A Marxist perspective on ending women’s oppression

Aug 1, 2016

Sexism is so endemic today that it can be difficult to imagine a society that does not degrade and devalue women. Modern capitalist society is a form of class society, and in today’s capitalist society women face sexism everywhere we turn — within our own homes and personal relationships, in school and in our professional careers, even as we walk down the street.

But this is not the way things always have been and, despite its prevalence in today’s society, the oppression of women is not a part of human nature. Sexism is not natural, which means we can eliminate it.

The oppression of women is rooted in a hierarchical system that values men over women, a system organized around patriarchal norms but that is much broader than patriarchy, in which the oppression of people is not based simply on sex but on class.

Class society the root of women’s oppression

For the vast majority of human history, society was organized around communal groups, and women were not specially oppressed. It was the emergence of class society that formed the foundation for patriarchal norms and the oppression of women.

Class society is the organization of society based on economic exploitation. People are separated into two classes with opposing interests: one is the group of people who own the means of production, who use this ownership of resources and productive forces to accumulate wealth unto themselves — the ruling class; the other class is the group of people who do not own the means of production, but who, through their labor, in fact produce the wealth of society — the laborers. The ruling class exploits the laboring class in order to amass wealth.

Feudalism and capitalism are two examples of class society. In a feudal society, serfs and peasants worked the land, but they did not own the land, and they did not keep the full value of what they produced. Much of the fruits of their labor were handed over to the lords, the landowners that were members of the ruling class that became rich off the land. In a capitalist society, workers produce goods and provide services, but they do not own factories and corporations. The capitalists who own the factories, banks and corporations, members of the ruling class, become rich by paying workers less than the value of the goods produced and lining their pockets with the difference — the profits.

Communal society

If we think of all of human history as one year, or 365 days, the duration of class society and patriarchy would be only five days — less than one week. For the vast majority of our existence, we lived in communal societies. In those societies, women and men performed different work, but all people were valued for their contributions to the survival of the group.

For thousands of years, humanity struggled together for survival in the face of scarcity and deprivation. There were no social classes based upon wealth or power, and no individuals or families amassed wealth; everything was owned by the communities as a whole. Each task was critical to survival and considered a communal responsibility. Hunting, gathering, building homes, child rearing and caring for elders — each of these tasks was valued as critical and was accomplished by members of the group working together rather than by individuals or individual familial units. An individual’s value to society was not based on their gender but rather on their ability to contribute to each of these critical tasks, tasks which may have been performed by different genders but were held in high esteem regardless.

In “The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State,” Frederick Engels outlined the material reasons for why people lived communally:

A division of the tribe or of the gens into different classes was equally impossible. And that brings us to the examination of the economic basis of these conditions. The population is extremely sparse; it is dense only at the tribe’s place of settlement, around which lie in a wide circle first the hunting grounds and then the protective belt of neutral forest, which separates the tribe from others. The division of labor is purely primitive, between the sexes only. The man fights in the wars, goes hunting and fishing, procures the raw materials of food and the tools necessary for doing so. The woman looks after the house and the preparation of food and clothing, cooks, weaves, sews. They are each master in their own sphere: the man in the forest, the woman in the house. Each is owner of the instruments which he or she makes and uses: the man of the weapons, the hunting and fishing implements, the woman of the household gear. The housekeeping is communal among several and often many families. What is made and used in common is common property — the house, the garden, the long-boat.

Society at this stage was matrilineal: women, the organizers of food, shelter and child rearing, were the center of life. The lineage of any person was traced through the mother’s line. Children were not the sole responsibility of the biological mother and/or father but rather were linked by kinship to what we now refer to as extended family.

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Class society produces inequality

As Engels explained, inequality emerged for the first time only after millennia of this communal, shared existence. With the emergence of surplus, wealth, and class society came the emergence of patriarchal society and the oppression of women. Over time, as the development of the tools and methods of production produced a surplus, one sector of society, primarily men as the primary hunters and organizers of animal husbandry, could hoard and accumulate wealth as private property.¹ Before the advent of private property, there was no special power or privileges associated with this type of labor. As explained above, all types of labor were valued as critical to survival of the community.

