The origins of women’s oppression – a defence of Engels and a new departure

by Sandra Bloodworth • Published 12 July 2018

“One of the most absurd notions taken over from eighteenth century enlightenment is that in the beginning of society woman was the slave of man.”

– Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.[1][2]

A fundamental principle of Marxist analysis is that…there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution. It also sees change as produced by forces internal to the social system itself. In other words, causes are not external to and independent of social organization. Inevitable population growth, ecological conditions, or Gods will are not explanations of war, poverty, sexism, or any other social question.”

– Karen Sacks, Sisters and Wives. The past and future of sexual equality.[3]

Frederick Engels’ book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (hereafter The Origin) was published in 1884. In it he argued that early humans had lived in non-hierarchical societies in which women were not oppressed. The idea that classes might not exist and that men have not always dominated women was widely and systematically denounced as preposterous in the social sciences academy. And the book has remained the subject of debate, especially among feminists, to this day.

There are weaknesses in Engels’ argumentation, not least because he had to rely on the now superseded knowledge of his generation. But also because, in spite of being one of the then most progressive supporters of women’s rights, he accepts many of the stereotypes about women’s sexuality of his time. Nevertheless, there is wide recognition of the importance of this book. Gerda Lerner, a feminist theorist not known for her support of Marxism, says that in spite of self-evident weaknesses,

Engels made a major contribution to our understanding of women’s position in society and history… By locating “the world historic defeat of the female sex” in the period of the formation of archaic states, based on the dominance of propertied elites, he gave the event historicity. Although he was unable to prove any of his propositions, he defined the major theoretical questions for the next hundred years.[4]

Engels basically summarised notes made by Marx and himself on the research of the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan. He also incorporated research on the history of the family in ancient societies by Johann Bachofen, a Swiss historian and archaeologist, and relied on his own research about Germanic and Celtic societies. This book was not some isolated, discrete work. It can only fully be understood if taken together with the ideas developed by both Engels and Marx in The German Ideology, the Theses on Feuerbach, The Communist Manifesto and Capital, to name just the best known. Their joint efforts to understand capitalist society and all its degradation and oppression involved, from their earliest writings, grappling with the question of women’s oppression. In On the Jewish Question, written when Marx was 25, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The Holy Family later that year, Marx frequently comments on the enslavement of women and the need for their emancipation.[5] Engels, in his first major work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, written from 1844 to early 1845, repeatedly returns to the dangerous and debilitating conditions of women workers. He discusses the effects on women and men of having women working while men are left at home unemployed and makes a point against the moralising of liberal commentators. If this seems unnatural, he says, it must look so because there is “some radical error in the original relationship between men and women. If the rule of the wife over her husband…is unnatural, then the former rule of the husband over the wife must also have been unnatural”.[6]

Also, Engels’ article The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, mostly neglected by the critics of The Origin, laid a solid foundation for understanding human development. Predicated on Darwin’s theory of evolution, but theoretically grounded in his and Marx’s materialist conclusions, he argued that it was the use of hands freed by standing upright which drove human development down the path of tool-making. This then led to a growing intelligence and the development of speech. After a series of controversies and even fraudulent evidence over the next century, the discovery in Africa in 1974 of a three and a half million year-old skeleton with an ape-sized brain but erect posture meant Engels’ proposition was widely accepted, if not always explicitly attributed to him.

The point of this article is to consider whether Engels’ basic proposition – that women’s oppression coincided with the division of society into classes and the rise of the state – stands up. I will not deal with every error or weakness, as many of them are peripheral to this question. And I will not answer every argument made by his critics, as most of them are also not relevant to this point, and I have answered some of them elsewhere.[7]

First, drawing on anthropological and archaeological knowledge assembled over the last half century, I reply to some of the most common arguments which assert that women’ oppression is universal. Then I outline Engels’ basic argument. Thirdly, I outline my argument, which relies heavily on the British Marxist Chris Harman, who interpreted more recent research using Engels’ theoretical method.[8] Finally I will show that the most recent archaeological evidence, while it radically challenges Engels’ historical detail, actually strengthens his central thesis that women’s oppression was established as society divided into classes. However I go beyond both Engels and Harman to explain the origins of women’s oppression in a way that I consider more consistent with Marxism.

Is women’s oppression universal?

Until the 1960s anthropologists almost unanimously agreed that women have always been oppressed. Anthropology, because of its claim to scientific research, was difficult to challenge. And so feminists who took this position were influential. Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed in her famous book The Second Sex, “this has always been a man’s world” and that “the female…is the prey of the species”.[9] Susan Brownmiller’s argument that men have always been violent towards women was very influential among feminists in the 1970s.[10] In opposition to Marxism, she attributed other social divisions such as class and race to men’s domination of women:

Concepts of hierarchy, slavery and private property flowed from, and could only be predicated upon the initial subjugation of woman.

She struck a nerve among feminists happy to accept pop-psychology conjecture in place of historical evidence so long as it painted men as the key enemy:

[O]ne of the earliest forms of male bonding must have been the gang rape of one woman by a band of marauding men. This accomplished, rape became not only a male prerogative, but man’s basic weapon of force against women, the principal agent of his will and her fear… By anatomical fiat – the inescapable construction of their genital organs – the human male was a natural predator.

