WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Engels on the Origin of Women’s Oppression

The great significance of Friedrich Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property & the State is that it is one of the first Marxist analyses of development of family and origins of women’s oppression (the first was August Bebel’s Women & Socialism, 1879) — a subject in which most men were uninterested.

A Short Summary of Origin of the Family

Much is made of the shortcomings of the anthropological evidence employed by Engels who drew much of his empirical material from two 19th-century anthropologists, Morgan and Bachofen.

However, such criticisms do not disprove Engels’s thesis nor undermine his historical method.

Engels starts from the position that pre-class, subsistence societies were characterised by simple foraging, hunting and “group marriage” organisation.

Tasks were carried out collectively and the products distributed among the group for immediate consumption.

This form of social organisation, which he termed “savage societies” later developed into “barbarism,” in which there was no possibility of the private accumulation or appropriation of goods or labour. Women and men lived in relations of equality.

Women’s child-bearing capacity influenced the development of a division of labour in which women were primarily responsible for childcare and for associated tasks.

Men, being more mobile, tended to undertake the tasks associated with hunting larger game and the food-gathering further afield.

Women controlled the instruments of domestic production, while men controlled the instruments of hunting and warfare.

Far from being subordinate, there is powerful evidence to suggest that women’s role was crucial in the development of skills and knowledge central to the advancement of human social organisation.

Although there was a clear division of labour by sex in pre-class societies, women’s work was not regarded as inferior to that of men.

The movement from simple subsistence to the production of a surplus laid the material basis for the development of trade, the appropriation of labour and the concept of private property.

With the emergence of class societies came the attribution of an inferior status to woman’s work and control over her reproductive capacity.

Mother right which characterised pre-class societies was overthrown. Engels refers to this as “the world historic defeat of the female sex.”

Precisely how this happened is, as Engels says, unknown — it is prehistoric.

The patriarchal family emerged slowly first within tribes or clans and then more rapidly as monogamy developed.

From the patrilineal clan system emerged the patriarchal family in which monogamous marriage and patrilineal principles of inheritance formalised the complete subjugation of women.

The only way in which paternity could be guaranteed was through the sequestration of women and their enforced sexual fidelity — fidelity which only applied to women; not to men.

Marriage was based purely on property rights. With monogamy, prostitution emerged to satisfy men’s extramarital sexual desires.

In the patriarchal clan system such male desires were satisfied through concubines.

Monogamy was the only way to ensure that private property was passed through the male line to sons (almost always) of undisputed parentage.

For Engels, the patriarchal monogamous nuclear family represented the “perfected form” of marriage for the transmission of property, and the institutionalisation of controls over women, by men.

He says: “The first class antagonism which appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression with that of the female sex by the male.”

Thus he is clear that the oppression of women and class exploitation appeared in history coincidentally because of their common origin in the development of private property.

The accumulation of wealth under private ownership was the material basis for the establishment of class society, and the material basis for the oppression of women by the men who controlled that wealth.

The ways in which different forms of class society — slavery, feudalism and capitalism — have oppressed women have assumed various historical forms as has the precise nature of class exploitation.

Not nearly enough is known about the position of women within slave and feudal societies, although it is clear that their status was subordinate to that of men.

More is known about the oppression of women within capitalist society — especially industrial capitalism in which Britain was the forerunner.

Engels argued that the emancipation of women lay in the possibility of involvement in social production, that is, women’s entry into paid work would decrease their isolation and financial dependence and bring them into contact with the trade union and labour movement.

Because he saw the monogamous family as the instrument for the transmission of property, Engels believed that it would not survive among the working class for whom there was no property to transmit. However, herein lies the problem to be discussed later.

Second Wave Women’s Movement

The 1960s and ’70s witnessed the revival of women’s movement, the WLM, and an attempts to understand origins of women’s oppression.

Engels was hotly debated. Many were critical of his work, some were influenced by it, but often it was misinterpreted.

The most significant misinterpretation was the later named “dual systems” theory.

Many socialist feminists have used Engels to support their argument that women’s oppression and class oppression are two separate systems; they cite part of his preface to the 1st edition of The Origins as evidence: “According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of immediate life…

“This … is a twofold character: on the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, of clothing and shelter … on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species…”

This has been interpreted as saying there are two motors to history, the class struggle and the sex struggle.

The site of the former is the mode of production and the site of the latter is the mode of reproduction.

However, Engels’s statement can only be read ambiguously if it is read in isolation from his and Marx’s other works.

Dual systems theory has led to separating between the two modes — production and reproduction, thus leading to various false positions and blind alleys such as wages for housework or identifying women as a “sex class” whose liberation can only be achieved through the overthrow of male supremacy.

Engels did not subscribe to a dual systems theory. Nonetheless the debate around it has given rise to an examination of two important questions, one of which Engels did not address adequately, and the other, he got wrong.

Social Reproduction and Domestic Labour

The first question which Engels did not fully address is the role of domestic labour. Marx gives us the clue to understanding domestic labour as a component of social reproduction when he defined the capitalist wage system as the monetary expression of the value of labour power.

The value of labour power (wages) is determined by the amount of socially necessary labour time (SNLT) required for the production and reproduction of the labourer.

