Patriarchy and the origins of women’s oppression

smash patriarchy

Any vision of a world beyond capitalism involves the liberation of women from oppression, exploitation and discrimination. But just because we might have been able to win revolutionary social change, it does not mean that equal economic, social and cultural rights will be automatic for women. 

Why? Because the origins of women’s oppression predate the development of class society, and the subordination of women was instrumental in the development of early forms of class societies and the directions they took.

Patriarchy — the institutionalised system of male dominance — and paternalism have developed over thousands of years and sadly cannot be wished away just because we know they are wrong and archaic. And to fight against something, we need to know where it comes from, how it developed and how it became so effective.

In her pamphlet, The Dispossession of Women - A Marxist examination of new evidence on the origins of women’s oppression, Pat Brewer comprehensively researched much of the evidence available about 25 years ago to update the work done by other Marxist feminists like Evelyn Reed and, before that, Friedrich Engels’ earlier work on the family, with the latest historical and anthropological research.

Interestingly though, Brewer did not analyse the work undertaken by Gerda Lerner, an Austrian American feminist historian who undertook a massive study called The Creation of Patriarchy, which was published in 1986. It has particular relevance because Lerner exhaustively analysed not only how women may have emerged from prehistoric hunter gatherer and early farming societies but also how women’s oppression was institutionalised in ancient Mesopotamian societies, followed by the monotheistic ones, with the development of patriarchy. 

Historical materialism

Marxists approach and study history through the use of historical materialism and dialectics, and have applied these concepts to understanding women’s role in history.

Karl Marx and Engels began their studies in an utterly misogynist society where capitalism — a fairly new phenomenon and mode of production at the time — was expanding massively. It was Marx who exposed the role of reproductive labour in capitalism, namely the unpaid work needed to reproduce labour power by creating and raising children and by feeding, clothing, sheltering and caring for adult workers.

And it was Engels who later identified in his groundbreaking book (developed from Marx’s notes after his death), The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State that: "The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules."

What Marx and Engels were able to do, nearly 200 years ago now, was pull together all the most radical investigations and analyses of their day covering history, evolution, philosophy, economics, sociology, anthropology, archaeology and more, and meld these into an astonishing set of tools to understand our world. 

As Peter Boyle notes in Introduction to Marxism

Marx and Engels taught that reality should be understood not as a “complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable … go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away” and that we understand these processes by engaging with reality as well as reflecting on what we perceive.

To understand reality we have to recognise that it is not just the sum of its parts. We need to understand the dynamic relationship between all these parts … the dialectic or logic of change.

What made their understanding of history so radical at the time was that we are talking about a contrary worldview dominated by the idea that God created everything, human activity was guided by religious beliefs, there was little free will and most things were predetermined and unchanging. Also that history was made by great individual men and their ideas.

But Marx turned this on its head and argued, in 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, that history was made by the interaction of human beings with their environment, “under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” That is, that all human beings make history — what each of us does has an impact on the future. This is clearly true when you look at the current debate about the impact of capitalism on the environment and the legacy that will be left for generations to come.

Hunter gatherers and equality

So, how did women go from thousands upon thousands of years of relative equality with men to the subjugation of the last 4-5000 years? Homo sapiens as a species probably began to emerge about 200-300,000 years ago, but modern humans started to leave Africa about 50-70,000 years ago and spread throughout the globe. 

These were small communities of hunter gatherers that were essentially classless. They gathered and hunted for food in what were extended family groups, and made tools and developed stories and culture that were handed down from one generation to the next as a repository of acquired human knowledge over thousands of years. They adapted to their changing environments and everyone in the group had a role to ensure the survival of the group.

This much is substantially agreed upon by all historians today. But if you have ever done any historical study before, it is guaranteed that pretty much everybody disagrees on everything in prehistory. New discoveries are made and, all of a sudden, the debates in anthropology or archaeology go off in completely different tangents. For example it took decades of hotly disputed points scoring and evidence gathering before there was substantial agreement on the theory that modern humans left Africa to populate the globe.

With this in mind, let us move to the main controversies about the role of women in these hunter gatherer communities. Here, I am going to mainly look at the differences between Marxist and biological determinist theories.

