It is one thing to describe women’s oppression in societies, but quite another to be able to grasp why are women oppressed. It has always been difficult to explain; “Why are women oppressed?” This is if women themselves do not see anything wrong in a relationship between a woman and a man; as a relationship between accumulator and the exploited.
The basic material reality of what people do to survive ultimately determines the nature of any social structure. But super-exploitation on the job is not the only aspect of women’s material reality. There are at least three basic material realities in capitalist society that shape women’s lives, in a complicated and changing pattern: (1) Reproduction and child rearing, (2) Work in the home, and (3) Work for wages.
Their other work somehow has to be adapted to their role as mother or potential mothers– systems of reproduction and child rearing have to be taken into account whenever any society makes use of women’s labor in other areas.
The division of labour between men and women is not in itself an unequal or oppressive arrangement and only seems inevitable due to the difference in biology. However, we should question at what point and why this division became a relationship of dominance – and oppression.
Why men dominate and why women are oppressed? Some 10,000 years ago in society, it was men’s role as hunter which led to his expertise in simple weapons of aggression and capture. In addition, example within nomadic pastoral tribes some 2000 years ago, men’s work involved breeding the animals with a lessening role of gatherer for women and an increasing pressure on women to breed and be controlled along with the animals by men.
Man the hunter was then able to hunt animals in his territory, but then capture women and young men from both of other agricultural tribes and nomads, when they are found in his territory. He was thus able to take the first steps in accumulation of property, surplus and power – through enslaving both women and young men. Men would capture women, animals and young boys in his territory and enslave them. Some were used for trade, some as baits and others as exchange for truce between warring tribes.
Then men would give women labour to only lesser roles; to bear and to feed babies- the ability to care for babies, change their nappies, nurse them when they are sick, cooking, oversee their development and education etc. These things, men are just as capable or performing.
In society where women were free, it was women who were agriculturists; not only, making vessels for gathering surplus food but also cultivating crops by means of early tools, such as digging sticks and hoes. At this stage, hunting for meat was a peripheral activity, which only men could afford to experiment in, women being involved in the day-to-day feeding of herself, her milk- producing capacities and her young children.
But, of course, societies developed differently in different parts of the globe, depending on vegetation, climate, and animal species. Grasslands were more suited to nomadic life, fertile plains and river valleys to settled agriculture.
In the 17th, 18th and 19th century, we saw new developments in the rise of capitalism in Europe and colonialism around the world. The accumulation of surplus and private property, by pillage and force, not only made one section richer and more powerful than another, but was notable in that this powerful section was almost entirely men. Women, as more than 10,000 years in subordination have no chance in the system designed to propel men as superior human beings.
It would seem that men did not become more rich and powerful because of their superior strength, but because they were not tied by the hour-to-hour work of providing for the foetus and young children, and were indeed supported by women. This places the beginnings of oppression of women by men, and the oppression of one group of men (slaves), by another, in the same historical epoch. The predatory mode of appropriation transforms autonomous human producers into conditions, of production for others. However, this does not see women’s oppression arising because of class oppression, and therefore can encompass examples which separate the two.
The analysis of Engels, on the other hand, in–The Origin of the, Family, Private Property and the State,–did not see the oppression of women as a separate form of oppression with its own history and causes. His analysis, based on anthropological evidence now largely discredited, situates women’s oppression only as class oppression which arose because of the accumulation of surplus and private property.
It would seem that Engels was blinkered by the Eurocentric and male dominated view which was inevitable at the time. The societies which built on man the hunter, conquest and war, for example, the Jews, the Aryans, the Arabs and the Chinese, by their very nature expanded and overran other styles of society and pushed forward what is called the ‘patriarchal system’. For example, Europe was not invaded by Africans, but Africa was invaded by predatory Europeans in 13th and 14th century. And therefor Africans adopted what Europeans were practicing – patriarchy.
But was that the beginning of women’s oppression when Europeans invaded Africa? No, there were women oppressed by the men in Africa before Europeans arrived. We can look at why were there powerful women during the beginning of time in African history? The very same women had women serving them as slaves.
