How Women’s Oppression Began—and How It Will End

By Suzanne Weiss

Based on a talk given to the Socialism 2007 conference in Toronto, April 28, 2007.

When I think about the course of my life, I am struck by how much things have changed for me—and for all women—over the course of the last half century. Through the explosive struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, women won more freedom to choose our life paths. We gained access to contraception and abortion. Our lives were no longer defined solely by marriage and children. Many women decided they had a right to a full education and to a career. Now, in some countries, including Canada, women can even marry other women!

In the 1960s, women broke the dress codes. We cut our hair short. We decided on the length of our skirts and the height of our shoes. We chose not to wear fashion hats or gloves. Business women began to wear pants to work.

Although the life of the country remains dominated by a small group of rich men, it is now common for a woman to be named to a corporate board, a cabinet, or even as Governor-General.

We now see women on TV as news anchors and interviewers. And we don’t look twice when we see a woman driving a bus or subway train.

Still oppressed

And yet after all this, women are still oppressed.

In the U.S., an Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution was overwhelmingly adopted by congress in 1971, guaranteeing that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied on account of sex.” But ratification was blocked by a well-financed campaign by right-wing forces.

The American Association of University Women reports that women now outnumber men on college campus, and get better grades than men. And, yet women earn 20 percent less than men at the same level and in the same field of work one year after college graduation. (Toronto Star, May 5, 2007)

Violence against women continues unchecked in Canada and the U.S. as well as across the globe. Women are apprehensive to walk alone in the evening or on a quiet street during the day. Even in the privacy of the nuclear family, many women live in a prison of brutality. According to a landmark Statistics Canada study in 1993, 60 percent of Canadian women have been victims of at least one act of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Subsequent surveys have revealed little change in the situation. (Statistics Canada, “The Violence Against Women Survey, ” The Daily, November 18, 1993.)

Freedom for women to work outside the home is a gain, to be sure. But for most mothers, it is not a matter of choice. Gone are the days when a working-class family could be supported on a single income. And working women still carry the full load of domestic labour—a double working day. In British Columbia, for example, only 37 percent of women’s productive time is paid work. (BC Solutions Budget 2006, Budgeting for Women’s Equality)

Our society is based on the exploitation by a minority class of wealthy over a majority class of wage workers. Women face additional exploitation as a consequence of patriarchal relations that date back to the very beginnings of class society. The wealthy elite benefits from divisions along gender lines that allows them to pay lower salaries to women, or none at all.

Our society is based on the domination of men, and the maternal functions of women are used to justify women’s degradation and inequalities between the sexes.

Women have the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but in many parts of Canada, there is no easy way to obtain an abortion

It is now accepted that we can raise children alone, without a husband. But the wages of working women in Canada are so low that in 2000, 56 percent of families headed by single mothers were living in poverty.

The crisis of health-care workers

I learned a lot about these problems during the last 10 years, working in the industry that provides care for elderly people. During these years, life has become more arduous for many women in Canada and the U.S.

These were the years of the Conservative government’s assault on health care in the context of neo-liberalism, which included downgrading employment conditions and denying workers the right to a union.

I met hundreds of support workers in long-term care facilities, in private homes, and in hospitals. They are mainly immigrants from the Philippines, South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Many receive the minimum wage or less. Most are women of colour who clean, cook, and care for the sick and infirm with no fixed hours.

These women also suffer the indignities of those with the wrong religion. For example, one Christian institution did not want a friend of mine who worked there to pray in their empty chapel—because she is Muslim.

These women often have no fixed places of work and receive no benefits. They take care of strangers during the day and then come home to their second, unpaid job—housework, cooking, raising their kids, and taking care of the seniors in their own family. Many of these are single mothers who cannot find adequate daycare. “How do you do it,” I often asked in awe. “What about your children?” A typical response was, “I set rules for my kids. I hope they follow them.”

These women do necessary, difficult, and highly skilled work with love and commitment, under demoralizing conditions. For this they are rewarded with brutal exploitation.

