On the origins of women's oppression

By Pat Brewer

For centuries there has been debate about what determines human behaviour: is it something inherent in our nature, or does it arise from the social and physical environment in which we live and interact? Recently a spate of theories have claimed to "explain" human behaviour in terms of "nature", increasingly meaning the biological. Biological determinists argue not only that our biology shapes the behaviour of individual humans, but that it also determines the social and economic inequalities that characterise class societies.

Inequalities of race, of ethnicity, of class and particularly of gender are due to our individual genetic make-up, according to the latest variant of socio-biology, evolutionary psychology. Its proponents argue, for example, that our genes determine our sexual behaviour and relations in order to maximise their chances to reproduce successfully in the next generation. Gender roles, marriage relations, legal practices and the family are all driven by the genetic imperative to reproduce.

While such theories pretend to scientific validity, they are in fact partial and distorted viewpoints ideological justifications for the status quo. They attempt to justify systems of inequality, exploitation and domination as inevitable, inescapable, unchangeable.

The pervasiveness of "the natural" as the explanation has a deep cultural significance that gives weight to any new variant. Just think of the way the nuclear family is projected as the natural social unit, despite the reality of the variety of relations between individuals and children.

It's reflected in the stories we tell our children. Take the three bears: daddy, mummy and baby all living happily together in a little house until disturbed by a sneak thief named Goldilocks. The nuclear family is so "natural" that its form is replicated in the animal kingdom. The reality is very different. Female and male bears come together briefly to mate. The female goes away to give birth in solitude, raising the cubs by herself; if "daddy" bear should come along, he'd see the cubs as a good meal, not as the carrier of his genes. So much for the genetic imperative!

Just as Western culture is full of these familial projections onto the animal world, it also projects the nuclear family historically and cross-culturally onto other types of society, thus making the nuclear family the basic unit of human society.

The form of this family is familiar: dad is the head of the family, the provider; mum is the carer and nurturer, whose main task is to keep the family in a social and emotional balance; and children are biologically related to one or both of these parents (with some exceptions for adoption) and are under the authority and care of both in different ways, of course.

This patriarchal family, it is argued, has existed since human beings came down from the trees and emerged as a new species. Man, the father, is dominant, the protector and head of the family. Women are weaker and subordinate in this relationship, under the authority and protection of the father, as are all children until male children are adults and able to set up their own family units. Women's unequal role in society is justified in terms of the role and functions she has to carry out in giving birth and raising children in the family. Women's subordination is thus seen as based on her biology and is thus her destiny.

Marxists contest this. We argue that women have not always been oppressed. This oppression arose at a particular stage of social development and was institutionalised through the particular form of the patriarchal family appropriate to that stage of social development. Women's oppression is social, not biologically determined, and has evolved over time.

The Marxist anthropologist Evelyn Reed[1] argues that the denial of evolution of gender relations is not based on examination of evidence but is political, a refusal to accept the evidence gained through observations of societies organised very differently from those of the social scientists.

These differences posed questions that disturbed capitalist ideology, which pictures capitalism as the pinnacle of human achievement, with no further change in societal type possible or necessary.

The doctrine of natural difference

The issue of biological necessity or naturalness is central to explanations of the continuities and discontinuities of human development and the emergence of dominance and inequality.

There are two major versions of the "doctrine of natural difference" in biologically based theories. In the first, society is regarded as a thin veneer built on a biological base. The second argues that society is complementary or "additive" to biology.

Socio-biology theories argue that behaviour in animals and humans is genetically instructed to maximise chances of passing on genes to future generations. But each sex employs a different strategy to maximise its chances of passing on genes. Such theories provide the basis for evolutionary psychology.

Barash,[2] for example, says men produce millions of sperm while women produce only one egg at a time and about 400 in a lifetime. Therefore men have an interest in impregnating as many women as possible to maximise their genes in the next generation, while women go for quality, looking for the most genetically suitable male partners.

This generates different gender roles. Men are more promiscuous. Women can tolerate infidelity in their partners because it costs little for women. But if women are unfaithful, men may devote energy into raising someone else's child. Since a woman knows the child is hers genetically, she is willing to devote attention to child-care. Women's search for the best male leads them to seek to marry men of higher social status. Men have to compete for access because women produce so few children; therefore larger and more aggressive males are more successful, which reinforces the dominance of men over women. In hunter and gatherer societies, the best hunters are the best providers. War and territoriality are rooted in men's attempts to secure and gain access to women and prevent access to other males.

