Friday, 24 April 2009

The origins of women’s oppression

As we have seen, the Neolithic Revolution introduced many profound changes into human society. We have yet to consider one of the most important: the dominance of men over women.

This has been expressed differently across cultures, but the general pattern is true everywhere and persists today: most of the powerful positions in politics and the economy are occupied by men, who also have majority control of wealth both in society in general and within the family. Women are still expected to carry most of the burden of childcare and housework, and are disproportionately subject to physical assault and to sexual and economic exploitation.

This situation has prevailed for only a small portion of humanity’s existence, but it has had enormous consequences for women’s participation and representation in art. Before we discuss that, we need to understand its causes.

The most substantial contribution on women’s inequality by the founders of Marxism was Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This has become dated in some respects, but its basic argument remains sound. Marxists recognise that our explanation of the origins of sexual inequality has to be based not on mythology or speculation but on anthropological evidence. Only when we understand the causes of inequality can we propose ways of solving it.

Women in prehistory

Marxism’s first premise is that the inequality of the sexes is not eternal and inevitable, but is rooted in material conditions. The alternative is to believe that males and females are born unequal, for which there is no evidence.

For ninety per cent of its existence, the human race lived in a more or less egalitarian society. This view, which was supported by Marx and Engels, has subsequently been confirmed by a great deal of anthropological research. Early humans lived in loose groupings where labour was probably divided according to sex, though we must remember there is no direct evidence for this. It’s likely that men went hunting for big game, while women foraged for plant foods such as fruit, berries and nuts, caught small animals and reared children. (This should not be seen rigidly — the women of the Agta in the Philippines, for example, are skilled hunters of game animals, although they hunt less than men. If they can do it, so could women in prehistoric communities.) But there was no social basis for either sex to oppress the other. Inequality in the distribution of power and resources is not possible until society is producing more than is necessary for subsistence alone. As it was, food and other resources had to be distributed equally to keep everyone alive.

Likewise, we do not know if tool-making was divided according to sex, but there is no reason why both sexes could not have made them.

In this context, women’s contribution would have been essential. Whereas our stereotype is of male hunters bringing home game that fed the tribe, the truth was probably rather different. The anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, studying the hunter-gatherer Aché Indians of Paraguay in the 1980s, found that men’s hunting success was very variable. As summarised by Jared Diamond:

The first surprising result from the studies by Hawkes and her colleagues concerned the difference between the returns achieved by men’s and women’s strategies. Peak yields were, of course, much higher for men than for women, since a man’s daily bag topped 40,000 calories when he was lucky enough to kill a peccary. However, a man’s average daily return of 9,634 calories proved to be lower than that of a woman (10,356) and a man’s median return was much lower (4,663 calories per day) was much lower. The reason for this paradoxical result is that the glorious days when a man bagged a peccary were greatly outnumbered by the humiliating days when he returned empty-handed.[1]

Given the vagaries of hunting, prehistoric women were actually more consistently productive in calorie terms than men were. In a subsistence society, it is highly unlikely that this contribution would have been undervalued. In fact, many anthropologists believe that it was initially women who were in charge of planting and cultivating. The archaeologist Margaret Ehrenberg argued that women’s foraging role meant that they were particularly aware of where plants grew, their life cycle, how they responded to sun and rain, and so on:

The discovery of farming techniques has usually been assumed to have been made by men, but it is in fact very much more likely to have been made by women. On the basis of anthropological evidence for societies still living foraging lifestyles and those living by simple, non-mechanical farming, taken in conjunction with direct archaeological evidence, it seems probable that it was women who made the first observations of plant behaviour, and worked out, presumeably by long trial and error, how to grow and tend crops.[2]

This command of resources gave women considerable control over the decisions of the tribe, including the ability to veto wars they didn’t approve of.[3]

Some archaeologists, in particular Marija Gimbutas, have proposed that in prehistory women were worshipped and dominated society. A belief in prehistoric matriarchy has even been ascribed to Engels, whereas Origin states that prehistoric women were relative equals, supreme only in the household; lines of descent went through the female line, yet matrilineality is not the same thing as matriarchy. The theory has more to do with wishful thinking by some feminists than reality, as the evidence is unconvincing. Under a subsistence economy it is unlikely that any group could universally exert authority at the expense of others.

