Women’s lives today are dramatically different to how they were just a few decades ago.
We have more economic independence, social freedom and legal rights. Many sexist ideas have been challenged.
But while some say women can now “have it all”, fundamental inequalities remain.
Pay inequality still exists. The burden of childcare and domestic work still falls on women.
The pressure to look a certain way has grown, while the conviction rate for rape is disgracefully low.
To make sense of these contradictions we need to find the roots of women’s oppression.
Some argue that oppression exists because of our genetic make up.
The flip side of this is the idea that if women ran big businesses instead of men, financial markets wouldn’t have crashed.
These ideas reduce oppression to biology. Socialists reject this. But if nature doesn’t cause oppression, is it nurture?
It’s easy to see the role that socialisation plays in shaping the expectations and behaviour of girls, boys, women and men.
But why does this socialisation happen? Ideas about male and female roles have to come from somewhere. Where did it all begin?
The revolutionary socialist Frederick Engels tried to answer these questions in his book The Family, Private Property and the State.
He examined the role of women throughout history, starting with the first human societies. In school these are often described as “hunter gatherer” societies. Engels called them “primitive communist”.
Such societies existed for more than 90 percent of human history. In them, people produced things in a very different way.
Concepts of wealth and individual ownership didn’t exist. People lived in small collective groups and produced what they needed.
There was a division of roles between men and women, but neither was seen as better or worse than the other.
The way people lived changed as they transformed the way they produced things.
Agricultural changes made production more efficient. For the first time in human history, it became possible to produce more than people needed.
An elite group developed to control this surplus. And as soon as there is division between those who produce a surplus and those who control it, there is a class society. This change in the structure of society fundamentally changed women’s lives.
Women tended to be the main gatherers in primitive communist societies. They often had authority over men, because their work provided the main source of nutrition for the group.
They participated fully in production while still having children.
The introduction of heavy ploughing and the use of domesticated animals made it possible to increase production.
But it was harder for pregnant women and children to be involved in this kind of work.
This meant that men increasingly took responsibility for the most productive work.
The improvements and change of techniques within agriculture also meant more workers were needed—and that bigger groups could be sustained.
It made economic sense to have more children rather than fewer.
Over time, men became exclusively responsible for production. Bearing children became the primary role of women.
Other social changes took place too. In primitive communist societies children were the responsibility of the group as a whole.
But as private property and class emerged, so did the development of a private family structure.
Over time a smaller and smaller elite controlled the surplus. Passing on wealth from one generation to the next became important and the family became the key mechanism for doing this.
Production and reproduction became separated into public and private spheres. This subordinated women’s role to that of men’s.
There was nothing natural about this in terms of biology or gender. It can only be understood in terms of the development of private property and class society.
Of course, the nature of the family has changed through different class societies. Yet the family remains the key economic and social unit for the reproduction of labour. As long as it remains, it will shape the role of women.