In the theories from the second strand, society is not constrained by biology but is additive to biology: society culturally elaborates the distinction between the sexes. Functionalist sociologists are examples of this. Murdock argues that the sexual division of labour is related to biological differences: men have greater strength, women bear children; therefore their different social roles are efficient reflections of these biological givens.[3]

Parsons puts forward a theory in which women are "expressive" and males "instrumental". Women in the modern nuclear family are responsible for the socialisation of the young and the stabilisation of adult (male) personalities. Men are the breadwinners, who compete in an achievement-oriented society that leads to stress and anxiety; they thus need women to restore the balance.[4]

The ideological character of these theories of natural difference was exposed by the second wave of the women's movement. But the strength and cultural embeddedness of these justifications for women's inequality have allowed them to permeate into sections of feminist theory.

Thus radical feminists see gender difference as fundamental. Women's procreative and nurturing superiority is contrasted to men as evil, abusive, violent and warlike. In the theory of patriarchy, it is asserted that male dominance is based on violent and coercive sexuality. Because radical feminists don't explain the basis of this sexuality, their theory rests on an "essential" difference that can only be biologically based.

Some radical feminists argue that they have rejected biological determinism but fail to provide any explanation for such an assertion. Instead, in their practice of prioritising activities centred on sexuality, reproductive technology, rape and sexual violence, and with their assertion that their theory is women-based, unpolluted by male minds, male theory or male culture, radical feminists exhibit a blindness to the dangers of "gendered natural difference" which, in the absence of other explanation, rests on some biological base.

Eco-feminist theory draws on a similar explanatory basis. It argues a parallel exploitation of nature and women by male-dominated society; women are more closely associated with nature through their child-bearing and socialising roles. As nature has been raped and exploited by men, so too have women.

The metaphor "Mother Earth" is taken quite literally by strands of Eco-feminist theory, linking women's capacity to give birth to the metaphor of earth as a life-giving womb. This closeness to nature or naturalness gives greater moral worth to women, who have an intuitive and mystical relationship with nature and so can become a "voice" for nature against male science and exploitation.

The importance of Darwin

In Darwin's theory of the evolution of species, organisms vary, and these variations are inherited (at least in part) by their offspring. Organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive, so on average, offspring that vary most strongly in directions favoured by the environment will survive and propagate. Favourable variation will therefore accumulate in populations by natural selection.

Darwin's theory was based on his observations of domestic breeding and his travels, particularly to the Galapagos Islands. He didn't and couldn't explain how this took place, other than to describe the process materially, without reference to any divine intervention. However, his metaphors of natural selection and the survival of the fittest could be and were interpreted as if some entity was consciously deciding who was fit and whom to select.

This interpretation was reinforced by the reliance Darwin placed on the population theories of English pastor Robert Malthus, who argued that poverty and social inequality were inevitable due to the geometric rate by which population increased in comparison with the arithmetic rate of food production. Social reforms to reduce inequality were doomed, and Malthus specifically opposed any measures to alleviate suffering among the poor, aged or sick since this would encourage the poor to breed. Malthus' ideas on "fitness" in population went on to become a basis for eugenic programs into the 19th and 20th century.

Darwin interpreted and illustrated his theory of natural selection in line with the bleak picture outlined by Malthus of competition and bloody struggle for scarce resources. But reproductive success through natural selection can work in a variety of ways, not just competition. Cooperation, symbiosis and mutual aid are also alternatives.

The mechanisms underlying species evolution were clarified in the 20th century by the discoveries of genes, chromosomes and DNA and the genetic variation of bisexual reproduction as well as the accidental effects of mutation. But while DNA provides the building blocks of life, to argue that it consigns people to their social and economic position is to wield biology as a social weapon. Such theories are ideology hiding behind the mantle of science.

Individuals are a product of the complex interactions between genetic heritage, environment and accidental events that are neither genetic nor environmental. Justifying differences in status, wealth and power by blaming obvious but superficial differences in skin colour or sex organs masks systemic social inequality.