The advent of sexual inequality

The exact steps by which sexual inequality emerged are still unclear, but the general pattern is not. The key advance of the Neolithic Revolution was to greatly increase productivity, and this favoured those who had the greatest control of that production. This affected women in two ways.

Paleolithic women’s food-gathering role would have posed no problems for their other major social function, the bearing of children. Nor would childbearing have dominated women’s lives to the extent that it did, for example, in 19th century Europe. Nomadic people are limited to the number of children they can carry with them, which imposes a four-year interval between births until a child can learn to walk by itself; in addition there is no incentive to reproduce more mouths than the subsistence economy can support.

In Neolithic society, beginning around 12–10,000 years ago, these conditions changed. Sedentary agriculturalists can give birth more often, and valued larger families because they increased the amount of available labour. This put a heavier burden of childbearing upon women.

After the technical innovations of ploughing and herding, the heavy work that was necessary for the cultivation of crops and the domestication of animals was much less compatible with childbearing than Paleolithic gathering had been. Men were already in charge of cattle, because of their history of hunting such animals; now they took on more responsibility for agriculture too. Childe wrote:

The plough changed farming from plot cultivation to agriculture (the tillage of fields)… It relieved women of the most exacting drudgery but deprived them of their monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status that conferred. Among barbarians, whereas women normally hoe plots, it is men who plough fields. And in even the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian documents the ploughmen really are males.[4]

Egyptian ploughmanAncient Egyptian mural painting of a man plowing, from the tomb of Sennedjem, ca. 1200 BCE.

So, as a result of the shift to a new economy, women were gradually excluded from the area of production in which the most dramatic productive advances were being made. As productivity increased, so did the wealth and importance of men relative to women in society. At the same time, the increased productivity of labour meant increased pressure on women’s reproductive role as childbearers. The great advance for humanity represented by the Neolithic Revolution was thus accompanied by a huge step backwards for women, who gradually became subordinated to men. Women were more and more confined to the household, while economic power was moving in the opposite direction.

The second way in which women were affected was the rise of class society and the development of the family within it. The Marxist anthropologist Eleanor Leacock made a key point:

It is crucial to the organisation of women for their liberation to understand that it is the monogamous family as an economic unit, at the heart of class society, that is basic to their subjugation.[5]

As we have seen, the production of a surplus after the Neolithic Revolution meant that a minority in society began to acquire a disproportionate control over resources, and therefore also of power. This ruling class used this control to organise society in a way that entrenched and extended its privileges.

One expression of this was the shift from the loose, collective pairing of hunter-gatherer society to a new form of family, in which the male and female partners were strictly tied to one another and property rights were held by the male. This family form was necessary to the ruling class as it allowed wealth to be inherited within the family, i.e. it allowed the ruling class to reproduce and perpetuate itself. The woman was little more than her husband’s servant, expected to rear children and perform domestic chores. In Origin, Engels wrote:

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.[6]

This took a variety of forms across different cultures, but the assumed inferiority of women is universal outside of surviving hunter-gatherer societies. Thus the ruling class that emerged from the Neolithic Revolution was also a male-dominated ruling class.

To take one example of how this was expressed, human lineage in prehistoric society was often — it is impossible to be sure of the extent — measured through the mother. A child’s maternity was incontestable, whereas paternity was always open to doubt (not least because many early societies practiced much looser forms of marriage). This practice of matrilinearity, or ‘mother right’, came into conflict with the principle of male dominance. Engels explained:

Thus, on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased it made the man’s position in the family more important than the woman’s, and on the other hand created an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favour of his children, the traditional order of inheritance... Mother right, therefore, had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was.[7]

Lineage through the mother was replaced by lineage through the father, but this was not enough. To guarantee that he was indeed the father of his wife’s children, a man had to exert considerable sexual control over her, and a monogamous family arose in which female sexuality became taboo. Centuries of sexual repression and hypocrisy have resulted. Engels concluded:

The overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.

Out of this concrete social relationship rose ideologies seeking to reinforce inequality by making it seem inevitable. Ideas went into circulation that are still current: men are by nature more aggressive, women are nurturing, mothers are especially important to children, war is no place for a woman, boys don’t cry, women must worry about their looks, men must sow their wild oats, and so on. Women’s role in childbirth led to suggestions that they were closer to ‘Nature’ and to a passive kind of ‘spirituality’. Men and women were expected not only to believe these ideas but to try and live up to prescribed gender identities in their behaviour.


