An Abortion Rights solidarity protest in London after the US Supreme Court first signalled it could overturn Roe v Wade last May (Picture: Guy Smallman)

Sexism is inescapable in our society, whether it’s attacks on abortion rights, the childcare crisis or harassment, degrading reality TV shows and unattainable beauty standards on social media.

The US Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade last year highlighted how women are reduced to objects with little to no choice or agency over their own bodies. The attack has denied millions of women across the country access to legal and safe abortions. Women have been charged and arrested for carrying out self-induced abortions and for travelling out of state to access one.

Most women’s experience of sexism happens on an individual or personal basis. Rather than the state perpetrating it, the most common instances are on the streets, in our universities, our workplaces and in our own homes.

The popularity of Andrew Tate shows the virulence of sexist ideas in society. Tate—who was arrested and charged for rape and human trafficking—proudly blames women for sexual assault, claims they are property of men and likens them to dogs. But he has over nine billion views on the social media platform TikTok alone and topped Google’s “Who is…?” search list in the US in 2022.

This glorification of sexism and violence doesn’t just play out online. One in four women will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime—and on average two women in Britain are murdered every week by current or former partners—according to official statistics from the Living Without Abuse charity. And, as horrific as the official figures are, we know that fewer than one in six victims of rape report it often through lack of trust in a police force that’s itself institutionally sexist. That’s once again been brough home by the case of David Carrick

Sexism—an age-old oppression?

Sexism, precisely because it’s so ingrained in society, can feel like an age-old thing. And women’s horrendous experiences at the hands of individual men and the popularity of figures such as Tate means that many believe men are the root of the problem. This often flows from the idea that men are inherently violent or are naturally prone to it, meaning sexism is inevitable.

And, for some feminists, these sorts of ideas are based on “biological determinism”. It’s the argument that women’s oppression is rooted in biology, that biological differences between women and men give rise to sexism. The conclusion is that sexism is inherent in human societies because biology determines that men are the aggressors and women are the victims. Biological determinism is the theoretical foundation that fuels the transphobia from some feminists.

However, there is a wealth of anthropological evidence that shows women’s oppression hasn’t always existed. Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s collaborator, located the roots of women’s oppression in the birth of class society and the family. He outlined its development in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

For the majority of humans’ existence—around 200,000 years—people lived in small, nomadic communities. They were hunter-gatherers who travelled between food sources, shared resources and lived hand to mouth without cultivating plants or rearing animals. These types of communities—what Engels referred to as “primitive communism”—were relatively egalitarian.

Child rearing was done collectively, not in private families, and the number of children was limited to the number that the group could carry. There were no strict or binary gender roles, and there is evidence of what we now refer to as gender variance. There was some division of labour between women and men within the groups. But it was far from rigid, and women’s labour wasn’t seen as lesser to men’s and in some cases had a higher status. Eleanor Leacock, the Marxist anthropologists and author of Myths of Male Dominance, studied several societies where women’s oppression didn’t exist. Among the Indigenous Naskapi hunter-gatherers in North America, she found a “wide dispersal of decision-making among mature and older women and men”.

However, groups began to cultivate the land around 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, known as the “Neolithic Revolution”. They were able to settle in the first permanent villages and produce a surplus of food for the first time. Alongside this shift, women’s role in society was drastically changed. A surplus meant a minority would be able to live above the subsistence level. Its production freed some people from the back-breaking work every day, as the new production methods required greater planning. It was through this process that we saw the emergence of different classes—a class of people, predominantly men, who controlled the surplus and a class of people who worked to produce it.

The development of settled agriculture increased productivity and drastically changed women’s role in society. Settled agriculture—with, for example, ploughs—demanded heavy labour and a higher birth rate in contrast to hunter-gatherer societies. Women tended to be displaced from key productive roles, as they were tasked with producing the next generation of labourers. A division developed between the production of the surplus and the reproduction, the surplus was increasingly controlled by a minority of men and more of women’s time was spent on child-rearing.

Engels called this “the world historic defeat of the female sex” as “the man seized the reins in the house also, the woman was degraded, enthralled, the slave of the man’s lust, a mere instrument for breeding children.” It’s from here that individual, private families and the dominance of monogamy come about. For the first time, some ruling class men had an interest in ensuring that they were the biological fathers to their children. They wanted to be sure that their wealth and property were being passed on to their rightful “heirs”.

It’s important to emphasise that this wasn’t a simple or linear process. It was messy, drawn out over thousands of years, developed differently in different parts of the world, and people didn’t always passively accept growing inequalities.  

Since the birth of class society, the shape of the family has changed throughout history. For example, during the Middle Ages feudal production was based around the peasant family, unlike mass production under capitalism today. But it has continued to be a source of women’s oppression.

The birth of capitalism and the nuclear family 

When capitalism took hold in the early 19th century, it destroyed the old peasant family households. Working class people were pushed off the land and into the new urban centres, where women, men and children worked long hours in the mills, mines and factories. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels spoke of the “practical absence of the family among the proletarians”.

While such exploitation was highly profitable, sections of the capitalist class were fearful about the breakdown of the working class family. After all, without it, what would reproduce and socialise the next generation of workers to ensure long-term capital accumulation? Many working class people, feeling crushed in the drudgery of the Industrial Revolution, looked to a family for respite.