This happens because the care women provide is viewed as an extension of their caring function in the family—which has low prestige and no economic value in our society. It is evident that women’s housework and care giving is conceived as an inherent feature of the female make-up, and for that reason is also devalued.

The fabric of our society is based on profit, not human needs. Owners of industries, particularly in the needle trades and service industries, increase their revenues by underpaying women’s traditional skills. So, women are exploited—both as workers and as women.

When women were equal

Have women always been treated with disrespect and brutality? Has society always been dominated by the will of men? Can women ever win the dignity we deserve as human beings?

To answer these questions, it’s helpful to look at the role of women in history. What we find is that women were not always oppressed. In fact, women’s oppression has existed for less than one percent of human existence.

The study of pre-history shows that early human societies were organized much differently from our own. Frederick Engels takes this up in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, first published in 1884. He says that when encountered by the European conquerors, the indigenous societies of North America, such as the Six Nations, produced the necessities of life through common effort, and every member was provided for on an equal basis. This early communist-type society had no coercive state apparatus, with armed men and police, to keep people subjugated. It was self-governing and democratic, and all the members were equals.

The U.S. Marxist Evelyn Reed wrote in Problems of Women’s Liberation that the “family unit as we know it today did not then exist. Tribal society was composed of a network of clans, each one consisting of social brothers and sisters. Under this kinship system, members owed their status not to wealth or inheritance but to their clan and tribal connections…. There was no such thing as the domination of one gender over the other, just as there was no such thing as the subjugation of a wealthy class over working mass.” (p. 23)

In the American colonies, a Jesuit missionary in the 1600s was reported to be stunned by the contrast between the greedy, money-crazy civilized society he had left in Europe and the generous spirit of the indigenous people among whom he had settled. He wrote:

“These savages know nothing of mine and thine, for it may be said that what belongs to one belongs to another…. They think it strange that someone should have more goods than others, and that those who have more should be more esteemed that those who have less.”

When the missionary asked an Iroquois why he was so fond of children which were not his own, he answered, “Thou hast no sense. You love only your own children; we love all the children of the tribe…We are all father and mother to them.” (p. 31)

Engels explained that “all societies have rested upon the twin pillars of production and procreation.” In ancient times, women were both the creators of new life and the leaders in producing the material necessities of life. As a result they became social leaders of their communities. They worked together, as a collective community of producers, and were not dispersed into separate households where each individual woman is encumbered with the same tasks for her individual children.

Men had honored roles as hunters and warriors, but women developed tools, skills, and techniques at the base of social progress. From food collecting they moved on to simple horticulture and then to agriculture. In her research Reed discovered that “out of the great variety of crafts women practiced, which included pot making, leather making, textile making, house building, etc., they developed the rudiments of botany, chemistry, medicine, and other branches of scientific knowledge.” Women acquired their leading place in primitive society not simply because they were the procreators of new life, but as a result of their leading role in production, and establishment of social life.

Survivals of this era still exist. When I was visiting the Zuni people in New Mexico a few years ago, a young man told me he lived in the home of his wife’s kin. If they ever separated, he would have to leave that home. Arrangements like this, symbolic of women’s principal role, lead to such societies being termed “matrilocal” as or “matrilineal.” Sometimes they are called “matriarchal” societies.

Of course, it is important to understand that matriarchal societies did not involve women dominating or oppressing men. Women did not maintain a female version of “patriarchy.” These societies in which division of labor between the sexes did not entail or require domination of one gender over the other.

Reed states that “It is hard to say which is most distressing to the powers that be: the fact that primitive society was collectivist, egalitarian, and democratic; or the fact that it was matriarchal, with women occupying influential and respected positions in the community.” This is in stark contrast to the subordinate and degraded position of women throughout history since the division of society into antagonistic classes.

When the earliest settlers came here from Europe, they were astonished that these so-called savages would make no important collective decisions without the agreement and consent of their women.

All adults in a clan community regarded themselves as the social parents of all children, providing for them equally. In their communal society, where the patriarchal family did not yet exist, knowing who was the biological father — or even mother — was unimportant.