Darwin's theories also pushed the question of the origin of the human species into a scientific framework. Anthropologists like Lewis Morgan, Edward Tylor, Jacob Bachofen and James Fraser began to develop theories of the evolution of human society, studying prehistoric society from its beginnings. For example, Morgan distinguished three great epochs of social development which he called savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Decisive advances in the level of economic activity marked each, in the way people procured their means of subsistence. While each stage contained sub-stages, broadly savagery was distinguished by hunting and food gathering, barbarism by food production through horticulture and stock raising and civilisation by literacy and agriculture.[5]

Darwin stressed the continuities in the development of species differentiation, looking more at the quantitative changes and stressing the slow pace of change. Engels, on the other hand, considered as well the qualitative changes, the discontinuities that emphasise what was special in the development of human beings as a species. This is the difference between gradualism and a dialectical approach. Darwin's theory tells only part of the story. It fails to explain rapid shifts in the fossil record such as the Cambrian explosion, when suddenly there is a huge, rapid and, historically speaking, contemporaneous appearance of new species rather than the slow evolution of species from a common ancestor.

When Darwin demonstrated that humans had evolved out of the animal world and shared common ancestors with the higher apes, he described critical features of that change an enlarged brain and the acquisition of speech but he failed to explain how this change took place.

Engels and human evolution

Engels, in his unfinished essay "The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man",[6] took on this task. Both Engels and Darwin noted that the higher apes possessed the essential biological preconditions for the transition: upright posture, stereoscopic vision, prolonged infancy and maternal care, vocal organs and a freed hand with an opposable thumb. But Engels developed a theory based on labour and the increasing use of tools in a long process that shaped the physical changes that transformed humans into a different species.

Instead of accepting the widespread view that the development of the brain was the primary and most important step in the evolution of humans, Engels argued that the first step must have been a descent from trees, with subsequent evolution to upright posture. The adoption of an erect posture and biped motion freed the hand, and this increased its ability in tool use and tool making. Over time this led to further changes in the structure of the hand so that the hand became not only the organ of labour but also the product of labour.

Without the practice of labour and the instruments of labour, humans would not have originated, survived or developed as a qualitatively distinct species. As Engels said:

Mastery over nature began with the development of the hand, with labour, and widened man's horizon at every new advance. He was continually discovering new, hitherto unknown, properties of natural objects. On the other hand, the development of labour necessarily helped to bring the members of society closer together by multiplying cases of mutual support, joint activity, and by making clear the advantage of this joint activity to each individual. In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other.[7]

Speech provided the necessary symbolic apparatus with which to begin to organise, preserve and transmit the collective labour experience of humanity. Engels outlined a relationship of positive feedback between the general development of mental facilities and the continuous increase in efficiency and quality of human labour. Speech and labour generated the growth of brain capacity.

As planning of future activities, the identification of properties of objects and the division of tasks within the labour process slowly came into being, they did so within an increasingly social and cooperative context. The species became humanised through labour. The feedback was not merely positive but cumulative; labour activity provided the starting point for general human advance.

This dialectical and materialist explanation of Engels reflects Marx and Engels' thesis that the production and reproduction of immediate life is the determining element of social life and includes both biological and economic production: the production of the means of existence and tools necessary for that production, and the production of human beings themselves. The form taken by a society at any point in its historical development is "determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand, and of the family on the other". (Engels)

From this understanding Engels analysed the development of society and, at a particular stage, the subjugation of women.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels built on the work of Morgan and the other 19th century evolutionary anthropologists. He accepted Morgan's general outline of three main stages of social evolution, clarifying that civilisation is the stage of social development in which the division of labour and commodity exchange arising from it is developed.

Women's historic defeat

Engels drew from the anthropological data of Morgan and others that showed primitive society exhibited egalitarian social and sexual relations, collective production and communal ownership of property. He also drew from Morgan's retrospective reconstruction of the history of the family the social and sexual relations of particular societies as they developed historically.

The basic unit of what Morgan called savage society was a maternal clan composed of a community of mothers, their brothers and the children of the mothers. Morgan used the term primitive to describe this stage. He then outlined gender relations' development through free sexuality and social organisation based on kinship through the maternal line, through what he called a variety of family forms based on whom one could have sexual relations with and which kin formed one's primary social group. The first exclusions for sexual intercourse were generational, then siblings, then through categories of siblings all traced in the maternal (matrilineal) line, leading to a pairing relationship based on mutual agreement. Engels characterised this pairing family as natural and saw this as the final stage of the family's evolution through natural selection. This took place in the final stages of savagery and the first stages of barbarism.

