Societies must reproduce themselves year after year, or they would cease to exist. They do this not simply by producing enough food, shelter, clothing, etc, for people to survive. Just as importantly, there are particular relationships between the members of that society determining how things are produced.  Slave owners might force slaves to do all the work on pain of death. A class of landlords might extract payments of rent from the tenants working on their land. Capitalist employers will offer jobs to those whose work will make them a profit. But could there also be something more fundamental than this division of society into classes? Could it be that, despite the many ways in which societies develop, there is always the same group of people that come off worse, no matter to which economic class they might belong?
This, basically, is the stance taken by much feminist literature that identifies men as being the problem for women. In this view, men have a privileged position in all kinds of society and use that position to oppress women, either by force or by making sure that legal and other forms of discrimination keep women ‘in their place’. Many examples back this view, and they appear all the stronger as convincing evidence because only some have changed very much over history. These include denying women the right to vote in elections, to own property, to have the right to end a marriage or to get the same kinds of job as men for equal pay, or where social rules are invented that allow women less freedom than men. For example, still today in personal relationships, the socially ‘correct’ procedure is usually one where the man makes advances to the woman and invites her on a date, or proposes marriage.
What might account for this? Evidence shows that, on average, men are stronger and bigger than women. This might appear to back the idea of there being an innate male ability to use force against weaker women since time immemorial. Hunting for food and overpowering large animals is important in primitive societies. Yet, it should not be ignored that this is usually done in a social way by many hunters, even if they are men, who cooperate to capture the prey. It is not a wrestling match between a beefy hunter and a wild animal. Physical strength might be a key issue in hand-to-hand combat in a war, but even then it is a question of what weapons are at the disposal of the warring parties. Weapons are produced in a social division of labour, and do not occur naturally in the hands of the male fighter. In a deadly confrontation, most people would prefer to be a weakling with a gun than a muscle-bound fighter with a big fist. Still less are these physical difference between men and women an issue in everyday life now. How much physical strength is required to order groceries online or to type on a keypad?
Nevertheless, for the past several thousand years, the form taken by social organisation has meant that women have usually been in a subordinate position to men. This fact can make it seem valid to place the responsibility for women’s oppression at the hands of men, as it would not seem to be determined by a particular kind of society. However, that would be to miss out some important historical facts, ones that show how women in earlier forms of society were not subordinate to men.
1. The basis of social equality and inequality
Historical evidence shows that the social subordination of women has not always been the case. Even with no such evidence, on reflection it is not clear why it would be true. Just consider that the key to the maintenance of society depends upon there being children of adults – or else the social system dies out – and that women are the ones who bear the children. This makes one question why women would have been subordinate in all history. In primitive societies, where economic life was organised around kinship groups of people, not families as we know them today, this meant that women played a huge part in running society. The role of caring for, educating and socialising infants was specifically a woman’s task, following on from childbirth. It was obviously a fundamental feature of social reproduction. Often, in primitive society women had an equal, even higher status compared to men. While the identity of a child’s father was unclear, or at least not certain until recent DNA testing, it was obvious who the child’s mother was. Descent could only be reckoned in the female line, from mother to mother, and matrilineal custom prevailed in early societies.
A sign of this is seen in the belief system of ancient Greece, 2000-3000 years ago. This system included many female gods. Even though Zeus, a male, was the king of the gods, the females did not just include Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Artemis was a hunter goddess and Athena was the goddess of everything from wisdom and courage to law, mathematics, war strategy and the arts. Notably, one of the most important surviving relics of ancient Greece is the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena, and after whom Athens is named. This suggests that women had a significant social role in ancient society, although the evidence from the Greece of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Archimedes is that this social role had by their time already been undermined by the domination of males. As Engels put it in his book, Origin of the Family:
‘In the heroic age a Greek woman is, indeed, more respected than in the [later] period of civilization, but to her husband she is after all nothing but the mother of his legitimate children and heirs, his chief housekeeper and the supervisor of his female slaves, whom he can and does take as concubines if he so fancies’.
Between the time of the primitive societies in which women had an equal, even higher, status than men and that of the ‘heroic’ age of the Greeks, something had happened to change the social status of women. There was a shift away from more communal relations between groups of people, ones that included group marriage. In the place of such communal relationships, there was a shift towards monogamy, a single pairing of a woman and man, but one in which the male was dominant, and in which he also had more sexual freedom. The key factor prompting this major social development was the growth of private property at the expense of the resources available to the social group as a whole.
In the earlier forms of society, there were few resources available in excess of those needed to survive, and communal relationships between people, in economic as well as personal terms, tended to dominate. But as the productivity of agricultural production rose, and as surplus products came to be traded between different groups of people, this formed the basis upon which property also came to be owned by some individuals and groups more than others. Slowly, over centuries, and at a different pace in different areas of the world, individual property became a more important factor in social organisation, and class divisions developed within society.
