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Have women always been oppressed?

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Issue 2361

It’s the 21st century and women are still oppressed. For all the talk of equality, we still haven’t achieved it. Women in Britain are still paid, on average, less than men. Women still do more housework and childcare. And women are far more likely to suffer domestic abuse and violence.

Things are even worse in poorer countries. Many women live in dire poverty while being denied their basic rights.

 We are so used to this set-up that it can seem natural. But women’s oppression is relatively new. It arose with the rise of societies that are divided into classes, as ours still is.

Industrial capitalism has only been around for less than 250 years. Class and oppression were around long before that under feudal lords or classical empires. But even these class societies only account for about 10 percent of all human history. Before this people organised society very differently.

Humans lived in small foraging bands and cooperated to survive. The revolutionary Frederick Engels called these “primitive communist” societies. People produced what they needed without ideas of private property.

Men and women did have different roles because women bore children. Pregnant women, or those nursing small children, were more suited to gathering foods than hunting animals.

But there’s no evidence that this role held less status. On the contrary, women were important because they provided the most reliable source of food and produced the next generation.

In some pre-class societies, humans began to develop production to the point where a surplus could be produced for the first time in history.


Over time one group came to control this surplus. This gave them a power over others and they became the ruling class. These changes in production led to changes in how people related to each other—including the role of women.

Engels said oppression came about with private property and the state. He called this a “world historic defeat” for women.

Agriculture made gathering food relatively less important. Groups could settle in one place rather than moving each time resources dried up. This meant women could have more children. And more children made sense to provide more hands to work the land.

Over time women came to be seen as primarily responsible for children while men were responsible for production.

Control over women’s fertility came to be important in a society where private property could be passed down through generations.

Children stopped being seen as the responsibility of everyone and came to be seen as the responsibility of mothers in increasingly segregated families.

Today the family remains a key institution of capitalism. It reproduces the next generation of labour for free, and plays an ideological role in controlling people’s behaviour. That’s why our rulers scapegoat those who live in ways that challenge their idealised family—such as single parents or gay people.

They say oppression is natural because they don’t want us to think that a better world is possible. Accepting this lie can pull us towards compromising with oppression rather than fighting to end it for good. That’s why socialists should reject it.

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