It was women’s “fear of an open season of rape” which led them to strike the “risky bargain” of “conjugal relationship” and was the “single causative factor in the original subjugation of woman by man”.[11]

The anthropologist Margaret Mead found “the Arapesh [do not] have any conception of male nature that might make rape understandable to them”. This clearly indicates that rape is a product of particular social systems, not simply men’s physiological attributes. But Brownmiller makes no attempt to explain how this can be understood in view of her own sweeping assertions.[12]

Since then, there has been a wealth of anthropological and archaeological studies which provide overwhelming evidence that women have not always been oppressed and therefore have not always suffered male violence. And yet most non-Marxist writers, and even some who profess to agree with Marx (though not Engels), such as Heather Brown – author of the most recent serious study of Engels’ book and Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks – are still reluctant to accept this basic proposition.[13]

Some feminists studied non-human primates, extrapolating from what they observed to build a picture of human evolution and what the earliest societies might have been like. They concluded there was no evidence that the first hominids, evolving from the apes, would have been male-dominated with females subjected to violence. Brownmiller herself quotes Jane Goodall, who studied wild chimpanzees and found the female did not accept every male who approached her. Even persistent males were not known to rape. Brownmiller even quotes Leonard Williams’ Man and Monkey which concluded that “in monkey society there is no such thing as rape, prostitution, or even passive consent”.[14] However, she claims that because human females are sexually active at any time, unlike other primates, men are capable of rape. The implication is that monkeys and chimps are physically incapable of rape. But the feminist scholar Sally Slocum found that non-human primates “appear not to attempt coitus (when the female is unreceptive), regardless of physiological ability”.[15] A later study, based on similar observations plus archaeological and anthropological studies, concluded “the picture then is one of bipedal, tool-using, food-sharing, and sociable mothers choosing to copulate with males also possessing these traits” at the dawn of humanity.[16]

There are many gaps in our knowledge between these first steps in the evolution of hominids from the apes, probably over two million years ago, and the rise of class societies. Homo sapiens are thought to have emerged from homo erectus about 200,000 years ago and for almost 190,000 years they lived in egalitarian communities with increasingly sophisticated and complex cultures in which there was no oppression.

The starting point from which to assess anthropological evidence about these gatherer-hunter societies is to recognise the bias embedded within the data. Academics and anthropologists who collected this information accompanied colonial invaders and Christian zealots. They were invariably culturally blind and prejudiced against other societies, so their conclusions cannot be read at anything like face value. Overwhelmingly male, they took with them the cultural and social values of capitalist society which distorted their interpretation of what they saw, especially when it came to gender relations. Anthropologists such as Eleanor Burke Leacock, Karen Sacks and others have convincingly demonstrated the male-oriented and prejudiced nature of arguments by influential anthropologists such as Malinowsky and Lévi-Strauss.[17] As I concluded in a study of the diaries of early “explorers” in the west of Australia:

[T]he gender relations in traditional Aboriginal society were understood very much in the terms set by European prejudice and expectations of the time. The ideal of idle women and the juxtaposition of “damned whores and god’s police” were embroidered by and entwined with the brutal racism and sexism which characterised the white settlement.[18]

Western anthropologists and other observers, imposing their view of the world on the societies they studied, assumed the nuclear family of modern capitalism to be a universal feature of human organisation of reproduction and sexuality. Society was thought to be divided into the “public”, male sphere and the “private”, female sphere, a concept clearly associated historically with the rise of capitalism and completely useless in understanding the egalitarian, co-operative and integrated nature of gatherer-hunters’ lives. Because women’s responsibility for childcare in our society contributes to their inferior status and oppression, it was erroneously assumed this could be read into the meaning of their work in all societies.[19] Even many feminist anthropologists “assume low status for maternity, which they see as constraining activities, hindering personality development, and reducing women’s symbolic value. They project the values of our culture onto other cultures”.[20] Judith Brown, writing about the assumed division of labour by sex in gatherer-hunters, writes that women’s “tasks are relatively monotonous and do not require rapt concentration; and the work is not dangerous, can be performed in spite of interruptions (by children)”. This, she assumes, means that women were of low status.[21] I will show below that this view, which was already being challenged, is even less tenable in light of the most recent knowledge.

Secondly, the Eurocentrism of most anthropology obscures the effects of colonial expansion on pre-capitalist societies. As the feminist anthropologist Rayna Reiter noted:

We cannot literally interpret the lives of existing foraging peoples – such as the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari, the Eskimos, the Australian Aborigine – as exhibits and replications of processes we speculate to have occurred in the Palaeolithic. Neither can we assume the decimated, marginalised existences of peoples pushed to the edges of their environment by thousands of years penetration will exhibit original characteristics.[22]

Colonial expansion brought profound changes. These changes could be rapid, affecting research done even at a very early period of invasion. For one thing, members of the society being colonised soon learnt strategies for survival and for minimising attacks on themselves.[23] It is widely believed that Indigenous women in Australia were treated as inferior chattels before white invasion. The arguments rest on reports which reflect the prejudices of early settlers and ignore the catastrophic effects of the white invasion. Most accounts of early contact refer to “the natives” as though the men were the only ones of any consequence; for example, “we saw the natives and their women”. Explorers would have expected to deal with men and viewed women as sex objects, if noticed at all. The Aborigines very early on experienced abduction and rape of women. Henry Reynolds recounts that Torres Strait Islanders told a government official in 1881 that when whites were seen, the women were buried in the sand to avoid ill-treatment.[24] Where this was the case, the male bias of explorers and other observers would have been exaggerated even further. Their impression of gender relations in Aboriginal society would have been of men as the dominant, outgoing sex and women as retiring, submissive and afraid. This then had a dynamic which reinforced the exaggeration of the importance of men. The male explorers gave gifts to men. These gifts of tomahawks, knives, flour, sugar and tobacco may seem trivial taken individually. However, as contact increased and the products of the invaders became more coveted and widespread among Aborigines, these gifts could be expected to change the balance of relationships between women and men. For instance, when land was rendered less accessible or productive because of invasion, Aborigines depended more on food from whites. This undercut the women’s ability to provide for themselves and their children independently of the men.[25]

