The origin and nature of women's oppression

The oppression of women is not determined by their biology, as many contend. Sexual difference is a biological reality but oppression and discrimination have not always been attached to such a difference. The origin of such oppression is economic and social in character. Throughout the evolution of pre-class and class society, women's childbearing function has always been the same. While women's social roles have changed from society to society, their social status has not always been that of a degraded domestic servant, subject to man's control and command. 

Before the development of class society, during the historical period that Marxists have traditionally referred to as primitive communism (hunter-gatherer societies), social production was organised com- munally and its product shared equally. This did not mean that different tasks were not carried out by the various sub-groupings based on age, gender, etc. within the larger social group. But it meant that there was no exploitation or oppression of one sub-group by another. No material basis for such exploitative social relations existed. Both sexes participated in social production, helping to assure the sustenance and survival of all. The social status of both women and men reflected the indispensable roles that each played in this productive process for the survival of the group as a whole. Social differentiation was not linked to inequality. 

Women's oppression and class society

The origin of women's oppression is intertwined with the transition from pre-class to class society. The exact process by which this complex transition took place is a continuing subject of research and discussion even among those who subscribe to a historical materialist view. However, the fundamental lines along which women's oppression emerged are clear. The change in women's status developed along with the growing productivity of human labor based on agriculture, the domestication of animals, and stock raising; the rise of new divisions of labor, craftsmanship, and commerce; the private appropriation of an increasing and permanent economic surplus; and the development of the possibility for some humans to prosper from the exploitation of the labor of others. 

In these specific socio-economic conditions, as the exploitation of human beings became profitable for a privileged few, women, because of their biological role in production (i.e., the social production to maintain the existing generation and their production of the next generation), became valuable property. Like slaves and cattle, they were a source of wealth. They alone could produce new human beings whose labor power could be exploited. Thus the purchase of women by men, along with all rights to their future offspring, arose as one of the economic and social institutions of the new order based on private property. Women's primary social role was increasingly defined as domestic servant and child-bearer. 

Along with the private accumulation of wealth, the family unit developed as the institution by which responsibility for the unproductive members of society-especially the young-was trans- ferred from society as a whole to an identifiable individual or small group of individuals. It was the primary socio-economic institution for perpetrating from one generation to the next the class divisions of society-divisions between those who possessed property and lived off the wealth produced by the labor of others, and those who, owning no property, had to work for others to live. The destruction of the egalitarian and communal traditions and structures of primitive communism was essential for the rise of an exploiting class and its accelerated private accumulation of wealth. 

The family system

This was the origin of the family institution. In fact, the word family itself, which is still used in the Latin-based languages of today, comes from the original Latin famulus, which means household slave, and familia, the totality of slaves belonging to one man. 

The oppression of women was institutionalised through the family system. Women ceased to have an independent place in social production. Their productive role was determined by the family to which they belonged, by the man to whom they were subordinate. This economic dependence determined the second-class social status of women, on which the cohesiveness and continuity of the family has always depended. If women could simply take their children and leave, without suffering any social or economic hardship, the family would not have survived through the millennia. 

The family and the subjugation of women thus came into existence along with the other institutions of the emerging class society in order to buttress nascent class divisions and maintain the private accumulation of wealth. The state, with its police and armies, laws and courts, enforced this relationship. Ruling-class ideology arose on this basis and played a vital role in the degradation of the female sex. Women, it was said, were physically and mentally inferior to men and therefore were ``naturally'' or biologically the second sex. While the subjugation of women has always had different consequences for women of distinct classes, all women regardless of class were and are oppressed as part of the female sex. 

There is no other institution in class society whose true role is as hidden by prejudice and mystification as that of the family. Bourgeois moralists claim that the family is the basis for the natural and moral unity of society. Bourgeois anthropologists perpetuate the myth that the family unit has always existed. They deny the fact that the family originated with and flowed from the development of private property, class society and the state. They obscure the fact that in pre-class society the basic social unit was the clan and that within each clan goods were shared in common. Clan structures are not the same as the family system, which is based on a legally binding marriage contract that enables the transmission of private property. 

