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By Norah Carlin, Socialist Workers Party, UK

First published March 1985 Reprinted January 1986 by the Socialist Workers Party
PO Box 82, London E3. Typeset by Kate Macpherson Photosetting (TU), Clevedon,
Avon. Printed by Laneridge Limited (TU all depts), London E3.
IT IS SOMETIMES SAID that women have always been oppressed by men, that the
antagonism between men and women has its origin deep in human psychology or
biology, and that the way women suffer in our society is nothing but the same old
story that has been going on ever since human life began.
This is such a pessimistic view that it is hard to understand why it is so popular with
feminists today. If women are put at a disadvantage by human nature itself, how can
we ever change things? Either an all-out war against men could lead to men being
forced to change their ways without changing their basically anti-women ideas; or a
few women could separate themselves off from the rest of society and be free in a
sense; or the human race could be destroyed by women refusing all co-operation with
men. None of these conclusions can be very appealing for the majority of women.
On the other hand, the view that women are oppressed simply because men (and most
women too) have the wrong ideas about women can be too optimistic. Liberating
women is seen as just a matter of persuasion and education, of explaining to men that

But they can't be changed by persuasion. in Europe in the middle ages lords lived off the labour of serfs on the land. slaves were exploited by slave-owners. In ancient Greece and Rome. such as whether to move a settlement or make war on another band or tribe. women as well as men took part in the most important decisions. and where women did not have an inferior position. This doesn't mean that we can't argue or organise against racism here and now. either as slaves or as cheap labour. Though men and women might have their separate tasks and rituals. To get rid of the idea once and for all we have to get rid of the system that produces the idea. The idea that women are inferior comes from societies that are divided into classes. societies that were not divided into classes. But there have been. The idea that black people are inferior. for example. most of these societies have been affected by contact with European traders. because ideas depend on material relations between human beings. In all these forms of society. These were the societies we call primitive. where there was no production other than the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals. When production was simple and population low. rulers and missionaries. but it does mean that persuading people that they have the wrong ideas is only the first step to getting rid of the society that is responsible for them. by the light of reason alone. But when white men first came into contact with most of the native tribes of North America. Australia and the Pacific islands. even in quite recent times. Our own capitalist society is far from being the first society divided into classes. where one set of people control the labour of others and enjoy wealth and power as a result. and there have been variations of these societies at other times and places. women's role as the bearers of children was important and respected. With the rise of manufacture and the Industrial Revolution. though we hope to make it the last. those with wealth to invest as capital found new ways to make profits out of wage-earning men and women. . these were societies without classes and in which women were as strong and as powerful as men. who have changed their ways of life. Nowadays.they have got it wrong and that they really should share the housework and the top jobs because it would be more fair. belongs to societies that exploit black people. women have been oppressed. History shows that all ideas can change: none are so deep-rooted in human nature that nothing can be done about them.

class divisions began to appear. Men of wealth could make others work for them. They began to own wives. But to achieve this. it is necessary to get rid of class society. Slave women had no rights over their own bodies at all: they could be sexually used by their master or sold to others. in The Origin of the Family. women are strong and equal in societies with simple production and no class divisions. No one could really wish for the whole of humanity to return to this primitive state: the vast majority of people alive today would be wiped out by hunger and disease. and that the position of women has always been different for different classes in the same society.Couples might live together with their children. Many of the details of Engels' case have been challenged or corrected by anthropologists (most of whom have been male and have worked for imperialist powers--which gave them a vested interest in challenging him). Women could be strong and free in such a future society because of their role as producers and creators of all kinds. Ancient Greece and Rome were slave societies. Private Property and the State. This is important because it helps us to understand the particular ways in which capitalist society oppresses women today and the reasons why. The masters' daughters. and pass on their wealth to their male children. and not just because they bear children or grub roots out of the ground--as they did in primitive society. with its drive for profits and lunacies such as nuclear weapons. buy slaves and take advantage of others' poverty. agriculture appeared. like cattle. too. on . but sexual relations were more free and separation easier than in later societies. Equality for women in the future would have to be based on the full capacity of modern science and technology to fulfil human needs--a capacity that today is largely wasted by the capitalist system. and their children could be taken away from them and sold too. all societies must have started out like this. But his basic argument still stands. When production increased. The oppression of women is not universal. and flocks and herds of animals were kept for food and wealth (for fields and cattle were the first forms of private property). the oppression of women began when class society began. History shows that there have been as many ways of keeping women down as there have been class societies. As Engels argued a hundred years ago. History shows that there is no one 'natural' role for women.

