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Engels and the History of Women’s Oppression

A challenge to the separation of woman’s position from the central core of Marxist analysis.

Verso Books 2 August 2021

Engels and the History of Women’s Oppression

An edited excerpt from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels. Join the Verso Book Club at the Comrade level in August to get a copy as part of your subscription.


The continued separation of woman’s position from the central core of social analysis, as an “and,” “but,” or “however,” cannot but lead to continued distortions. This might be so because of the simple fact that women constitute half of humanity. The point I suggest instead, is that the notion of a somehow separate “woman’s role” hides the reality of the family as an economic unit, an institution as crucial for the continued exploitation of working men as it is for the oppression of women. To understand this family form and its origins is fundamental to the interpretation of social structure, past and present, and to the understanding of how to fight for and win the right of the world’s people to make decisions about their future. Relegation of family forms to secondary questions about “woman’s role” has hindered us in our effort to comprehend the origins of class society, the dynamics of its perpetuation, and the shape of its full negation. The same has been true of racial and national oppression, for they have also been relegated to the status of secondary issues in contemporary Marxist analysis, with serious consequences, both theoretical and political.

The dominant view today is that women have always been to some degree oppressed—the usual term is “dominated”—by men, because men are stronger, they are responsible for fighting, and it is in their nature to be more aggressive. Common among those who discuss sex roles are blunt judgments, empirically phrased, that casually relegate to the wastebasket of history the profound questions about women’s status that were raised by nineteenth-century writers. “It is common sociological truth that in all societies authority is held by men, not women,” writes Beidelman; “At both primitive and advanced levels, men tend regularly to dominate women,” states Goldschmidt; “Men have always been politically and economically dominant over women,” reports Harris. Some women join in. Women’s work is always “private,” while “roles within the public sphere are the province of men,” write Hammond and Jablow. Therefore “women can exert influence outside the family only indirectly through their influence on their kinsmen”.

The first problem with such statements is their lack of historical perspective. To generalize from cross-cultural data gathered almost wholly in the twentieth century is to ignore changes that have been taking place for anywhere up to five hundred years as a result of involvement, first with European mercantilism, then with full-scale colonialism and imperialism. Indeed, there is almost a kind of racism involved, an assumption that the cultures of Third World peoples have virtually stood still until destroyed by the recent mushrooming of urban industrialism. Certainly, one of the most consistent and widely documented changes brought about during the colonial period was a decline in the status of women relative to men. The causes were partly indirect, as the introduction of wage labor for men, and the trade of basic commodities, speeded up processes whereby tribal collectives were breaking up into individual family units, in which women and children were becoming economically dependent on single men. The process was aided by the formal allocation to men of whatever public authority and legal right of ownership was allowed in colonial situations, by missionary teachings, and by the persistence of Europeans in dealing with men as the holders of all formal authority.

The second problem with statements like the above is largely a theoretical one. The common use of some polar dimension to assess woman’s position, and to find that everywhere men are “dominant” and hold authority over women, not only ignores the world’s history, but transmutes the totality of tribal decision-making structures (as we try to reconstruct them) into the power terms of our own society. Lewis Henry Morgan had a marvelous phrase for such practice. He used it when talking of the term “instinct,” but it is generally apt. Such a term, he wrote, is “a system of philosophy in a definition, and instillation of the supernatural which silences at once all inquiry into the facts.” In this instance, women are conveniently allocated to their place, and the whole inquiry into the structure of the indigenous collective is stunted. The indigenous collective emerges with no structure—no contradictions—of its own; it is merely our society minus, so to speak.

Everywhere in Africa that one scrapes the surface one finds ethnohistorical data on the authority once shared by women but later lost. However, to leave the matter at this, and argue a position of “matriarchy” as a “stage” of social evolution, is but the other face of the male dominance argument. Pleasant for a change, to be sure, but not the true story. For what such data reveal is the dispersed nature of decision-making in pre-class societies—the key to understanding how such societies functioned as “collectives.” 

To relegate the analysis of changing family forms to a secondary status leaves social interpretation not only incomplete, but distorted. Such omission is conducive to mechanical determinism in the analysis of both preclass and class society. Moreover, the passing over as subsidiary of subjects concerning women not only distorts understanding, but becomes another stone in the wall of masculine resistance that moves women to reject Marxism as not relevant to their problems. As a result, the positive contribution Marxists should be making toward the women’s movement is hampered. Marx indicated that the oppression of women in a society was the measure of its general oppression. One can add, the strength of women’s involvement in a movement dedicated to opposing a social order is a measure of the movement’s strength—or weakness.

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The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

In this provocative and now-classic work, Friedrich Engels explores the interrelated development of the family and the state from ancient society to the Victorian era. Drawing on new anthropologica...