March 8, 2010 will mark 100 years of the declaration of International Women’s Day. On this occasion of more than hundred years of struggle by women all over the world for their rights and dignity in society, Mazdoor Ekta Lehar brings out the source of oppression of women in society, thereby pointing to the way to bring about an end to this oppression.
Over the centuries, many reasons have been given for the age-old oppression and subjugation of women. Various philosophies and religions have put forward the notion that the subordination of women is due to biological factors, because men are supposed to be physically stronger than women and hence it is ‘natural’ for men to dominate women. They have also argued that the subjugation of women has always been there, from earliest times. The conclusion from all this is: women have always been oppressed and hence will continue to be so, because it is in the natural order of things.
The great merit of Marxism is that it disproved these notions on the basis of a scientific understanding of the development of human society. Basing himself on his own and Marx’s researches, and the studies of leading scientists of his day, the great Marxist Friedrich Engels explained that, first of all, the oppression of women is a relatively recent phenomenon in historical terms. In primitive society, the position of women was vastly superior to what it is now. Both as the key factor in the reproduction and nurturing of human life, and as an equal partner of men in the production of the material means necessary for sustaining life, women had an important and highly respected place in society. It is due to various developments in the economic and social sphere which took place over several centuries, and which Engels proceeded to spell out in great detail, that women lost this high position and came to be subjugated.
If women were not always oppressed, if they once enjoyed a position of dignity and esteem in society, then it follows that social conditions can be changed and the oppression of women can be ended.
In his major work, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels showed that the roots of the oppression of women lay in the emergence of private property and the division of society into classes. Once changes in the realm of technology enabled human beings to increase production to levels beyond what was needed for their own use, then inequalities arose in society. Some cornered the means to appropriate more of the surplus production at the expense of others. This marked the beginning of private property (land, cattle, tools and other means of production) and the division of society into classes – classes that owned private property and means to exploit the labour of others, and classes that did not own private property but had to sell their labour to survive.
The same process also affected the status of women and the nature of the family. In earlier primitive societies, the rearing of children and their well-being was the concern of all members. The woman, the bearer and nurturer of the children, was accorded a place of high esteem. But when private property arose, the man (who was mainly responsible for the surplus production, as a consequence of natural division of labour) began to be considered as the owner of the private property, i.e. of the means of production. Those with private property sought to ensure that their property was passed on to descendants of their own blood and no one else. Thus, the role of the appropriator of surplus production and owner of private property was assumed by the men, while the women’s primary role came to be seen as reproducers, the justification for whose existence was to produce children who could inherit their father’s property.
As human society advanced through various stages with advances in the mode of production – slavery, feudal and finally capitalist society – the forms of private property also changed, from slaves to land, cattle, agricultural implements, etc. to more and more advanced means of production, machinery and capital. Each of these stages based on exploitation of one class by another, was accompanied with corresponding changes in the structure of the family, but the man continued to be the owner of the private property while the position of the woman remained subordinated to that of the man.
In Indian society, the Brahmanical order and the caste system imposed its own brutal form of oppression and subjugation of women. While private property, including the trade assigned to a man by virtue of his caste, continued to be passed on from father to son, women were subjected not only to oppression at home but also women of the lower castes to exploitation by higher caste men. This continued hand-in-hand with the exploitation of the producing class by the ruling elite (the kings, brahmins) who lived off the surplus produced by this class. The Bhakti movement of the 15-16th centuries saw men and women rise up together against these forms of exploitation. Colonial rule and the subsequent development of capitalism in India did not eliminate these brutal forms of exploitation, but continued to foster them in order to intensify the exploitation of the working men and women and ensure the profits of the capitalist class.
Eventually, the kind of nuclear family, which resulted in the confining of women to the four walls of their marital home, became the model for the whole society, including the vast majority of families which did not own private property and lived by their labour. This kind of oppression of women continues to this day. It accounts for many things, including the isolation of women from the outside world, the devaluing of their role in the family and society, the subjection of women to physical abuse, and so on.
Marxism has shown that in spite of technological and material progress over the centuries, and despite the fact that one form of society based on exploitation gave way to another, until the establishment of socialism in the twentieth century, all these societies enshrined the exploitation of human beings. Under capitalism, the exploiting class, the bourgeoisie, has required for the sake of its own profits that increasing numbers of women be drawn outside of their homes to work in factories, offices and workplaces. It has also been forced to extend education to women to some extent, although even now in societies like India, women lag far behind in their education levels. As a result of the struggle of women, the ruling bourgeoisie has been forced to extend certain rights to women such as voting rights and certain claims under government policies. Has this ended the oppression of women? No, it has not. On the contrary, women in capitalist societies now face double exploitation, exploitation as workers along with old forms of oppression and discrimination in the society and at home.
In Indian society women continue to remain victims of caste oppression and other remnant forms of feudal exploitation, along with capitalist exploitation as workers. The state of the bourgeoisie criminally perpetuates and justifies this multiple oppression of women and uses it as a means to subjugate all the oppressed sections of society. The existence of women as a super-exploited and depressed section of the working class, whose conditions drive down the wages and working conditions of the class as a whole, is very necessary for the bourgeoisie. This is why the oppression and exploitation of women continues today and why it is an international issue, one that affects both “advanced” capitalist countries and less advanced ones, wherever exploitation of human beings exists.
While women in India and all over the world have consistently fought back against their exploitation and oppression and for equal rights as equal members of society, the exploiting classes have tried to hide the real source of oppression of women and to portray men in general as the oppressors of women.
However, from the study of the works of Marx and Engels it becomes clear that men as a whole are not the source of oppression of women. The oppression of women arose alongside the exploitation of one class by another, through the institution of private property, or the private appropriation of the means of production by a few at the expense of the vast majority. Today too, the backbreaking labour done by women in their homes to maintain their families and the consistently low wages paid to working women, help the bourgeoisie to intensify the exploitation of the working class as a whole. The low wages paid to women workers are used to depress the wages of the entire working class. While the bourgeoisie pays workers barely enough for them and their families to keep body and soul together, the labour performed by women inside their homes (which is completely unrecognized and unaccounted for in capitalist society) ensures the survival of the worker, the reproduction of the worker for another day of toil.
The basic condition for the emancipation of women from oppression thus becomes the elimination of class exploitation and private ownership of the means of production. This is the system of socialism. Today human society has advanced to a stage where the exploitation of one class by another, the accumulation of private property and super profit by one class at the expense of the rest of society, the consequent subjugation of women, has become a fetter in the further advance of the productive capacity of society. In order for society to advance it has become imperative for class exploitation and private ownership of the means of production to be ended. Women and men have to fight together to get rid of all forms of exploitation of human beings by human beings, and for the establishment of socialism which will pave the way for the restoration to women of their dignity, liberty and position of equality in society.