Revisiting Engels: Historical Materialist Reconstruction Of The Origins Of Patriarchy

Amita Kumari //

Almost all existing societies are patriarchal. And they have been so since we have known their past through written records. Does that suggest that patriarchy has been here forever? Is female subordination a given, a natural phenomenon? A Marxist would be the remotest one to accept this traditionalist approach. Marxism is a theory that believes in the ever changing nature of the universe, the earth, and the human society. Ideas like ‘foreverness’ and ‘immutability’ are alien to Marxism. The same applies to the social position of women. To quote Engels: “That woman was the slave of man at the commencement of society is one of the most absurd notions that have come down to us from the period of Enlightenment of the eighteenth century (1891, rpt 1977, p. 49). Historian Gerda Lerner elaborates and notes: “…patriarchy as a system is historical: it has a beginning in history. If that is so, it can be ended by historical process. If patriarchy were ‘natural’, that is, based on biological determinism, then to change it would mean to change nature” (1986, p. 6). 

Sadly, the crucial question of the origin of female subordination is either brushed aside as ‘natural’, determined by the sexual differences between male and female or remains mostly delinked from the larger discussion on patriarchy. Tomes have been expended to describe and explain the meanings and structures of patriarchy, its everyday forms and manifestations, its institutionalized existence and the role of supporting societal organs and practices in its preservation and perpetuation. Patriarchy, in its present-everyday existence, remains largely well understood. However, not many can claim to have similarly comprehended the question of its origins – the distant reaches of the past when patriarchy was creating and establishing itself. And it is this ignorance that leads either to a blind alley or to utopian, illusory solutions, when confronted with the issue of dismantling patriarchy.

This ignorance or neglect, however, is not because the issue has not ever been addressed. In fact, there are few excellent scholarly works that take the question head-on and attempt to find answers. The theoretician who leads these efforts is Frederick Engels. His classic work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, lays the foundation of historical materialist approach to the question. The work was first published in 1884. Founded largely on the contemporary anthropological studies, primarily that of L H Morgan (1871 and 1877) and J J Bachofen (1861), Engels made the earliest attempt to historically locate women’s subordination in the overall socio-economic system. This comprehensive analysis was premised on the historical materialist argument that “the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life” (Engels, 1891, p. 5-6). Engels further elaborates – “The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand and of the family, on the other” ( p. 6).

This premise is a powerful one. It provides a tool that helps explicate the complex, overarching system of patriarchy by locating it in the historical processes. This historical location also lends an optimistic finality to the question of its ultimate disappearance – a beginning presupposes an end too. Thus, this approach, most importantly, offers insights into the ways of dismantling the system – the material foundations as well as the ideological remnants.

Engels’ work unravels the interconnectedness that existed between modes of production, surplus, private property, kinship and family, on the one hand, and the beginnings of female subordination, devaluation of domestic work, control over women’s sexuality and the establishment of male authority and patriarchy, on the other. Notwithstanding the new studies that seem to disprove several anthropological findings on which Engels’ analysis was based, the broader framework where these linkages have been drawn remain unaffected. Rather, the new evidences and analyses further authenticate Engels’ theses. As Karen Sacks argues, “Though he made a number of specific ethnographic errors, I think his main ideas are correct, and they remain the best way of explaining data gathered since he wrote…” (1974, p. 207). The later theorists have attempted to refine, rework and advance Engels’ arguments in the light of new researches. Consequently, the historical materialist understanding of the subject has grown extremely enriched – the gaps and grey areas in Engels’ discussion have been largely covered that promises to offer a more holistic explanation.

The following account is an endeavour to reconstruct the historical context of the origins of female subordination through a reading of Engels and later theorists that include Gerda Lerner, Rayna Reiter, Stephanie Coontz, Karen Sacks, among others. It would basically delineate the process as outlined by Engels and the gaps and limitations in his analysis would be addressed by borrowings from these later studies. It is divided into three sections, each looking at the three successive stages of the mode of production – hunter-gatherer, pastoral and finally the agricultural mode.


Hunter-Gatherer Societies: Stage of Egalitarianism and Complementarity

Engels begins his discussion by describing the early societies that practised hunting and gathering as mode of production. He suggests that these societies were egalitarian and women enjoyed both freedom and respect. The division of labour between man and woman was simple and functional. To quote Engels:

The men went to war, hunted, fished, provided the raw material for food and the tools necessary for these pursuits. The women cared for the house, and prepared food and clothing; they cooked, weaved and sewed. Each was master in his or her own field of activity; the men in the forest, the women in the house (p. 155).

