A voice for the voiceless: Are women oppressed today?
This is an essay by revolutionary Marxist and student Rhys Williams. We welcome contributions to A Voice for the Voiceless from students and young workers to help encourage debate, discussion and action.
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Bill and Leonie
Are Women Oppressed Today?
by Rhys Williams
Women’s struggles to gain social, economic and political equality with men undoubtedly lie deep in history – as far back as the first class based societies. It has been a tradition that has been obscured by the nature of historiography to have flowed from reactionary pens. In the modern capitalist epoch it is supposed that the exploitation of women has finally been ended by the gradual reform of the system itself. The truth of the situation is that in both the developed and developing capitalist world the exploitation of women is still evident – supported and perpetuated by the system itself.
Marxist feminism is the application of historical materialism to gender roles. It is recognized as a component of wider feminist theory and as an established part of Marxist theory. The theory focuses the exploitation and oppression of women not upon the cultural developments of society or upon biology but upon the economic system itself. The capitalist epoch supports economic inequality, exploitation and political confusion. These symptoms of the system itself lead it to support the unequal social relations between men and women. The modern oppression of women stems from the economic inequality of the system itself
Just as in the economy in general, the social consciousness and political ideology of the individual is largely a product of ones labour (not just productive labour as in the case of the proletariat but work and activity in general), and how this is related to the economy (relations to the means of production).
From a Marxist perspective, gender roles are neither arbitrary nor are they biologically innate, but rather they follow from the division of labour in the patriarchal family along gendered lines. Just as the division of labour in society at large is what produces class roles.
Gender oppression is class oppression and female subordination is seen as a form of class oppression which is maintained because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling classes. Marxist feminists have extended traditional Marxist analysis by looking at domestic labour as well as wage work in order to support their position. The confronting and destruction of the capitalist system (through class struggle and revolution) will lead to the removal of the motivation for sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression.
The Marxist approach to women’s oppression began with Marx and Engels themselves, despite those that say neither was truly involved in the subject.
Engels in particular wrote of a solid link between class based society and patriarchy. In “the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” Engels wrote extensively that the historical oppression of women had been linked to the economic system in operation.[ii]
Engels emphasizes the importance not of primitive psychological development but rather of social relations of power and control over material resources, sometimes related to the invention of new technology and the development of economic conditions.[iii] Engels also highlights the rise of the traditional family as the protector of existing economic conditions and reactionary social views.
Engels’ ideas on the role of property in the creation of the modern family and as such modern class society begin to become more evident in chapter 2 as he begins to expand upon the question of monogamous relationships and the freedom to enter into (or refuse) such a relationship being dictated by property. Bourgeois law dictates the rules for relationship and inheritances. As such, two partners, even when their marriage is not arranged, will always have the preservation of inheritance in mind and as such will never be entirely free to choose a partner.[iv]
For Engels, a relationship based on property rights and forced monogamy will only lead to the proliferation of exploitation as women have unequal economic power compared to men in a class based society.
Engels concludes that the system of exploitation of women has become so ingrained in the protection of the status quo that it is a particularly useful tool for maintaining class society.[v] In all prevailing class based society (ancient, feudal, capitalist) patriarchy was/is a key part of the social superstructure created to maintain the system. Engels then states that the only way to destroy patriarchy is for the revolutionary upheaval of society by a class that has been completely excluded from the ownership of private property (which creates a need for patriarchy) – the proletariat and women.[vi]
Marx also wrote on the exploitation and oppression of women, despite the fact that the focus in his writing was primarily on economic conditions. “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of the fair sex.” [vii]
Before reliable birth control was invented, many families practiced a strict division of labour where a wife spent all her time watching children, while the husband worked. This arrangement gave the husband almost exclusive access to society and money to allocate as he wished.
