Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist League

Basis of Women’s Oppression

First Published: October, No. 5, Autum 1990.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Sam Richards and Paul Saba
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It is one thing to describe the many different aspects of women’s oppression in different societies, but quite another to be able to answer questions like: “Well, what’s at the bottom of it? Why are women oppressed? ”What is the basis of women’s oppression? In an attempt to at least partially answer this, it is useful to tease the central question apart. This article will start to address the following questions:

1. Why and when did the division of labour between women and men become a relationship of dominance and oppression?
2. How did the development or evolution of society, social production and social relations, affect this relationship to make it a permanent one, rather than a temporary stage of human history.
3. Following through historical stages, how and why has this oppression been deepened? Have there been times or societies where it has been weakened, leading onto the question of the impact of imperialism.
4. How has class oppression interrelated to women’s oppression?
5. To what extent was it a fundamental and all pervasive oppression before the capitalist era became dominant?
6. What is the material basis of women’s oppression within the capitalist economic system? Is it explained by Marxist analysis of capitalism?
7. In what way has imperialism affected women’s specific oppression? Is equality between men and women possible within an imperialist world system?
8. Would such equality be a step forward for women?
9. In what way would socialism or communism change the material basis for women’s oppression?

The Origins of Women’s Oppression

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 brave women, with their superior bodies which enable them to bear and to feed babies, become the underdog? It is important that we should define carefully what it is that women are “naturally” or biologically built for giving birth to and suckling young.

We must reject other attributes said to be naturally feminine, like the ability to care for babies, change their nappies, nurse them when they are sick, oversee their development and education etc. These things, men are just as capable or performing. However, many women are physically unwell and unable to labour during some of pregnancy, lactation and during times of other menstrual problems. This vulnerability must have played a part in their subjection.

Maria Mies, in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, has collected much information from women-centred research in anthropology on this question. This evidence leads her to put forward the thesis that it was men’s role as hunter which led to his expertise in simple weapons of aggression and capture. In addition, within nomadic pastoral tribes, 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 and capture women and young men, both of other agricultural tribes and nomads, when they came into his territory. He was thus able to take the first steps in accumulation of property, surplus and power.

Maria Mies stresses that evidence suggests that it was women who were the early 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.

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.

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 freed them for other things.

This analysis 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 analysis does not see women’s oppression arising because of class oppression, and therefore can encompass examples which separate the two. For example, from descriptions of aboriginal societies in Australia, it would appear that these societies are not based on class oppression, but are, nevertheless, societies in which women have no democratic rights and are treated more like animals than humans, (Robert Hughes The Fatal Shore). Thus although in many places the two processes went together they were, in fact, independent.

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 Maria Mies calls the patriarchal system. For example, Europe was not invaded by Africans, but Africa was invaded by predatory Europeans.

These early forms of human organisation, however, must have left women with much power, especially within the domestic sphere. There are many examples from early history of powerful women, African Queens, warriors, female gods.

Women’s Oppression Through History

In following through the development of societies from this very early time, we in the West have continually to beware of Eurocentrism. Inevitably, it is easier for us to find out about our own history in Europe and much can be learned from that. However, we must accept that lessons learnt from that will not have universal relevance and will need re-thinking as we learn more of other societies. To view history through eyes wide enough to see both women and to see, globally is an immense task that we are only just beginning.

The work the women’s movement has done in discovering some of their own history is important in trying to understand why this early oppressive division of labour became more and more all-embracing, rather than being a temporary phase of history. Feminists such as Sheila Rowbotham, Elizabeth Fisher, Barbara Ehrenreich, Marilyn French and many more have traced women’s history and found it rich and full of struggle. They have documented the fight back of women in all aspects of their lives against oppression by men, and by the state.

A single example of this is the sustained and brutal attack on the sexual and productive autonomy of European women under early capitalism, by means of witch hunts; hundreds of thousands of women were tortured and killed, including any woman peasant or artisan showing independence of spirit, and especially women healers and midwives. The modern state required, absolute sovereignty, especially over reproduction of the future labour force, and the confiscation of property fed the early processes of capital accumulation.

Of much more importance in primitive accumulation of capital was, of course, the conquest and plunder of the colonies in the Sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here too women got special treatment, but quite the other side of the coin. Many studies have shown that while white women in the “motherland” were being forced to breed within strict family structures, women in the colonies were used as labour, not breeding stock, and their family structures and children were destroyed.

A study by Rhoda Reddock of Caribbean slave women describes how, in the early slave period, they were forbidden to marry or have children, as it was cheaper for the planters to import more slaves than lose women’s labour during pregnancy and suckling. Later, however, Africa was being exploited differently and slaves more difficult to trade, Caribbean women were then encouraged to breed again. The women showed their resistance to slavery by a long birth strike causing severe labour problems.

Underlying all the various examples there are of how women are bludgeoned and coerced in different ways by early capitalism, is the fact that the oppression of women of the exploited classes is shaped not only by their participation in wage labour but also by relation to their reproduction of the labour force.

Material Basis of Women’s Oppression and the Reproduction of Labour Power

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.