The early forms of human organisation, however, must have left women with much power, especially within the domestic sphere. But there are many examples from early history of powerful women, African Queens, warriors, female gods in Africa. This is an example that there were powerful women before women’s oppression began in Africa – and may be, minimal.
The challenges depend on theoretical development, which in turn is possible only by speaking to the realities of people’s lives and learning from historical and current struggles of the women’s movement in today struggles. But this theoretical development is hindered by incorrect ideas about the nature of women’s oppression under capitalism and the connection between women’s oppression and capitalism.
Since few Marxist-Leninists have devoted much study to this question, there is a tendency to accept casually, certain traditional attitudes and responses as the “Marxist-Leninist” approach to women. This approach tends to narrow the question of women’s oppression to issues related to the workplace: equal pay, anti-discrimination fights, affirmative action, etc.
This in turn implies that change in this area (theoretical development) is the key to liberating women. It goes along with the view that the family is part of the “superstructure” and will automatically change when the material base–capitalist production–changes.
For example, when women earn equal pay, they will have equality in the family. This means that the key struggles for women are those against discrimination and for affirmative action. Another implication of this view is that there is no material basis for sexism in a socialist society, since sexism stems from capitalism’s need for superprofits. This means that once capitalism is eliminated, the struggle to end sexism is a purely ideological one, without a continuing material basis.
In relation to men, this view implies that men oppose women’s liberation, when they do, because of two factors:
- Their rivalry over jobs,
- The influence of bourgeois ideology.
The main real contradiction between women and men is their division at work, which can be overcome by greater class consciousness and awareness of the need for working class unity. Men do not benefit from sexism and the struggle against it requires no sacrifices and changes on their part, except an ideological effort to stop looking down on women.
Because ending this discrimination is in men’s interest as workers, and because its material basis will disappear under socialism, there is no need for a women’s liberation movement as such. There are good reasons why many communists want to see super-exploitation as the basic cause of women’s oppression. It is important to show that sexism has a material basis and isn’t just part of the “superstructure.” In a capitalist society we must understand how all issues are linked to the basic contradiction between capitalists and workers. So it seems logical to look for this material basis in the worker-capitalist relationship of women to their bosses.
If “super-exploitation” is not the key to understanding women’s oppression, what is? It is important to see women’s oppression as a total structure in which economic, historical and psychological factors all reinforce each other. The economic relationships create a context and set limits in which all the others operate. Traditions have been handed down for thousands of years. Early experiences in infancy and childhood shape the very core of our personalities according to certain conceptions of what it means to be female or male. The kinds of work expected from men and women differ greatly in a sexual division of labor affecting every area of life.
The basis of women’s oppression lies in her vulnerability during pregnancy and childbirth. During some of this period she is unable to work, except for the work of childbearing itself, and during much of it, she is able to work at partial strength only and feels both mentally and physically weaker. This varies from woman to woman, and pregnancy to pregnancy, but is nevertheless universal to some degree. In a class society, this creates a major contradiction between classes.
The capitalist class requires the next generation of workers and therefore needs women to perform this reproductive role, the so-called reproduction of labour power. However, at the same time, the very existence of the capitalist class depends on being able to extract profit out of working class men and women as workers. In the case of working class women, these two needs are incompatible, at times giving rise to a major contradiction. This vulnerability and this contradiction is resolved by different societies in different ways. Under capitalism, it is a contradiction on which the whole variety of women’s oppression has been built, with the connivance of working class men at some stages, and with the establishment of male dominance and male benefit.
Women trying to understand the basis of their oppression usually know, from their own experience, that domestic labour plays a central role, especially within a family with children. In much of the Third World, women toil ceaselessly on domestic and subsistence work, such as carrying water, growing food, preparing food, making clothes. Although, in this country, domestic labour is much less gruelling and time-consuming than this it is still an area of drudgery from which most men are almost entirely free.
Alas, we can liberate women by putting women at the core functions of women’s liberation. Without greater class consciousness and awareness of the need for working class unity super-exploitation will always be at the centre of women’s exploitation.