Early hunter gatherer groups, according to a Marxist perspective, had a division of labour based on sexual and age differences. Women’s bodies produced children, and if the group was to reproduce itself, then women of child bearing age needed to devote time and protection to the development of their child. This meant breastfeeding and carrying the child around. Human beings, due to our bipedalism, have children that are born in a much more immature state than most other mammals. Their dependency on their mother is greater for longer.

The ramifications of this meant that it was likely women rarely went on the hunt for big game instead gathering plants and small game closer to the camp. Indeed many studies show that women gathered at least 60% of the tribe’s nutrition. Women may also have done chores like cooking and hut building around the camp, though this could just as easily have been done by men not out hunting and older members of the group whose hunting days were over. Child rearing of independent children was probably shared by everyone, including the telling of stories to educate and pass on the collective knowledge of the tribe. Of course many communities developed differently and had different traditions, but it would appear that the trajectory of their development was similar.

Lerner stresses that what is significant about their development is not that there may be differences but that it was not intrinsic to our biology or our genes: “Clearly the link between child-bearing and child-rearing for women is culturally determined and subject to societal manipulation. My point is to stress that the earliest sexual division of labour by which women chose occupations compatible with their mothering and child raising activities were functional hence acceptable to men and women alike.”

She goes on to say that humankind would not have successfully developed if these choices had not been made — they were necessary to our development. Lerner explains that if women did not mother well and the tribe did not look after mothers and children, the future of the tribe was at risk. She adds, “groups that accepted and institutionalised a functional sexual division of labour were more likely to survive.”

There were other cultural practices that developed over time in many of these early communities that have an impact on our study. Namely the incest taboos. We first encounter a debate about what these taboos may have led to in these early communities in Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State pamphlet. Engels’ analysis drew heavily from an American anthropologist named Morgan, who had done an extensive study of the Iroquois, Native Americans and their kinship and social structures. As Pat Brewer says of Morgan’s studies, they showed: “that primitive society exhibited egalitarian social and sexual relations and was characterised by collective production and communal ownership of property. [Engels] 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.”

According to Brewer’s explanation, these communities were basic units, “composed of a community of mothers, their brothers and the children of the mothers.” The family was traced through the mother’s line matrilineally and excluded sexual relations with children and siblings. This led eventually, according to Brewer, “to pairing relationships based on mutual agreement in which each partner had the ability to dissolve the bond.” Interestingly, most anthropologists today now agree because of genetic and other evidence, that early human kinship may have been matrilineal. This is after a century of writing off the Morgan-Engels thesis as just “Communist orthodoxy”.

What we can largely get agreement on now is that this was how human communities existed throughout most of human history. Brewer says, “It has been estimated that more than 90% of people who have ever lived have been gatherers in small groups spread over sparsely populated large areas, able to choose the most favourable environments available.”

But Marxists disagree with biological determinists. Fundamentally, the latter argue that the differences between men and women are inherent to our makeup; that our differences are not culturally or environmentally developed but intrinsic, genetic and “natural”. So, it is natural for women to be maternal and caring or weak and needing protection. And it is natural for men to be hunters, strong and aggressive, with uncontrollable sexual urges. 

As Brewer says, “Women’s subordinate role has been justified in terms of the functions they have to carry out in giving birth to and raising children; their subordination is seen as based on their biology, and is thus their destiny — it’s ‘natural’.”

The Neolithic Revolution

About 10-12,000 years ago, the last ice age began to dramatically recede and the Holocene — the current geological period, began. In the Fertile Crescent — that area of land stretching from modern day Egypt through Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and coming down through Iraq and parts of southwestern Iran — the warmer but perhaps dryer weather led hunter gatherers to begin farming. The same changes began to happen later in other major river basins, such as the Indus in India and the Yellow River in China. This is known as the Neolithic or New Stone Age period.

I will concentrate on the Fertile Crescent because this is where these communities develop into the first major civilisation — Sumer (or Mesopotamia) — and directly lead, over millennia, to the development of capitalism. It is not that the other communities had no significance or influence. In fact, what is fascinating is that despite their diversity, the trajectory of their developments has so many similarities.