If there was a move away from communal property, why was the focus on the man as the individual who owned private property and not the woman? The reason was that the surplus of resources that became this property arose outside of the domestic sphere that was the realm of the woman. So, from being at the heart of the community and society, the woman’s domestic role made her relatively isolated from the accumulation of wealth. Men had more direct command of tools and agricultural output, from crops to cattle, and more access to markets in which to sell these products. This led to a diminution of women’s social status, and, eventually, also to monogamy.
As Engels puts it: monogamy ‘was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions – on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property’. The institution of monogamy had nothing whatever to do with a man and woman wanting to raise children on their own. It had everything to do with the man being in control and having superior social rights, as made clear from the ability of the man to have affairs, etc, something which in the case of the woman was liable to be met with punishment. Monogamy as a social institution came about essentially as the ‘marriage version’ of the ownership of and control over property.
Some later forms of society were not as harsh on women as the classical Greek one. Furthermore, because relationships between people will always vary according to circumstance, there is no strict model that is followed by all societies at a particular stage of economic development. Even a society with a male-dominated monogamy can be more or less restrictive for women. Solid evidence about the social relations between men and women also gets patchier the further back in history one goes. Nevertheless, the historical evidence available to make inferences about these relationships backs up these points, especially the information about legal systems relating to property rights.
Another important point is that the property aspects of marriage and monogamy were of far more concern to the upper, richer strata of society. These strata had wealth to pass on to their offspring, while ordinary people had little or no wealth, and, for them, passing on small items of property to descendants would have been a very minor concern. But as social productivity developed to allow a surplus of goods well beyond what was needed simply to subsist, this was also the basis for a class society. The economically richer, more powerful minority of families had the means to control the labour of, or to buy the products from, the majority. Over time, these groups became a class of people ruling over all society, and the social system they put in place, along with laws and rules for morality, applied to everyone.
Women’s social status has been subordinate to that of men for a very long time, but not for all time, nor in all kinds of society. In his book, Origin of the Family, Engels gives examples up to as late as the 11th century in which there was far more freedom for women in pairing forms of marriage in Wales – and in which women could even divorce men on the grounds of bad breath! – than there was in much of the rest of Europe. What drove the subordination of women was the way that all developed societies eventually adapted to the growth of the economy, especially in commerce and commodity exchange. This occurred at the expense, in terms of social importance, of the social realm that women occupied.
2. Women and capitalism
Capitalism as a form of social production has existed for around three hundred years, developing initially in Europe and then throughout the world. Capitalism is a peculiar form of society, one that depends upon a division between workers, who own no means of producing what they need by themselves, and capitalists, to whom workers must sell their ability to work on the market. Capitalists are the owners of the means of production, and they will employ workers if they can profit from what they have produced. This is a different form of social production from earlier ones. It is not slavery, in which slaves are actually owned by the slave owners. It is not feudalism, where serfs must work part of the week for their landlord and hope to produce what they need to live by working for the remainder. In these pre-capitalist societies, despite the class distinctions, there was nevertheless usually some obligation of the rich to the poor, as much as there was one of the poor to work for the rich.
For example, the feudal lord had a duty to protect his tenants and manage disputes between them. In return, the tenants were usually under obligation to support the lord in any military campaign. Despite outrageous things like the droit de seigneur, which meant that the feudal lord had the right to have sex with a peasant bride on her wedding night, this did not prevent feudalism lasting for five or six hundred years in Europe. After feudalism, which ended in Europe around 1500, came the beginnings of a more commercial society, and also the beginnings of capitalism. This was a form of society where economic dealings between people, groups and countries were much more based upon market exchange, although that overlapped very much with earlier forms, depending upon the degree of economic development in each area. The big social change that signified the beginnings of capitalism was where a worker’s ability to work was also sold on the market. Workers became ‘independent’ wage labourers, often by being driven from the land, as with the enclosures in England, especially from the 1600s. Of course, this meant that workers also had a problem if they were not able to find work with an employer in the market. A ‘free’ labour market also meant the worker was free to starve.
What does this all mean for women’s position in society today? Engels makes important points on this question, stressing how the role of women changed as society developed economically:
‘In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men. With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production.’
This change in the status of women predated capitalism, and so it cannot be blamed upon capitalism alone. But within capitalism the subordination of women takes a new form. The new form of capitalist organisation of society meant that while some things became worse for women, others improved. For a working class woman, the downside remained that she was the person in the family who had most responsibility for looking after children and maintaining the household. The upside, given by the growth of industrial capitalism from the 19th century, was that she could again take part in social production, could earn a living and be a part of the broader society. The latter positive aspects nevertheless had, and still have, many negative features.