With the domestication of animals and stock breeding, there was a greater accumulation of wealth, and this led to new social relations that changed gender relations. The ownership of the wealth began to shift from clan (gens) to the family. Other forms of property also accumulated metal utensils, luxury items. The demand for human labour increased. Women as the sources of new human beings began to be exchanged as valued property, and other human beings began to be used as slaves. This extra labour allowed for further developments in trades and crafts like weaving, pottery and field cultivation. This was accompanied by shifts in tracing kinship to emphasise the importance of paternity and the father, as well as a shift to monogamy in sexual relations.

The increase in wealth gave more status to the man in the family and provided the stimulus to overthrow the traditional order of matrilineal inheritance. Engels argues that this gender revolution took place in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing; therefore exactly how and when it took place is unknown, but it can be demonstrated ethnographically.

"The overthrow of mother right was the world-historic defeat of the female sex."[8] Men seized control over the households, women became degraded and slaves to men's lust and were the instruments for reproducing more children. In fact, the word family comes from the Latin famulus, which means household slave, and familia, the totality of slaves belonging to one man, who inherited all the wealth and wielded absolute power over all members of the household.

Evelyn Reed raises some problems of language. Engels uses the term "family" to denote the social organisation of reproduction and production of daily life at all stages of human society. Reed argues convincingly that this confuses the family institution of class society in its varieties of forms and functions with a very different type of social organisation, better expressed in such kinship terms as tribe, clan, horde, gens.

Engels' use of "natural" with regard to the first freely bonding paired family is a different usage than the doctrine of natural difference, which sees the natural as unchanging and biologically determined. Marx and Engels saw the natural as part of a dialectical interconnection between human society and nature.

The content of "nature" can't be taken for granted or as self-explanatory. What counts as nature is varied and culturally produced: an open stretch of parkland may be included in nature in comparison to a factory, but it is just as much a production of human intervention. Today the impact of capitalist production for example, global warming and climate change makes the human/nature categorisation even harder.

The test of evidence and time

Marx and Engels based their explanations on the available archaeological and anthropological evidence, which was very limited because these sciences were relatively new. Historical time lines had been shifted out of the realm of the biblical time span but were still very constrained by lack of technology for accurate dating.

Marx and Engels relied heavily on ethnographic material that described societies organised differently from those in the Europe of their time as well as the available written historic records which could be translated. Engels and the other social evolutionists made considerable use of "survivals". These were social practices that appeared in historic and ethnographic records which didn't have any apparent relevance for the society under study. It was surmised that these survivals were remnants of previous forms of social organisation which had been surmounted and changed over time.

How does Engels' theory of the emergence of the species and the social development of the subordination of women stand up to the evidence today? While there are shortcomings, due to the paucity of knowledge available in the 19th century, the Marxist explanation stands up well.

It is now clear that early human beings did not hunt in the manner that has been portrayed in the past. In fact, there is no evidence for a gender division of labour. Both males and females seem to have collected small game and plant food as well as scavenging kills by other species. It wasn't until around 100,000 years ago that the tools and techniques for hunting large animals began to appear. Some put the date for systematic hunting even more recently, at 45,000 to 35,000 years ago.

While contemporaneous hunter and gatherer societies show a division of labour by sex and age, in the Kalahari 60-80% of the society's diet is supplied regularly by the women's gathering activity rather than the sporadic big game hunts by the men. So the assumptions about the historic role of "man the hunter" are not justified.

Genetic evidence now provides more detailed information concerning the migration of the evolving Homo genus. Until recently it was thought that we were descended from primitive humans who migrated out of Africa less than 2 million years ago. But DNA evidence shows that the human species emerged from ancestors who migrated out of Africa only 200,000 years ago and moved out into the rest of the world as recently as 100,000 years ago. The previous waves of migration and the variety of the Homo genus died out prior to that later migration, just as the Neanderthals died out by 35,000 years ago leaving only Homo sapiens sapiens.

Over the next 20,000 years little changed except that migration spread into the Americas and around the world. People lived in small, mobile bands of about 25-30 individuals. These bands interacted with others, forming a social network linked by customs and language. The bands occupied temporary camps, from which they pursued their daily search for food. Cooperation appears more likely than aggression and competition when comparisons are made to the social life of other primates.

