Nothing natural about sexism

Marx’s collaborator Engels wrote that “…the first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.

So women’s oppression existed before the rise of capitalism, but has not always existed. It is not to do with innate differences and inequalities between the sexes, though, nor is it timeless: women’s oppression is a product of class society. To fight for women’s rights today, we need to understand this history.

The ‘world historic defeat of the female sex’, as Engels put it, is clearly related to the rise of a class-based society. The reason why women’s oppression arises with class society is linked to the advances in the forces of production and the production of surplus. This surplus allowed some people to live above the subsistence level, but not enough for everyone to do so. This gave rise to an exploiting class and an exploited class. At the same time this allowed for the certain sections of society to be freed from the toil of subsistence living, which led to the further development of the forces of production, which is particularly important for the rise of women’s oppression. As British Marxist Chris Harman argued,

“…the biological differences between men and women took on an importance they had never had before. Weighed down with the burden of child bearing, women tended to be channelled towards certain productive roles and away from others – away from those which provided access to the surplus. So for instance when societies move from hoe cultivation, which can be done by women despite the burden of pregnancy, to the use of heavy ploughs or to cattle rearing, women tend to be displaced from key productive roles, and the surplus comes to be controlled by males.”

Nothing natural about the nuclear family

Of course the situation of women today is very different. Women’s oppression changes with different forms of class society. A good place to start when looking at the systematic oppression of women under capitalism is the nuclear family. The nuclear family is the stronghold in the oppression of women. This economic unit of husband, wife and children reinforces and reproduces the gendered oppression and gendered stereotypes, where women take on the unpaid role of raising children and doing housework, even when doing work outside the home. Women’s work in the home is essential to the running of the profit system. As Margaret Benston argues,

“In sheer quantity, household labour, including child care, constitutes a large amount of socially necessary production. Nevertheless in a society based on commodity production, it is not usually considered ‘real work’ since it is outside of trade and the market.” 

The unpaid labour done by women directly benefits the ruling class as it maintains workers’ health and wellbeing so they are able to come to work and produce profit for the owning class.

Therefore, if the nuclear family – or the ideal of the nuclear family regulating other family types – is an integral part of capitalism so is women’s role within it. The nuclear family arose with the rise of capitalism. This type of family structure is unique to capitalist society, a socially constructed economic unit formed out of the remnants of the patriarchal peasant family. The peasant family structure was destroyed as peasants were forced off their land and driven into the cities to work as labourers in the increasing number of factories. Men, women and children were expected to work long hour days for a subsistence wage. For many members of the working class, family did not exist. Marx and Engels talk in the Communist Manifesto about ‘the practical absence of the family among the proletarians’: early capitalism in Britain was so disruptive, and so destructive of workers’ lives, that social units broke down.

This was a problem for the capitalists. The number of peasants that could be sent to work in the factories was limited, as the capitalists soon found out. As the numbers began to dwindle in the countryside and as the factories continued to take the lives of workers, the problem of the reproduction of workers forced the capitalists to rethink the family. As Harman explains;

 “The capitalist class as a whole soon found this was undermining the basis of further accumulation – the reproduction of the working class. There had to be some way of making sure workers were able to refresh themselves for further work and of bringing up the next generation of workers so they could meet the physical and mental requirements of paid labour. Capitalism did not have the resources or technology to provide for socialised reproduction…

Thus the nuclear family was created. This was the family structure which would provide the material needs for the current workers, while also reproducing and bringing up the next generation of workers.

Certain elements of the older patriarchal family ideology were used, such as religious texts and rituals, to convince workers and individual capitalists of the new family structure. This had nothing to do with the desire of individual men to oppress women but was a necessity for the continuation of capitalism. The ideas were a justification for a change in organisation, in other words. It wasn’t patriarchal ideology that drove this process, but the needs of the profit system.