Throughout the history of class society, the family system has proved its value as an institution of class rule. The form of the family has evolved and adapted itself to the changing needs of the ruling classes as the modes of production and forms of private property have gone through different stages of development. The family system under classical slavery was different from the family system during feudalism. Under classical slavery, the family institution was restricted to the slave-owning class (there was no family system among slaves). Under feudalism, the family system was extended to the laboring class, the serfs, who owned some means of production (small plots of land, animals, and hand tools), and was the basic unit through which social production was organised. By contrast, the urban ``nuclear'' family of today has ceased to be a unit of social production. 

Moreover, the family system simultaneously fulfills different social and economic requirements in reference to classes with different productive roles and property rights whose interests are diametrically opposed. For instance, the ``family'' of the serf and the ``family'' of the nobleman were quite different socio-economic units. However, they were both part of the family system, an institution of class rule that has played an indispensable role at each stage in the history of class society. 

The disintegration of the family under capitalism brings with it much misery and suffering precisely because no superior framework for human relations can yet emerge. In class society, the family is the only institution to which most people can turn for the satisfaction of some basic human needs, including love and companionship. This is especially true of those doubly oppressed on racial, ethnic, etc. grounds. However poorly the family may meet these needs for many, there is no real alternative as long as class society exists. Nevertheless, the main purpose of the family is not to provide such basic needs. It is an economic and social institution whose functions can be described as follows: 

  • a. The family is the basic mechanism through which the ruling classes abrogate social responsibility for the economic well-being of those whose labor power they exploit-the masses of humanity. The ruling class tries, to the greatest degree possible, to force each family to be responsible for its own, thus institutionalising the unequal distribution of income, status and wealth. 
  • b. The family system provides the means for passing on property ownership from one generation to the next. It is the basic social mechanism for perpetuating the division of society into classes. 
  • c. For the ruling class, the family system provides the most inexpensive and ideologically acceptable mechanism for reproducing human labor power. Making the family responsible for care of the young means that the portion of society's accumulated wealth-appropriated as private property-that is utilised to assure production of the laboring classes is minimised. Furthermore, the fact that each family is an atomised unit, fighting to assure the survival of its own, hinders the most exploited and oppressed from uniting in common action. 
  • d. The family system enforces a social division of labor in which women are fundamentally defined by their childbearing role and assigned tasks immediately associated with this reproductive function-care of other family members. Thus the family institution rests on and reinforces a social division of labor involving the domestic subjugation and economic dependence of women. 
The family system is a repressive and conservatising institution that reproduces within itself the hierarchical, authoritarian relationships necessary to the perpetuation of the class divisions. It molds the behavior and character structure of children from infancy through to adolescence. It trains, disciplines, and polices them, teaching submission to established authority. It then curbs rebelliousness, nonconformist impulses. It represses and distorts all sexuality, forcing it into socially acceptable channels of male and female sexual activity for reproductive purposes and socioeconomic roles. It inculcates all the social values and behavioral norms that individuals must acquire in order to survive in class society and submit to its domination. It distorts all human relationships by imposing on them the framework of economic compulsion, personal dependence, and sexual repression. 

The family under capitalism

Under capitalism, as under previous socio-economic formations, the family has evolved. But the family system continues to be an indispensable institution of class rule fulfilling all the economic and social functions outlined. 

Among the bourgeoisie the family provides for the transmission of private property from generation to generation. Marriages often assure profitable alliances or mergers of large blocks of capital, especially in the early stages of capital accumulation. 

Among the classical petty-bourgeoisie, such as farmers, craftspersons or small shopkeepers, the family is also a unit of production based on the labor of the family members themselves. 