The bipedal posture, freed hands, tool development, brain shift and language evolution of Engels' dialectical theory are well supported by the evidence available today, though the time scales are different. Darwin on the other hand argued that bipedalism, technology and an enlarged brain evolved in concert, so that humans were distinct from apes right from the start and the human species differentiation was abrupt and ancient. The evidence doesn't support this. There was a major shift between Australopithecus and Homo erectus, and another apparent leap 40,000 years ago when the ice began to recede and there was a period of climatic change. Overall the evolutionary line was much more complex than in the theory put forward by Darwin.

Evidence for the subordination of women

Engels' theory emphasises the role of females in the social evolution of human groups. It sees women as central to developing social cooperation and organisation of social groups and gender relations of equality as dominating the vast period of pre-history. The subordination of women took place quite recently, beginning in the epoch of barbarism and being fully developed by the onset of the epoch of civilisation.

The period of savagery coincides with the archaeological period of the Palaeolithic up until around 10,000 years ago, when rapid changes to production, technology and settlement took place. The beginning stages of Engels' epoch of barbarism lie in the neolithic or new stone age, featuring smooth and ground stone tools, and encompass the beginning of working of metals, including the bronze age up to the development of iron tools starting around 1000 BC.

Speculation about the development of early hominid social groups is based on fairly sparse evidence, but it seems that the old insistence on monogamous male-female bonding, where males went out to hunt and women stayed home minding the babies, can be substantially challenged.

Today less than 0.003% of the world's population live as hunters and gatherers, and they live in isolated extreme environments under pressure from more technologically complex societies, so data from these societies has to be treated with caution. But it is very clear that gender relations within these modern hunters and gatherers are much more egalitarian than in other societies. There is a division of labour by sex and age, but the contribution of women to the group as a whole and their status in general is great.

The skeletal implications of bipedalism and growing brain capacity for birth and long infant dependency add weight to Engels' viewpoint that the earliest hominid social groups clustered around females and their siblings. Cooperation to raise infants could lead to a domestication of the human species itself, where choices of cooperative males as partners rather than aggressive and disruptive males would reinforce sharing and social bonds. This type of choice has been observed amongst female chimpanzees.

The dependency of infants and the length of child-rearing reflect too on the patterns of food sharing that form the basis of social interaction. Evidence from primate social groups like chimpanzees shows that food sharing takes place in matrifocal (mother-centred) groups rather than between sexual mates. The stronger tie between offspring and mother would lead to this primary bond being supplemented with older siblings, strengthening the relationship and social behaviour between siblings. The primary role of the mother in encouraging increased sociability and as the major teacher of technological innovations flows from extended child dependency.

The pressure to carry both infants and gathered food back to be shared by the group would reinforce this process as well as provide impetus for developing artefacts and tools like containers and digging sticks to aid the gathering process, etc. These tools are a feature of contemporaneous gathering activities.

There is no uncontested evidence of a gender division of labour in tool use or food gathering until tools for hunting of large game emerged around 100,000 years ago; in this activity, the presence of small children would have become an impediment. This still would not have prevented women without children from hunting, and there is evidence of women as hunters in some modern societies, for example the Agta people in north-east Luzon.

It can therefore be argued that the crucial steps in human development were predominantly inspired by females. These include economic and technological innovations and the role of females as the social centre of groups. This contrasts sharply with the traditional picture of the male as protector and hunter, bringing food back to a pair-bonded female. That model treats masculine aggression as normal, assumes that long-term, one-to-one, male-female bonding was a primary development, with the male as the major food provider, and that male dominance was inherently linked to hunting skills. None of these patterns, however, accords with the behaviour of any but the traditional Western male. Other male primates do not follow this pattern, not do non- Western human groups, in particular those foraging [she means gathering] societies whose lifestyle in many ways accords most closely with putative early human and Palaeolithic cultural patterns.[9]

This argument supports the pattern outlined by Engels.

By the end of the Palaeolithic 10,000 years ago, there was a shift in the environment and the plants growing wild and a shift in the social pattern of relationships. In the "fertile crescent" around the rivers Tigris and the Euphrates, there is evidence of settlements and grain storage, but only of wild grain. This wild grain flourished and peoples ceased migrating because they and the animals they hunted lived on the abundant grain food. The first sign of the domestication of animals (dogs) was found at these sites.

In time these people began to domesticate this food source, either planting seed accidentally by dropping it and seeing it grow or increasingly purposeful planting. This led to the modification of these plants: wild grain disperses easily when seeds break off, but plants with larger heads of grain were those whose seed tended to cling to the stem. This made them easier to gather but also made their dispersal reliant on humans.