While the patriarchal family no longer provides absolute authority to husbands, it still provides superior socio-economic power. The relationship remains exploitive because a wife who reduces her workplace commitments to care for children allows her husband to increase his work overtime, leading to the significant difference in earning capacity. Non-Marxist feminists believe that if a husband and wife “of the same class” are not socially equal it is because gender inequality has a non-economic base. They miss the point that the couple may be of the same class, but not the same class strata due to differences in time allocation, socially expected time allocation and the economic gain from labour.
This is the material basis for the continued existence of gender inequality, and Marxist feminists examine gender relations along these lines rather than providing mystical explanations based on belief in eternal sexual characteristics (radical feminists), or on superficial cultural explanations (liberal feminists).
The fact that gender based oppression (like all oppression) is economic and political, not cultural in force, of course, does not mean that cultural sexism does not exist. However cultural sexism exists in order to ideologically support oppressive relations just as other relations of production are manifested in the social superstructure. It is therefore a mistake to think that culture causes sexism. Culture only becomes sexist if the economic base requires the social superstructure to be sexist.
Conservatives constantly fetish the position of motherhood in society, attributing great importance to it, idealizing and romanticizing it, even to the point where women are made to think that if they can not be a good mother they can not be a good woman or a valid citizen.
Marx and Engels recognized this requirement of the bourgeoisie to maintain female oppression within the traditional family: “But you Communists would introduce community of women, screams the bourgeoisie in chorus. The bourgeois sees his wife a mere instrument of production. He hears that the instruments of production are to be exploited in common, and, naturally, can come to no other conclusion that the lot of being common to all will likewise fall to women…. The Communists have no need to introduce community of women; it has existed from time immemorial”.[xi]
Lenin added to this analysis: “For under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly — they remain in household bondage, they continue to be “household slaves”.[xii]
The retaining and preservation of patriarchy within capitalist society is a key part of the bourgeois defence of capitalist society. History has shown that women can play a most revolutionary part (community of women) and as an oppressed part of modern society (as workers and women) can be a decisive force for social and economic change. Change which the conservative and “progressive” bourgeois alike do not seek nor want – even when they consent to minimal reforms to starve off further revolutionary movements.
This deliberate attempt to not only limit the potential of women also reflects a belief within bourgeois ideology to roll back some of the social progress made over the last 100 years in relation to women’s rights. The converse of this is that conservatives will attack women’s sexual autonomy and desire to be sexual without reproducing. This is seen in the attacks of conservatives on abortion, birth control, premarital sex, and sexualized physical presentation. All of this is played out in the media because it serves to reinforce existing unequal social structures of society. The backlash against female sexual autonomy, by conservatives, is a way of resisting the social change and potential for equality in contemporary material conditions.
Finally we must understand that there is an alternative to the continuing oppression of women. In history we can find instances in which the downfall of an established system (via revolution) can generate the social development for the emancipation and empowerment of women. Lenin pointed to importance of socialist revolution to this self-emancipation: “In Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children. This is only the first step in the liberation of woman. The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards complete emancipation of woman, her liberation from household bondage”.[xiii]
Only through world wide, dedicated socialist revolution to destroy the capitalist system and all vestiges of classes and patriarchy, can the centuries long oppression of women be ended.
In socialism a woman will be entirely independent, both socially and economically.
The economic freedom that socialism will convey (due to the social and democratic control of the means of production) will bring with it political, social and sexual freedom.
She will not be controlled by any suggestion of patriarchy. She will be free and the equal of man. She will be the mistress of her own social destiny on terms that she has agreed upon in common with her comrades and fellow citizens. She will choose her occupation, suited to fulfilling and developing her abilities. Education, healthcare and other conditions of life will be fully open to her. She studies, works, enjoys, builds and defends socialism along with other women and men.
In love she is as free and unrestricted as any man. She woos or is wooed, and enters into a union with anyone, prompted by no other considerations but her own feelings. This union is a private agreement, without the interference of any official, state or religion. The complete emancipation of the social woman is one that she alone will instigate and one that she alone will complete – granting the final full legitimacy of the community of women.