In the light of new findings the above description of early societies can be further detailed and refined. We now have enough evidence to prove that women’s role and activities in this stage were not confined merely to household chores. Her engagement in hunting and gathering has been strongly underlined by recent studies. Gerda Lerner’s exhaustive work refutes the ‘man-the-hunter’ explanation and argues that in these societies big game hunting was “an auxiliary pursuit, while the main food supply is provided by gathering activities and small-game hunting, which women and children do” (1986, p. 17). Kathleen Gough cites data from G P Murdoch’s ethnological study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer cultures in Oceania, Asia, Africa and America. She notes that in 97 percent of these communities hunting is confined to men, while in 60 percent the gathering is exclusively a female occupation (1975, p. 63). Sally Slocum’s essay (1975) details the variety of activities undertaken by early women and argues against our obsession with, firstly, the idea that hunting was the only major occupation in early societies and, secondly, the belief that all excavated tools were associated solely with hunting. On the basis of her observations of modern hunter-gatherers, she suggests that women and children engaged in both gathering and hunting small animals and that gathering provided a major portion of the household diet. She goes on to argue that early stone tools may not have always been weapons for hunting; rather they could be “aids in gathering”. In fact, initially when hunting was yet to be undertaken on a large scale, gathering was the most important vocation and the tools that we mistakenly associate only with hunting may have also, or initially solely, been used as devices to dig roots or pluck raw vegetables and fruits. Slocum further highlights the cultural inventions of this period, which may have been devised by women. She observes, “I suggest that two of the earliest and most important cultural inventions were containers to hold the products of gathering, and some sort of a sling or net to carry babies” (1975, p. 46). Anthropologists have also associated the inventions of crafts like basketry, leather work, making of skin or bark clothing, pottery making, with women of hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies (Lerner, p. 18 and Slocum, p. 63-64). They argue that the ‘man-the-hunter’ thesis tends to underplay women’s contribution to the enrichment of human civilization by confining her to the household, apart from wrongly projecting men as the provider of sustenance, protector of household. As Stephanie Coontz and Peta Hendersen indicate, “Female activities were required every day, and female labour was necessary both to support the community when men failed to bring home goods and to process products that men did bring home” (1986, p. 115). The woman, thus, played a crucial role not only as the nurturer of children and household, but also as one of the providers of food and inventors of crafts. And this accounts for the complementarity that existed in the male and female functioning in hunter-gatherer societies and that explains the then norm of gender egalitarianism. Also, this complementarity and economic dependency should be taken into consideration when we mistakenly tend to imagine the spheres of men and women as separate, as Engels does when he states that “each was master in his or her own field of activity”.

Yet woman, owing to her reproductive role of giving birth and nurturing the infant, was largely confined to household activities – gathering or small game hunting could not have been very far from the safety of the household shelter. While this was so certainly because of biological/natural reasons, one must not overlook the more potent social reasons that necessitated the arrangement. Gerda Lerner makes a brilliant analysis of this aspect. She tells us that this social arrangement was imperative because given the precarious living conditions, the safety and survival of women was inextricably linked with the continuation of the tribe. The uncertainties of those times, when natural exigencies severely constrained human’s choices, were very many – women needed to have more pregnancies as live births were fewer, infancy period was a prolonged one with mothers nursing the infant for two to three years, shorter life spans of both men and women (women had relatively shorter) and lack of surplus food to store. The above conditions necessitated that women spent larger part of their life span in pregnancy, procreation and nursing. Also, the tribe could not afford to risk the lives of their women by their involvement in hunting. The survival and perpetuation of the race, thus, crucially depended on women’s reproductive role. Lerner explains:

Obviously, given the precarious and short life spans I have cited above for the Neolithic period, tribes which put the lives of their nubile women at risk by hunting or by participating in warfare, thereby also increasing the likelihood of their injury in accidents, would not tend to survive as well as tribes in which these women were otherwise employed. Thus, the first sexual division of labor, by which men did the big-game hunting and children and women the small-game hunting and gathering, seems to derive from biological sex differences (1986, p. 41). 

Thus, the set-up, though biologically determined, was socially necessary. It was an arrangement that was essential for group survival and hence remained so until new forces of change appear with the advancement in the mode of production.

Engels situates the question of women’s subordination in the changing structure of sexual relationships and family. He argues that in the earliest societies there were no rules and norms with regard to sexual relationships and that men and women lived in promiscuity where “every woman belonged equally to every man and, similarly, every man to every woman”(Engels, 1891, p. 32). Over time incest taboos and rules of exogamy were evolved and society moved from the stage of promiscuity to that of family. Engels outlines a linear progression of the family system – consanguine, punaluan/ group and finally pairing family. The driving force behind this evolution, according to Engels, was “natural selection” (p. 53). While he does specify the sequence of different family stages, he suggests that alongside and within group marriage existed “exclusive relations, pairing for longer or shorter periods, and also polygamy” (p. 46). 