Animals too began to change under these domestic conditions. Meat had to be caught either daily or in major hunts, with problems of storage and carrying for hunter and gatherer societies. Settlement brings different problems. If the kill is far from settlement, the problem is how to keep and transport meat. It's easier to bring live beasts back to the settlement, pen them and feed them from the easily available fodder. Domestication probably takes place with nervous and aggressive beast being killed and eaten first. Docile animals last longer and breed.

Plant and animal domestication allowed for constant food supplies plus a surplus for storage. The neolithic grinding of stone surfaces coexists with the grinding of grain to prepare it for consumption. Bone deformities associated with heavy grinding are found in both female and male skeletons in the Near East, but grinding of grain and the technology of stone querns is associated with women and found in women's graves in Europe.

Women working collectively were engaged in the tending of all crops by hoe agriculture horticulture.

Settlement not only allowed for food stockpiling but also overcame the problems of carrying capacity that had placed constraints on hunters and gatherers. Settlement allowed for the accumulation of other goods as well as the production of more children. But it also brought with it problems of sanitation, vermin and diseases in epidemic forms. Children were more vulnerable to disease, so there was even more pressure for more children.

While settlement changed the pattern of food production and accumulation, the social organisation on which it was based remained the matrilineal clan structure, organised in communities which varied depending on the climate and the need to fence and contain animals as well as protect them from natural predators. This clan grouping of long houses or clustering of matrilocal dwellings formed the core of cooperative labour on which the group survived.

Around 6000 B.C. pottery too developed in the Near East and spread to south-east Europe. Again there is no evidence of gender in pottery making except in decoration and imagery, but it was probably work done by women because the vessels created were associated with work women were doing in food production and storage.

Men's tasks began to shift. Hunting continued because the number of domestic animals kept was small, but an adequate food supply was guaranteed by horticulture and the domestication of animals. Care of these animals was more usually by women, to judge from contemporary comparisons. Fishing, some hunting and land clearance for crops became more usual, as well as increasing trade for ornamental products like shells and rare products like obsidian blades that were sharper than flint and needed for grain harvesting. Growth of craft technology like weaving and pottery led to the emergence of petty commodity production and exchange. These trade networks spread along with the planting of domestic grain and new technological innovations. Defence was not a significant activity since war was not a problem, given the sparseness of population and lack of great differences in wealth.

Around 4000 B.C. came a significant development of secondary animal products in Mesopotamia. Instead of just meat and hide from animals like sheep, goats and cattle, milk foods, wool and muscle power diversified the food range. Wool for weaving developed which was warmer and more resilient than linen and easier to dye. Flock and herd growth reflected this shift as mixed farming became more typical.

Even more significant was the shift that draft animals opened up for the social organisation of agriculture. Replacing collective horticulture, large animals were harnessed to ploughs. Draft animals also allowed for the threshing of grain using animal strength and, with the invention of the wheel, transportation of goods. This heralded a shift in work patterns; plough agriculture replaced women's collective horticultural activity with men working in isolation or with a few assistants.

With the emergence of plough agriculture, women's role in agriculture is replaced, and increasingly their range of tasks take place inside the village or settlement compound.

Why were women dispossessed?

Engels argued that the oppression of women came from the exclusion of women from social production and the conversion of household tasks into a private service. Both of these resulted from the replacement of communal ownership of property by private male ownership of the basic means of production. He speculates that such a shift took place with the rise of domestication of animals and the breeding of herds which created new social wealth. This new wealth automatically belonged to male members of the clans.

He based this explanation on a number of incorrect premises. He thought pastoral activities arose before agriculture and that men were the natural providers.

Gaining a livelihood had always been the business of the man; he produced and owned the means of production therefore. The herds were the new means of gaining a livelihood and their original domestication and tending was his work.[10]

On the basis of these false premises, Engels speculated that men owned the cattle and the commodities that began to be exchanged for them. But he still couldn't explain how the herds were converted from the communal property of the clan or tribe into the property of individual male heads of families. Property here has a specific meaning. Engels was charting the development of the resources used in the production and reproduction of daily life and how these productive resources were owned.

The evidence shows that domestication of animals and the keeping of large herds did not precede the development of horticulture, but took place at a later stage. Neither were women isolated from the main productive activity, since they provided the regular basics of life: horticulture was primarily a female activity and domestic animals, while they remained relatively small in number, were primarily women's business. So Engels' assumption of man's role as provider was incorrect historically, and reflected the gender bias of the period.

