What is women’s oppression and is it inevitable?

Jun 3, 2012

For the vast majority of human history, archeological and anthropological research indicates that women were not specially oppressed.

Several years ago, then-president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, faced widespread criticism for suggesting that women are less able to succeed in math and science due to their “innate differences” with men. Women scientists from the same institution reacted with outrage, describing the struggles they waged against sexism in the workplace. They helped lead a national outcry that forced Summers to make an apology and commit to increasing the representation of women faculty in these fields.

Summers’ remarks reflect a belief that social differences between men and women are a result of innate biological differences. These justifications are a rationalization of the sexist reality facing women around the world today. But the barriers women face prohibiting their full participation in society are social, not biological, in origin.

Justifying sexism

“Innate differences” are used to explain why so few women are welders, atomic physicists or firefighters. Supposedly women are not as “well-equipped” to complete these tasks. Since they are not able to do the job well, the story goes, many women do not apply for these jobs.

Historically, it has been socially acceptable to say that men were intellectually superior to women. Similar justifications were used for slavery and colonialism. White colonialists pointed to “innate differences” as a justification for colonizing and enslaving people throughout the world. Allegedly, Europeans were biologically superior.

Even after the end of slavery, Black people were told to stick to jobs requiring physical labor because they were not equipped for anything else.

The same alleged “innate differences” that were used to explain male-dominated professions are now used to justify refusing women particular positions.

Sexism in education

Even though the outright discrimination of women is now considered illegal in the United States, sexism is still a grinding reality. If Harvard President Summers wanted to explain the lack of women scientists and mathematicians, he could start with the fact that from a very early age, girls are told that boys are better at math. Or that they are told it is not “feminine” or “attractive” to be good at math. Girls who excel in math and science are typically not encouraged and stop taking these courses once they are no longer required. Those who become scientists face a hostile environment in a predominantly male workplace. If a woman scientist chooses to have a family, matters are complicated. Does she receive paid maternity leave? If she takes any time off after having the baby, will this affect her chances at getting tenure or a promotion?

None of these barriers women face is brought on by “innate differences” between male and female brains. It is the social reality of a sexist society.

Class society oppresses women

Can these barriers that are brought on by sexist societal norms be changed?

For the vast majority of human history, archeological and anthropological research indicates that women were not specially oppressed. Women and men may have done different work in early human society, based on the demands of childbearing, but all people were valued for their contributions to the survival of the group. Women were held in the highest esteem.

The oppression of women arose with the emergence of the first class societies, those based on slavery. Under these systems, women became the property of their husbands in the same way that slaves were the property of their owners. Women, enslaved and “free,” became valued for the children they could bear, not for their intrinsic value as human beings.

The origins of violence against women and the denial of women’s right to control reproduction can be traced to this “world historic defeat” of the female sex, as 19th century German socialist Frederick Engels called it. (See Engels’ “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”)

Women’s oppression has changed over time along with the mode of economic exploitation, with slavery giving way to feudalism and feudalism to capitalism. Capitalist production needs the employment of male and female laborers. Ever-changing technology has made the differences in physical strength between men and women increasingly irrelevant. How much strength is required to push a button or use a keyboard?

Since the inception of capitalism, working class women have been drawn out of the isolated atmosphere of the home and brought into collective production. Some of the earliest factory workers were women.

Legal equality not enough

The capitalist system profits directly by sexism, super-exploiting the productive labor of women workers. Capitalists also profit indirectly from the unpaid labor of women in the home to maintain and reproduce the working class. Thus, even if women had complete legal equality with men, women’s oppression cannot be eradicated under capitalism.

Discrimination, denial of access to resources and gender-based violence are all innate features of class society. For women to be truly liberated, we must live in a society where all are encouraged to achieve their highest potential.

Eliminating the capitalist market and guaranteeing all workers the basic right to a job, health care, housing and education lay the foundation for ending sexism and women’s oppression. The struggle to end sexism, male chauvinism and inequality will not happen automatically. Rather, it requires a profound commitment by a revolutionary government to overcome all vestiges of the past. This will be a struggle that will last generations, even after a socialist revolution.