For the working class, while the family provides some degree of mutual protection for its own members, in the most basic sense it is an alien class institution, one that is imposed on the working class, and serves the economic interests of the bourgeoisie not the workers. Yet working people are indoctrinated from childhood to regard it (like wage labor, private property and the state) as the most natural and imperishable of human relations. 

It is absurd to speak of abolishing the family. Democratic socialism seeks to remove the economic and social compulsion that drives the vast majority into the family system at the present time, and to give individuals a far wider and freer range of choices as to how they live. Nevertheless, a socialist transformation will inherit many of the institutions of the old society, including the family. The role of the family will only wither away as society as a whole takes increasing responsibility for people's needs. 

Capitalism has refined and modified the oppression of women to suit its own needs and ensure economic benefits. Yet the emergence of capitalist industrialisation contains many contradictory features for the maintenance of women's oppression: 

  • a. With the rise of capitalism and the growth of the working class, the family unit among workers ceases to be a small scale familial unit of production although it remains the basic unit through which consumption and reproduction of labor power are organised. Each member of the family sells his or her labor power individually on the labor market. The basic economic bond that previously held together the family of the exploited and oppressed-i.e., the fact that they had to work together cooperatively in order to survive-begins to dissolve. As women are drawn into the labor market they achieve some degree of economic independence for the first time since the rise of class society. This begins to undermine the acceptance by women of their domestic subjugation. As a result, the family system is undermined. 
  • b. Thus there is a contradiction between the increasing integration of women in the labor market and the survival of the family. As women achieve greater economic independence and more equality, the family institution begins to disintegrate. But the family system is an indispensable pillar of class rule. It must be preserved if capitalism is to survive. 
  • c. The growing number of women in the labor market creates a deep contradiction for the capitalist class, especially during periods of accelerated expansion. They must employ more women to profit from their superexploitation. Yet the employment of women cuts across their ability to carry out the basic unpaid domestic labor of child-rearing for which women are responsible. So the state must begin to buttress the family, helping to assure and subsidise some of the economic and social functions it used to fulfill, such as education, childcare, care of the sick and elderly, etc. 
  • But such social services are more costly than the unpaid domestic labor of women. They absorb some of the surplus value that would otherwise be appropriated by the owners of capital. They cut into profits. Moreover, social programs of this kind foster the idea that society, not the family, should be responsible for the welfare of its nonproductive members. They raise the social expectations of the working class. 
  • d. Unpaid work by women in the home-cooking, cleaning, washing, caring for children-plays a specific role under capitalism. This household work is a necessary element in the reproduction of labor power sold to the capitalists (either a woman's own labor power, her husband's, or her children's, or that of any other member of the family). A recent survey (1990) by the Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that women's unpaid work in the home is the equivalent to 60% of the Gross Domestic Product. 
  • Other things being equal, if women did not perform unpaid labor inside the families of the working class, the general wage level would have to rise. Real wages would have to be high enough to purchase the goods and services which are now produced within the family. (Of course the general standard of living necessary for this production of labor power is historically determined at any given time in any country. It cannot be drastically reduced without a crushing defeat of the working class.) Any general decrease of unpaid domestic labor by women would thus cut into total profits, changing the proportion between profits and wages in favor of the working class. 
  • It is thus the capitalist class-not men in general, and certainly not male wage earners-which profits from women's unpaid labor in the household. 
  • e. The indispensable role of the family and the dilemma that the growing employment of women creates for the ruling class becomes clearest in periods of economic crisis. The capitalist rulers must accomplish two goals: 
    • They must drive a significant number of women from the labor force to re-establish the reserve labor pool and lower wage levels. 
    • They must cut the growing costs of social services provided by the state and transfer the economic burden and responsibility for these services back onto the individual family of the worker. 
