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Women’s oppression is not natural or age-old

This article is over 17 years, 6 months old
In the first part of our new series, Sally Campbell analyses the origins of the subjugation of women
Issue 2024

Women’s oppression is the most deeply entrenched oppression. It is seen as biological, psychological, universal and age-old.

This view impacts on how we understand and challenge oppression.

Marxists approach this subject from a materialist perspective. Frederick Engels explained, “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of immediate life…

“On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production. On the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.”

Human beings interact with their environment, changing the world around them and in the process changing themselves.

The things that make us different from other animals is our ability to adapt to all parts of the globe, and the ways in which we work socially to meet our needs.

Engels argued that for most of human history the social organisation of people has not been class-ridden or defined by domination and oppression.

The earliest human ancestors appeared two million years ago, while homo sapiens have only existed for around 200,000 years, and the earliest forms of agriculture appeared around 10,000 years ago.

So for 95 percent of human history, “wealth” was not a concept that would make any sense. People lived in small collective groups enjoying relative equality. Engels referred to this as “primitive communism”.

The concept of the nuclear family, with monogamous parents owning their children, did not exist.

Engels contended that in these societies, while people played different roles, there was no structured domination of one group by another. It was with the rise of class societies that women came to occupy an inferior place in society.

Under primitive communism there was a division of labour between men and women, but this did not confer privilege to men.

Women, who tended to be the main gatherers, were often given authority over men – because their work provided the main source of nutrition for the group.

The development of more advanced agriculture was the turning point. The invention of the plough meant the ability to produce more than was immediately needed by the group.

It led to the development of elites who were able to control the “surplus”. It also fundamentally changed the role of women in society.

In hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies women were able to fulfil their role as producers as well as playing their role in reproduction.

Heavy ploughing and the use of domesticated animals changed this. A pregnant woman or one with small children couldn’t easily carry out these tasks and they increasingly fell under the remit of men.

Agriculture also demanded labourers. Where hunter-gatherer societies had tended to limit the number of children so as not to deplete resources, agriculture could be more productive with more children needed to help in the fields.

So as men became exclusively responsible for production, women saw their primary role shift to that of child-bearer.

Greater productivity benefited every member of the group.

But once the surplus fell into the control of a minority, inequalities and classes began to form.

The division into “public” and “private” spheres of society appeared – with women operating mainly in the “private” sphere.

The private family became the mechanism by which private wealth could be passed on from one generation to the next.

This entailed a final degradation of women’s influence. Men, because of their economic role, became heads of the household, passing their wealth on to their sons. As Engels wrote:

“The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex.

“The man took command in the home also. The woman was degraded and reduced to servitude.”

So the family was a consequence of the development of class – not an age-old “natural” hierarchy.

As production was increasingly geared to exchange rather than use, the household became a unit of consumption rather than production.

Engels’s argument shows how it was economic compulsion that set off the train of class society and the inequality and oppression it entails.

It points to how humans can transend these divisions today.

Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to

It can be read online at

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