The analysis of later anthropologists is largely in tune with the above picture portrayed by Engels. They do, however, rework and complicate this rather simplified and unilinear portrayal. That there were no rules of sexual relationships originally can be well imagined and this proposition of Engels has not been refuted by any scholar. Yet, it is also contended that despite absence of sexual norms, the primitive men and women mostly lived in families. Deriving conclusions from observation of modern hunter-gatherer societies Kathleen Gough makes the following assessment:

All known hunters and gatherers live in families, not in communal sexual arrangements. Most hunters even live in nuclear families rather than in large extended kin groups. Mating is individualized, although one man may occasionally have two wives, or (very rarely) a woman may have two husbands. Economic life is built primarily around the division of labor and partnership between individual men and women. The hearths, caves and other remains of Upper Paleolithic hunters suggest that this was probably an early arrangement (1975, rpt 2011, p. 66). 

Scholars also agree with Engels’ proposition that natural selection was instrumental in the gradual implementation of rules regarding sexual relationships among natural, and later, collateral kins. Thus, overtime rules of exogamy/ endogamy were prescribed and society moved from communal to kinship arrangement. C D Darlington postulates that exogamy was a cultural innovation and it became accepted because it offered an “evolutionary advantage” (Lerner, 1986, p. 47).


Pastoral and Kinship Societies: Beginnings of Male Power and Control of Female Sexuality

As the dynamics of natural selection was working towards gradual confinement of the circle of sexual relationship and marriage, which now evolved into kinship based social structure, there were changes in the mode of production as well – the society had moved from the stage of hunter-gatherers to that of domestication of animals. For the first time in human history surplus and new sources of wealth get generated. Engels makes a masterly analysis of the new development:

Here the domestication of animals and the breeding of herd had developed a hitherto unsuspected source of wealth and created entirely new relationships. Until the lower stage of barbarism, fixed wealth consisted almost entirely of the house, clothing, crude ornaments and the implements for procuring and preparing food: boats, weapons and household utensils of the simplest kind. Food had to be won anew day by day. Now, with herds of horses, camels, donkeys, oxen, sheep, goats and pigs, the advancing pastoral peoples… acquired possessions demanding merely supervision and most elementary care in order to propagate in ever-increasing numbers and to yield the richest nutriment in milk and meat (1891, p. 54).   

This new source of wealth created surplus (Engels does not use the term ‘surplus’ anywhere in his analysis) and property that belonged to the gens, the larger kinship group. And with this a new feature gets added to the human relationships – the practice of regular exchange of surplus goods. To quote again from Engels’ work:

These pastoral tribes not only produced more articles of food, but also a greater variety than the rest of barbarians. They not only had milk, milk products and meat in greater abundance than the others, but also skins, wool, goat’s hair, and the spun and woven fabrics which the increasing quantities of the raw material brought into commoner use. This for the first time made regular exchange possible… After the crystallization of the pastoral tribes, however, we find here all the conditions favourable for exchange between members of different tribes, and for its further development and consolidation as a regular institution (p. 156). 

The new arrangement of kinship based societies with additional sources of wealth, surplus and exchange influenced the dynamics of man-woman relationship. To better appreciate this, one needs to assess the processes at work during the period of transition from communal to kinship system. As noted in the first section of this paper, a natural division of labour existed between men and women, that, though based on economic reciprocity, had created two interdependent spheres – household for women and outside for men. There was no sharp divide between the two spheres; neither was it rigid, as has already been argued in the foregoing account. However, with the advancement in the techniques and knowledge of weapon making and hunting the tasks of both men and women became more complex. Lila Leibowitz presents an analysis in the context of the introduction of projectile weapon hunting. She suggests that the latter created new conditions – increase in the amount of meat, need of skill and training in hunting and shift from large groups of older men and youngsters to smaller groups of skilled men for hunting which transformed children and youngsters into dependents. The household activities became more varied – longer duration of preparing and cooking the hunt, fashioning of new tools to process food, processing skins and hides and converting them into clothing and carrying devices, and all these required training in the necessary skills. The complexity of tasks of both men and women was instrumental in further compartmentalizing the sexual division of labour over time. Since skill and training became essential, this created added responsibility for both men and women to accordingly teach and socialize the youngsters for their future role. Leibowitz elaborates thus:

The sexual division of labour not only designates which productive tasks men and women pursue, it allocates the responsibilities for socializing youngsters into those tasks to both men and women. The division, when fully articulated, calls for recognizing early on who will be a ‘mother’ and who will not, deciding which set of skills a youngster is most likely to use as an adult, and training the youngsters accordingly. Girls and boys as well as women and men are distinguished from each other. Girls learn their skills from women, boys from men. By the time hunting and hearth tasks had become both time consuming and skill-based the activities of all males and females, young and old, were differentiated and gender distinctions were created (1986, p. 67-68).

So, gradually we reach a stage when household becomes largely the domain of females – the women and young girls; and the males – the men and young boys – deal with the outside world, the public domain. At this stage the segregation of spheres, the gender division of labour, was not yet institutionalized in the sense that strict and uncompromising norms and sanctions had not yet been delineated to preserve the segregation. But, notwithstanding its flexibility, this gender differentiated arrangement provided the foundation over which the final institutionalization occurred.

