Chris Harman

A people’s history of the world

Part one: The rise of class societies

Chapter 4
Women’s oppression

Women everywhere lost out with the polarisation of society into classes and the rise of the state. There was a shift in their status, described by Frederick Engels more than a century ago as ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex’. From being co-decision-makers with men, they were thrust into a position of dependence and subordination. The exact nature of the subordination varied enormously from one class society to another, and from class to class in each society But it existed everywhere that class existed. So universal did it become that even today it is usually treated as an invariant product of human nature.

The change was rooted in the new relations that grew up between people with the production of a surplus. The new intensive production techniques tended to prioritise men’s labour over women’s for the first time. Gathering the main source of nutrition for hunter-gatherer societies, had been fully compatible with childbearing and breastfeeding So had early forms of agriculture based on the hoe. But heavy ploughing and herding of cattle and horses were not. Societies in which women did these things would have low birthrates and stagnating populations, and lose out to societies which excluded most women from these roles. Gordon Childe pointed out long ago that among ‘barbarians’, purely agricultural peoples, ‘whereas women normally hoe plots it is men who plough. And even in the oldest Sumerian and Egyptian documents the ploughmen really are males’. [73] He suggested, ‘The plough ... relieved women of the most exacting drudgery, but deprived them of the monopoly over the cereal crops and the social status which it conferred’. [74] Key decisions about the future of the household or lineage became male decisions, since it was males who would implement them. Other changes which accompanied the growth of the surplus had a similar impact. Women could engage in local trade, and there were cases of women playing a part in warfare. But long distance trade and serious soldiering became male monopolies. Warriors and merchants were overwhelmingly male – and, as they increasingly exercised control over the surplus, ownership and power tended to become male prerogatives. The break up of the old clan lineages accentuated the trend. The individual adult woman was no longer part of a wider network of relationships which gave her some say over the use of productive means and some protection against arbitrary treatment. Instead, she became simply a ‘wife’, a subordinate in a strange household. [75] Ruling class women were increasingly treated as one more possession of a male controller of the surplus, valued as an ornament, a source of sexual pleasure or as a breeder of heirs. They would be protected from hardship and external dangers, but also cocooned from any interaction with the wider social world, life was very different for women in agricultural or artisan households. They still had a productive role and were engaged in endless toil. Nevertheless, it was their husbands who controlled relations between the household and the rest of society, imposing on the women and children the measures needed to ensure the household’s survival (including successive pregnancies for the wife). [76] Among the exploiting and the exploited classes alike there was literally ‘patriarchy’ – rule of the father over the other members of the household. Its imprint was soon to be found in all ideologies and all religions. Female gods and priestesses increasingly played a secondary role, surviving as mother figures or symbols of beauty rather than as active participants in the creation and organisation of the world.

Women’s roles were not changeless or uniform across all classes and societies. Women’s oppression among the peasantry took a very different form to that among the aristocracies – and a different form again among slaves who, whether male or female, were not allowed to live in households of their own. Widows were common everywhere, because of relatively high death rates among young adults, and often ended up running a peasant or artisan household, or even a kingdom, very much as a man would. In some societies women were denied all rights – in others they were allowed to own and inherit property, and to initiate divorce proceedings. The fact that women were everywhere oppressed did not mean that their oppression was everywhere the same, as the ‘patriarchy’ theories so common among feminist academics in the 1980s implied. It did, however, mean that their position was inferior to what it had been under primitive communism.

The growth of the first exploiting classes further influenced the whole development of society The methods used by the exploiters to buttress their rule began to eat up a major portion of society’s resources. Expenditures on servants, on professional police or military forces, on building huge temples, palaces or tombs to celebrate their powers, necessitated further exploitation and oppression of the masses – and further justified exploitation and oppression as the only way to keep society going. There was also an added incentive for external warfare as a means of grabbing the resources of other societies. Yet endemic war caused further suffering for the mass of people. It also encouraged the emergence of ruling classes and states among neighboring peoples, as they came to accept that only the centralisation of the surplus into a few hands could provide them with the means of defence. [77] Overall, however ‘functional’ for society as a whole the rise of a ruling group may once have been, beyond a certain point it became a drag on society. This was shown dramatically by events in the Middle East, the Indus Valley and the eastern Mediterranean between 1,000 and 1,500 years after the rise of the first civilisations.


73. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, p.72.

74. V. Gordon Childe, What Happened in History, p.72.

75. This is the argument in K. Sachs, Sisters and Wives (London 1979), pp.117, 121.

76. For a much fuller development of my argument on the way women’s oppression arose, see my Engels and the Origins of Human Society, pp.129-142.

77. I.M. Diakhanov, The Structure of Near Eastern Society Before the Middle of the 2nd Millennium BC, Oikumene 3:1 (Budapest 1982).

Last updated on 26 January 2010