The roots of women’s oppression

Sozialistische Organisation Solidaritaet, the German section of the CWI, is publishing a new edition of the influential book, The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner, first printed in 1986. Below is the introduction to the new edition, written by CHRISTINE THOMAS.

The Creation of Patriarchy is a useful contribution to the discussion about women’s oppression historically and today. Although Gerda Lerner says very little on the strategies that will be needed to fight against oppression in all its forms, a major weakness in the book, she nevertheless provides valuable historical information to aid that struggle, especially for socialist feminists who see oppression rooted in economic and material change.

The general thrust of her argument, in line with the analysis in Friedrich Engels’ book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, is that women’s oppression has not existed for all time but is the consequence of historical processes. And if historical processes can bring about women’s oppression, they 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, knowing that it’s not your fault, that it hasn’t always been like this, can in itself be liberating – the starting point for getting organised to fight back and change the conditions that perpetuate inequality, gender violence, sexism and oppression.

Lerner is rightly critical of some of the points made by Engels in his seminal work, which was published in 1884. Writing at a time when very little scientific and anthropological evidence was available, it was inevitable that some of the detail he outlines of how societies and women’s oppression developed would prove to be incorrect, and Lerner touches on some of these. But even though his detailed schema for how early kinship groups evolved is not backed up by anthropological evidence, his argument, revolutionary at the time, that societies have existed – for 99% of humanity in reality – in which there was no private ownership of the means of producing wealth, no economic exploitation, no classes and no systematic oppression of women, is evidentially supported. As Lerner writes: “There is now a rich body of modern anthropological evidence available which describes relatively egalitarian societal arrangements and complex and varied solutions by societies to the problem of the division of labour”.

This division of labour in pre-class hunter-gatherer subsistence societies was mainly gender-based. In general, men hunted and women gathered fruit, berries etc 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 if they were not pregnant or nursing infants. And in some societies men did take part in caring for children. Most importantly, as Lerner points out, although this division of labour was an expedient one, based on biology, it did not confer any 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 the adult members economically interdependent and involved 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 today, where raising children is predominantly the responsibility of women within an individual, ‘private’ family and is the main reason for the continued existence of the gender pay gap which, according to the World Economic Forum, worsened globally during the Covid pandemic, and at the current rate would take 132 years to close.

A drawn-out process

Lerner is also in agreement with Engels that the historical change that came about in women’s social status was not due to male aggression or women’s biology but the consequence of an economic revolution. Again, anthropologists would concur that around eight-to-ten thousand years ago some hunter-gatherer societies began to discover new ways of meeting their needs based on cultivating crops and domesticating animals. Societies became more settled, populations grew, and for the first time they were able to produce more food than was necessary just to sustain themselves. This surplus production could then be stored and distributed in the bad times of drought or famine, and enable some members to withdraw from production to carry out other tasks such as crafts or guarding, distributing and trading the surplus.

Lerner is right to stress that this historical process, which in some societies eventually gave rise to inequality, classes, exploitation and women’s oppression, unfolded over thousands of years: “The period of the ‘establishment of patriarchy’ was not one ‘event’ but a process developing over a period of nearly 2,500 years… It occurred, even within the Ancient Near East, at a different pace and at different times in several distinct societies”. She is also right in saying that the drawn out character of this process would not necessarily be understood from Engels summary explanation of the “historic defeat of the female sex”. Also, because of the limited information on which to base his analysis, he would not have been aware of how similar processes developed independently in several parts of the world.

Of course, each society would have had its own dynamic. “We must not imagine this as a linear process, which uniformly developed in different regions, but rather as a slow accretion of incremental changes, which occurred at different speeds in different regions and with varying outcomes”, writes Lerner. Nevertheless, general lines of development can be drawn from the various anthropological studies of the evolution of pre-class societies. The economic and social forces which arose from the changed methods of production undermined and came into conflict with the egalitarian, communal principles fundamental to kinship group-based societies. While initially the individuals and groups who controlled the production of the surplus, its distribution, guarding and trading would have done so on behalf of the communal group, without necessarily deriving any economic benefit or social power from their role, over time stratification, hierarchies and inequality developed, laying the basis for the rise of distinct classes and elites which exploited the labour of others, appropriating part of the surplus for themselves.