The first step towards this direction was the gradual process of crystallization of incest taboos and rules of exogamy. This seems to have occurred during the transition from hunter-gatherer stage to pastoralism. Leibowitz informs that implementation of incest rules necessitated the inter-tribal/ inter-kin exchange of males and females. This exchange could be mutually beneficial only when the new entrant, whether woman or man, is skilled enough to efficiently take on the conventional responsibilities of her/ his sphere. To quote Leibowitz:

The invention of incest taboos and marriage thus created a situation in which every or nearly every male, regardless of whether he was robust or tall or especially active at adolescence, was of potential value as a spouse if he had acquired adult men’s skills. Similarly, a marriageable female was one who had acquired women’s skills (1986, p. 69). 

It is, again here, in the laying down of incest rules, that the roots of the idea of controlling female sexuality can also be located. Although proscriptions existed for both males and females, yet the need to control reproduction in accordance with kinship rules of exogamy laid higher stakes on controlling female sexuality. This control accentuated as kin property came into existence with the arrival of the new mode of production – domestication of animals.  

This new mode that created surplus, kin property and the practice of regular intergroup exchange did not augur well for the hitherto egalitarian, complementary gender equation. We notice two important processes at work. Firstly, with the arrival of kin property the group could not remain indifferent to the issue of membership of the group as it was membership that decided access to resources owned by the kin. Hence, the regulation of reproduction became more important than earlier stage and as Stephanie Coontz argues, “the need to control reproduction has different implications for women than for men, since the genitor requires less corporate control than the childbearer”(1986, p. 121). Secondly, the surplus that made exchange and redistribution of resources a regular feature of the new production mode led to an expansion of male sphere, because both were carried out by the men. Furthermore, surplus and property became potent causes of inter-tribal conflicts. This may have increased the importance of the male role of fighting and protecting (Coontz, 1986, p. 121). As society moved from pastoral to the agricultural mode, the domain of male widened further, alongwith escalation of male authority.


Agricultural Societies: Private Property, Monogamy and Establishment of Patriarchy

Engels contextualizes the emergence of male dominance in two simultaneous processes that were underway during the transition from pastoral to the agricultural mode – firstly, the gradual transformation of family from pairing, patriarchal to the final monogamous form and secondly, the disintegration of kinship system and crystallization of individual families as units of society. The latter process also meant a transition from communal/ kin-property to individual/ private ownership. It is during this transitional phase when multiple changes at various fronts – production, family and property ownership – were manifesting themselves, that Engels locates the overthrow of matriliny and “mother right” and final institutionalization of female subordination to male dominance. He notes:

Thus, as wealth increased, it, on the one hand, gave the man a more important status in the family than the woman, and, on the other hand, created a stimulus to utilize this strengthened position in order to overthrow the traditional order of inheritance in favour of his children. But this was impossible as long as descent according to mother right prevailed. This had therefore, to be overthrown, and it was overthrown…As to how and when this revolution was effected among the civilized people we know nothing. It falls entirely within prehistoric times (p. 56)

Later research and scholarship have accepted this broad framework. They associate the finality of female subordination with the creation of private property – the disintegration of kin-based communal property ownership and genesis of individual ownership. The new studies, however, try to detail and complicate the process. They suggest that the overthrow did not happen as a “revolution” and as merely because of the male’s wish and concern over inheritance. It is argued that it happened as a course, as a process, where multiple factors, apart from man’s “wishes”, played their part. In other words, the transition from matriliny/ matrilocality to patriliny/ patrilocality lacked the ‘suddenness’ suggested by Engels.

The fact that matriliny preceded patriliny has been accepted by most anthropologists (Lerner, 1986, p. 53; Chevillard and Leconte, 1986, p. 101). Stephanie Coontz’s study draws a logical course of the transition from former to latter by arguing that patrilocality proved to be more efficient in accumulation of surplus and channelizing domestic labour. Unlike Engels and most other anthropologists, Coontz, however, recognizes the co-existence of both matrilocal and patrilocal lineage systems and argues that since the latter “offered more opportunities for a local lineage to concentrate labour, wealth, and power than did matrilocality” (1986, p. 129), it finally became the norm.