Female workers have consistently been paid less than their male counterparts for the same work. Partly, this was based upon the capitalist employer calculating that working women needed less of a wage on which to live since they were likely to be married to a man who also earned a wage that would support a household or family. It was also based upon the actions of established (male) workers’ trade unions that collaborated with employers to keep such wage differentials in place – a disgraceful anti-working class activity from the very institutions supposedly defending the working class. For example, during the First and Second World Wars, when principally men in the UK had been ‘called up’ to fight, women were introduced into the factories as much-needed labour. But the women were dismissed again, with unions often driving this move, once the war was over and were replaced by men.
Even in recent decades, when there have been laws to prevent discrimination and for equal pay for equal work, the social factors that determine employment usually mean that far fewer women than men get the better paying jobs. With a woman’s role being signified by capitalism, as by earlier societies, as being one where they have the principal, or full, responsibility for looking after the family, and where this role is considered to be outside what capitalist society will take into account, this remains the basic problem for women in society today. Even when a woman is not married and has no children, and so has none of these burdens, she is defined and valued according to social type. Something that is as basic and necessary for any society as looking after children lies outside what capitalist society is prepared to allow for, and so is an economic disadvantage for all women in this kind of social organisation. It is only the so-called ‘superwomen’ of the privileged sections of the middle class who can gain highly paid jobs and successfully ‘juggle’ the responsibilities of work and childcare, usually helped by poorly paid female housekeepers, nannies and childminders taking on the domestic burden for them (and their husbands/partners).
3. Gender, class and society
By developing society’s ability to produce more things in a given time with less effort, capitalism appears to offer economic freedom. Historically, capitalism has been the form of society that has most increased productivity, so that the necessaries of life, and much more, can be afforded in richer countries by anyone with a job. But this has been a very uneven development. Not only because of rich capitalist countries’ plunder of weaker societies, with slavery, colonialism and later forms of domination, but also because of the contradictions that exist even within the richer countries, including unemployment and poverty, and, of more specific interest for this article, the oppression of women.
Domestic work remains outside the social sphere of capitalist production and it is a private matter, even if some people are able to buy things, or buy help from other people, to do it. Household appliances, bought by most families, from washing machines to vacuum cleaners, also help to reduce the burden of domestic work. This burden, and the related responsibility of bringing up children, nevertheless almost exclusively remains that of women. It continues to affect the position of women in the capitalist jobs market, even if it has sometimes given them some ‘advantages’ over men in getting a job because they are more favoured by employers as cheaper forms of labour. The result is that social differences based upon gender are overlaid onto class relations between workers and employers in capitalist society.
As Engels put it: ‘The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large, social scale, and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant amount of her time’. This, however, cannot occur within capitalist society based upon production for the market, because the domestic sphere of work lies outside the capitalist labour market and employers have no reason to take this important sphere of social activity into account. They are concerned only with their profits, and this will also have a major impact on the policies of any capitalist government. Only a form of society where all kinds of activity that are socially useful are valued, and given resources so that they can function, will lead to the emancipation of women. That will not happen under capitalism, where market production is the way in which the owners of society’s productive resources determine what will make them a profit and what will not.
4. ‘Feminism’ or a theory of society
The term ‘feminist’ indicates someone who supports women’s rights, but it is lacking in many respects. To understand the social forces that oppress half of humanity in particular, and humanity in general, including males, means that one has to go further than ‘feminism’. The dysfunctional capitalist social system ruins everyone, including men – even including those who benefit from that system, although they would be the last to admit it, and would fight violently to keep it in place (actually, they would provide money for others to fight violently for them).
Gender, sexuality, disability, etc, are all forms of potential and actual social discrimination, in addition to the disadvantages that might come from someone’s economic position in society. But an upper class woman or homosexual, or a black capitalist, or a rich, disabled person will have better life chances than a poor, white, able-bodied, working class man. People are unequal in many ways. I am taller, stronger and faster than some, shorter, weaker and slower than others. I know more or fewer languages, and I am better or worse in playing a musical instrument, swimming or calculating, or even in finding my way out of a revolving door. But the thing that would probably make me better than most other people – no matter how stupid or incompetent I may be – is if I belong to a superior economic class. Just ask George W Bush. This argues against focusing on the way that society may ‘identify’ different groups of people, and instead to look at where people actually stand in the economic hierarchy. That is what really determines their circumstances.
The oppression of women under capitalism goes beyond that of working class women alone. But all these ways of restricting rights and opportunities are still based upon capitalism, its social mores and its form of economic regulation. Fighting for the rights of women under capitalism means fighting against capitalism. Any effective action to improve the position of women must be taken in the clear knowledge that this will also challenge the economics of this moribund system. Real opposition to women’s oppression does not start by taking into account what the capitalist system can afford to concede. The starting point is what society, not what capitalism, needs.
Tony Norfield, 27 August 2015
 This article is based partly upon the 1884 book by Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, available here. It is also based upon other readings and observation of contemporary capitalism. My aim is to clarify some important points about how the role of women in society has been determined, and what this implies for women today.