Engels never explained why it was men who came to have that control. Lerner’s hypothesis that this derived from the pre-existing division of labour would seem the most logical, with men responsible for ploughing and irrigation works as agriculture became more intensive, and other tasks linked to the production and control of the surplus. So, while under egalitarian, communal hunter-gatherer societies the gender division of labour was not disadvantageous to women, it became so under the new economic and social relations. Changing techniques of production increased the importance of the individual household/family, with women becoming increasingly economically dependent on an individual male and their work taking on a more private character within the household. And 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 an economic basis to controlling women’s sexuality and reproduction which did not exist in communal kinship groups.

Not a separate system of oppression

Lerner’s book mainly looks at Mesopotamia. Given that slavery was not the dominant mode of production there, this certainly places a question mark over her hypothesis that men ‘learnt’ to oppress women from slavery. Also, she never explains what the material basis would be for men to appropriate women’s sexual and reproductive capacity prior to the formation of private property and class society, as she argues was the case in the introduction to the book. Later, however, in contradistinction, she writes: “If we follow Aaby’s argument, which I find persuasive, we must conclude that in the course of the agricultural revolution the exploitation of human labour and the sexual exploitation of women are inextricably linked”. This is the key point, underlined by Lerner’s analysis of the simultaneous development of laws regulating property and women’s behaviour, and backed up by anthropologists who have studied the process of the decline in women’s social status in other transitional societies in Africa and elsewhere. Patriarchy – the institutionalised oppression of women – is not a separate system from class society; both arose as part of the same economic and social processes historically. And they remain interwoven in capitalist society today.

Lerner shows how women of the emerging ruling elites shared in many of the economic 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. In the earlier period of the transition to class-based societies, she explains, aristocratic women did have certain economic, legal and religious rights, a hangover from the social status of women in pre-class societies, and could, although dependent on a male kin, exercise limited influence in public affairs. However, their status and roles became more restricted as a more complex state apparatus developed. 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.

So, while men could freely commit adultery with harlots and slaves, adultery by women was considered a violation of a husband’s property rights and could be severely punished, as could walking unveiled in public. The penalty for procuring certain kinds of abortion was death. Other brutal punishments for stepping outside of their roles sanctioned by custom or law included tearing out breasts, cutting off the nose and ears and impalement. As women’s subordination became institutionalised, “the lifelong dependency of women on fathers and husbands became so firmly established in law and custom as to be considered ‘natural’ and God-given”. Women were “valued mainly as procreators”. Through marriage, they became commodities to be exchanged as a means of consolidating and extending wealth, power and prestige. The patriarchal family was now the “building block of society”, replacing the communal kinship group. “The archaic state, from its inception, recognised its dependence on the patriarchal family and equated the family’s orderly functioning with order in the public domain”.

Adapted to capitalism

Here we clearly see the origins of all the oppression that women globally still face today. Economic inequality, gender violence and sexual harassment, sexism, denial of reproductive rights and double standards can all be traced back to similar processes that took place in different parts of the world thousands of years ago. Each subsequent form of class society then inherited the gender inequality and patriarchal family that existed in previous societies, exploiting and moulding them to suit the economic and social needs of the ruling classes.

So, with the rise of capitalism, for example, there was for the first time a clear division between women’s work in the family and their work outside the home in the mills and the factories. However, capitalist ideology continued to promote the idea that the main, natural role of women was in the family giving birth to and raising children. For working-class women that meant raising the next generation of workers who would then go on to make profits for the bosses in the factories, as well as looking after the needs of the current generation of workers and those members of society that were deemed ‘unproductive’- the sick, the disabled, the elderly and the unemployed. All of which was, of course, unpaidbecause it was carried out in the home and considered their natural role. This enabled the capitalists to justify paying women lower wages and employing them on worse conditions, increasing their profits and, at the same time, creating divisions between male and female workers to try and prevent a united fightback against their system.

