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Sex, gender and women’s liberation

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Issue 2694
Striking and winning against unequal pay (Pic: Andrew McGowan)

The reality of women’s oppression is all around us. For all the advances won by resistance and struggle, capitalist society is riven with deeply entrenched sexism—unequal pay, ­sexual harassment, attacks on reproductive rights and objectification.

Sometimes it can feel as though whether you are a man or a woman is the fundamental divide in society.

And for many people the idea of what it means to be a man or a woman is an expression of biological differences.

But in reality these ­definitions are constructed though a complex ­interaction between biology and social factors.

Scientist and author Cordelia Fine said ­newborns pick up “gender ­constructions” through ­“parents, peers, teachers, clothing, language, media, role models, ­organisations, schools, institutions, social inequalities…and of course, toys.”

This process of socialisation has a huge impact on people’s lives.

For instance, a common stereotype is that women are worse than men at subjects like science and maths.

But is that because women’s and men’s brains have fundamental differences?


Psychologist Claude Steele ran a maths test for two groups of university students. In the first, the students were told that the test usually “revealed a gender difference”.

Students in the second group were told the test typically showed no gender difference.

Women in the first group got the lowest scores of all those tested.

In other words, it wasn’t actually about the size or composition of women’s brains—but about the powerful internalisation of gender stereotypes.

Why does this matter? Partly because it shows how a lifetime of gendered expectations have huge impacts.

The notion of a biological determination of what is means to be a man or a woman ignores the way such concepts change in different societies and in different periods of history.

At its simplest form, biological sex generally refers to the reproductive anatomy of an individual.

A small minority of people are born with intersex

conditions which means they have atypical physical or hormonal development.

For most people, their gender identity matches with sex they were assigned at birth.

For some people, their gender expression changes over time. And others identify as “non binary”—rejecting a permanent identity as either a woman or a man.

The idea of binary genders mean human beings are socialised into defining as one or the other.

So young girls are encouraged to display traits considered “feminine”—to be ­cooperative, caring, and empathetic and encouraged to stifle behaviour that’s considered to be for boys—boisterous, assertive and independent.

These stereotypes are reinforced throughout society—in the home, within schools, and plastered all over TV screens.

But rather than these feminine and masculine traits being a result of biological ­differences, they are the result of large-scale pressure to conform to a rigid idea of what gender is.

Anthropologist Gayle Rubin said, “Far from being an expression of natural differences, exclusive gender identity is the suppression of natural similarities.

“It requires repression—in men, of whatever the local version of ‘feminine’ traits—in women, of the local definition of ‘masculine’ traits,” he said.

Gender is shaped by biological sex, the way people’s bodies are perceived by other people, social factors like gender values and expectations, and a ­person’s development as a sexual being.

It is also changed and constructed by both the experience of oppression and the resistance to it.

What a woman is and can be is not just dictated from above but also contested from below.

Women’s fightbacks have sometimes redefined the boundaries of gender. And equally the victories of the right seek to imprison women again within gender stereotypes.

Victories over abortion rights give women more freedom. Repealing those gains puts up the barriers again.

So if it’s not about biology, where does the undoubted ­reality of women’s oppression come from?

For Marxists, the answer lies in a materialist explanation. This means looking at the development of human societies, and how this has influenced human behaviour and ideas.

Far from being an inevitable feature of human society, women’s oppression can be pinpointed to the beginning of class society.

Just around 10,000 years ago, human beings lived in societies virtually unrecognisable to our own.

Women and men usually ­performed different roles within the small bands of people that lived and travelled together.

But, critically, neither role was more important, each was essential to the mutual survival of the entire group of people.

As agricultural techniques developed, societies became more permanently settled in one place.


A surplus of goods started to be passed from generation to generation. The surplus was not sufficient to enable everyone to have an easy life. But it was enough for a section of society, a ruling class, to separate itself off and become exploiters of the majority.

Women tended to be displaced from key productive roles, and the surplus came to be controlled by a minority of males. Marxist Frederick Engels called this transition, “the world historic defeat of the female sex”.

“The man seized the reins in the house also, the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children,” he wrote.

Critically, rearing children was transformed from one of collective responsibility, into one borne individually in privatised units of small families. Engels called this “the first form of the family not based on natural, but economic conditions, namely on the victory of private property over original, naturally developed, common ownership.”

Marxists since Engels, such as anthropologist Eleanor Leacock, studied societies where women’s oppression wasn’t a feature.

In particular she studied pre-class societies in North America and looked at how the introduction of trade, and in some cases, wage labour, altered these societies.

She argued that “at the heart” of the changes in how these societies was organised was the “strengthening of the family as an economic unit”.

And like Engels, she concluded that “to relegate the analysis of changing family forms to a secondary status leaves social interpretation not only ­incomplete, but distorted”.

Of course, families today don’t live exactly as our ancestors did all those years ago.

But the work by Engels, Leacock and others shows how changes in the family were critical to the beginnings of ­women’s oppression.

Today, the family unit is the single greatest influence on what is expected of men and women.

Myths around the supposedly “natural” role of women as nurturing caretakers flows from how society is organised.

Women are expected to perform these functions because they are forced by society into ­primary caregiving roles.

The family unit plays the important role in privately raising and socialising the next generation of ­workers for capitalism.

The point of looking to these societies 10,000 years ago isn’t an attempt to replicate them, but rather an effort to look beyond the surface level of gender roles.

Because they appear so deeply-rooted it can be hard to imagine a world without them.

But for most of human history, men and women were not forced into the distorted roles they are today.

They had similar biology to today but did not live within a society organised around women’s oppression.

Ideas about men and women flow from how society is ­organised, not the other way round.

When humans have ­organised their societies differently, ideas about gender—and the apparent different abilities of men and women—are put in another context.

We can imagine a different world, where everyone has the freedom to express their gender identity any way they see fit, without the fear of oppression.

Winning this means fighting not just gender expectations and sexist stereotypes but also daring to dream of fundamental transformation.

Leacock probably said it best. “Marx indicated that the oppression of women in a society was the measure of its general oppressionl,” she wrote.

“One can add, the strength of women’s involvement in a movement dedicated to opposing a social order is a measure of the movement’s strength—or weakness”.

She was right—which means it’s a battle for women and men to fight together to smash this rotten system and build a better socialist world.

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