In order to accomplish both of these objectives, they must launch an ideological campaign against the very concept of women's equality and independence, and reinforce the responsibility of the individual family for its own children, its elderly, its sick. They must reinforce the image of the family as the only ``natural'' form of human relations, and convince women who have begun to rebel against their subordinate status that true happiness comes only through fulfilling their ``natural'' and primary role as wife-mother-housekeeper. But since the impact of the second feminist wave, the capitalists are now discovering that despite appeals to austerity and dire warnings of crisis, the more thoroughly women are integrated into the workforce, the more difficult it is to push sufficient numbers back into the home. 
  • f. This is different from the early stages of industrialisation when the unregulated, unbridled, brutal exploitation of women and children went so far as to seriously erode the family structure in the working class and threaten its usefulness as a system for organising, controlling, and reproducing the workforce. 
  • This was the trend that Marx and Engels drew attention to in 19th century England. They predicted the rapid disappearance of the family in the working class. They were correct in their basic insight and understanding of the role of the family in capitalist society, but they misestimated the latent capacity of capitalism to slow down the pace of development of its inherent contradictions. They underestimated the ability of the ruling class to step in to regulate the employment of women and children and shore up the family in order to preserve the capitalist system itself. 
  • Under strong pressure from the labor movement to ameliorate the brutal exploitation of women and children, in the last quarter of the 19th century the capitalist state intervened in the long-term interests of the ruling class-even though this cut across the aim of individual capitalists to squeeze every drop of blood out of each worker for 16 hours a day and let them die at 30. 
  • g. Capitalist politicians responsible for shaping policies to protect and defend the interests of the ruling class are extremely conscious of the indispensable economic, social, and political role of the family and the need to maintain it as the basic social nucleus under capitalism. ``Defence of the family'' is not only some particular demagogic shibboleth of the ultraright. Maintenance of the family system is the basic political policy of every capitalist state, dictated by the social and economic needs of capitalism itself. 
  • Under capitalism, the family system also provides the mechanism for the superexploitation of women as wage workers: 
  • a. It provides capitalism with an exceptionally flexible reservoir of labor power that can be drawn into the labor force or sent back into the home with fewer social consequences than any other component of the reserve army of labor. 
  • Because the entire ideological superstructure reinforces the fiction that women's place is in the home, high unemployment rates for women cause relatively less social protest. After all, it is said, women work only to supplement an already existing source of income for the family. When they are unemployed, they are occupied with their household chores, and are not so obviously ``out of work.'' The anger and resentment they feel is often dissipated as a serious social threat by the general isolation and atomisation of women in separate, individual households. Thus in any period of economic crisis, the austerity measures of the ruling class always include attacks on women's right to work, including increased pressure on women to accept part-time employment, exclusion from unemployment benefits for ``house- wives,'' and the reduction of social services such as childcare, health, mental and physical retardation, aged facilities. 
  • b. Widespread acceptance of the sexist idea that women's place is in the home enables capitalists to justify the superexploitation of their labor by: 
    • The employment of women in low-paying, unskilled jobs. 
    • Unequal pay rates and low pay. 
    • The sex segregation of industry. 
This fosters deep divisions within the working class itself, weakening its ability to take united action in defence of its class interests. 
  • c. Since all wage structures are built from the bottom up, this superexploitation of women as a reserve workforce plays an irre- placeable role in holding down men's wages as well. Women workers are not proportionally integrated into the trade unions and other organisations of the working class so that differential working conditions and benefits provide a further base for capitalism to divide and rule. 
  • d. The subjugation of women within the family provides the economic, social, and ideological foundations that make their superexploitation possible. Women workers are exploited not only as wage labor but also as a pariah labor pool defined by sex. 

The involvement of large numbers of women in industry generates a contradiction between the increasing economic independence of women and their domestic subjugation within the family unit, propelling women to fight against their superexploitation and the sexist ideology that props it up. Since women's oppression is fundamental to class society such struggles bring women to the realisation that in order to achieve their liberation a thoroughgoing restructuring of society will have to take place.
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