend on leisure, friends, family and participating in the running of society.

It would be possible to do what Engels advocated so many years ago: socialise the unpaid labour of women in the family, removing the barriers to gender equality through the provision of publicly owned and run, flexible, quality childcare, social care, affordable community restaurants, housing, etc. These are all things that would totally transform the lives of working-class women in particular.

Through eliminating gender inequality in the family, in the workplace and more generally in society, the basis would be laid for ending the commodification of women’s bodies and the ideology and social norms which underpin sexism, gender violence and abuse.

A system based on inequality, exploitation, competition and hierarchy would be replaced by one based on equality, cooperation and solidarity. Those new, alternative values would, over time, be reflected in personal relations and culture, just as they were in pre-class societies.