No one really knows why human beings chose to settle down and start farming, because all the evidence shows that life was actually better when humans followed the seasons hunting and gathering. The diet was definitely more diverse, people were healthier and the workload was much less. Farming involves much heavier workloads and incurs more physical ailments than relying on the wild. The work-life balance was nowhere near as good.

But we do know that hunter gatherers often supplemented their food with the deliberate sowing of seeds. Bruce Pascoe points out in Dark Emu that there was obvious planting then slashing and burning early on in Australia. Finds from ancient seeds in the Fertile Crescent also prove that weeding, removing pests, transplanting and sowing seeds into alluvial soils must have happened for long periods during the Neolithic. And hunters lived symbiotically with their prey for thousands of years as Marxist anthropologist Neil Faulkner notes in his A Marxist History of the World, where he argues that, transitioning from hunting to pastoralism could have been “gradual and seamless.”

But Steven Mithen, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, poses a quite dialectical question in his article in London Review of Books, asking why hunter gatherers would have given up their free and easy lifestyle: “Was it by choice, or was that first sowing of seed a trap, locking people into a seasonal cycle of planting and harvesting from which we have been unable to escape?” Mithen comes up with a rather speculative answer about religion being the cause, which does not seem very convincing, even if religion may have played a role in ideologically justifying change. 

BBC commentator suggests that hunters followed animals from the drying uplands to the river valleys and in these geographically limited areas, people were forced to farm. Certainly there must have been some sort of pressure, probably due to environmental factors or increasing populations perhaps, where land needed to be used more productively. 

But whatever the reason, humans have found it impossible to go backwards. Faulkner notes: “if farmers were to abandon their work, their community would starve, for there were now too many people simply to live off the wilderness. Humanity was trapped in toil by its own success.”

In the earlier Neolithic, the farming of the Fertile Crescent was dominated by horticulture. It is likely that this was a female occupation that extended from the women’s gathering activities and plant knowledge. These settlements appear to have maintained matrilineal structures and produced largely for their own needs. While there may have been some trading, craft specialisation and extensive exchange did not happen until a later date.

The main difficulties with the horticulture of that time was that there was little understanding about fertilisation, crop rotation, terracing or irrigation. So, the yields were low, the land often became infertile and it was time to look for new plots. Over time, this led to land fights and constant battles with neighbouring tribes, including the theft of women as more labour was needed. 

Eventually though, settlement and farming did enable the accumulation and stockpiling of food and the diversification of skills, meaning that some in the tribe could now be supported without taking part in the productive process. Consequently, food productivity was high enough to allow for the development of new craft technologies, such as weaving and pottery, leading to the emergence of petty commodity production and trade exchange. 

However, change appears to have happened slowly but cumulatively throughout the early part of the Neolithic. DNA studies show that there was little intermarriage or gene sharing until about 6000 BC, when communities began linking to one another, possibly via trade networks, which led to intermarriage, children and new ideas.

How plough agriculture changed everything

It was not until the introduction of plough agriculture that the pace of change increased and we see a qualitative leap, sometime about 5500 BC. Now, a single farmer with an ox team could cultivate ten times or more land than a hoe farmer. This new technology radically altered the status of women, as it was dominated by men, while it also substantially increased wealth within communities by providing not just a stockpile of food but a huge surplus. 

Brewer explains it this way: “Early plough agriculture required greater physical strength, involving the use of … bigger animals such as cattle... Ploughing was also an isolated activity compared to the horticulture of women, and less easily handled with child-minding…the development of the plough removed women from their role in the production of the major source of food.”

Changes brought by plough agriculture, coupled with trends that had emerged since the earliest forms of farming had begun, led directly to what Engels called the “world historic defeat of the female sex”.  Of course, Engels was dramatising the loss of power and status that women had begun to experience over many, many years during this transition to farming, and not through a single event.

So, let us look at these trends. 

Firstly, the demand for labour inexorably increased, as all forms of farming were far more labour intensive than hunting and gathering. Women of child bearing age were therefore in increasing demand, with more children needed to provide labour. This meant women spent far greater periods bearing children. We know women in hunter gatherer societies had a child once every three to four years. In the Neolithic, women were far more frequently pregnant, which also increased the chances of maternal mortality, and made the need for women ever greater.