Leacock documented the pressures exerted on egalitarian social relations by the Jesuits and others committed to hierarchical social relations and women’s oppression, as they colonised the lands of the Montagnais-Naskapi of Canada and the Iroquois Indians of North America.[26] She summarised:

[T]he structure of egalitarian society has been misunderstood as a result of the failure to recognize womens participation in such society as public and autonomous. To conceptualize hunting/gathering bands as loose collections of nuclear families, in which women are bound by dyadic relations of dependency to individual men, projects onto hunter/gatherers the dimensions of our own social structure. Such a concept implies a teleological and unilinear view of social evolution, whereby our society is seen as the full expression of relations that have been present in all society… Reinterpretations of womens roles in hunting/gathering societies reveal that qualitatively different relationships obtained.[27]

Some of the most recent and compelling evidence that women have not been universally oppressed exists at the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, which was continuously occupied for 1,400 years until 6000 BC. New interpretations of archaeological evidence and advances in science in DNA testing have challenged original conclusions about this fascinating site. The team working with Ian Hodder, the chief archaeologist at the site since 1994, “searched hard” for differences in the diets of women and men as an indicator of social differences. They found little evidence of radically different lifestyles”. And the fact that all skeletons had carbon residue on their ribs from spending time in smoke-filled houses shows that women were not tied to the home any more than men. He concluded: “[O]verall, there is little evidence that gender was very significant in the allocation of roles… There must have been differences of lifestyle in relation to childbirth, but these differences do not seem to be related to major social distinctions”. Nor did differences in dress or lives mean that “one gender was privileged above the other in terms of the transmission of rules and resources or in terms of social status and lifestyle”.[28]

A considerable body of anthropology shows that in societies such as the !Kung and Mbuti of Africa, women until quite recently participated in decision-making as equals with men, controlled their own sexuality and contributed as equals to productive activity.[29]

In light of this widespread evidence, to which I will add more below, let’s now turn to Engels’ explanation of the origins of women’s oppression.

Engels’ argument

Engels argued that the earliest humans lived in small egalitarian bands, what he called “primitive communism”, or sometimes “savagery” and later “barbarism”, which are offensive to a modern reader, but were in line with archaeological terminology employed at the time. Over thousands of years humans found new, innovative ways to provide the needs of the group until the labour of an individual could produce more than was necessary for their survival. This, he argues, leads to

differences of wealth, the possibility of utilising the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval.

In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up. In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property…[30]

Women’s subordination to men was rooted in this process. He outlines changes in the family from group marriage in which groups of women and men are permitted to have sexual relationships with everyone in the group. In this communistic household, he argues, women are highly valued because they are self-evidently parents of their children whereas paternity is indeterminate.

Engels argues that the domestication of large animals produced the first surplus above what society needed. Given men were thought to be responsible for this as a continuation of their role as the hunters, they were assumed to have control over this surplus product. He outlines a complicated argument about mother right and inheritance through not the family but her gens.[31] By various means, the rules of inheritance were changed so that their newly acquired wealth could be passed down through the men’s gens. He actually quotes Marx’s research into some American Indians who appeared to be in transition, and who were changing the way they named their children: “[T]he custom has grown up of giving the children a gentile name of their father’s gens in order to transfer them into it [instead of their mother’s gens to which they previously belonged], thus enabling them to inherit from him”. Marx said of this: “Man’s innate casuistry! To change things by changing their names! And to find loopholes for violating tradition while maintaining tradition, when direct interest supplied sufficient impulse”. This indicates that inheritance could be changed to account for new social relationships.

Engels says “[t]his revolution [was] one of the most decisive steps ever experienced by humanity”, this “overthrow of mother right was the world historical defeat of the female sex”. And so, if women’s oppression was grounded in the rise of class divisions, then women would only throw off that oppression once they were ended. Engels knew he couldn’t prove how or when these changes occurred, but was confident that there is plenty of evidence that it did happen.[32]

He has been proven absolutely right. Increasingly archaeological evidence and revised assessments of the anthropology of pre-class societies reinforce Engels’ major propositions. The latest evidence shows that for most of the 200,000 years of the history of homo sapiens, they lived in egalitarian societies. It is legitimate to assume there was no oppression. By what means would anyone impose systematic discrimination on any group, and what purpose would it serve in a society which depended on everyone’s contribution? Without a surplus there can be no layer in society not required to contribute to production. And without exploitation, there is no material basis for the oppression of any section of the community. When I was doing research in the late 1980s, the contributors to anthropology journals who argued that women’s oppression is universal instinctively recognised that they would have to defeat the more basic argument that humanity began its social life in non-hierarchical, cooperative societies. As Karen Sacks says, a consistent Marxist, materialist analysis rests on the understanding that “there are no unseen hands or principles guiding human evolution… [C]auses are not external to and independent of social organization”.[33]

The question is, why did the rise of classes lead to the oppression of women? Engels had to work with evidence which existed in his time. So he accepted the dominant but mistaken idea that only men hunted. He also worked with the dominant but wrong thesis among archaeologists that the herding of animals produced the first surplus. So he not unreasonably concluded that men were responsible for and therefore in control of it. In his view, this was the material basis for the changes to the rules of family rights and responsibilities so that previously matrilineal lines of descent and responsibility were replaced by inheritance passed through the male line. For this to be possible, women’s sexuality had to be controlled, so that the paternity of children was clear, unlike in the past when women could have numerous sexual partners.