Thus there are two elements to SNLT: the maintenance of the labourer and the production of the next generation.

This entails the daily renewal of the male labourer. For this his wife cooks food, cleans the house, washes clothing and provides nurture in less measurable ways.

The reproduction of labour power resides in woman’s biological role in giving birth and her social role in rearing children.

Both these tasks are performed typically, but not always, in a monogamous nuclear family.

But SNLT is important in another respect. It gives rise to what we now term “the family wage” paid to the male breadwinner.

Within a nuclear family the full wage for the production and reproduction of human life is only given to one member — the man, seen as the breadwinner.

A man cannot reproduce human life — only a woman can. So, although women enter the labour market and sell their labour power for a wage, they do so under less favourable conditions than men due to their biological function of bearing and rearing the future generation.

For women this presents the contradiction between their role in the public sphere of production and the private sphere of reproduction and domestic labour.

This is the reason for unequal pay. Marx understood this when he noted that the cotton manufacturers preferred to use the labour of women with children.

The employer could pay them less than men and they would accept it precisely because they are women with dependent children.

The Working Class Family

As we have seen Engels’s theory of the family and women’s oppression is based on the notion that the monogamous nuclear family emerged in class society because of the need to ensure that property owned by the male was passed to sons of undisputed parentage.

Certainly this is true for the bourgeois family, but how then could this apply to the propertyless working-class family who own nothing but their labour power which they are forced to sell in order to live?

Engels assumed that the working-class monogamous family would disappear because there was no material basis (ie property) for its existence.

Of course this was not and is not the case. Engels could not explain the survival of the working-class family because of his failure to appreciate the impact of ruling class ideology — the deeply impregnated notion of sexism and “family values.”

Additionally he failed to take account of the essential role of the family in capitalist society, notably:

• The family in the reproduction and maintenance of labour power.
• The family as economic unit enabling capitalism to limit the social wage.
• The family as unit of consumption — a vital aspect of capitalism whereby workers use the wages to purchase the commodities they have produced.

Women Workers and the Family Today

Contrary to Engels’s prediction, modern large-scale industry and women’s entry into social production has not solved anything for working-class women; it has exacerbated the unresolved contradiction between work and home.

Unequal pay was and has remained a feature of women’s employment in capitalist society.

The other important fact of female employment in the 19th century and today was and is the phenomenon of job segregation.

The existence of “women’s jobs” within the labour market must surely disprove the myth that women workers are a transitory element of the capitalist workforce.

Although the example of women workers in the cotton factories was cited earlier, such work was the exception rather than the norm and aroused much interest at the time precisely for this reason.

It laid bare, in a very visible manner, the fallacy of the sanctity of the family.

Apart from cotton textiles and pottery, women were not to be found in large numbers in many of the other factory-based industries as they developed during the course of the 19th century.

In fact, taken as a whole, women factory workers remained a small minority of the female working population.

The vast majority of women workers were to be found in more “hidden” areas of work — in domestic service, home working of various kinds or in small “sweated” workshops.

A similar kind of sexual division of labour can be found in Britain today where women workers are clustered in a narrow range of “women’s jobs,” prime among them being clerical work, shop work, sewing and textile work, caring, cleaning and catering work.

Two factors characterise this sexual division of labour historically and currently.

First, that these jobs are always very low paid and, second, that much of this work represents an extension of women’s work within the family.

In other words the centuries-old division of labour within the family, which predates capitalism, has been transferred from the realms of the private household to social production.

This partly explains why women’s skills within these “women’s” jobs have been and continue to be so undervalued and thus underpaid.

The prevalence of part-time work for women is made to appear as a great concession by capital to enable women workers to perform their dual responsibilities.

In reality it is nothing of the sort. Part-time work accounts for a staggering 44 per cent of female labour in Britain today — the highest by far of any European country.

Far from being a kindly concession, it is an important device allowing the maximum flexibility of the female labour force at the minimum possible cost.

While ideology decreed that women’s place was at home, the labour market determined otherwise; women’s work is needed.

In 2019 the female employment rate reached a record high of 72.4 per cent, but half of it on part-time, casual or zero-hours contracts.

The preponderance of such contractual arrangements is frequently justified in the name of “flexibility” and they are commended to women as being “family friendly.”

In fact the opposite is true. Uncertainty about a regular source of income, together with poverty wages and lack of affordable child care, increases the burden on women and perpetuates a cycle of deprivation.

So, the phenomenal form of the working-class family may have changed since 1884, but its role and function remains the same especially in relation to women.

Capitalist doesn’t wish to resolve the essential contradiction between women’s role in the family and her role in the labour market.

We don’t need a “dual systems theory” to explain this — the unitary capitalist mode of production suffices.

The Origins may not have given us all the answers to this but it has certainly given us some tools to help us pose the correct questions.

Engels’s lasting contribution is that he has opened the way to construct a Marxist theory of the origins of women’s oppression which has overcome the ubiquitous limitations of empiricist and idealist perspectives. Our task is to extend his analysis.


This article originally appeared in the Morning Star and is an abridged version of lecture given by Professor Mary Davis Marx Memorial Library to commemorate the Engels 200.

Please consider subscribing to the Morning Star and becoming a member of Marx Memorial Library.

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