In her book–Marxism and the Oppression of Women–Lise Vogel explores these concepts in more detail. She is careful to point out that in a class society, it is necessary to analyse women’s specific oppression in each class separately before being able to see the whole. For working class women, it is the differential role in the reproduction of labour power that lies at the root of their oppression, Women in the ruling class are also subordinated to the men of their class because of their role in childbirth, or breeding, and this is involved with property and heirs. In addition, and very importantly, all women are oppressed by their lack of democratic rights and this is especially acute for black women.

Lise Vogel bases her analysis on the Marxist concepts of labour power, reproduction of labour power, and necessary and surplus labour, all of which she explains very clearly. She summarises as follows:

Human beings have the capacity to produce more use-values than they need for their own immediate subsistence. In a class society, this potential is organised to the benefit of a ruling class, which appropriates the surplus labour of a subordinate class according to some determinate set of social relations. For this class society to survive, an exploitable labour force must always be available “to perform surplus labour. Workers, however do not live forever; they suffer ’wear and tear’ and death and must be continually replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour power. Where replacement is through generational reproduction, the fact that human beings fall into two distinct biological groups, women and men, comes into play. Women’s somewhat diminished capacity to work during the childbearing period potentially creates a contradiction for the ruling class. Out of the class struggle over resolving this contradiction, a wide variety of forms of reproduction of labour power has developed in the course of history. In virtually all cases, they entail men’s greater responsibility for provision of material means of subsistence, women’s greater responsibility for the ongoing tasks of necessary labour, and institutionalised forms of male domination over women.

The contradiction which women’s childbearing role ’produces is between the ruling classes’ immediate need to appropriate surplus labour from women and its long term requirements for the reproduction of the workforce; while women are bearing and rearing children they are not fully available as labourers. Reproduction of labour power does not always entail generational replacement. The workforce may be kept up by immigration, migrant labour, or by employing other members of society such as children or the old. Families are not the only places where workers renew themselves on a day- to-day basis. There are also barracks, workers’ hostels, etc; however, different arrangements bring their own problems.

During the industrial revolution in England, women and children were drawn into long hours of labour in the factories. This resulted in the breakdown of family and society so that children were dying before old enough to work, and workers were unhealthy and weak. The ruling class therefore had to accept some of the demands for reforms which, for a variety of other reasons based on male chauvinist ideas, led to the concept of the family wage and the woman being partially returned to the home. Another example can be found in countries such as the Philippines, where young women in Free Trade Zones are housed in hostels far from home and paid so little that the wage does not reach the rest of the family. Here, women have found strength and political rebellion in being housed together. These are just small examples of how the attempted resolution of the contradiction in anyone society gives rise to class struggle.

In Europe, and many other parts of the world, the reproduction of labour power and the differential female and male role in this, takes place in the variety of social structure, known as the family. And within the family, it is the provision by men of means of subsistence to women during the childbearing period that forms the material basis for women’s subordination in class society. Division of labour does not necessarily constitute a source of oppression. But in class society, women’s childbearing capacity creates contradictions, from the point of view of the dominant classes’ need to appropriate surplus labour. Although women in different classes have, in many respects, a shared experience of oppression, the difference lies in the lack of this contradiction for ruling class women. Their men are not after their wage labour, however, those women are still exploited by men of their class because of their role in childbirth, more acutely because of the issue of property and family wealth. As we shall see later, they meet oppression in every aspect of their lives, due to a lack of democratic rights.

Domestic Labour

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.

In order to make some sense of domestic labour, it is necessary to re-examine Marx’s concept of labour, of necessary and surplus labour. Within any class society, when a waged worker puts in a day’s work, some of that labour must pay for the maintenance and reproduction, i.e. necessary labour, and the rest of the day’s work is making profit for the boss i.e. surplus labour. In class societies based on agriculture, feudalism for example, a serf would work some of the day for his lord, and some on his own land for survival. Under capitalism however, these two parts of labour are hidden by the concept of a daily wage. In addition, there is an artificial separation of the necessary labour component into work and home.

Necessary labour is made up of several components. Firstly, it contains the means of subsistence of the worker, and other non-working family members such as the old, the sick, or a non-working wife. These are the commodities bought with the wage. But in order to turn these commodities into actual maintenance, some supplementary labour is required: meals cooked, washing done, etc’. In order to not only maintain, but also reproduce, the labour force, some necessary labour is involved in bearing and rearing children. All this is necessary labour, and is paid for by the wage(s). However, much of this labour takes place outside the wage situation, in families for example, and this is called domestic labour.

Socialist Feminists have done much work and study on the question of domestic labour which is of such importance to women, especially European and North American women today. Lise Vogel describes it in detail in ’Marxism and the Oppression of Women’:

In capitalist societies, the burden of the domestic component of necessary labour rests disproportionately on women, while the provision of commodities tends to be disproportionately the responsibility of men, fulfillable through participation in wage labour. This differential positioning of women and men with respect to surplus labour and the two components of necessary labour, which is generally accompanied by a system of male supremacy, originates as a historical legacy from oppressive divisions of labour in earlier class societies. It is then strengthened by the particular separation between domestic and wage labour generated by the capitalist mode of production. Domestic labour increasingly takes place in specialised social units, whose isolation in time and space from wage labour is further emphasised by male supremacy. These conditions stamp domestic labour with its specific character.