Engels’ argument in the modern context

So let’s turn to what the latest research indicates and how it affects Engels’ argument. Evidence assembled since the 1960s and now widely accepted as valid debunks virtually every detail of Engels’ argument. However, his central proposition is more soundly confirmed, that is, women’s oppression is not universal but is grounded in the rise of class society. Summing up the widespread consensus which has emerged, Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, two of the editors of the 2014 edition of The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers (hereafter The Oxford Handbook) write:

[S]mall-scale hunter-gatherer communities…in all likelihood, remained egalitarian societies lacking pronounced differences in social status, and with little in the way of archaeological evidence for the presence of private wealth or accumulation of prestige objects.[34]

It took tens of thousands of years even after some communities could produce a surplus before a minority, exploiting class backed up by a state emerged. And the process by which these developments took place was very different from how Engels, and even many still today, explain it. Some archaeologists now argue that technological and social features formerly associated with fully settled agricultural societies, such as large sedentary populations, socio-economic inequalities, slavery, craft specialisation, etc., are evident among many communities much earlier than previously thought. These developments took off as early as 40,000 years ago in Europe and spread to many parts of the world over the next 20,000 years. Brian Hayden, a contributor to The Oxford Handbook, argues that “the major watershed in cultural development was not the domestication of plants or animals, but the emergence of the more complex societies that first occurred among hunters and gatherers”.[35]

The evidence is scattered, depending on where archaeological sites are established. However, we see qualitative developments when the last of the ice sheets of the Palaeolithic era melted. As rivers swelled and coastlines rose from melting ice, animal life proliferated along the banks and shorelines. It created new ecosystems with abundant resources such as fish, fertile soil, good rainfall and the like, which encouraged nomadic communities to settle more permanently or at least seasonally. These developments happened first, as far as we know, on the north-east coast of Japan and in the Ukraine, later on the north-west coast of the US, Anatolia, Australia, and along rivers in South-East Asia.

Increasingly across the globe humans who, as far as we know at this time, had travelled vast distances from Africa, were experimenting with burning, tilling the soil, weeding, planting, sowing, irrigating and draining the land. All were gradually contributing to the increased productivity of human labour.[36] These societies maintained their habits of foraging and hunting, but could begin to produce a surplus, if only for difficult times such as drought. But they remained egalitarian and collective communities.

Many of the first “explorers” leading the invasion of Australia or those who established properties on Aboriginal land before their culture was completely destroyed reported that the Indigenous people produced large stores of grain clearly not needed for immediate use. A typical account was described as a “native granary” on the Finke River in the Northern Territory. On a platform built in a tree over three metres from the ground were bags stuffed with grain. Another in the Northern Territory recorded about a ton of grain stored in wooden dishes covered with bark. In central New South Wales another recorded kangaroo skin bags full of grain. The Europeans were unable to explain this behaviour; why would anyone leave stores of nutritious and delicious grain unguarded? To them, only civilised, settled people “farmed”. But Aboriginal communities were semi-sedentary, building houses sometimes where they lived while harvesting or managing a particular area of land. They could leave their stores knowing they would be untouched when they returned from walking across their land, something those from class society simply could not grasp.[37]

Hayden’s conclusions are commensurate with Marx and Engels’ explanation of social change: “[I]t appears that there is an important relationship between resource productivity and surplus production on the one hand and socio-political complexity on the other”.[38]

And so, after at least 150,000 years, this creature which had evolved from early hominids reaching back millions of years – now known to have interbred with Neanderthals who, contrary to early assumptions, had complex social and cultural practices – began to divide between those who produced the needs of society and a minority who lived off the labour of the majority. “The world historical defeat of the female sex”, as Engels put it, was not a single event. Engels would easily embrace the latest conclusions drawn by archaeologists, as they are so clearly comparable with his and Marx’s approach. They understood that society was always in a constant process of change. Small developments in the way production is carried out accumulate and gradually change the way people relate to each other. Engels actually comments that the changes took place over thousands of years, so the long term consequences of changes would not have been evident to any individual. It would take thousands of years before ruling classes and states were established only about 8-10,000 years ago, emphasising that there is nothing natural about exploitation and oppression among humans.

I have been uncomfortable with aspects of Engels’ explanation since I began looking at the evidence in the 1980s. It raises a crucial question which has not been addressed by either his detractors or defenders. If whole families or lineages became a ruling class, what was the role of women in that? The society which was undergoing this development was egalitarian, in which all members, both women and men, participated in important decision-making. So why would women in that social layer just let the men get control? It is not credible that they played no role either in implementing some of the changes or resisting them, possibly both at different times. So I want to outline a different account, not original in all its points, but including one I don’t think anyone has argued before, which acknowledges that women were active participants in the development of the class divisions which led to the systematic oppression of women themselves.