The reactionary explanation of sexual inequality is that men are innately more aggressive and domineering than women, i.e. that male dominance is natural and inevitable. But the predominance of men has only existed for a very small and recent period in human society. Inequality is not rooted in innate differences between male and female biology or psychology, but in the development of productive forces through history.[8] This is a fact that only dialectical materialism can properly explain — bourgeois theories have to resort to the ‘nature’ argument to some extent because for political reasons they must resist the full implications of materialism.

Another theory widespread among feminists is that of ‘patriarchy’. The term literally means ‘rule of the father’, usually in the context of the family or household, but has become little more than an alternative term for male dominance. This theory has its basis in the uneasiness of bourgeois feminism with Marxism. It tends to assert the same ideas of innate male oppressiveness, merely from a more critical perspective. For this reason it offers no solution to sexual inequality because it does not understand it as a historical question.

Biology has been important — ‘male’ and ‘female’ have no meaning outside it — but only because it is women who give birth to children; the historical stage at which this difference determined the inequality of the sexes is long past. Women were not forced into submission by male aggression: the change in their status took thousands of years, and followed a socio-economic logic based upon the interests of society in increased production and reproduction.

However, human beings are rarely fully aware of the historical processes they are swept up in, and society came to believe its own propaganda — officially, at any rate. Male dominance came to be seen as ‘inevitable’ and decreed by the gods. (This pattern, wherein developments based upon particular historical conditions are mistaken for absolute and universal truths, is repeated again and again across history.) The egalitarianism of prehistoric society was conveniently forgotten as new interests were asserted.

Even when new techniques made the physical differences between men and women irrelevant to production, class society persisted with the male-dominated family because it drew several benefits from it. Firstly, women’s domestic role meant that future generations of labour were reared and supported at little cost to the ruling class.[9] Secondly, the family became an important means of passing on ‘official’ ideology to those new generations — respect for the monarchy, one’s obligations to the ruling class, subservience to religion, the superiority of men over women, etc — which could be asserted against more dangerous notions of class and gender solidarity. Thirdly, restricting women’s status in the workplace creates a pool of labourers who can be paid less, for the same work, than men. And fourthly, the right to inherit wealth within the family is as important for the bourgeoisie as it was to the nobility in ancient civilisations. It is for this reason that Marx and Engels argued that “it is with the abolition of private property that the abolition of the family is self-evident”.[10]

The result of all this for art was, and is, that it disproportionately represents male experience. This has been an inescapable fact of artistic production ever since the establishment of civilisation, and we shall return to this topic again as the blog progresses. I will take a look at the representation of women in early art in the next article.

[1] Jared Diamond, Why is Sex Fun? (1997). Diamond argues that men hunted, despite lower calorie yields, because they could trade their occasional bonanzas for adulterous sex.
[2] Margaret Ehrenburg, Women in Prehistory (1989).
[3] See for example Judith Brown, ‘Iroquois Women’, published in Rayna Reiter (ed.), Toward an Anthropology of Women (1975).
[4] V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History (1942).
[5] Eleanor Leacock, Introduction (1972) to Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
[6] Engels, Ch. II The Family, 4 The Monogamous Family from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[7] Ibid., Ch. II The Family, 3 The Pairing Family.
[8] To take a contemporary example, girls today outperform boys in the education system. Many responses to this place huge emphasis on differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, etc, whereas the real cause of the difference is socialisation, such as the idea that it is not ‘cool’ for boys to study hard. It is only by encouraging different attitudes in boys that their underachievement can be resolved. This however means overturning many long-cherished, even Romantic, assumptions about male behaviour.
[9] This is one of the reasons underlying the right’s insistence upon the importance of the family. The family operates as a kind of welfare system for its members, thus sparing the state from responsibility for supporting them.
[10] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology (1845–6).


  1. great article, how helpful and enlightening. keep the good work up

  2. Thanks for your appreciation, Annie. Feel free to spread the word!


  3. Dear Eugene, I'm a professional translator and would like to translate your article "The origins of women’s oppression" in Italian in order to post it in my Facebook day and in the groups of writers I follow. Could you grant me the authorization?
    Thank you veri much!
    Anna C.


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