Unpaid labour underpins the profit system

Working class women and their ability to have children are integral to the capitalist system. This is why capitalists worry about declining birth rates, to the extent that a Liberal Party politician in Australia once called on women to have ‘one for mum, one for dad, and one for the country.’ This is what, in economic terms, women having children means: labour power is reproduced. Women’s role as domestic servants and mothers is cemented into capitalist ideology and is central to women’s oppression.

This matters when we think about liberation. Although it is important to challenge sexist attitudes, fighting ideas alone will not tackle oppression. It is written in to the system’s logic. The liberation of working-class women cannot be won without a massive reorganisation of society, and a socialisation of the ‘private’ and ‘domestic’ labour women do in housework and childrearing.

Sexist ideas – promoted in the media, school, advertising – play a role in perpetuating this system, but they do not drive it. The ideology of oppression is imposed on the working class from above, from the ideologies of the capitalist class. As Marx states, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

Sisterhood is Powerful?

Women are oppressed as women of course. Just think of the ‘glass ceiling’ and low female representation on boards of directors. But different classes experience oppression quite differently, and have different interests in the system.

Bourgeois women are oppressed quite differently from working class women as the burden of child rearing and house work is often taken up by servants and nannies. Many women bosses benefit from the ideology that sees women’s work in cleaning and care undervalued and able to be kept at low pay.

The struggle goes on… on changing terrain

Since the rise of capitalism, technological advancements have progressed forward in leaps and bounds. In mid-19th Century London, nearly 60% of infants died by the time they were five years old. At this time a women would be pregnant or nursing for most of her married life, as an average of eight to ten pregnancies was required to reproduce the next generation of labourers. As medicine and health care progressed there were fewer infant deaths and the health of the working class as a whole became a lot better. This meant women could have fewer babies and still the reproduction of the workers was not threatened.

The control of reproduction through highly advanced and available contraceptives, such as the condom and the pill, reduced the burden of bearing and raising children. The advancement of medicine, health and contraception alone has meant that women do not have to be pregnant or nursing most of their adult life in order to produce the next generation of labourers. This has freed women to contribute to other areas of social life outside of the home.

The endless toil of housework has also been revolutionised by technological advancements such as the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, the refrigerator and the replacement of coal stoves with electric or gas equivalents. These advancements have not taken the women out of the isolation of being in the home nor freed her from oppression or responsibility of raising children; however they has allowed working class women to contemplate looking for paid work options outside of the home. Women’s participation in the paid workforce is much higher than it was a generation ago. So the picture of women’s lives has changed dramatically.

This is not a story of simple advances, however. These technological advancements benefit capitalism as well as women. The potential surplus value created by the technological advancements described above and the availability of a more efficient childcare (i.e. one worker looking after 10 children instead of five potential workers looking after 10 children), has meant women are freed up to participate in waged work. There has been a long-term tendency for the number of women in paid work to grow. Harman argues:

 “The capitalist state, charged with maintaining the underlying conditions needed for capital accumulation, has been forced in all countries to respond to this change. It has had increasingly to take measures itself designed to complement the family in the reproduction of labour power – the provision of welfare benefits, preschool education, and so on.”

 Throughout capitalist history working class women have been building on the gains made from previous struggles, the changes have been cumulative. As women have entered in the workforce in increasing numbers in the past century they have made demands to make it possible to also fulfil their role in the home. As it has become more possible for women to gain employment and an independent income their complete dependence on their husbands were called into question. Women have demanded for better contraceptives, legal safe abortions and demanded that men take on some of the domestic chores that were traditionally ‘women’s work’.

In most industrialised countries today, only about one third of households consist of a man and woman with their children. Single mothers are not uncommon and although they have benefited from the advancements made during capitalism, they still face the sexist discriminations of lower wages, expensive childcare, inadequate welfare from state and are often targeted in government spending cuts.

A complex picture

This article has introduced some of the foundations of the Marxist theory of women’s oppression: its location in capitalism; the role of the family; the needs of the system; ideology. We need this basis to understand the sources of women’s oppression in order to be able to fight it. Future articles will examine the history of women fighting back, and will look at working-class women’s organisation and struggles in the unions and socialist movement.

Rowan MacArthur