The downfall of women

This view of the part played by women in history is quite different, Reed remarks, “from that of the Biblical Eve who, in the later patriarchal era, was made responsible for the ‘downfall of man.’… In reality, what occurred at that major turning point in social evolution was the downfall of woman.” (Problems of Women’s Liberation, p. 28)

This transition began with the changes in the structure of society and the breakdown of the original economic/social system based on communal ownership.

Its dissolution first began some 6,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East with the introduction of large-scale agriculture and stock raising. This brought about the material surpluses required for a more efficient economy and a new mode of life.

Reed explains, that “farming requires groups of people stabilized around plots of ground, tilling the soil, raising livestock and engaging in village industries. The old sprawling tribal commune began to collapse: first into separate clan, then into separate farm families often called ‘extended families,’ and finally into the individual family which we call the ‘nuclear family.’ It was in the course of this process that the father-head of the family displaced the clan as the basic unit of society.” (Problems of Women’s Liberation, p. 32)

It was now possible to accumulate wealth in the form of permanent surpluses of foodstuffs. That not only provided a reserve for arduous years, it also made it possible for some members of society to live from the labour of others. It meant that anyone who could gain control over the product of others’ labour could live from this surplus.

However, a new economic system developed from this that undermined and destroyed the collectivist relations. Society divided into classes, including a privileged class that lived by the labour of others. Various forms of servitude arose including slavery. Wealth was seized by theft or war and thus passed into the hands of the male conquerors. A state arose to defend these arrangements.

Under these pressures, the old communal clan-based society gradually broke down and was replaced by a new system based on the exploitation of labour and the rule of the rich. The new rulers did not want to share out their wealth among matriarchal clans; they wanted to pass it on to their sons. Thus was born the patriarchal family.

Property was owned by the individual head of the family, the father, and handed down from father to son. The father lorded it over a family composed of junior men and below them, the women children and slaves. Interestingly, the Roman term “famulus” means domestic slave, and familia is the cumulative number of slaves belonging to one man. (Origin of the Family, p. 68)

With the rise of the system of private property, monogamous marriage, and the family, women were dispersed, each to become a solitary wife and mother in an individual home. Woman became not only powerless, but degraded.

“Monogamy was introduced for men of wealth to give him legal heirs who would take his name and inherit his property,” Reed says. Wives were severely disciplined and punished if they broke their marriage vows. Thus violence against women was instituted into law. “Hemmed in on all sides, women became household chattels whose function was to serve the husband, their lord and master.”

“The drastic social changes brought about by the patriarchy and the class institutions of the family, private property, and the state produced the historic downfall of the female sex.” (Problems of Womens Liberation, p.34)

Women’s liberation

During the last century, women—and working people as a whole—have made major gains against this oppression. But as we know, the battle has not been won.

Women still suffer from domestic servitude and sexual violence. Their role as chattels and sex slaves is promoted by modern sexism, relayed by media and marketing. Capitalism profits from this servitude and, as I have described, deepens it whenever possible.

Sometimes, the language of women’s liberation is used to attack women. Thus, in Afghanistan, thousands of women have been killed or victimized as a result of a Canadian-U.S. war waged on the pretext of liberating them in the “war on terrorism.” These same warmakers are also slow to come to the assistance of women who are brutalized in their own countries.

The capitalists justify their crusade by attacking Islam, including by branding it an “anti-woman” religion, as if women were not equally oppressed in societies whose dominant religion is Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism.

The capitalists invoke “women’s rights” to attack women’s freedom of choice. For example, there are now moves to restrict women’s right to wear a hijab, or shawl in public spaces, which many progressive Islamic women wear not in submission but in defiance of imperialism. So we are back to reactionary dress codes that directly undermine the right of women to choice in such matters.

Women want an equal partnership with men in building a society where all human beings are valued. In this struggle, it will become more evident that the entrenched prejudice against women will not be eliminated until we remove the fundamental reason for its existence—the profit system (capitalism) and class society.