England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The origins of gender oppression

By Sara Guardiola, Socialist Alternative Merseyside

Over the last decade we have seen mass protests against oppression, from #MeToo, to the Latin American Green Tide in defence of abortion rights, to Ni Una Menos against femicide, to Black Lives Matter, to politicised Pride and Trans Pride events. These movements have shown us the increasing unwillingness of young people to accept that systemic racism, violence against women, homophobia, transphobia, or oppression of disabled people is just ‘part of life’.

Many have also rejected liberal feminist ideas, like the idea that just having more girl bosses can fix the world. There is an increasing understanding that just more women, black and trans people in positions of power won’t cut it, and instead we need to go further than that. Oppression is increasingly understood to be a systemic issue.

We believe that Marxism offers a crucial contribution to this discussion because it offers a framework both for understanding society as it is now, and for what needs to be done to change it.

Has gender oppression always existed?

For centuries women have been portrayed as ‘naturally inferior’. Supposedly biologically-based arguments have been used to explain the inequality they suffer and the gendered division of labour, with women taking care of the children and the home and men as the breadwinner.

One would think that in 2023 we would have moved past arguments like women’s brains being smaller than men’s or that women are governed by their emotions, physically weaker and less rational. But, even today, figures like Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson promote these ideas. Some ‘radical feminist’ ideas are themselves rooted in the mistaken idea that, rather than society, biology explains the differences between men and women. These ideas focus on men’s ‘natural’ tendency towards violence and aggression, and in some cases use these arguments to exclude trans people from the feminist fight, which, of course, is absolutely wrong.

Sexism is so ingrained in society that it can feel like it has always existed. But history tells us a different story. Anthropological studies suggest that in hunter-gatherer societies, which constitute the big majority of human history, there were no strict binary gender roles. Men and women may have had different roles, but these weren’t rigid or valued differently. And the division of labour did not lead to a different social status or standard of living.

At the 9,000-year-old site of Çatalhöyük in modern-day Turkey, almost all the archaeological data points to a settlement in which gender made little difference to how people lived. Analysis of human remains suggests that men and women had identical diets, spent around the same amount of time indoors and outdoors, and did similar kinds of work. Even the height difference between the sexes was small.

There’s also evidence of fluid and non-binary gender identities in ancient cultures that can be found in ancient texts, mythological folklore, and archaeological findings. In South Asia, at least eight-culturally recognised gender categories have historically been present in the subcontinent, the most well-known being hijra – ‘third gender’ people with a recorded history of over 4,000 years and being mentioned in ancient texts.

Where does gender oppression come from and why does this matter?

Some hunter-gatherer societies have been extremely resilient and have continued living a similar lifestyle through to the present day, especially in more remote parts of the world. But the development of agricultural and pastoral societies, which first took place around 10,000 years ago, utterly transformed gender relations.

In “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State” published in 1884, Friedrich Engels, who together with Karl Marx developed what is today known as Marxism, located the roots of women’s oppression in the birth of class society, the development of private property and the family. He argued that the “world historic defeat of the female sex” came about as a result of processes unleashed by revolutionary changes in methods of production.

The development of agriculture allowed people to produce more than they needed to consume immediately. For the first time they could consistently produce and save resources, which changed everything in their lives and how society was organised. This was a massively important development that moved human societies forward, freeing them from complete dependence on the unpredictable forces of nature.

Groups and individuals became responsible for storing, guarding and distributing the surplus, for trade and warfare and for organising production, which conferred on them a certain prestige and status. To begin with, these tasks would have been carried out on behalf of the group as a whole. But it was from amongst these prestigious groups, individuals and households that, in some societies, the first exploiting classes arose. Over time, with the wealth at their disposal, the means of producing it came to be considered their own private property which they could pass on to their own descendants.

Women were often excluded from leadership positions due to the emphasis on physical strength, particularly as the acquisition of valuable land and resources became increasingly important. Moreover, the physically demanding nature of agricultural work, combined with its incompatibility with caring for young children, resulted in women being less involved in such labour. Simultaneously, the growing significance of inheritance meant the need to be sure of, and able to track, bloodlines and parentage.

This led to the development of various mechanisms to control women’s bodies and sexualities, and their subordination to men in the developing family structure, as well as in society at large.

The origins of LGBTQ+ people’s oppression are connected to the emergence of women’s oppression. When the family structure became patriarchal (meaning men had more power), new social norms and expectations formed. People started to think of masculinity and femininity as being very different from each other. These gender norms were used to oppress not only women but also anyone who didn’t fit into those norms, often extremely violently.

The family and the institution of marriage created rigid norms into which human sexuality was supposed to be restricted. Prejudice and hateful ideas were spread during this time, often by religious leaders and states. This led to queer relationships and sexualities being seen as wrong or sinful, brutal violence being used against trans and gender non-conforming people, their gender identity not being recognised or respected, and much more.

You may be thinking, ‘why are we talking about things that happened thousands of years ago? All I care about is how we end oppression today.’ The way in which we understand the origins of gender oppression has important conclusions for determining what type of movement we need for liberation.