Achieving this can be accomplished only by means of a transformation that will abolish the rule of man over man, including the rule of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat. The oppression of women can only end with the destruction of class rule and with it the rule of man over woman.
The new woman? Does she really exist? Look around you, look sharply, reflect, and you will know yourself: the new woman is certainly there – she exists. She exists because Socialism exists.[xiv]
Bibliography and Cited Works
Bebel August, Woman and Socialism, 1879, Socialist Literature Co., 15 Spruce Street, New York. 1910
Engels Frederick, “the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Penguin Books 1985
Kollontai Alexandra , “New Woman” from “The New Morality and the Working Class”, 1918, Progress Publishers, 1984
Marx Karl and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Books Great Ideas, 2004 edition,
Lenin V.I., On International Working Women’s Day, 1921, Collected Works, Vol. 32, Institute of Marxism-Leninism, 1964
Harris Marvin, Death, Sex, and Fertility: Population Regulation in Preindustrial Societies, Columbia University Press, 1990,
The Marx/Engels Archive (online) – www.marxists.archive.org
The Lenin Archive (online) – www.marxists.archive/lenin/works/index.htm
The Kollontai Archive (online) – www.marxists.archive/ kollonta/index.htm
Letter from Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, 12 December 1868
“The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”
Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in just two months – beginning toward the end of March 1884 and completing it in late May. It focuses on early human history, following the disintegration of the primitive community and the emergence of a class society based on private property. Engels looks into the origin and essence of the state, and concludes it will wither away leaving a classless society, following a proletarian revolution creating a socialistic society. This work (especially its sections on the exploitation of women and the nature of bourgeois ideology) was very influential in developing the ideas of August Bebel, V.I. Lenin and countless other socialist thinkers.
Kollontai’s 1918 work is a key text of Marxist Feminist theory. Taking the example of the successful Bolshevik Revolution, Kollontai documents the great social advancements made by the women of Russia – substantial after only a year – and the potential for further advances as the revolution gains strength. The article also outlines Kollontai’s active involvement in organizing working class struggle – especially amongst women.
“The Communist Manifesto”
One of the most important pieces of modern socialist theory and the corner stone of Marxist thought. In relation to the oppression of women, the manifesto outlines the fact that capitalism (as with all prevailing socio-economic systems) will continue to oppress women and that the only way to end this is for the foundation of a socialist society and the radicalization of the “community of women”.
“International Working Women’s’ Day”
A detailed article by Lenin outlining the position of the Bolshevik Government on the emancipation of women and the protection of such emancipation from the counter attacks of the bourgeoisie.
Lenin goes on to compare the advancement of the revolution in women’s liberation with the bourgeois republics of the West – which have failed to achieve half of the advancements of Soviet Russia. Lenin also outlines the fact that the oppression of women by the capitalist system comes from the economic requirements of the system itself and in order to emancipate women they must have a dedicated say in the organization and operation of the economy itself, as well as the political system.
[ii] Frederick Engels, “the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Penguin Books 1985
[iii] Ibid, pg. 195-218
[iv] Ibid, pg. 102
[v] Frederick Engels, “the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Penguin Books 1985 pg. 58-116
[vi] Ibid, pg. 199
[vii] Letter from Karl Marx to Ludwig Kugelmann, Private Correspondence of Marx, 12 December 1868
[viii] Marvin Harris, Death, Sex, and Fertility: Population Regulation in Preindustrial Societies, Columbia University Press, 1990, pg 121
[ix] Frederick Engels, “the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Penguin Books 1985, pg. 110-113
[x] Ibid, pg. 212-213
[xi] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Penguin Books Great Ideas, 2004 edition, pg. 28
[xii] V.I.Lenin, On International Working Women’s Day, Pravda, 4 March, 1921, Lenin’s Collected Works, Vol. 32, pg. 161-163
[xiii] Ibid pg. 161-163
[xiv] Alexandra Kollontai, “New Woman” from “The New Morality and the Working Class”, Moscow, 1918