T IS SOMETIMES SAID that women have always been op

uyopressed by men, that the antagonism between men and women has its origin deep in human psychology or biology, and that the way women suffer in our society is nothing but the same old story that has been going on ever since human life began.

This is such a pessimistic view that it is hard to understand why it is so popular with feminists today. If women are put at a disadvantage by human nature itself, how can we ever change things? Either an all-out war against men could lead to men being forced to change their ways without changing their basically anti-women ideas; or a few women could separate themselves off from the rest of society and be free in a sense; or the human race could be destroyed by women refusing all co-operation with men. None of these conclusions can be very appealing for the majority of women.

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On the other hand, the view that women are oppressed simply because men (and most women too) have the wrong ideas about women can be too optimistic. Liberating women is seen as just a matter of persuasion and education, of explaining to men that they have got it wrong and that they really should share the housework and the top jobs because it would be more fair.

History shows that all ideas can change: none are so deep-rooted in human nature that nothing can be done about them. But they can’t be changed by persuasion, by the light of reason alone, because ideas depend on material relations between human beings.

The idea that black people are inferior, for example, belongs to societies that exploit black people, either as slaves or as cheap labour. To get rid of the idea once and for all we have to get rid of the system that produces the idea. This doesn’t mean that we can’t argue or organise against racism here and now, but it does mean that persuading people that they have the wrong ideas is only the first step to getting rid of the society that is responsible for them.

The idea that women are inferior comes from societies that are divided into classes, where one set of people control the labour of others and enjoy wealth and power as a result. Our own capitalist society is far from being the first society divided into classes, though we hope to make it the last. In ancient Greece and Rome, slaves were exploited by slave-owners, in Europe in the middle ages lords lived off the labour of serfs on the land, and there have been variations of these societies at other times and places. With the rise of manufacture and the Industrial Revolution, those with wealth to invest as capital found new ways to make profits out of wage-earning men and women. In all these forms of society, women have been oppressed.

But there have been, even in quite recent times, societies that were not divided into classes, and where women did not have an inferior position. These were the societies we call primitive, where there was no production other than the gathering of wild plants and hunting of wild animals. Nowadays, most of these societies have been affected by contact with European traders, rulers and missionaries, who have changed their ways of life. But when white men first came into contact with most of the native tribes of North America, Australia and the Pacific islands, these were societies without classes and in which women were as strong and as powerful as men.

When production was simple and population low, women’s role as the bearers of children was important and respected. Though men and women might have their separate tasks and rituals, women as well as men took part in the most important decisions, such as whether to move a settlement or make war on another band or tribe. Couples might live together with their children, but sexual relations were more free and separation easier than in later societies.

When production increased, agriculture appeared, and flocks and herds of animals were kept for food and wealth (for fields and cattle were the first forms of private property), class divisions began to appear. Men of wealth could make others work for them, buy slaves and take advantage of others’ poverty. They began to own wives, too, like cattle, and pass on their wealth to their male children. As Engels argued a hundred years ago, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, the oppression of women began when class society began.


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thers work for them, buy slaves and take advantage of others’ poverty. They began to own wives, too, like cattle, and pass on their wealth to their male children. As Engels argued a hundred years ago, in The Origin of the Family, Private Prope