Evolving debates and evidence

First it’s worth summarising some relevant arguments and debates over the last four decades among feminists and Marxists. In the 1970s some feminists began to challenge the accounts which assumed men’s dominance in gatherer-hunter societies. The best of them, some mentioned above, found that women played a constructive, productive role as gatherers which gave them equal standing with men. Karen Sacks was typical. She showed that in some gatherer-hunter societies women adapt the number of pregnancies to the needs of production. She showed that !Kung women in Africa do not take a break from gathering while nursing their infants which, she wrote, “attests to the cultural centrality of women’s productive roles, as well as countering a simple minded reproductive determinism”.[39]

These were very useful studies, as they established that the origins of women’s oppression must be sought in historical, social developments. However, they reinforced the image of man the hunter and woman the gatherer, just reworking it to show that women played a key role in early societies which gave them equal standing with men. More recently the assumption that there was a strict division of labour between women and men has been challenged. Feminist archaeologist Rosemary Joyce comments that some archaeologists began to realise that the assumptions of researchers too often “locked them into viewing the past as a version of the present”, and that it is wrong to assume that gender is “timeless, and more important than any other social distinction”. She also showed that advances in DNA analysis of skeletons revealed that allocations of gender by association with clothing or occupation, as was the usual practice, were erroneous.[40] Two ethno-archaeologists, writing in The Oxford Handbook, also strongly challenge all the old assumptions about a gender division of labour:

Actualistic, field-based studies reveal that the division of labour was highly variable and more flexible than commonly assumed, both within and across populations…[the] division of labour occasionally followed lines of age, ability and experience, among other factors, rather than gender alone.

They comment that “[a] growing ethnographic literature documents the simple but undeniable reality that women also hunt”; and for a wide range of animals of all sizes. “While work areas do sometimes appear to be divided along gender lines, there is also ample evidence for widespread comingling of men’s and women’s activities and work areas, or organisation of work and space along lines other than gender.” They argue that the assignment of tools and implements to women and men in archaeological finds is unreliable because it can just as easily reflect the bias of the researchers (examples of which Joyce documents). But importantly, they argue that an emphasis on the moment of capture and killing is misleading. For one thing, traps, snares and various constructions moderated the dangers and difficulty inherent in hunting: “The full repertoire of procurement technologies and strategies, no doubt, required the complementary labour of women, men, and children”. They argue that insufficient attention is given to what follows the capture: preparing food, clothes, implements, thread, much of which women could do when pregnant or breast-feeding, and conclude:

Carrying the point further, one might note the predominance of women in manufacturing hides and sophisticated tailored skin, gut and fur wardrobes, which allowed hunter-gatherer populations to live and work in cold environments. Facile arguments about women’s “marginalization” and/or men’s “high prestige” tend to wither in the face of such behavioural realities…

A critical issue here is that even though men can have negligible or limited roles in some activities of vital economic concern, these limitations are rarely recognized or used to revise entrenched ideas about the sexual division of labour. On the contrary…the profession has a history of interpreting hunter-gatherer society in terms of women’s marginalization and exclusion.[41]

So to repeat: the evidence does not indicate that men would automatically have got control of any surplus created by domesticating animals; the first surpluses were probably the result of better production of vegetables, fruit, grains and/or fishing, activities which no one disputes women played an active role in. Neither can men’s dominance be explained by the use of the heavy plough as many argue, because class societies and women’s oppression arose in the Americas before its introduction.

Beyond Engels

To explain how women’s oppression became integral to class societies we need to uncover the relationship between objective developments in production and changes this brought about in social relations, including how reproduction was restructured.

Gatherer-hunters and fishers began to settle at least seasonally where they could produce something of a surplus while still largely egalitarian. Control of any surplus was allocated to trusted individuals or groups, perhaps religious figures – any of whom could have been women. They played a necessary social role involving reciprocal responsibilities, coordinating increasingly complex production methods, storing and distributing resources as needed. For thousands of years this did not give those with responsibility for the surplus undue power backed up by coercive powers of a state, even though they may have a high status and access to extra wealth. So how do we explain what changed and why that resulted in men dominating women?

Among nomadic gatherer-hunters it was important that no woman was responsible for more than one infant at a time and so women spaced childbirth around the needs of production. By contrast, in more settled societies, children are potentially extra producers. There is also the need to compensate for a higher death rate, the result of a greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, and the possibility of wars over the resources which are stored. So the higher the birth rate the more successful that society is likely to be.

It is in the interests of the whole society for women not to take part in activities (such as warfare, long distance travel or later heavy agricultural tasks) which expose them to the greatest risks of death, infertility or abortion – or which expose to danger infants dependent on their mother’s milk. So gradually, women’s role changes from being central to production, as well as reproduction, in gatherer-hunter and early horticultural societies. Over time they are excluded from some aspects of production. The anthropologist Ernestine Friedl found evidence that in horticultural societies where men travel long distances for trade and are involved in war, their status increases relative to women. And I want to stress that women were decision-makers in this process. Every step down this path was small and incremental. As Engels emphasised, individuals did not know what the long term, cumulative effects would be.

At Çatalhöyük in Anatolia – a settled, though classless community lasting 1,400 years between 7400 and 6000 BC – as the incentive (or possibly simply the possibility) for women to bear more children than in nomadic society, Ian Hodder notes: “gender roles may have become more demarcated as part of wider changes in society… Men and women may increasingly have become associated with specialist tasks and spheres”.[42]

So with women bearing more children and not as involved in some areas of productive activity, there would be a new emphasis on relations between successive generations of males tied to the land and other means of production. As Harman concludes: “Patrilineality and patrilocality began to fit in with the logic of production much more than matrilineality and matrilocality”. We can now say that those trans-egalitarian gatherer-hunters Hayden writes about, settling in areas of abundance, would experience the beginnings of this process. Importantly, as Harman, but not Engels, notes, not all men got control of any surplus, only those in an emerging ruling group.

