The Origins of Women’s Oppression

Against the Current, No. 8, March/April 1987

Karen Brodkin Sacks

Women’s Work, Men’s Property:
The Origins of Gender and Class
Edited by Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson
London: Verso, 1986. Paper, $9.95

IF WE KNEW what created male dominance, maybe we would know better how to get rid of it. That is the question behind this book.

Its theme is that male dominance comes from particular historical circumstances, that it is not biologically inevitable nor a condition of cultural life.

Anthropology was an important contributor to the early development of these feminist understandings. It insisted that gender is a cultural construction, and gave feminists the ammunition to argue that western, industrial capitalist gender relations were neither universal nor natural.

Thanks to these efforts, every budding feminist seemed to know about comparative primate social organization, egalitarian gender relations among the Iroquois and female rulers on almost every continent before capitalism’s global hegemony. So why is a book that deals with origins needed now?

Part of the answer is that politically we need to hold back the ocean with a broom. A decade ago it seemed that notions about the inevitability of male dominance were on the defensive, but almost as soon as feminists thought they were laid to rest, new forms of the old ideas regenerated in the fertile soil of our increasingly reactionary political climate.

This book, however, is more than a restatement of earlier feminist arguments. Coontz and Henderson make a solid contribution to a socialist feminist anthropology. In the process, the clarity of that contribution suggests the limitations of conventional anthropological methods for answering socialist feminist questions.

Origins of Dominance

The editors’ “Introduction” covers three points. First, it provides a discussion and refutation of contemporary theories of male dominance, from sociobiology to sexual dimorphism, to population pressure and warfare.

Second, it discusses some aspects of feminist perspectives on gender difference in the light of anthropological evidence. This is a useful survey and review of current thinking on aggression, mothering, nature vs. culture in gender symbolism, and a critique of ethnocentrism in the application of Western assumptions to the gender relations in non-Western societies.

Third, it provides a more extended discussion and critique of Peggy Sanday’s and Eleanor Leacock’s attempts to explain the cultural/historical origins and conditions of male dominance. Sanday attempts to specify the ecological and subsistence conditions under which gender becomes a metaphor for both egalitarian and male dominant social organizations, while Leacock locates male dominance in the expansion of Western colonialism and the impact of commodity production on indigenous systems of production, power and property.

Though they agree with Leacock, the editors believe that there were changes in social organization, long before capitalism, that undermined “pristine” equality, that also led to production for exchange, which in turn undermined women’s political and economic autonomy.

The remainder of the essays explore this theme — the “original” production of inequality from an egalitarian base — from two somewhat different perspectives within a shared framework.

All essays agree on the following points: (1) that social rather than biological circumstances underlay the subordination of women; (2) that such subordination resulted from men’s success in controlling women’s productive labor and its products (men’s control of women’s reproduction came from this); (3) that male domination preceded and was a key condition for the rise of class societies and private property, and that the subordination of women began in line­ age or kin corporate societies; (4) that patrilocal marriage in such societies was a necessary condition for expropriating women’s labor and products; (5) that patrilineal societies could more easily expand because they could more easily coerce production from women and junior men; (6) that the oppression of women and class oppression were and have continued to be mutually reinforcing aspects of class or state societies, and can­ not be understood as separate systems of oppression.

Lila Leibowitz, to whose memory the book is dedicated, takes a biocultural approach in her essay, “In the Beginning . The Origins of the Sexual Division of Labour and the Development of the First Human Societies.”

She suggests that the division of labor was culturally constructed rather than biologically determined, and that it came into being informally and relatively late in hominid evolution, only after the development of hunting specifically with projectile points.

This technique allowed a small number of hunters to feed a large number of people, required years of training and ultimately fell to men who did not nurse babies and who were more expendable than women.

From this pragmatic division developed a more formal, thoroughgoing cultural division of labor that fostered the economic interdependence and circulation of spouses, but no subordination of adult men or women.

Leibowitz also argues that “the institutionalization of the sexual division of labour created the conditions which reduced physical sex differences” (74), and that production for distribution to non-producers is “fundamental to the human condition,” but does not inevitably lead to women’s subordination.

Monique Chevillard and Sebastien Leconte in “The Dawn of Lineage Societies: The Origins of Women’s Oppression” argue that the division of labor combined with spousal circulation are themselves signs of women’s subordination.

For them, the earliest lineage societies were matrilocal and matrilineal, and women controlled the surplus production. They see patriliny and patriarchy as created by some males taking control of women’s and other men’s production, and spread by conquest and example.