The patriarchal family has also continued to play an important ideological and social role. Based on hierarchy, with the male head of household, the main breadwinner, having authority and control over other economically dependent family members, it has functioned as a means of discipling and socialising different family members into understanding their expected roles in society. It has also been a useful scapegoat, blaming feckless and inadequate mothers and family breakdown for poverty and delinquency, for example, rather than the unequal and exploitative capitalist system.

And because the nuclear family, or bourgeois family as it was known, was such an important institution for capitalism, both from an economic and a social point of view, alternative social relations that didn’t conform to this norm were discouraged: unmarried mothers were stigmatised and punished, and homosexuality criminalised.

Obviously, capitalism is not a static system, and massive changes have taken place in women’s lives, especially over the last few decades. Many factors have combined to bring about these changes, but the key has been the structural changes to capitalism that have resulted in a significant increase in the participation of women in the workforce, including women with young children. This has clearly suited the needs of the capitalists, but it has also led to some important improvements in women’s lives. As women became more economically independent, aided by the availability of contraception, abortion and, in the post-war boom, the wider provision of welfare and public services, this had the effect of raising their confidence, expectations and willingness to struggle, which in turn has had a positive knock-on effect on public attitudes about traditional gender roles and alternative personal and family arrangements.

However, despite these important advances, the inherent economic crisis of capitalism means that the capitalists still have an economic interest in exploiting the historically unequal gender relations in the family. It gives them a flexible, low-paid workforce to increase their profits in the workplace. And when they are cutting taxation and welfare provision, and privatising public services, also in a bid to boost their profits, then women are there to take up the slack, providing care in the home financially equivalent of the entire formally measured GDP of some countries.

Beginnings, but how to end?

Lerner concludes her book by saying: “The system of patriarchy is a historic construct; it has a beginning; it will have an end”, but she doesn’t give any viable strategy for achieving that. She rightly says that reforms and legal change are not enough. While it is important to fight for both, in a capitalist system in crisis any reforms can be taken away again, as women in the United States are finding with the overturning of Roe vs Wade and the legal right to abortion.

Lerner says that we need to “step outside of patriarchal thought” but how exactly is that supposed to happen? We can fight to change the attitudes and behaviour of both men and women, but there is a limit to how far they can change in a capitalist system that has inequalities of power and wealth sewn into its very fabric. ‘Patriarchal thought’ is not just a hangover from early class societies. Gender inequality in the family and in the workplace reinforce and perpetuate sexist and misogynist ideas. At the same time, a capitalist-controlled media and other industries such as leisure, beauty, fashion, porn etc exploit, and in the process contribute to, the continuation of gender stereotypes and backward ideas about how women should look and behave in order to sell their products and make a profit.

That is why ending women’s oppression cannot be divorced from a struggle to end the capitalist system itself. Just as women’s oppression and class society are both the consequences of an economic revolution that took place thousands of years ago, an economic revolution would also be necessary today to eliminate all inequality and oppression: a revolution that replaced the current class-based society, capitalism, with a socialist system based on public ownership of the major capitalist-controlled companies, and a democratically planned economy.

Of course, a socialist society would not eliminate women’s oppression overnight. We would be going into a new society having absorbed and internalised all of the backward ideas, values and prejudices of the old one. So there would still need to be campaigns to educate and raise awareness in order to change attitudes, even under socialism. But a socialist society would lay the basis for ending women’s oppression by ending gender inequality in the workplace and providing quality public services that could relieve the double burden women face in the family. And by getting rid of exploitation, hierarchy and the profit motive more generally, new attitudes of equality, solidarity and cooperation would be reflected throughout society, including in personal relationships, just as they were in pre-class societies.

Lerner says that all women can emancipate themselves. Historically women have organised together and continue to do so today to fight against their shared oppression, whether it be against gender violence, sexual harassment to defend and extend abortion rights or to oppose any other aspect of the inequality, discrimination and oppression they face. But as ending gender oppression necessitates overturning the capitalist system, the force in society with the economic interest and the potential collective power to do so is the working class of all genders. So real emancipation can only be achieved through a united struggle against capitalism and for a society in which we all have real choice and control over every aspect of lives, and all forms of inequality and oppression are finally relegated to history.