For this group to develop the mentality of exploiters, they would have had to come to identify the interests of society as a whole with their control of production. They did not necessarily think of themselves as introducing oppressive relationships. And here I want to diverge from both Engels and Harman, whose accounts are generally accepted by Marxists.

Women in that group could well have agreed that their family lineage, no matter how it was organised, should keep control of the wealth they were in charge of. So just as men in the ruling group could well want to ensure the paternity of their children was clear in order to pass on responsibility for producing and managing the wealth they controlled, so too could women associated with them. It is not convincing to talk of a ruling group emerging in which only men have any say, given that in the society which is being transformed it is generally thought that women and men all contributed to important decisions. Women as well as men had an interest in changing the lines of inheritance. Women’s roles shifted, not because the surplus was created by herding which put men in control, but because with increased numbers of child births, it made sense for lines of inheritance and responsibility for production and management of surpluses to pass through the male line.

Engels’ argument that the imposition of onerous rules could well have provoked resistance is rarely given any serious consideration, and so evidence of this possibility is not taken into account. Indeed the notorious Hammurabi Code of around 1717 BC – drawn up by the Babylonian king of that name and based on even earlier laws in the new class societies of Mesopotamia – prescribed monogamy for women on pain of death, and the rule that women who resisted their subordination “must have her teeth crushed with burnt bricks”. It “tended to exact severer penalties for certain offences, especially for offences against the sacredness of the family”.

The existence of this Code indicates that attempts to oppress women at least sometimes met with resistance which was in turn crushed with ruthless force.[43] Some more class-conscious women could well have participated in imposing such controls over the sexual activity of rebellious members of their circles.

Even though the most dramatic result of this social reorganisation was the oppression of women, it would not have been evident to either the fledgling rulers or those ruled over. As Engels argued, these developments happened over hundreds if not thousands of years, causing a raft of changes, many of which would have unforeseen consequences. There was an upheaval of social, cultural and political life, just as any major change to the productive capacity of society has generated in the thousands of years since. As women hadn’t been oppressed, no one would have anticipated such a devastating outcome.

The argument about the long term evolution of class and state structures can appear to be a seamless, teleological process; too seamless. There is evidence that emerging ruling groups could well have met with resistance. So to maintain their authority to manage the surplus, they would most likely have begun to codify the obligations and rights of members of the community. And as they became more controlling, their position increasingly entrenched by rules and laws, so society’s expectations changed. Gradually any challenge to them would have become a crime against not just them as individuals, but against society.

A number of Neolithic towns in Anatolia which remained egalitarian and dependent on gathering and hunting were occupied by thousands between 10,000 and 7000 BC. However gradually they exhibit signs of hierarchies. Göbekli Tepe, 9600-8000 BC, is thought to be a ceremonial centre, with no houses for living. This suggests the existence of a religious elite whose prestige extended over a wide area.

And there is evidence that developing hierarchies were resisted. The Turkish archaeologist Mehmet Ozdogan, involved in these sites, believes there was a social revolution about 7200 BC which overthrew an elite in Çayönü followed by similar revolutionary upheavals around the surrounding region. In a private email to me in 2011 he wrote:

I am almost sure that there must have been some sort of social turbulence [in that period], not only at Çayönü but in most of the core area of Neolithic Anatolia.

Bernhard Brosius, who studied Anatolia and Balkan Neolithic societies agrees.

On a certain day 9,200 years ago the manorial houses were burnt down… The temple was torn down and burnt, and converted into a municipal waste dump. The slums in the west disappeared for good… The new Çayönü was erected. There were no more houses or shacks built to an inferior standard… All hints to social differences were erased.[44]

He argues that this resulted in a classless society at Çatalhöyük with traditions which lasted for at least 1,000 years.

James C. Scott, in his book Against the Grain, summarises evidence about the history of the early states of Mesopotamia. The most popular explanations by archaeologists of the collapse of many early states are invariably climate change, environmental degradation, population pressures. Scott hints at if not outright rebellions, then escape to surrounding communities not subject to taxation and control by the state, as a factor contributing to that decline. It is usually thought city walls were to keep marauding “barbarians” out, but there are archaeologists who think they were to keep people in.[45]

As ruling groups made efforts to stamp their authority and control over societies in the face of recurring resistance, control over women’s sexuality had to be imposed. This was critical if they were to entrench their position and that of their descendants as the owners of society’s surplus. Women as well as men resisted all these steps in the overthrow of egalitarianism. And so an increasingly repressive cycle ends with woman as “a mere instrument for the production of children”, as Engels thought.[46]

If it is difficult to imagine women participating in the establishment of a ruling group which insisted on control of women’s sexuality, and the accompanying compulsory constraints it entailed such as monogamy and heterosexuality, look no further than known history. Women in ruling groups throughout history have benefited from and enforced the exploitation and oppression of women. Modern day figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and Gina Rinehart emphasise the point. To say nothing of Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, heiress to the L’Oréal cosmetics fortune, whose wealth of $US43.9 billion is made from an industry which encourages women to obsess about our appearance and then feeds off our anxiety. Alice Walton, heir to the fortune of the retail giant Walmart in the US, accumulated her $US46.6 billion by paying a mostly female workforce miserable wages.

They promote the stereotypes which justify systematic discrimination, even against themselves within their circles, in order to maintain their class’s power and prestige. So women could well have participated in imposing this new regime. While they experience oppression, they also have access to power and wealth by virtue of their class position, which depends on maintaining both the class and gender oppression of those their class exploits.