For example, if we believe that gender oppression is rooted in biology it’s going to be way more difficult to change it than if it comes from the way a society is organised. In the latter case, it raises the possibility of changing the position of oppressed people by changing how production and social structures are organised.

If we believe that the fundamental power structure that underpins how our society works is the dominance of men over women (patriarchy), then the struggle for women’s liberation could logically be seen as one of women fighting against men. But if the fundamental structure of society perpetuates the rule of one class (the capitalist class) over another (the working class), while also reinforcing a more powerful position for men – something which itself goes on to reinforce class rule – then the struggle for liberation must link fighting for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights with the broader class struggle.

Why has gender oppression not disappeared?

Over the centuries society has undergone significant changes. Different systems, in the interests of different, ruling classes, have emerged and disappeared from the scene of history. So far, all of them have kept in tact this system of gender-based oppression in one form or another.

Capitalist society, driven by its constant need for a larger labour force, has actually reversed the trend of excluding women from social production. Women’s integration into the workforce, although it means even more work, also has positive effects. It provides them with an independent source of income and enables working women to break free from the isolation of their homes, allowing them to organise and participate in the working class movement. However, class divisions and the oppression of women, queer and black and brown people have not disappeared.

While women and gender non-conforming people have won significant rights under capitalism, the reality is that women still earn on average 16% less than their male counterparts globally, although this percentage is far greater in many places. 75% of unpaid domestic and care work is done by women and it’s calculated to be worth 9% of global GDP or $11 trillion! Seeing these figures it is clear that capitalism benefits from the oppression of women and why it has an interest in maintaining this division of labour.

However, saying that the persistence of oppression is only due to its direct financial benefits to the capitalists would be overly simplistic. And while we shouldn’t think that all this is entirely conscious on the part of the capitalist class, it’s true that its political representatives have actively reinforced oppression.

They have implemented inadequate laws against violence and harassment, underfunded jobs and services dominated by women and Black people, propagated narratives that place the responsibility on individual families to address societal issues, imposed limitations on the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and restricted access to healthcare services.

Oppression and its accompanying ideologies are deeply rooted in the needs of the ruling class and the preservation of their power. The ruling class promotes reactionary ideologies aimed at creating divisions amongst the working class and to prevent them from uniting against their common exploiter. We’re seeing a clear example of this today with the Tories ‘culture wars’ against refugees and trans people.

Nowadays, many young people reject oppression and bigoted ideas, and various democratic rights have been won by women and LGBTQ+ people, in large part thanks to combative movements which managed to gain concessions from the capitalist class, and a shift in consciousness. But the continued existence of reactionary ideas indicates that these attitudes are deeply rooted beyond individual beliefs. While it is essential to confront and challenge them on an individual level, and education can play an important role on this, significant shifts in society require addressing the root cause of oppression: class society and capitalism.

What is the way forward?

Struggles against oppression are the most powerful factor that can bring about attitude changes and rapid transformations. Movements, such as #MeToo, have led to a decrease in dismissive attitudes towards sexual assault. Successful movements for abortion rights, like those in Ireland and different countries in Latin America have highlighted why an approach based on struggle is key to challenging the system.

Struggles that involve people of different genders, sexualities or races fighting together can also be transformative. The example of the miners’ strike in 1984-85 demonstrated how women’s participation in supporting the strike challenged traditional gender roles and increased their confidence in demanding better treatment.

Additionally, there are many examples of joint struggle highlighting the shared interests of LGBTQ+ people and workers, breaking down initial prejudices and fostering solidarity. This includes the inspiring, united struggles of LGBTQ+ people and Coors workers in San Francisco for a union, and also against reactionary initiatives to block gay and lesbian people from working in public schools in the 1970s.

However, despite the significant impact of these movements, they have not completely eradicated sexist, racist, and LGBTQ+phobic ideas. This is because the underlying system that perpetuates these ideas remains intact.

To eradicate oppression once and for all, we need a united struggle of the multi-gendered multi-racial working class that fights to end capitalism and establish a socialist society in which the economic roots of oppression are abolished and the ideas that perpetuate it can be actively challenged to the point where they no longer have any impact on society.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 provides a glimpse of what could be achieved through socialist transformation. In the early stages of the revolution, before the degeneration under Stalin, enormous advancements were made for women and LGBTQ+ people.

The workers’ government granted women the right to vote, legalised divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. Initiatives such as public laundries and nurseries were established to liberate women from domestic labour. The establishment of the Zhenotdel, a women’s commission, tackled regressive attitudes and promoted gender equality in various aspects of society. Although many of these gains were reversed during the Stalinist era, this historical experience demonstrates the immense potential for rapid progress in the conditions of women and all oppressed individuals through the overthrow of capitalism.

Marxism’s key contribution in the fight against genderbased oppression is that it understands that gender oppression hasn’t always existed, its origins are linked to changes in the way society was organised. Furthermore, by linking movements against oppression with workers’ struggle we can transform society into a better one, a socialist one, that is run democratically by and for working-class people. One that, instead of being built on exploitation and oppression, is built on solidarity, equality and unity. Such a society would not only solve issues around proper funding for services, housing, benefits, pay, etc. but it would also have the potential to completely transform human relationships. 


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