As the capacity to produce continued to grow beyond the minimum for survival, the social and productive relations of matrilineal pre-class societies weakened.

Mother-right was overturned, and men came to control the wealth and resources, using organized violence and redefined family institutions in the form of monogamous marriage to maintain their new position in society.

Engels describes the magnitude of this historical development:

The overthrow of mother-right was the world historical defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. This degraded position of the woman, especially conspicuous among the Greeks of the heroic and still more of the classical age, has gradually been palliated and glossed over, and sometimes clothed in a milder form; in no sense has it been abolished.

The origins of violence against women and the denial of women’s right to control reproduction can be traced to this development. The overthrow of mother-right resulted in women essentially becoming the property of men. Female sexuality, once freely expressed, was now severely restricted in order to assure the “legitimate” line of descent from father to son for the purposes of inheritance. This was, in turn, tied to the emergence of class society itself, initially on the basis of slavery through warfare.

Engels explained:

The increase of production in all branches — cattle-raising, agriculture, domestic handicrafts — gave human labor-power the capacity to produce a larger product than was necessary for its maintenance. At the same time, it increased the daily amount of work to be done by each member of the gens, household community or single family. It was now desirable to bring in new labor forces. War provided them; prisoners of war were turned into slaves. With its increase of the productivity of labor, and therefore of wealth, and its extension of the field of production, the first great social division of labor was bound, in the general historical conditions prevailing, to bring slavery in its train. From the first great social division of labor arose the first great cleavage of society into two classes: masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited.

Previously, the victors in war either killed or adopted those they defeated into their own tribes to contribute critical tasks of survival, but now, they enslaved the losers in order drive production and create wealth. Slavery was an early form of class society. The development of productive forces and advent of private property set into motion: (1) the emergence of the male-controlled family; (2) the emergence of class society itself. These are closely related, and in the modern form of capitalism, inextricable.²

Women’s oppression in capitalist society

Women’s oppression has changed over time as economic exploitation has changed. Slavery, feudalism and capitalism all demonstrate the exploitation of people in class society. The oppression of women under capitalism manifests in a myriad of ways.

Capitalism is a class society driven by the generation of profits. The capitalist class owns the means of production. This includes the factories and resources required to produce material goods, which run the gamut from shoes to houses. Resources include the means to access fuels, like oil, and even necessities like water. Capitalist production requires the employment of both male and female laborers. Since its inception, working-class women have been drawn out of the isolated atmosphere of the home and into collective production. Some of the first factory workers were women.

And since its inception, capitalism has generated profits by exploiting and undervaluing women in the workplace to a greater degree than men. This directly affects economic status, both by underpaying women and by excluding them from higher paying positions — relegating them to “gendered” positions that are typically service-oriented and lower-paying.

In the United States, women work longer hours and make less money than men. Even though equal pay for equal work has been federal law since 1963, when compared to men with similar education, skills and experience, women earn less than 76 cents to the dollar. For women of color, this is closer to 50 cents. In fact, the average 25-year-old working woman will lose almost $500,000 due to unequal pay during her lifetime as a worker. Yet, she will pay the same for rent, food, utilities and services as her male counterpart. In addition, she is likely to pay more for necessities like health care and more likely to lose money when she is sick. In the United States, among working women earning less than $40,000 per year, up to half are without basic benefits, including secure, affordable health insurance, prescription drug coverage, pension or retirement benefits, or paid sick leave.

This inequality allows capitalism to thrive. Lower pay for a sector of workers — women — plays two critical roles: (1) This directly translates to greater profits because capitalists keep more of the value of the good or service by not paying as much to workers. (2) It also creates a division within the working class, pitting women and men against each other in the workplace because the availability of cheaper labor by women is a bargaining chip that allows capitalists to pay men less as well.