Also most women today – from all social classes – play a part in imposing, reinforcing or perpetuating women’s oppression to some degree today. It is by and large mothers, for example, who inculcate girls into the norms of a sexist society, and who uphold often most strongly the social values of family, respectability, etc. There is nothing automatic about the oppressed opposing, resisting or even being conscious of the way their oppression manifests.

As Marx and Engels argued, the ideas of society are necessarily the ideas of those who rule. So once ruling circles accepted new attitudes to women, they would quite naturally impose those ideas on the exploited, underpinned by the fact that exploited men could well be producing an increasing percentage of the surplus, while women were being encouraged to bear more children as future labourers to be exploited.


Marx argued in the Theses on Feuerbach that as humans act – producing their necessary food, clothes and shelter – they change themselves. Gradual cumulative changes give rise to new relationships which surround this means of producing, challenging old ideas and social relationships.

Engels’ details were completely askew. He knew next to nothing of gatherer-hunters in earlier societies other than slim reports from Australia. American Indians, studies of whom he read, were already impacted by colonial occupation. He discusses the changes which took place when the German tribes invaded the Roman empire. But it is not directly relevant if we want to know about the earliest societies which made the transition to exploitation, the state and women’s oppression. All it provides us with are hints, from which Engels made deductions, and which did provide some evidence of how family structures could change over time when wider changes occurred.

The fact is when we turn to the latest research, Engels’ arguments, just as his argument about the very development of humanity, are more clearly substantiated today than when he wrote the book. He was right to surmise that the changes involved increasing control over women’s sexuality so that the paternity of children was known. These changes arose from the interaction of the biological needs of reproduction of society and changing social relations of production – but not in the way Engels, and for that matter, how Marxists and feminists still explain it. For control of the surplus by a new ruling class living off the labour of the majority to become the norm, oppression of the majority of both women and men was necessary. The sexuality of women in the ruling elite was subject to new controls in order to ensure the inheritance of property by their class. Over time women’s inequality became entrenched in all classes, giving rise to new oppressive ideas about women’s “nature” and sexuality in particular, but in ways which imposed stereotypes on men as well. The ways in which this oppression has been maintained has varied in different class societies; but maintained it has been, whatever the cultural veneer that surrounds it. The rise of classes, the establishment of a state and women’s oppression was not some smooth, inevitable process; it was fraught with the possibility of resistance and turmoil, as Engels’ broad description of the process makes clear, contrary to those such as Heather Brown who dismiss his account as linear and undialectical:

[W]ithin this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labour increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labour power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up.

In its place appears a new society, with its control centred in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations.[47]

It is incumbent on Marxists and feminists to either defend or debunk Engels on the basis of the latest reliable scientific conclusions.

The clear gender division of labour everyone assumed is no longer a viable assessment of early human communities. So men did not just seize a surplus created by domesticating animals. For one thing, the process by which the earliest surplus was produced predates herding in many places and was the result of a more multi-faceted and complex process than just domesticating large animals. In Çatalhöyük there is no evidence of herding even in a settled township, while there was storage of plant foods, indicating that at least some surplus was produced by other means. And I have referred to other evidence of a surplus even among semi-nomadic communities with no domesticated animals for consumption.

Secondly, it was not just men who got control over the wealth which could be stored for difficult times. Trusted families or lineages, or perhaps religious leaders, any of whom could have been women, were voluntarily given responsibility to manage and distribute the surplus. At first this involved no undue power. However it did lay the basis for the eventual dominance of a minority with wealth and power which they increasingly defended with some kind of state apparatus.

Thirdly, women in that emerging ruling group would have gained power and prestige as well as men. Women were accustomed to participating in collective decision-making. So it’s not credible to ignore the part women would have played in changing rules which governed the community, including the imposition of new controls on the sexuality of women in the increasingly entrenched minority in control of the surplus. Once a ruling class was established, then their ideology of monogamy had to be imposed on the majority, just as the capitalists’ ideology of individualistic competition dominates not just their elite circles but is propagated as the norm for all of society.

The final victory of ruling classes was, as Engels said, the world historic defeat of women, but it was also a drastic defeat for the vast majority of humanity. As Engels comments, from then on, once states were established to defend those ruling groups, every step forward by humanity – such as improved production, the development of science, writing and culture – occurred, and still does, at the expense of the vast majority, the exploited and oppressed.[48] For them, both women and men, liberation will only be possible when the whole class structure has been destroyed.

This piece has since been translated into Farsi by Hossein Rahmati. Available here.

de Beauvoir, Simone 1987 [1949], The Second Sex, Penguin.

Bloodworth, Sandra n.d., “Gender Relations in Aboriginal Society”,

Bloodworth, Sandra 1992, “Rape, Sexual Violence and Capitalism”, Socialist Review, 5, Autumn.

Bloodworth, Sandra 2010, “Marx and Engel on women’s oppression and sexuality and their legacy”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Brown, Heather 2012, Marx on Gender and the Family. A Critical Study, Brill.

Brown, Judith K. 1970, “A Note on the Division of Labour by Sex”, American Anthropologist, 72.

Brownmiller, Susan 1986, Against Our Will. Men, Women and Rape, Penguin.

Choonara, Joseph and Chris Harman 2009, “Pick of the Quarter”, International Socialism, 123, Summer.

Cummings, Vicki, Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil (eds) 2014, The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers, Oxford University Press.

Dahlberg, Frances (ed.) 1981, Woman the Gatherer, Yale University Press.

