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Sexism is in the system

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Women’s oppression is about more than individual acts or attitudes—it is structured into society. To overthrow it we have to get rid of the system, writes Sadie Robinson
Issue 2443
Protesting for abortion rights
Protesting for abortion rights (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Revelations about the scale of sexual abuse committed by BBC presenter Jimmy Savile are just the latest horror story of violence against women and girls.

As with others it also showed up appalling attitudes in wider society. In Savile’s case many people knew of the abuse, but did nothing because he was seen as more important than his victims.

It’s a disgrace that violence against women continues along with attitudes that treat women as second class citizens. Some will draw a pessimistic conclusion that it’s impossible to get rid of sexism and that some men will always abuse some women. 

Others will decide that winning some men away from sexist ideas is the best we can achieve. 

Of course we should challenge sexist attitudes and behaviour. But this won’t get to the root of the problem. Sexist attitudes exist because we live in a system built on oppression. The attitudes and the oppression will remain unless we get rid of it.

Violence against women reflects women’s position in society. It can be the most disturbing sign of women’s oppression. 

But oppression is about more than individual acts or attitudes—it is structured into society and affects every aspect of life.

Just seven out of 150 elected heads of state were women in 2010, and only 11 out of 192 heads of government. Women made up on average 17 percent of national parliaments.

Women are more likely to be in low-status jobs, get paid less than men and do more housework and childcare. 

Across the globe they are more likely to be in poverty and have access to education blocked. But how does this structural oppression affect the ways individuals think and act?

The revolutionary Karl Marx argued that the dominant ideas in any society are those of the ruling class—the people who own the wealth.


This class has a material interest in maintaining the current system—and its sexism. So they put a lot of energy into convincing ordinary people that it is natural.

Politicians draw up tax breaks to encourage some ways of living, for instance heterosexual marriage, over others. They make speeches blaming all society’s ills on those who fall outside their “norm”—such as single mothers.

Striking against bosses attacks

Striking against bosses’ attacks (Pic: Guy Smallman)

The rich control the media, which bombards us with messages about how we should live. 

Adverts for pasta sauce, beer, cars and shampoo send the message that men and women have different roles—and that happiness lies in accepting them. 

Even today women’s magazines focus on looks and relationships—as though these should be women’s priorities.

The ruling class vision of the ideal family and the “normal” roles for men and women often doesn’t match the reality. Many people will question or ignore at least aspects of it. But there is immense pressure for people to accept it. 

Men are also encouraged to believe that they benefit from women’s oppression and should appreciate their “superior” position. 

Our rulers hope this will make working class men feel they have a stake in the system. At the same time class societies distort relationships by alienating people from each other and themselves. 

Ordinary people create the world but usually feel they have no control over it. Meanwhile sex and women’s bodies are treated as commodities.

The vast majority of men don’t rape women and most aren’t violent towards women. Yet the structure of society and its dominant ideas encourage men to treat women as inferior objects.

Marx and his collaborator Frederick Engels also argued that the way society is organised shapes ideas—and that these change as society does.

Today society is divided by class—the main ones being a ruling class that owns the wealth and a working class that produces it. This society is built on hierarchy and competition.

Pre-class societies were organised very differently. Men and women had different roles but women weren’t valued less than men. Engels wrote that in these societies, “All are free and equal, including the women”.


More recent studies have backed up most of what Engels wrote. Engels looked at how women’s position changed as class societies emerged. 

This happened when people produced more than they immediately needed. A group that eventually became the ruling class came to control this surplus. They wanted “legitimate” heirs to pass the surplus onto—requiring more control of women and sexual relationships.

The production techniques that led to the surplus tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s. 

And the surplus meant people could settle in one place for longer and so could sustain more children. The family structure emerged along with an ideology that saw women as property to be controlled by men. Versions of these ideas remain today.

Of course there have been enormous changes since the first class societies grew up. Women’s lives today are unrecognisable compared to those of women living in feudal times.

Struggles under capitalism have won the right to vote, access to divorce and abortion, among other gains. As the world changed, attitudes shifted too.

But oppression remains because those at the top benefit ideologically and economically from it. Sexist ideas mean women are pushed to do all kinds of things for free.

They are expected to nurture children to become the future workforce and sustain the current one, while working outside the home too. And they are expected to maintain a household.

Politicians cut services and leave care for sick or elderly relatives to women to undertake free of charge.

Our rulers know that promoting sexist ideas can also help divide the working class, making it less able to fight for a better world. That’s why ideas such as blaming women for rape can be found across the ruling class from judges to politicians.

On strike to defend pensions in 2011

On strike to defend pensions in 2011 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

They also fight to contain any progressive changes and in some cases, such as abortion, sections of the ruling class want to roll them back.

Our rulers want us to think that women’s oppression no longer exists because they would prefer women to blame men for sexism, not the system.

And crucially they want us to believe that revolutionary change and alternative societies aren’t possible. In fact working class women and men can make a revolution—and that is the only hope of ending women’s oppression.

The working class has the numbers and economic power to overthrow the ruling class and create a new world. 

Unity makes the working class stronger. That’s why it’s important to challenge sexism and to resist treating any section of the working class as the enemy of another.


We saw the potential strength of a united working class in the pension strikes that hit Britain in 2011 and the mass TUC demonstrations.

Ruling class women can’t be relied upon to fight oppression even though it affects them too. They benefit from the system that oppression props up.

In contrast, no worker benefits from capitalism—a system based on keeping them down. Working class people have a common interest in getting rid of it.

Revolutions transform women’s position. Soon after the 1917 Russian Revolution began, women had abortion on demand. Nearly a century later that right doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.

Marx described all the superstitions and divisive ideas that exist in class societies as the “muck of ages”. 

Revolution doesn’t mean this will vanish overnight. Revolutions are processes that can take decades to successfully create new societies.

And the ruling class can launch bitter counter-revolutions to try and maintain the old order, as in Egypt.

But revolution does remove the material basis for oppression. And in the process of making a revolution, people transform themselves.

Ideas about “roles” make less sense when the system they developed in is falling apart. In every revolutionary movement, women come to the fore to lead the struggle.

Marx argued that only in revolution can the working class “succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.

We should aim higher than simply winning some individuals away from sexist ideas—we have a world to win.

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

by Frederick Engels, £14.99

International Women’s Day—celebrating the struggle against oppression

by Sarah Ensor, Socialist Worker, 1 March 2011,

Marxism and women’s oppression

by Sheila McGregor International Socialism 138,

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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