Beyond being underpaid in the workplace, women carry out a great amount of unpaid labor in capitalist society. This is because work like childcare, preparing food in the household and other similar work that was greatly valued in pre-communal society is not assigned a monetary value in capitalist society. Moreover, this work has been de-socialized. Often referred to as “the second shift,” what used to be a communal responsibility has become the onus of individual women to complete on top of the work they perform for pay outside the home. Of course, these tasks are no less necessary to survival to the workforce, regardless of gender. As critical tasks performed at no cost to the capitalists, this unpaid labor — the exploitation of women — is a great source of profit in capitalist society.

All of this makes women more likely to be poor. In 1978, professor Diana Pearce used the term “feminization of poverty” to describe trends in the standard of living in the United States. The fact that women perform unpaid labor, are more likely to perform lower-paying jobs, and that even when performing the same job are paid less means that under capitalism, women will always be poorer than their male counterparts simply because they are women. In the United States, almost 60 percent of adults with an income of less than half the poverty line are women. Black and Latina women have a much higher poverty rate than white women (generally two to three times as high).

In addition, the violence against women we see in today’s capitalist society is a vestige of women’s historic status as property — a status that emerged with and is inextricably tied to class society. Rather than a random or individual crime, violence against women is a symptom of women’s subordinate position in modern class society. The sheer magnitude of violence against women around the world, including in the most advanced capitalist societies speaks to this. In the United States, every two minutes a women is sexually assaulted and every six minutes one is raped. This amounts to about 200,000 victims per year, with 17 percent of women having survived a complete or attempted rape. Domestic violence is the greatest form of injury to women in the United States, more than all other causes combined.

Moreover, the emergence of “global capitalism” has meant that all of these manifestations of women’s oppression are being incorporated into business practices and imperialist military strategies worldwide.

Globally, women earn about 50 percent of what men earn and are the majority of the 1.5 billion people who survive on a dollar or less a day. In transnational sweatshops doing business under free-trade agreements like NAFTA, young women working for slave wages are routinely abused at work. Since 1993, more than 1,000 women and girls have been killed in Juarez, Mexico. Most were workers in the “maquiladora” factories in the free-trade zone in the U.S.-Mexico border. Around the world, one in three women has been beaten, forced into sex or abused in her lifetime.

Despite militant struggle and the many hard-fought gains of the women’s liberation movement, oppression continues on a broad scale, and every gain faces the threat of being rolled back. In the United States, one of every two women experience sexual harassment at school or work; homicide is the leading cause of death for pregnant women; women’s health care rights, including reproductive rights, are increasingly under attack; and although abortion is legal, there are no abortion providers in 83 percent of U.S. counties. Critical programs like childcare, housing, education and health care are constantly under attack, if not outright denied or zeroed out.

In cases of violence against women, the police and the courts find every excuse to avoid punishing the perpetrator. Every stage is a struggle: to have it recorded as a crime, to force an investigation, to force a prosecution, to force a trial, to win a conviction. Even when a woman wins at all of these stages, her subjugation by society remains ever apparent. That is what happened in the recent and notorious Stanford rape case, in which, despite his conviction by a jury for raping an unconscious woman and a request by prosecutors for six years, Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Allen Turner to only six months in jail. Persky’s reason: a prison sentence would have a severe impact on Turner, and he would not be a danger to others.

Under capitalism, feminists fight for — and can win — important rights and equality under the law. But capitalism relies on the subordination of sectors of the working class, including women. Without a state and society determined to enforce equal rights, and determined to deem the subordination of women and violence against women unacceptable — in the eyes of society and in the demonstrated enforcement of law — women will remain oppressed. This is exactly why a woman becoming president of the United States does not signal the liberation of women. The state she would lead is a capitalist state. It is a state constructed to uphold, what is necessary to uphold capitalism — exploitation, inequality and oppression — not to eliminate them. This is exactly why the full liberation of women is not possible within the capitalist system.

Socialism lays the basis for women’s liberation

Socialism lays the basis for two necessary steps toward women’s liberation: (1) removing the inextricable motivation for women’s oppression — the need to exploit workers in order to generate profits; and (2) building a society and state committed to combatting oppression, and not just recognizing but also enforcing the equality of all workers.

