The Subordination of Women


The Third Class Carriage (1863-5).  Honore Daumier.

The enslavement and subsequent subordination of women to men via the means of private property – justified by false notions concerning alleged inferiority of women – is not a ‘natural’ state of human existence. There is no evidence that can support this state of affairs, and it is to the contrary that we must look in order to find the truth. In earlier communities women held prominent positions in the home and society, being the very equals of their fellow men, whether husbands or brothers.

We have to analyse the periods of the development of society to understand why women lost their initial parity – and independence – with men and became reduced in status, subordinate and inferior to the males of society.  The roots of the process whereby women became enslaved are to be found in developmental changes in the basic modes of production. The changing position of women reflected changes in the social relations arising from the economic basis of society.

The development of private property relations led directly to a change in the social relations between men and women. The change that set the process in motion was the introduction of animal husbandry. In this situation men became the owners of cattle, sheep, goats and other herds – in essentials, they possessed transmissible private property, they owned the newest means of production. Men therefore assumed a primary role in the subsistence of the community, forcing women into a dependent position, tied to the home as household drudges and bonded inferiors. In some societies the ‘bride price’ took the form of cattle.

The first major study of the origins of the family was by Lewis Henry Morgan in his book Ancient Society in 1877. Frederick Engels developed these ideas further in his work entitled The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. It was Morgan who pointed out that the primitive form of social organisation was the gens, as well as showing that each tribe was composed of a number of gentes. The term is derived from the Roman gentis -to beget. A gens is therefore a clan or sept. Here we can see that the real meaning of gentile is not ‘non-Jewish’ but implies tribal membership. The term gentilitial means ‘of a tribe’, gens, or family. In kinship analysis we can recognise that the gens was an important unit prior to the development of the pairing marriage. Especially prior to the ending of ‘mother-right’ and the establishment of male supremacy – because descent was reckoned through the female lineage.

The ‘defeat of the female sex’ led to the growth of the monogamous family and the creation of conditions whereby women were subordinate to men. As we have seen, the primitive societies composed of gentilitial groups, or matrilineal clans and tribes, were dissolved by the development of private ownership of the means of production. The disruption occurred because man wished to transmit his property to his son or sons. It was this inheritance of property by a son from his father that led to the female defeat and paved the way for familial relations determined by property relations. With this in mind we can proceed to discuss the division of labour and sex as a preliminary to understanding the development of monogamous marriage and the pairing family.

With regard to sex and the division of labour history shows that social class plays the main part in social labour – thereby carving out the principal roles in production – inevitably, as a result of history, takes over control of that production. This class must do this as taking control is the result of the resolution of internal contradictions, the outcome of a struggle – a class struggle. There then developed a new set of social relations of production that were higher than the previous set of relations.

Women were acknowledged as the stewards of the processes of production during the ancient period of ‘mother-right’ or what is sometimes termed the matriarchate. There were definite socio-economic reasons to justify this state of affairs. During this period, when women were responsible for the organisation of production, the prevalent mode being primitive agriculture. With primitive agricultural communities women carried out the main role in production, performing the main tasks in the economy of the farm or garden.

The men were away hunting in nearby areas in the pursuit of animals and game. It was only later, after the transition to male supremacy or ‘father-right’ – also termed the patriarchate – that the dominant position in production passed to the men of the community. Just as with the role of women under primitive agricultural conditions there were definite socio-economic reasons for this transition. This was because men practising animal husbandry, and owned their herds as instruments of production. The way was paved for the inception of stock-breeding for the demise of ‘mother-right’. As long as men were hunters both they and women lived in the stage of ‘savagery’ with cooperative division of labour. The development of stock herds and the onset of ‘barbarism’ led to historical changes and the subordination of women to men.

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