So, those at the top of society sought to strengthen the family unit and the ideology of the nuclear family. It was modelled on the “bourgeois family” with a focus on marriage and a strict separation between work and the home. What we’re told are “traditional” gender roles of male breadwinners and female housewives flowed from this drive. In order to strengthen the family, the British state pushed through a series of repressive laws that regulated women’s lives and sexual behaviour. In 1861 the Offences Against the Person Act criminalised abortion.

Capitalism and the family today

Women find themselves in very different situations today. Women aren’t simply confined to the home. Many women and men don’t live in rigid family units. But the institution of the family, and the sexist ideas that flow from it, continue to play a central role within capitalism.

The first reason why capitalism needs the family is economic. Capital still needs people to be educated, socialised and healthy. All of this takes a lot of time and labour–the cooking of meals, the school run, arranging playdates and birthday parties. Women mainly do all of these jobs within the institution of the family for free. Women perform 75 percent of such work globally, dedicating on average, four hours and 25 minutes daily to it. 

The unpaid labour of women within the family is a huge economic benefit to the state. So much so that, when GDP was first invented as a mechanism to measure countries’ economies, a decision was made not to include women’s unpaid work because it’s such a large amount and complicated to count. And when women’s labour in the home is done for free and isn’t recognised, it also means that women’s labour in the public sphere is undervalued and underpaid as well. Women often do the lowest paid jobs in society, such as cleaning and caring. Women often have to work irregular hours in order to factor in their own childcare or domestic chores and so are forced into precarious forms of work which are low paid. 

However, the role of the family under capitalism is not purely an economic one, it is ideological as well. It is within the family and our private homes where socialisation takes place. It is where attitudes are taught to children and where roles are laid out. It is where women’s position in society is made clear and therefore shapes the perception of women globally. The unpaid work that women do in the home takes place invisibly because this is thought of as natural. Women are seen as the natural carers, child rearers and cleaners, that they do it because of something inherent about being a woman rather than because nobody else will. 

The image of the “perfect” family is forced down our throats from the minute we are born. Disney princesses spend their lives longing for a prince. Young girls play with dolls not much younger than themselves and a dream wedding is still something thought of as the ultimate goal. The family is structured into the very ideology of the system. This is often made clear, for example when Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families,” or when David Cameron said, “Families are the best welfare state.” 

Often the ideological dominance of the family is more hidden, behind tax brackets, rent prices and universal credit. The ideological view of women’s role in the family shapes sexist attitudes towards women and women’s experiences. The thing that links every woman’s experiences of sexism, whether or not they live in a traditional family or have children, is their assumed role within society. Getting spiked, harassed or assaulted takes place within a society where a woman’s role is to be passive, nurturing and available. And from the porn industry to cosmetics, women are seen as passive sexual objects. Women are encouraged to look and act a certain way in order to find and hold down “steady” relationships. 

Sometimes, the family is a haven. But sometimes it is a pressure cooker. The private nature of family life contradicts the fact that capitalism permeates everything. The stresses of work, pressures of society and economic strains on individuals affect our relationships with one another. Unfortunately, it is behind closed doors when those things can explode and result in acts of violence.

Sexism is a class issue 

Sexism is something that every woman faces, but is a class issue. Some argue that in order to address the rampant sexism that women face we simply need a reshuffling of society with more female leaders, CEOs and police chiefs. Even after the cops smashed up the vigil for Sarah Everard in 2021, the liberal feminist Reclaim These Streets organisers opposed calls for then police chief Cressida Dick to resign. They claimed a woman top cop stepping down would be a step backwards for women as a whole. 

However, putting some women at the top of an unequal society does not address systematic sexism. Women’s oppression is bound up within the very fabric of capitalism, that means in order to fight it, we must fight the system as a whole. The path to liberation cannot come from within the system. Socialists have to oppose oppression against whomever it’s directed against. But we have to ask, what’s the social force that can smash the system that causes women’s oppression? 

Ruling class women face sexism, but they have a material interest in maintaining the system that perpetuates sexism. The working class, as the source of capitalist profits, has a unique social power to take on that very system. This doesn’t mean that working class men are naturally socialist, progressive or oppose sexism. But all working class people, women and men, have a material interest in overcoming sexist ideas and fighting for liberation. And it’s the job of revolutionary socialists to take on those backward ideas within the working class 

Most women are not only passive victims in the system. Women have organised themselves, and alongside men, to fight for their rights, to win equal pay, better child care, abortion rights and more. They haven’t waited for union leaders or political parties to campaign, resist and sometimes to win.

But women have their greatest power as part of the working class. Throughout struggles in history, women have often been at the forefront of challenging the system from Russia 1917 to Egypt in 2011 and Sudan today. And it’s through such huge, revolutionary struggles that people’s backward ideas are challenged en masse. Women’s oppression arose alongside the very beginnings of class society and is entrenched within capitalism. But we can have a socialist society, with production for human need not profit, that would tear out the roots of oppression. 

Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State is available from Bookmarks–the socialist bookshop
For further reading on Marxism and women’s liberation, go to the Ideas & Theory section of our website

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