Coontz underlines crucial differences in the dynamics of the two lineage forms. We know that redistribution is an important aspect of the functioning of lineage societies and this redistribution takes place certainly in goods procured by men. While in matrilocal societies, the redistribution has to take place over a wide area, at least to the men’s sisters’, wives’ and ancestor’s households; in patrilocal societies the redistribution occurs among the related males staying spatially closer. This provides more means and incentive for accumulation in male products in the latter. Secondly, in patrilocal set up, the related males, who controlled the external affairs of production and exchange as well as the product and surplus, had more incentive to better utilize and control female labour. Also, the nature of domestic work – cooking, gathering, gardening which need to be necessarily performed daily as a part of production – make the males relatively more dependent on wives than the latter are on their husbands. As Coontz explains — “A woman is entitled to male redistributed goods simply by being a member of a kin group. A man whose wife refuses to garden, gather, or cook, however, could well go hungry” (p. 132). Thus patrilocal set-up provides more leeway and inducement to exercise authority over domestic labour, along with controlling the outside world of production and exchange. Thirdly, polygyny (plural wives) worked better in a patrilocal system as the in-marrying women contributed not only through their own domestic labour, but also through reproduction of new generation of labourers. Conversely, polyandry (plural husbands) is a drain as “male wealth was owed to sisters as well as to wives, while it would not have increased future generations of labourers” (Coontz, 1986, p. 136). With these and similar more arguments, Coontz draws the logic for the relatively greater efficiency and resilience of patrilocal/ patrilineal societies in a historical phase when accumulation of wealth/property had become a crucial condition of survival. And, she argues that this accounted for the gradual transformation of most matrilineal set-up to the patrilineal arrangement. Thus, apart from Engels’ proposition of the male concern over inheritance – a force imposed from without – there were integral processes, too, at work in the “overthrow” of matriliny.

The most potent factor that is playing out in the background of this transition is the accumulation of wealth and property, which is still within the overall control of the lineage. However, even within the lineage system there existed the germs of private property – the domesticated animals formed a separate property of the family chiefs (Engels, 1891, p. 54). Gradually with the advancement in the mode of production and growth of agriculture, the property earned and accumulated by the individual males within the lineage enhanced. Soon this led to the disintegration of kinship based communal ownership and private property came into existence. Engels locates the arrival of private property at this stage when production increased in every sphere ranging from cattle breeding, agriculture and handicrafts.  Although he says little about how this happened – “How and when the herds and flocks were converted from the common property to the tribe or gens into the property of the individual heads of families we do not know to this day; but it must have occurred, in the main, at this stage” (p. 158) – but his exposition of disintegration of kinship societies in the context of Athens is illuminating and helps better understand the transition from communal to individual property ownership. He observes:

The division of labour between the different branches of production – agriculture, handicrafts, numerous skills within the various crafts, trade, navigation, etc. – had developed more fully with the progress of industry and commerce. The population was now divided according to occupation into rather well defined groups, each of which had a number of new, common interests that found no place in the gens or phratry and, therefore, necessitated the creation of new offices to attend to them. The number of slaves had increased considerably and must have far exceeded that of the free Athenians even at this early stage. The gentile constitution originally knew no slavery and was, therefore, ignorant of any means of holding this mass of bondmen in check. And finally, commerce had attracted a great many strangers who settled in Athens because it was easier to make money there, and according to the old constitution these strangers enjoyed neither rights nor the protection of the law (p. 112).

The dawn of the age of private property institutionalized both monogamous family and sexual division of labour. Also, the existence of private property is inextricably linked with exchange of commodities and enhancement of male public power. These struck the final blow to female freedom and status. Before moving further, it may be recalled that this phase is different from the earlier ones on several counts – expansion of agriculture has assured a steady supply of surplus and, as a corollary, accentuation of the regime of private property; craft specialization emerged that accelerated and widened the process of exchange, thus making commodity and trade one of the chief components of production system; class differences have emerged and “the first great division of labour into two classes: masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited” (Engels, 1891, p. 157) has arisen; and finally, since class divisions necessitate the need for state, the latter in its rudimentary form emerges at this stage. The following discussion would locate women’s ultimate subordination in this socio-economic context.

Private property wreaked havoc on women’s autonomy and status in two crucial respects. Firstly, it, alongwith monogamous family structure, institutionalised individual inheritance. And this necessitated stringent control over women’s sexuality – her behavior and mobility had to be straitjacketed to ensure the inheritance to the ‘rightful’ progeny. Engels makes a vivid explication:

It (monogamous family) is based on the supremacy of the man; its express aim is the begetting of children of undisputed paternity, this paternity being required in order that these children may in due time inherit their father’s wealth as his natural heirs… The right of conjugal infidelity remains his even now, sanctioned, at least, by custom… and is exercised more and more with the growing development of society. Should the wife recall the ancient sexual practice and desire to revive it, she is punished more severely than ever before (p. 62).

Engels brilliantly exposes the hypocrisy of the modern ideas of fidelity and individual sex love associated with monogamy and links it to the development of hetaerism (extramarital intercourse between men and unmarried women), prostitution and adultery. One can but quote Engels’ masterly exposition to better appreciate the context:

A second contradiction, however, is hereby developed within monogamy itself. By the side of the husband, whose life is embellished by hetaerism, stands the neglected wife. And it is just as impossible to have one side of a contradiction without the other as it is to retain the whole of an apple in one’s hand after half has been eaten. Nevertheless, the men appear to have thought differently, until their wives taught them to know better… Adultery – proscribed, severely penalized, but irrepressible – became an unavoidable social institution alongside of monogamy and hetaerism. The assured paternity of children was now, as before, based, at best, on moral conviction…” (p. 67).