Experientially, the particular nature of domestic labour in industrial capitalist society gives rise, for both women and men, to intense feelings of opposition between one’s private life and some public sphere. The highly institutionalised demarcation of domestic labour from wage labour in a context of male supremacy forms the basis for a series of powerful ideological structures which develop a forceful life of their own.

Of extreme importance with regard to domestic labour is the reality that most women take part, in wage labour as well. Many women would see the balance of work between women and men as much more one-sided than is expressed in, the above quote, and even when men are not in waged work they often do little domestic. Certainly in the Third World, women commonly bear a heavy burden of work, compared to men.

Welfare State

Also of importance in this country is the role of the welfare state. Through the payment of taxes, some of the necessary labour is taken off individual women. This is an advantage to the working class as a whole, and something it fought for, although there is much evidence that the welfare state was built on the exploitation of women; especially black women. It is also in the interests of capital, in that it frees working class women to be more involved in wage labour and therefore the production of surplus value. At different times, such services will be increased, for example, during war when workers were needed, or cutback as in the early 80’s when high unemployment made women workers redundant. The provisions of the welfare state are closely connected to necessary labour and the real value of a wage. Cutting back the welfare state results in an increase in necessary labour (tasks such as nursing the sick and elderly at home), and when not associated with a wage rise is an increase in exploitation, especially of women.

Democratic Rights

The other fundamental aspect of women’s oppression in capitalist society and one that has roots in earlier systems, is the lack of democratic rights. This affects women of all classes. In social systems, such as slavery arid feudalism, the mass of people had no democratic rights and were in fact owned to a great extent by other humans. Early capitalism extended an inspiring pledge of freedom from all feudal restrictions, this equality of persons having material roots in capitalist relations of production. All persons must be free and equal to sell their labour power and the ruling class to buy it. Wage labourers must be free in a double sense. Not only are they free owners of their labour power, not serfs or slaves, but also free of any other way to put their labour power to use for their own account, for example, as they do not own land. In reality, however, capitalism is compatible with a stratified labour market and an undemocratic political system. The separate article on reproductive rights gives some indication of how women have been specifically oppressed in this way. The American Declaration of Independence offered equal rights to all but the Constitution excluded slaves, women and the property less from equal citizenship.

Given the contradictory character of equality in capitalist society, struggles for democratic rights potentially have serious revolutionary import. The more democratic rights are extended, the more the oppressive economic and social character of capitalism is revealed. Lack of equality as a group constitutes the basis for the women’s movement that unites women from different classes. Most women involved in such a movement develop insight into the difference between bourgeois equality’ and real, socialist equality which gives rise to a women’s movement orientated towards socialism.

Women’s special position in capitalist society therefore has two defining aspects. Firstly, women and men are different in respect to the material aspects of social reproduction. This affects women of different classes differently. Secondly, women, like other groups, lack full democratic rights, and this affects women of all classes. So long as capitalism survives, domestic labour will be required for reproduction of the workforce, disproportionately performed by women and most likely accompanied by a system of male supremacy.

Women and Socialism

In a socialist society, where a small class will not be extracting profit from the majority, there will not be an antagonistic contradiction between the labour of women, which contributes to the reproduction of labour power and the labour of women in producing goods. However, although the material basis may be removed, the whole structure of male domination and privilege will not crumble without an earthquake! Domestic labour must be transformed into an integral component of social production in a communist society and, must be shared between men and women. This process will give rise to momentous changes in the way society is organised. The issue of domestic labour is likely to be the main obstacle in affording women true equality and is something that legislation and the- changed economic basis alone will not greatly alter. However these, together with the planned socialisation of some domestic tasks, will lay a foundation on which women can continue the demands and struggles with men to share domestic and childcare tasks.

Although it would appear that socialist systems in the world so far have made little inroad into the inequality of domestic labour, the world also provides examples of revolutionary struggles where women are winning equality during rather than after the establishment of socialism. In the Eritrean liberation movement, it appears that women have not only transformed their previously extremely exploited position in society, but are now taking the leadership of the national struggle. This orientation of women within a revolutionary movement needing to deal with their own specific oppression alongside national oppression in order to then join in the leadership of the general struggle will establish a socialist society of quite a different type than seen in China, for example.

In trying to take an overall view of women’s oppression, this article has been sketchy but has drawn on many writings by socialist feminists which can be studied in greater depth. History is of importance only in as much as it helps us understand the present and make changes towards a better future. Women’s own experiences, the women’s movement and feminist writing have all raised women’s consciousness about their oppression, but led to no clear way forward. To make further progress towards their liberation, women must grasp the basis of their oppression within a class society and the necessity of working in an organisation which will lead a combined fight against sexist, class, and racist oppression, with the long term goal of a communist society.