The neolithic matrilineal settlements produced for their own consumption and were self-sufficient based on horticulture and some animal domestication for meat and hides, not for commodity exchange. While some barter exchange may have taken place between horticultural settlements, extensive exchange would not have taken place until agricultural techniques spread to geographic areas which were lacking in products necessary to make farming implements (wood, stone, silica or, later, bronze) or which lacked the skills or natural products such as clay for the later growth of craft specialisation.

However, explanations which locate the impetus for the emergence of private property in the growth of commodity exchange such as Evelyn Reed's in Woman's Evolution,[11] don't answer the primary question. How did individual men become the owners of the articles that were exchanged or of the means of production that produced them? Answers such as Engels' '"naturalness" or Reed's assumptions of gradual slippage of exchange of women through bride price to the private ownership of cattle beg the question. Neither provides a materialist explanation of why social practices are set in place in the first place or change at a particular time.

Reed in particular separates the emergence of private property from any change in the character of the productive forces. This contradicts the central law of historical materialism. This states that relations of production (consciously recognised as property forms) correspond to the level of development and character of the productive forces. So it is changes in the latter that are the driving force for changes in the former. Instead Reed argues that cattle, as a new form of wealth and as commodities, began to be bartered for wives as bride price and child price. This led to the shift from communal to private ownership by men. But she fails to explain how bride price came into existence or why the shift from matrilocality to patrilocality had already taken place. This shift is necessary to make any sense of the bride or child price as a payment for lost labour. Reed's argument is that the emergence of private ownership of the means of production, which means a fundamental change in the economic basis of society and in the social relations of production, was a result of a change in the superstructural institution of marriage. This is the inverse of a historical materialist explanation.

But despite Reed's and Engels' incorrect premises, modern anthropological and archaeological evidence does support a Marxist explanation for the emergence of private property and the oppression of women.

A qualitative change took place in the character of the productive forces with the shift from collective tilling controlled by women in horticulture to the individual activity controlled by men when they, for the first time, became farmers through the shift to plough agriculture, which required greater physical strength and was an isolated activity compared to the horticulture of women. This removed women from their role in the production of the major source of food. This was accompanied by a shift in the keeping of animals for meat and hides to their use as sources of secondary milk products, wool for weaving and traction power to harness in ploughing, harvesting and transportation.

Plough agriculture and the technological developments spread quickly from Mesopotamia to Europe in a period of 500 years from 4000 B.C. With plough agriculture, land became a valuable resource for the first time. Secondary milk products and the development of wool for weaving, which meant the keeping of large herds and flocks for the first time, also spread quickly. Full-time mixed farming had major ramifications for the range and complexity of tasks. Ploughs needed to be manufactured, animals trained, regular milking procedures established, milk products such as yoghurt and cheese processed, sheep plucked for wool, herds fed, pastured and watered, wool spun and woven into yarn and textiles. Changes in the division of labour became necessary to fill the growing range of tasks.

These shifts in tasks were probably necessitated by both population growth and the need to gain greater yields from less fertile areas. Land became the critical resource and migration one major way of expanding access to this resource. Around 3000 B.C. all these pressures were coming together. Intensive agriculture became increasingly important. Men abandoned hunting and were absorbed into the new tasks in agriculture and herding.

This shift was also characterised by social and economic divisions that were much more significant than previously divisions of wealth and poverty as well as land ownership.

Ehrenberg[12] outlines five significant factors and implications of this shift:

1. Once large scale herding was established, cattle raiding developed as a variation of hunting. This was the origin of warfare. For the first time ownership existed of a resource that was both worth stealing and easy to steal.

2. Individual plough agriculture heralded the shift in gender control of farming. Men controlled the agriculture and herding, and women spent more time in food preparation, craft production and child rearing.

3. Although less land was needed for the same amount of production than in horticulture, plough agriculture is far more labour intensive, especially where the land is of poor fertility and population growth presses on the most arable land. Therefore women needed to produce more children for more workers, and this would have put more emphasis on what was seen as their major role. This would also have led to greater value being put on male children as women withdrew form farming activities and contributed less to the daily production of food.

4. This had implications for the social organisation of communities. A shift from matrilineal and matrilocal to patrilineal and patrilocal organisation laid the basis for the replacement of the clan system by individual and husband-headed family units. Male farmers and herders would teach their sons the necessary skills and techniques in the process of intensive farming. This would pressure the inheritance through sisters' sons of the matrilineal system.