Private property, with its concomitant monogamy, brings woman’s sexuality under severe male vigilance and control. Her reproductive function comes as much under man’s ownership as the inherited and accumulated private property does. It is over the base of these material conditions that the ideological superstructure of culture, religion, law and administration is built that perpetuates the idea of female body as a property, a commodity, an object. This manifests in the social consciousness in varied ways – man as the protector of woman; chastity and virginity as the ideal virtues of woman, her sexuality as the upholder of man’s/family’s/her own honour and woman’s ultimate goal of becoming a devoted wife and begetter of sons. In its extreme form it manifests as objectification and commodification of women’s bodies, reduction of woman to mere objects of man’s lust, and finally in sexual assault and rape. First, the body of woman becomes the private property of her man with the sole aim of gratifying his needs and desires. And then from it naturally follows the idea of entire woman tribe existing with the sole meaning of satisfying man’s every and most bizarre demands and fancies. One needs to locate rape and sexual assault in this historical process of effecting gradual control over woman’s body and sexuality and her eventual transformation as man’s private property. The material base, it may be reiterated, was readying itself during the gradual passage of the remote past. Here, one may recall that the first inkling of supervising and controlling woman’s sexuality had already begun in the prehistoric times when incest taboos and rules of exogamy were being laid down, as discussed in one of the sections above. Private property and monogamy reinforce and formalize this process and finally seal the idea man’s ownership.

The second crucial role of private property in institutionalizing female subordination and male predominance lies in the expansion of the process of commodity exchange. Exchange, as mentioned above, had begun with the crystallization of pastoral kin property. The sexual division of labour meant that it was undertaken by the male members. This expanded man’s public sphere. Also his share in the procurement of production goods became relatively larger than that of woman – the share of total workload for women, however, increased as the complexity of household tasks and nurturing children kept her perpetually engaged.

In this stage, with the increased agricultural production and diversification of specialized crafts, exchange in commodities – trade and commerce – became one of the backbones of economy. As it advanced and deepened, surplus and private property augmented. Since this outside world had been men’s preserve, the male domain further expanded and along with this male power escalated. As Engels notes – “All the surplus now resulting from production fell to the man; the woman shared in consuming it, but she had no share in owning it” (p. 158). Needless to mention that women were equally contributing to the production process and accumulation of surplus not only through their household responsibilities, but through a sharing of the burden of agriculture and tending cattle as well. But with the institutionalization of sexual division of labour and male’s ownership of the private property, the woman was reduced to a mere producer, the man being the appropriator of her labour. In Engels’ words, “he is the bourgeois; the wife represents the proletariat (p. 74).  

The new relations of production in the broader economy – the divide between producer and appropriator – thus, had a mirror image in household production relations – between man and woman. Eleanor Leacock elaborates:

The direct producers lost decision-making powers over their lives when the specialization of labour and production of commodities for exchange led to the formation of slave, aristocratic, and merchant classes. Women in particular lost out because the new economic relations based on exchange were in the hands of men… because these relations undercut the communal households women had controlled and transformed women’s domestic work into private service (quoted in Coontz and Hendersen, 1986, p. 33). 

It is ironical that the erstwhile natural division of labour, an arrangement of convenience and complementarity, actually becomes the site of her final subordination. As Engels puts it so perceptively – “The very cause that had formerly made the woman supreme in the house, namely, her being confined to domestic work, now assured supremacy in the house for the man” (p. 158).

Apart from commodity exchange, there were other factors too that led to the expansion of male’s public domain. Karen Sacks underlines these elements in the production process. She argues that in a class society since all men do not own property, one needs to find answer to the question of what accounted for the general pattern of male dominance that cut across all classes. She suggests that collective forms of public labour, viz., corvee for public works, conscription and predatory war, collective wage work for the ruling class, etc, that shaped the larger economy based on surplus creation and appropriation had men, and not the women, as the prime participants. She claims that this tendency of class societies “to socialize the work of men and to domesticate that of women… creates the material and organizational foundations for denying that women are adults, and allows ruling classes to define them as wards of men” (1974, p. 220). One may add that this participation in the social sphere of production, which had emerged as the prime location of production (unlike the earlier stages when women’s contribution had been significant), gave all men, irrespective of their class, an illusory consciousness of being the actual provider, the prime contributor; women were seen as dependents, as consumers. Furthermore, we are familiar with what Marx had once remarked, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (German Ideology, 1932). And hence it can also be argued that the lower and the propertyless classes tended to embody the consciousness of the propertied males who not only appropriated female labour but also commanded ownership over her body and being. This explains the final consummation of the process of female subordination and establishment of patriarchy in this period – both at the material and the ideological planes.