Engels, Frederick 1972, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers.

Engels, Frederick 1977, The Condition of the Working Class in England, Progress Publishers.

Etienne, Mona and Eleanor Burke Leacock 1980, Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives, Praeger.

Gammage, Bill 2012, The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, David F. 1988, The Construction of Homosexuality, University of Chicago Press.

Harman, Chris 1994, “Engels and the Origins of Human Society”, International Socialism, 65, Winter.

Hodder, Ian 2006, The Leopard’s Tale. Revealing the mysteries of Çatalhöyük, Thames and Hudson Ltd.

Joyce, Rosemary A. 2008, Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. Sex, Gender, and Archaeology, Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1978, “Women’s Status in Egalitarian Societies”, Current Anthropology, 10 (2), June.

Leacock, Eleanor Burke 1981, Myths of Male Dominance, Monthly Review Press.

Lerner, Gerda 1987, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press.

McGregor, Sheila 2015, “Marx Rediscovered”, International Socialism, 146, Spring.

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Reiter, Rayna R. (ed.) 1975, Toward an anthropology of women, Monthly Review Press.

Reiter, Rayna Rapp 1977, “The Search for Origins”, Critique of Anthropology, 3 (9/10).

Reynolds, Henry 1981, The Other Side of the Frontier, James Cook University.

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Scott, James C. 2017, Against the Grain. A Deep History of the Earliest States, Yale University Press.

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Sandra Bloodworth, editor of Marxist Left Review, has written about Lenin and the 1917 Russian revolution, Marxist economics, women’s and sexual oppression and pre-class societies.

[1] This article has been largely shaped by over a decade of discussions about women’s oppression in Socialist Alternative by many comrades, both women and men. Mick Armstrong and Louise O’Shea in particular helped shape the arguments summed up here.

[2] Engels 1972, p113.

[3] Sacks 1982, p104.

[4] Lerner 1987, p23.

[5] All from the Marxists Internet Archive,

[6] Engels 1977, p163.

[7] Sayers et al (eds) 1987 for a range of critics who presented papers at a symposium to mark the centenary of the book’s publication and Bloodworth 2010, pp76-79 for my reply to some of them.

[8] Harman 1994.

[9] de Beauvoir 1987 [1949], pp93 and 97.

[10] Brownmiller 1986. For my critique of her book see Bloodworth 1992.

[11] Brownmiller 1986, pp11-18.

[12] Brownmiller 1986, p284.

[13] Brown 2012, pp170-173. See McGregor 2015 for an excellent review of Brown. McGregor disproves virtually all of Brown’s arguments against Engels. She also outlines the weaknesses and errors in Raya Dunayevskaya, on which Brown heavily relies for her argument that Engels did not present Marx’s ideas correctly.

[14] Brownmiller 1986, p13.

[15] Sally Slocum, “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology”, in Reiter 1975, p44.

[16] Tanner and Zihlman 1976.

[17] Leacock 1981, Chapters 11 and 12 for a critique of Lévi-Strauss; Sacks 1982, pp. 1-67; Dahlberg 1981.

[18] Bloodworth n.d.

[19] Moore 1991, pp38-41.

[20] Dahlberg 1981, p21.

[21] Brown 1970, p1074.

[22] Reiter 1977.

[23] Etienne and Leacock 1980 documents the effects of colonial domination in 12 societies, drawing on reports of missionaries, explorers and traders and other historical material.

[24] Reynolds 1981, p145.

[25] Bloodworth n.d.

[26] Leacock 1978; Leacock 1981.

[27] Leacock 1978, p255.

[28] Hodder 2006, p211.

[29] See Sanday and Goodenough (eds) 1984.

[30] Engels 1972, p72.

[31] The used of “gens” changed over time. Engels uses it to mean a group much wider than an immediate “family”, claiming descent from a common ancestor and united by a common name traced through the mothers. Later it was used to refer to the patriarchal groupings of families in ancient Rome.

[32] Engels 1972, pp112-120.

[33] Sacks 1982, p104.

[34] Peter Jordan and Vicki Cummings, “Introduction to Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherer Innovations”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p590.

[35] Brian Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p643.

[36] Jennie Robinson, “The First Hunter-Gatherers”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p600.

[37] Gammage 2012, Chapter 10, “Farms without fences”, pp281-304.

[38] Hayden, “Social Complexity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, p646.

[39] Sacks 1982, pp70-71.

[40] Joyce 2008, pp24 and 51; Greenberg 1988 for a discussion of gender/s in early societies, especially Part 1.

[41] Robert Jarvenpa and Hetty Jo Brumbach, “Hunter-Gatherer Gender and Identity”, in Cummings et al (eds) 2014, pp1244-1248.

[42] Hodder 2006, pp210-211 and 218.

[43] Rohrlich 1980.

[44] Bernhard Brosius 2004, “From Çayönü to Çatalhöyük. Emergence and development of an egalitarian society”, cited in Choonara and Harman 2009, p223.

[45] Scott 2017, pp232-234.

[46] Engels 1972, p120.

[47] Engels 1972, pp71-2, emphasis added.

[48] Engels 1972, p226.

Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy

Friedrich Engels published his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. He argued that women’s oppression arose with the development of classes in society.  Most feminists of the 1960s and 1970s recognised Engels’ work as a key text, whether inclined to agree with or oppose him.  Yet for all the debates about the book, there is very little understanding of the actual content and importance of not just Engels’, but also Marx’s contribution to establishing the basics of a fight for women’s liberation.

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