This then increased the likelihood of another significant trend: women began to be exchanged with other tribes for their fertility and reproductive capacity — reversing matrilocal traditions where the husbands had moved in and lived with the wife’s community. Lerner argues that this would probably have been by the woman’s choice at first, as her family and she would benefit from the peace and prosperity that this would bring. It was also better to be exchanged than stolen, and there were certainly wealth exchanges too.

Sadly, within the process of exchange lay unintended consequences: women’s reproductive power was being commodified, opening her up to exploitation as this increased the overall wealth of the tribe. The patrilocality (living with the husband’s community) that developed from this process also accompanied the shift as Brewer says, “to emphasising the importance of paternity and the father in the kinship line, as well as a shift to monogamy in sexual relations.”

Meanwhile, the daily lives of women changed too. Women found themselves more often around the hearth completing a myriad of home-based activities that included the grinding of grain to feed the increasing population, the making of textiles for clothing and trade purposes, and the making of receptacles to hold food, cook in and for trade, all while dealing with annual pregnancies and child rearing. Men, on the other hand, were out in the fields teaching their sons the intensive farming techniques of plough farming and herding, or training for war, as property needed to be defended from marauders. Men also started trading all the secondary products that came from farming, herding and household production, such as cheese, wool or pottery.

While this was happening — and it is impossible to put actual dates here — the population was growing and more land was needed. Brewer writes: “Land became the critical resource and migration was one major way of expanding access to this resource.” So conflict increased. More men became fighters but labour for farming was still needed. So, the capture of slaves became attractive — especially the reproductive capacity of female slaves. As Peter Boyle notes: “Such early forms of slavery may well have been one of the first forms of ‘property’ along with land, produce, tools and weapons seized from the defeated groups. Initially such war booty became the communal property of the victorious group.”

But the clan system started to break down under the pressure of a family system propelled by husband headed family units based on the individual labour of men in ploughing and herding. Boyle goes on to say: “Private property first developed through a gradual privatisation of communal property by an elite that used religion and war as cover and justification. In the process, women, like slaves, land and livestock, become their private property.”

It is in this context that inheritance became critical. Now, men wanted to prove that their children were their own, so monogamy intensified for women and their confinement became a growing requirement. Brewer notes: “inheritance led to accumulation of wealth over generations, developing the social hierarchies of class, status and power… It is ironic that while the discovery of farming 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… their subordination and powerlessness in the developing class society and all class formations from that time onwards.” In other words once women lost their direct role in agricultural production, they lost their status, power and equality as well.

It is likely that all of this was developing before and during the first fully formed class society of ancient Sumer, about 5000 BC, and patriarchy was developing too.

Development of patriarchy

Lerner argues: “The sexuality of women, consisting of their sexual and their reproductive capacities and services, was commodified even prior to the creation of Western civilisation.” She maintains that women were originally exchanged in marriage for the benefit of their families but were later conquered or bought in slavery, that women were the first slaves, as men were killed, and that this preceded the formation of class society. Lerner argues: “Economic oppression and exploitation are based as much on the commodification of female sexuality and the appropriation by men of women’s labour power and her reproductive power as on the direct acquisition of resources and persons.”

Here is a slightly different emphasis than the one Marxist feminists have traditionally followed. Marxist feminists usually argue that the exploitation of women is inextricably linked with the development of private property and class society. But Lerner’s theory spells out how the sexual exploitation of women was one of the motive forces for change. 

Lerner is often described as a radical feminist. However the co-director with Lerner of the women’s history program at the University of Wisconsin, Linda Gordon, argues in Lerner’s obituary that she actually mixed the Marxism of her political roots with radical feminism. Gordon says: “throughout the two volumes (of The Origins of Patriarchy) the two theoretical strands argue with each other.” 

Perhaps Lerner overstates her case, but there is no doubt that the exploitation of women and their reproductive power must have played a key role in the revolutionary process of changing from the hunter gatherer mode of production to the slave society mode of production. By eliminating the equal decision-making power that women had in hunter gatherer society and commodifying both their labour and their reproductive capacity, this surely helped clear the way to reducing the power and status of other men who were not able to retain their share of property as it became privatised — thus helping to usher in the early beginnings of class society. 