Towards a Conclusion: Finding the Way Ahead

Marxist theory of Historical materialism is not only the most scientific method to study the past, it is also a powerful tool that promises to provide valid and pragmatic answers. By lending a historicity to the institution of patriarchy, historical materialism not only helps locate its origins, but also offers insights into identifying ways to tear down its foundations. The foregoing account, based on the broad framework outlined by Engels, situates the historical process of female subordination in the material conditions – the mode of production and social organization. While the germs of the process lay in the remotest of the past – the prehistoric times when the natural sexual division of labour was being formalized and incest taboos and rules of exogamy were laid down – the ultimate seal on patriarchy was put only with the advent of private property. This also coincided with the crystallization of a class divided society. With the further expansion of the regime of private property and deepening of class divisions that made way for the emergence of a strong state, patriarchy as a system got firmly entrenched. These form the material foundations of patriarchy; religion, culture, education, law, governance and other similar ideological entities are but the organs of the superstructure that was built on this material base. The ultimate dissolution of patriarchy necessitates the dismantling of this base. And elimination of private property would be the first essential step towards this direction. Class divisions and the state are mere concomitants of private property and would dissolve over time with the disappearance of the latter.

A Socialist Revolution, hence, is the only answer. A socialist socio-economic organization where “both kinds of production” (to use Engels’ phrase) – labour and family – have been socialized can the final redemption of the woman be achieved. We not only require a socialized mode of production where the divide between producer and appropriator vanishes, but we also need the society to take over the private sphere of the family. Only over these material foundations can the ideological battle against the remnants of the previous superstructure be waged, and new superstructure built – one that promises a real gender-equal world. 

How would this gender-equal world of socialism look like? Marx and Engels tell us little. They chose not to write “recipes for the cook-shops of the future” because, socialism, as Marx remarked in the German Ideology, “is not for us a state of affairs, an ideal to which reality will have to adapt itself”. It would rather be a real movement abolishing the present state of things.

This “present state of things” has already been laid bare by both the theoreticians – Engels’ exposition pins down the actual causes of origins of patriarchy and Marx’s grand explication of capitalism helps outline the political economy of female household labour. Several Marxist feminists, taking cue from Marx’s explication, have attempted to draw links between the private housework and the public capitalist world of wage labour and commodity production. Margaret Benston (1969), the pioneer in this field, reminds us that in an economic system made exclusively of exchangeable commodities, female household labour produces use value but fails to evoke exchange value, and hence remains discounted from the production process. Rosa Luxemburg (1912) explains this absurdity:

Only that work is productive which produces surplus value and yields capitalists profit… From this standpoint the dancer in a café… is a productive working woman, while the toil of the woman and mothers of the proletariat within the four walls of the home is considered unproductive work. This sounds crude and crazy but it is an accurate expression of the crudeness and craziness of today’s capitalist economic order.

Benston locates the material basis for woman’s inferior status in this crudeness:

In a society in which money determines value, women are a group who work outside the money economy. Their work is not worth money, is therefore valueless, is therefore not even real work. And women themselves, who do this valueless work, can hardly be expected to be worth as much as men, who work for money.

While devaluation of women’s work is a handiwork of the rules governing capitalist production, it must be underlined that it is this very arrangement (of nuclear family with men as wage earner and women as the carer) that helps preserve capitalism as a system. Firstly, the unpaid nature of women’s daily toil, which sustains and prepares the male wager for everyday labour, is an essential part of the profit made by the capitalist. As Benston explains – “To pay women for their work, even at minimum wage scales, would imply a massive redistribution of wealth. At present, the support of a family is a hidden tax on the wage earner—his wage buys the labor power of two people.” Secondly, in the present arrangement where women procreate and nurture children as a natural function on their part, capitalism gets for free the future army of labourers. Thus in Marx’s conception of capitalist expropriation of man’s surplus labour is essentially also hidden woman’s household labour. This is irrespective of the fact that several women may also directly participate in the capitalist production process as labourer. Under such circumstances her labour gets doubly expropriated.

To return to Marx’s expression of abolishing the “present state of things”, the key to women’s emancipation, thus, lies in dismantling the present capitalist system that necessitates housework for its sustenance. One may, however, pose a counter argument underlining the “positive” spaces created for women’s emancipation under capitalism – the capitalist system not only employs women, thus making them economically independent, but also relieves the burden of housework by introducing technologies that mechanise several household chores and also through support systems like crèches, babysitter, nurses, etc. This advanced role of capitalism cannot be denied. But, as far as women’s employment in a capitalist system is concerned, Marx has brilliantly exposed how their participation helps deflate the market value of wage by increasing labour supply and how women and children enhance surplus value by working on extremely low wages. So, whether it is housework or “productive” wage labour, in both roles women serve the interests of capitalism. Secondly, one may be easily reminded that capitalism’s claim of unburdening women from housework applies only to those women who can pay for it. And it is needless to mention that they account for a meager number. Further, one must not forget that these facilities – the paid care work – for middle and upper class women thrive mostly on necessarily maintaining a section of proletariat/ lower class women who provide the care services without affording any similar support for themselves. An exploitative class-divided society, thus, lies at the heart of this arrangement. The claim of women’s emancipation flies in the face of these contradictions. Further, the paid care work creates a deep divide amongst women as a category where a needy, underpaid female labour supply is a prerequisite for the upward economic mobility of the “emancipated” few. This divide is a chink in the armor of the mainstream feminist movements as well, and sadly, most feminists choose not to recognize it. Under these circumstances, the idea of emancipation for the entire womenfolk within the present capitalist system remains absolutely illusory. The “present state of things” – the regime of capitalism and private property – thus requires abolition.