In regards to this Sarah Sloan noted at a Party for Socialism and Liberation conference in 2014:

Socialist revolutions have not happened in rich societies but in the poorest parts of the world. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Russian economy was one-twelfth the size of the U.S. economy. By eliminating the profits for a tiny handful of capitalists, even a poor country like the Soviet Union, managed by the 1930s, to provide every worker with the right to a job and the right to free health care.

By 1960, the Soviet Union had emerged as the second-biggest economy in the world. There was no unemployment and there was a right to housing — to pay no more than 6 percent of your income for rent. Evictions were illegal because there were no landlords. It was your housing.

Women had a right to free childcare and one year’s paid maternity leave, and they had the right to put their child in child care facilities at no cost. Women in the Soviet Union had the right to retire at 55 years of age at half pay. And remember, they had free health care, so retirement didn’t mean being plunged into poverty. They had a month’s paid vacation.

It doesn’t mean that there were no problems in the Soviet Union, or that we agree with all the policies of different leaderships. But the Soviet Union proved, just as Cuba proves today, that when you take the wealth out of the hands of the capitalists, it can be used to meet people’s needs.

Socialist Cuba has made enormous strides in combatting women’s oppression since its revolution in 1959, which was declared socialist in 1961. And, as women leaders there often state, there is still much work to be done to achieve full equality.

In 1966, Fidel Castro spoke at the fifth national plenum of the Cuban Women’s Federation. Aware of the challenges that face a new socialist society after the overthrow of the ruling class, he described the fight against women’s oppression as a revolution within the socialist revolution. The vestiges of capitalist society’s special oppression of people based on race and gender cannot be simply swept away with a revolution. The revolution begins the work of undoing those vestiges.

However, there is no comparison between the capitalist society of the United States and the socialist one of Cuba. Cuban women are guaranteed housing, health care, education and employment. Men and women are guaranteed parental leave for up to one year. Reproductive rights, abortion and birth control, for example, are legal and provided for by the national health care system. These are just a few examples but they are illustrative.

The United States has no guaranteed paid parental leave. Reproductive rights are constantly under attack. Housing, education, health care and employment are not considered rights.

We fight for reforms and struggle for full liberation through socialism

What, then, is women’s liberation? The term evokes images of women leading marches, rallies, strikes and hunger strikes to demand the right to vote, to demand safe working conditions, to demand equal pay, the right to abortion and reproductive freedom; women standing together to demand an end to sexism and against sexual assault. It is marked by militant struggle in the face of extreme repression and by victories in the recognition of rights and changes in societal attitudes. The women’s liberation movement militantly struggles for equal rights and status for women.

As revolutionary feminists, we must embrace the militancy of the women’s liberation movement and carry it forward. We must remain strong and unwavering in our demand for equal rights. It is critical to fight for as many rights recognized by law, for as many legal reforms, for as many changes in society thought and action as possible. All of this eases the oppression faced by women.

As socialists, we also understand that while militant struggle can win important rights in capitalist society, the women’s liberation struggle reaches beyond the goal of equal rights. It is telling that after centuries of struggle, women still do not have equal rights under the law. What is even more telling is the other component of the struggle — that capitalist society continues to subject women to patriarchal norms; that in capitalist society, women remain oppressed.

When a society is built upon exploitation, as capitalism is, equality is contradictory to the system. This is the very reason why — even in the face of militant struggle — women do not have equal rights, and why even the rights we do have are rarely enforced and continuously threatened and eroded by legislatures and courts, instruments of the capitalist ruling class. Capitalism relies on social constructs, such as race and gender, to support the exploitation of groups of people that is necessary to generate profits froms the labor of workers. By reclaiming political power from the capitalists, we attack the root of all bigotry and inequality based on these social constructs. In doing so, we lay the basis for the full liberation of women and all oppressed people.


1. Women also participated in hunting, but men were the primary hunters and controllers of the process of the domestication of animals.

2. The emergence of class society not only led to the oppression of women, it is also the root of LGBTQ oppression and bigotry. Maintaining the concentration of wealth in the upper class requires children who can inherit that wealth — same-sex relationships became valueless, although they naturally have continued. As is the oppression of women, the oppression of LGBTQ people is inextricably tied to today’s capitalist society.

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