Class and Gender

Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson’s “Property Forms, Political Power and Female Labour in the Origins of Class and State Societies” argues that “kin corporate” societies (a term I used in Sisters and Wives for lineage societies, where a group of kin hold collective ownership to the society’s significant productive resources), as they evolved from communal ones, developed a contradiction between owners (brothers, sisters) and non-owning producers (husbands, wives).

Patrilocality /lineality, where the inmarrying spouses are women, had more potential than matriliny /locality for developing gender inequalities, largely because some men could also control other men through controlling the sexuality and fertility of women once they controlled their labor and its products. Thus they could coerce a greater level of production, patronage and clientage, which in tum led ultimately to heightened subordination of women and class subordination, albeit by a wide variety of historical trajectories.

As an outcome of their differing analyses, Coontz and Henderson differ sharply from Leconte and Chevillard on how they regard the relations of class and gender.

The latter see gender oppression not only as the model for subsequent class oppression, but also as being more important for defining women. That is, they regard aristocratic women in class societies as subordinate to and dependent on men of their class, and in many ways like high-ranking servants or house slaves. For them, aristocratic and underclass or slave women and men have a commonality of interest against ruling class men, even if their identification is with those men.

Coontz and Henderson argue that aristocratic women have conflicting interests, over and above whatever perceptions they may have. Prior to classes, women were owners (sisters) and non-owning workers (wives). With the development of classes, aristocratic women still often have power over women and men of the underclasses even as they are subordinated to men of their own class.

Despite real disagreement about the allegiances of ruling class women, all authors would agree that “Anthropology and history offer no justification for the opposition some political activists make between the struggle against class rule and the struggle against patriarchy. Sexual inequality has been such a mainstay of socioeconomic stratification that class rule cannot be attacked without confronting the patriarchy that props it up. At the same time….[t]he fact that the subordination of women has also been used to control and manipulate lower class men provides an objective community of interest from which an intertwined struggle against economic and sexual inequality can be launched.” (155)

Historical Approach

The final paper, Monique Saliou’s “The Processes of Women’s Subordination in Primitive and Archaic Greece” is very different from the others in that it is an historical analysis.

Saliou is able to trace {to a degree) a process of how {and which) women are subordinated. She wryly disagrees that “the world has always belonged to men,” “a belief which in contemporary France is an aspect of revealed truth.” (70) But she also refutes the primeval Greek matriarchy that Bachofen read from myths.

Instead, Saliou’s analysis reinforces the importance of production and ownership organization for women’s autonomy and power, and the relations of gender and class oppressions. Here, women’s subordination preceded and was something of a template for subsequent class subordination.

But there were a variety of social forms by which women were subordinated that co-existed with early class societies in Greece. Their varieties and specificities cannot be predicted by general theory. ‘There is no mechanical connection between a social formation and the status of women; economically and politically related societies may be more or less oppressive. The relation is dialectical and tendential, although the evolution always went the same way.” (205)

Likewise, upper class women’s relative class and gender identities can’t be generalized for all class societies; they depended even in Greece on which aristocratic women one is talking about: some were indeed ruling class; others were more like privileged servants. Finally, the historical case shows the existence of often sharp gender conflict, indicating that women did not accept subordination with equanimity.

Saliou’s article, because it is historical, highlights for me the weakness of using anthropological methods for trying to discuss origins. This is something I and many other feminist anthropologists have also done, so it is an inclusive criticism.

Bluntly, conventional anthropological methods construct explanations for historical change from ahistorical descriptions of social formations, instead of looking at actual change processes something that exists only in the particular.

Consequently anthropological interpretations about origins necessarily have the feel of “just so” stories, and tend to be generic in form-the origin. If we want to know about origins because they will guide our efforts at change, then we need real histories (in the plural) of the specific societies we are trying to change.

Generic shortcuts won’t work for that endeavor. Rather, they are likely to lead to unresolvable debates, for example about the generic position of upper class women, or about the relative primacy of class and gender in the abstract.

All said, this book is an excellent resource for socialists and feminists, hyphenated and non-hyphenated. One of its major strengths is that it effectively engages debates and beliefs persistent on the left and within feminism: that women have always been subordinated structurally, that reproductive control is the basis for subordination, that class and gender struggles are separate, and/or conflicting. It also effectively asserts the primacy of production organization and provides a framework for dealing with class and gender oppression and struggles against it.

March-April 1987, ATC 9

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