Of course, a lot of this is conjecture, because there is so much about prehistory that we really cannot answer, such as why human beings even began to farm in the first place. Remember our story, so far, takes place before the written word is even invented — which was not until something like 3300 BC. So, we have to draw conclusions from mute objects dug up from the ground, carbon dating and DNA analysis, or from the remnants of similar but more modern societies surviving thousands of years later. All of which have their traps and inadequacies.

Returning to Brewer once again, when looking at what happens from this point onwards, seems to prove her point about the development of the new society: “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 as the poor became more indebted and had less time to spend producing for their own subsistence. This process is the framework within which people, as well as products, animals, goods and land, became objects of value for exchange. Children or women could be given (for use as labourers or breeders) to pay off obligations incurred by poor families.”

Lerner’s real significant contribution, though, is her exhaustive analysis of the evidence showing the development of patriarchy from Sumer through to Judaism — a process which she says really takes hold with the archaic Sumerian states and intensifies over the next 2500 years. Lerner notes that Sumer goes through three phases of urban development, all underpinned by irrigation and control of water flows, during flood times especially, from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  They were “the emergence of temple towns, the growth of city-states, and the development of national states”, a period that begins somewhere around 4000 BC. 

Lerner traces how religion, culture and law redefine the role of women and intensify their subordination. She trawls through the evidence to show how laws favoured men: Women could be divorced, punished or sold into slavery for adultery, while men could not. Women were forced to wear veils, had their movements restricted and became the property of their fathers and husbands. As Lerner writes: “female subordination within the family becomes institutionalised and codified in law; prostitution becomes established and regulated; with increasing specialisation of work, women are gradually excluded from certain occupations and professions. After the invention of writing and the establishment of formal learning women are excluded from equal access to such education… the religious underpinning for the archaic state, subordinate female deities to chief male gods, and feature myths of origin which legitimate male ascendancy.”

In fact she undertakes a thorough analysis of the Book of Genesis in the Bible to show how the first monotheistic religion, Judaism, completely transformed the original female goddesses of fertility and creation into a single male god. One who controlled all creation and redefined women in a narrow, sexually dependent way. Women were seen as weak, evil, sexually deviant and in need of a firm hand.

Lerner concludes: “The basis for paternalism is an unwritten contract for exchange: economic support and protection given by the male for subordination in all matters, sexual service, and unpaid domestic service given by the female… It was a rational choice for women, under conditions of public powerlessness and economic dependency, to choose strong protectors for themselves and their children.” 

What a sorry end to this amazing story of struggle and development. We began with the proud, strong women of hunter gatherer times, who provided 60% of their tribes’ nutrition with a baby on their hip or breast, and were equal in every way to the men of their group. And we end with the emergence of our epoch – battered, degraded, enslaved and dishonoured. Yet we all know that is not the whole truth. 

Because in the last century or more women have been rediscovering that we have played strong, resilient, creative roles throughout these 5000 years. It is just that our story was not seen as worth telling, or maybe there was a fear that if we knew the truth we might fight back. Because the real truth is that without us there would be no humanity and there would be no future.

So what is the relevance of all of this for us today? Brewer begins her conclusion this way: 

This isn’t just an interesting historical reconstruction based on today’s evidence, one story of origin amongst many. The Marxist explanation of the social development of private property and the oppression of women makes sense of the data, and it refutes the dominant explanation of why social inequality exists and why it can’t be changed, the doctrine of natural difference.

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 inequality. Ideologies like biological determinism exist to serve a class interest — in the present time, the interest of those who want to roll back the gains for women...

So, yes, to understand our history and the details of what happened, helps us get to grips with what we should do next and why we cannot let conservatives and misogynists have their way. Capitalism learnt the lessons from previous class societies of slavery and feudalism. Generations of feminists have been unravelling the myths and misrepresentations of those eras and drawing lessons for us to use today.

We know that the biggest enemy of women today is capitalism. It pits the working class against each other along sexist, racist and homophobic lines to stop us from fighting back. All the campaigns that women unite around today whether for equal pay, the right to choose, transgender rights or against all forms of sexual violence and degradation matter. They build our consciousness and our unity to fight for a better world. 

Understanding our history means that we know that for the better part of human existence, women were not subordinate to men and that a return to the equality of those days will free all humanity for the challenges in the future that we must face united together.