neither men nor women went out to work. The bond between parents and children must have been very different then from what it is now. but no free woman ever tried to become a slave. and most of them lived in small households of one couple and their children. in large extended family households. In these families. In Europe in the middle ages. but unlike slaves they lived in families on their own plot of land and could pass the plot on to their children. or washing at the well.the other hand. At first it was women and children who were drawn out of their homes and into the factories. but produced goods at home for the merchant capitalists. The industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought the separation of work from home for the working class as well. When the mass production of goods for the market began to spread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. acting as lady of the manor in their own right and keeping armed retainers to fight for them. But women and children in the factories worked in such appalling conditions of overwork and physical danger that working- . were married off at an early age and closely confined to their homes to show that they were of the slave-owning class--to be seen going to market. There were slave women who tried to pass themselves off as free. followed by the men as more of industry was mechanised. these were at first produced in the homes of craftsmen and cottagers. Noble women lived quite differently. As heiresses or widows they often owned land and serfs. The separation of work and home. Production was so essential to them that babies were sent outside the household to wet nurses almost as soon as they were born. and sent out again as apprentices and servants at any age from seven onwards. was to admit to the shame of not being able to afford slaves. and when they were married (usually at an early age) they brought property and valuable political connections into their husbands' families. Serf women were obliged to marry serf men and reproduce the labour force of the manor. into separate spheres had already happened for these middle class families. cared for by servant girls or older sisters when they were weaned and returned (if they survived). serfs tilled the land for the lord of the manor. the merchants' wives withdrew from the shop or warehouse into comfortable homes with domestic servants to relieve them of work altogether. Women valued the respectability that slaveowning gave even though it meant many restrictions for them. men and women. Meanwhile. by women and children as well as by men.

for one thing. It has taken a long time for capitalism to bring women back into the workforce in large numbers. inflation and the falling purchasing power of men's wages (four times as many families would be below the poverty line without the wife's wages). At the same time. fully supported it. The typical woman worker is no longer young or single but a married woman between the ages of 35 and 49. because men's wages were not enough to support a family. after starting the process in the cotton industry in the early nineteenth century. and as there were no alternatives for the sick. No wonder they gave up factory work to take care of the home whenever they could afford it. There are many reasons for the change. About 60 per cent of all married women are now also working for wages. . The demand for a 'family wage' for men that would enable wives to stay at home and do the job properly (a target which was hardly ever achieved as far as the majority of the working class were concerned) was popular with women workers as well as with men--women cotton workers on strike in Preston in 1854. the role of working-class women has again changed dramatically. women took on these duties too. As workers. divided and dependent on men. In our own century. as in the miners' strike of 198~5 or the Glasgow rent strikes of 1915. they can fight the system only in exceptional cases where the whole community is threatened. often had to go out to work until their children were old enough to take their place as the second wage-earner. As housewives. There is no turning back.class people began to fight to defend the family as a place of refuge for women and children. But it is also an advantage for working-class women. and by earning wages of their own they gain a certain amount of self-respect and independence. the sick and the unemployed. the very young and the very old but to be cared for in the family home. especially in the textile factory districts. but in the long run that is the way it has been going. It gives many industries a more flexible labour force. nor would most women wish it: a new age has begun for workingclass women as workers in their own right. women are isolated. and the fact that people have fewer children in a shorter time than before. Women. and live longer after their children are grown up. they begin to have a chance to organise and act together. for example. conditions in nineteenth-century industrial towns made heavy housework a necessity. All this suits modern capitalism very well. among them the decline of the older heavy industries and the increase in services. even if not as the main breadwinner.

anu. .au/polsci/marx/contemp/pamsetc/women/ws_main.