Socialism, where both production and housework are socialized, promises real emancipation of women and it gets established on the ruins of capitalism. It should be underlined that capitalism itself does much of the groundwork for building up of socialism – a socialized production process to which women have already been given equal access and the necessary technology and institutions to relieve women of housework and child care. But capitalism, owing to its own contradictions, can neither engage all women in the production process nor can it socialize the support system. This unfinished task of capitalism gets fulfilled only by socialism. August Bebel aptly remarks – “Bourgeois society could only set up the theory; as in so many other respects, their practice was at odds with their theories. It is for Socialism to harmonize the theory with practice” (1891, p. 347).

Socialism is premised on the fundamental right to work – every able bodied person, irrespective of sex, gets work according to his/her ability and receives according to the work done. As a fundamental right, this theoretically brings every able bodied woman within the sphere of production. Further, socialism, for a long period, necessarily requires the labour of the entire working population to revolutionise production to a level when abundance gets available to the society to enable its final transition to communism. This necessity creates practical conditions for the involvement of all women into production process. One can imagine the impact of this economic independence on women of socialist society – both at material and ideological level. She no longer remains a mere “consumer”, a dependent, a private property of a man. This material base, over time, would revolutionise the social consciousness with regard to woman as a being. This, however, is only one of the preconditions of women’s emancipation. The second, more significantly, is the socialization of the domestic sphere. Benston categorically spells this out:

Equal access to jobs outside the home, while one of the preconditions for women’s liberation, will not in itself be sufficient to give equality for women; as long as work in the home remains a matter of private production and is the responsibility of women, they will simply carry a double workload. A second prerequisite for women’s liberation which follows from the above analysis is the conversion of the work now done in the home as private production into work to be done in the public economy.    

The drudgery of private housework has been underlined by several early Marxists including Engels, August Bebel, Eleanor Marx, Lenin, among others. Bebel, perhaps the first Marxist to have produced an extensive work exclusively on women, not only underlines the misery of housework, but he also dwells upon the pre-capitalist nature of the kitchen – its inefficiency and lack of scientificity. He says – “the small private kitchen is, just like the workshop of the small master mechanic, a transition stage, an arrangement by which time, power and material are senselessly squandered and wasted” (338-339). He, thus, makes a case for a socialized public kitchen, established on scientific lines and equipped with latest technology.    

Lenin offers the following piercing description of women’s wretchedness:

Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies, and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labor on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding the state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins (quoted in Benston).

Soviet Russia began this process of transformation of the private into social through a number of initiatives – communal kitchens, public eating-houses, laundries and repairing shops, nurseries, kindergartens, children’s homes, educational institutions, recreation clubs, maternity homes, etc. Thus, the task and responsibility of nurturing infants, bringing up children, cooking and cleaning, caring for the old and infirm, hitherto an exclusively women’s sphere, get transferred to the society in socialism. Even procreation and maternity needs of women are taken care of by the socialist society. This arrangement is the most scientific organization of society. Here each man and woman is being freed to contribute towards the development of humanity. The interests of the individual are being harmoniously subsumed within the interests of the society. And thus, the illusion that private property creates of irreconcilable conflict between individual and society, starts falling to dust. This is the real, genuine movement of abolition of “present state of things” as proposed by Marx that embarks the society to communism.  

When the household life of woman has been radically transformed, private property has been abolished and the woman becomes an active, independent participant in the process of economic and social reconstruction, the domestic life – the man-woman relationship – gets relegated to the private realm of the two individuals. We return to the point where we began – the complementarity of man and woman in social and economic life. It is a return to a society that shares the burden of woman’s reproductive role, a function that once again gets recognized, not as a natural duty to create heir for men, but as a social necessity for the perpetuation and development of society. This return, however, is at an extraordinarily higher level. We may conclude by the following beautiful lines of Bebel:

Society re-takes what once was its own, but in accord with the newly created conditions of production, it places its whole mode of life upon the highest stage of culture, which enables all to enjoy what under more primitive circumstances was the privilege of individuals or of individual classes only (p. 348).

[Originally published in The Truth: Platform for Radical Voices of The Working Class (Issue 7 / November 2020)]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