The world can be a bad place to be a woman. Women make up a staggering 70 percent of the world’s poor. Being female shapes every aspect of women’s lives—from things like work, housing, health and education to our most intimate relationships.
In Britain, the most obvious evidence of women’s oppression is the 17 percent pay gap between men and women. But the most sickening signs are acts of rape and violence—and the widespread tendency to blame the victims.
The shocking nature of sexual violence can make many people think that humans are inherently brutal. They despair of ever creating a world without sexual violence and systematic oppression.
The level of violence against women is appalling. It’s estimated that at least 47,000 women are raped in Britain every year—while the conviction rate for reported rapes is just 6.5 percent.
But the vast majority of men do not rape women. And most men are not violent towards women.
Rape doesn’t happen because of men’s “natural” instincts. It results from the way that class society distorts sexuality and alienates people from each other and themselves.
Women’s oppression benefits capitalism—it plays an ideological and an economic function.
People create the environments and the societies we live in—but because we feel we have no control over it, the world appears as an alien entity.
We become alienated from ourselves and from each other. Rape and sexual violence are some of the most extreme forms that this alienation takes.
This combines with a view of sexuality that sees sex as a commodity like any other, which can be bought and sold—or taken.
Nearly a third of people in Britain think that a woman was at least partly to blame if she was raped while she was drunk.
Dominant ideas about sexuality blame women for “encouraging” rape and treat men as little more than animals unable to control themselves.
So justice secretary Kenneth Clarke’s recent comments, which seemed to dismiss some rapes, such as date rape, as barely rapes at all, unfortunately came as no surprise.
Clarke’s comments did cause an enormous outcry, and his views are heavily contested.
But those at the top of society—politicians, judges, those who own the media, and so on—promote sexist ideas. Those who own newspapers and TV stations fill them with images depicting women as sex objects, not people in their own right.
And it’s normal for rape trials to raise what a victim was wearing, if she was out late, if she had been drinking and if she’d had sex with the rapist before.
Of course, lots of women, and men, do challenge sexist ideas and fight for reforms to improve women’s lives.
But sexist ideas are widespread because of women’s position in society and how our society distorts sexuality.
The revolutionary Karl Marx described how the dominant ideas in any society are the ideas of the ruling class. This doesn’t mean they are the only ideas—but it means they are the strongest.
But why would the ruling class want to encourage this view of women? What do they get out of it?
Women’s oppression hasn’t always existed. It emerged when human societies began to form into classes.
Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels identified the family under class society as the key to women’s oppression. Engels described the emergence of the family as “the world historical defeat of the female sex”.
They saw that how people secure their basic existence shapes human behaviour and ideas.
The family emerged alongside private property and the state. Before that, women and men lived in hunter-gatherer societies where they did different but equal work and had an equal say in decision-making. Marx and Engels called this “primitive communism”.
As societies developed, they began to produce a surplus in excess of what they needed to meet their basic needs—something that could be stored and controlled.
And the production techniques that created it tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s for the first time.
Once a ruling class developed the men who came to dominate wanted “legitimate” heirs to pass the surplus on to. Control of women and sexual relationships became key to owning it.
The family unit developed with an ideology that treats women as second-class citizens and as a form of property to be controlled by men.
These ideas help legitimate and encourage violence against women.
That doesn’t mean that nothing ever changes in class societies. A woman’s position in a family under capitalism is very different from how it was under feudalism.
And even under capitalism women have fought to transform their lives over the past century.
Most women in Britain today work outside the home. People have more sexual freedom than they did in the past.
And changes in women’s lives and ideas have had an impact on men too. So it’s much more common for men to do jobs that would have previously been seen as women’s work such as nursing.
Men spend more time caring for their children today than they did in the past. Housework is no longer the sole responsibility of women in many homes.
Huge changes have occurred within capitalism, partly due to the changing needs of the system and partly because of mass pressure and struggle from ordinary people.
These changes show that the idea that men and women have fixed, unchanging roles is wrong.
But important as the changes are, women’s oppression remains. And our rulers are constantly trying to roll back the gains we have made.
So being a wife and mother is still seen as key to a women’s identity.
Society overemphasises sexual relationships—and tells women that unless they nab themselves a man they’re a failure.
And women who don’t want children are still often seen as inexplicably strange.
Women’s oppression, like other oppressions, serves to divide the working class. Instead of ordinary people seeing themselves as having a common interest against the rich, women and men can be sucked into seeing each other as the main enemy. This is highly useful for our rulers—and they know it.
The family also plays a key economic function for capitalism. Women are expected to maintain the current workforce and nurture the future one—while often being part of that workforce at the same time.
They raise children, care for sick or elderly relatives, and maintain a household. They save capitalism a fortune by providing all of these services for free.
This isn’t to say that every home and every relationship is simply a weight around women’s necks.
Often people value their personal relationships and home life above all else, because they seem to offer a haven from the stresses of the outside world.
But that doesn’t change the role the family plays under capitalism. And for a lot of the time, people looking for comfort and sanctuary in the family are disappointed.
The haven they hoped to find ends up being a pressure cooker where built-up tensions are unleashed—and women often bear the brunt of them.
The key role that the family plays explains why our rulers hate criticism of it and attack anyone who falls outside it. That’s why there is homophobia, panic over single parents and pressure on single people to get married.
This also shapes the way people think about rape. Most women who are raped know their attacker, and violence is more likely to happen within families—yet the most common view of rape is of a shadowy stranger leaping out of a bush late at night.
Sexist ideas are so ingrained because women’s oppression has existed for thousands of years, since the rise of class societies. This is why it seems so natural and permanent.
But some of those who argue that we can’t challenge oppression do so because they have an interest in maintaining it. And it helps them to focus on individual acts of violence, because that distracts from the systemic oppression at the heart of capitalism.
We can end women’s oppression—but to do it we need to get rid of the system that props it up.
Oppression affects all women, but the impact is vastly different depending on class.
It is key to a system that ruling class women do very well out of—which is why we can’t rely on alliances with rich women to win change.
Ordinary people have a common interest in getting rid of capitalism. It wrecks the lives of working class women and men.
It relies on oppression to divide and weaken the working class. And it atomises us and distorts even our most intimate relationships.
In the process of creating a new world, people transform themselves. They throw off what Marx called the “muck of ages” and ideas that have survived for centuries start to fall away.
And in every revolutionary movement, women come to the forefront to lead the struggle.
Revolution isn’t a fairytale. Already this year we’ve seen revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that have thrown out dictators and raised the prospect of workers’ control of society.
Collectively, we have the power to smash the system and create real equality and freedom for everybody.