5. Large increases in related tasks and the growth in the range of material possessions over time lead to craft specialisation and exchange. Specialisation and exchange in turn increase the division of labour.

Trade and commodity exchange were mainly carried out by men on behalf of the household or clan. Increasingly this would put pressure on them to subsume the products of their own agricultural work with the products of the household and would add to the tendency to shift to individual ownership and control over all products.

Material possessions and inheritance led to accumulation over generations, developing the social hierarchy of class, status and power. The wealthy became powerful by lending to poorer clan families who in return gave services such as labour or combat duties. The divide between rich and poor widened, the poor becoming more indebted and having less time to spend in the production of their own subsistence. This process sets the framework in which people as well as products, animals, and land become objects of value for exchange. Children or women could be given for labour or reproduction to pay off obligations incurred by the poor.

A Marxist explanation of the social development of private property and the oppression of women makes sense of the data. There is no evidence to back up biological determinist theories, nor do they rely on evidence. Such theories are ideological, given credence in order to distort, undermine and discourage attempts to eliminate gender inequalities.

It is ironic that while the discovery of agriculture by women at the beginning of the neolithic period was such a positive leap forward, by the end of the neolithic it had changed into a negative outcome for women. Women's work, collective in the developing crafts, weaving and pottery, increasingly became located in the home with their exclusion from major food production. This isolation from the source of their previous high status, power and equality in both hunter and gatherer and early neolithic communities led to their subordination and powerlessness in the developing class society and all class formations from that time onwards.


1. See, for example, "Anthropology and Feminism" in Evelyn Reed, Sexism and Science, Pathfinder Press, New York and Toronto, 1978, pp. 98-113.

2. David Barash, The whisperings within, Harper & Row, New York.

3. George P. Murdock, Social Structure, Macmillan, New York, 1949.

4. Talcott Parsons "The American family: its relations to personality and the social structure" in T. Parsons & R.F. Bales, Family, Socialisation and Interaction Process, Free Press, New York, 1955, pp. 3-33.

5. Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society, New York Labor News, Palo Alto, 1975.

6. Dialectics of Nature, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1934, pp. 170-83.

7. ibid., p. 173.

8. Frederick Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, Marx-Engels Selected Works, Vol. 3, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970, p. 233.

9. M. Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory, British Museum

Publications, London, 1989, p. 50.

10. Engels, 1970, p. 319.

11. Woman's Evolution from matriarchal clan to patriarchal family, Pathfinder Press, New York and Toronto, 1975.

12. M. Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory, British Museum Publications, London, 1989.

Pat Brewer is a member of the National Committee of the Australian Democratic Socialist Party.


"While such theories pretend to scientific validity, they are in fact partial and distorted viewpoints ideological justifications for the status quo. They attempt to justify systems of inequality, exploitation and domination as inevitable, inescapable, unchangeable. "

It is interesting to note that you do not reference any scientific papers when you make such a grandiose claim. The papers I have read do not make the claim that inequality is inevitable or unchangeable. They do however suggest that much of human behaviour can be understood in terms of the biological imperative to reproduce. They also generally conclude that this is only one element of human behaviour. For example "First, labeling something as 'learned' does not, by itself, provide a satisfactory scientific explanation any more than labeling something as 'evolved' does; it is simply the claim that environmental input is one component of the causal process by which change occurs in the organism in some way. Second, 'learned' and 'evolved' are not competing explanations; rather, learning requires evolved psychological mechanisms, without which learning could not occur." 1

You criticise others for their ideological biases and then commit the same sin yourself. At least make some effort to present a balanced argument.


1. Confer, Jaime C; Easton, Judith A; Fleischman, Diana S; Goetz, Cari D; Lewis, David M; Perilloux, Carin; Buss, David M., 'Evolutionary Psychology: Controversies, Questions, Prospects, and Limitations', American Psychologist
Issue: Volume 65(2), February-march 2010, p 110–126


I am perplexed to note that Gerda Learner's two volumes of Women's History (The creation of Patriarchy and The Creation of Feminist Consciousness) does not get a mention. A purely Marxist oriented speculation (and that is all it could ever be as far as early or pre-historic events are concerned)will result in phallocentricity because the writings and consciousness of Marx (and Engels)were necessarily phallocentric.