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Vol. 71/No. 41      November 5, 2007

Private property and origin
of women’s oppression
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Woman’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month in November. The author, Evelyn Reed, reveals women’s leading and still largely unknown contributions to the development of civilization and traces the roots of women’s downfall to the rise of private property. The book outlines human evolution from classless society, where women played a prominent role, through the transitional stage of barbarism, to class society based on private property, including the subjugation of women. Copyright © 1975 Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

How, then, in the later period of barbarism, did women plummet from this highly esteemed position to their degraded status in civilized patriarchal society? Or, to put the question another way, how did men establish their supremacy in society and the family? Doubts about the priority of the matriarchy have persisted because this downfall of the female sex has not been adequately explained.

The basis of woman’s downfall lies in the evolution of private property.

The underlying socioeconomic factors have been delineated by Engels and others. Historically, private property originated with “movable property,” objects that could be conveyed from one possessor to another. The institution of immobile property (real estate), consisting of land and its improvements, came much later in history; it began with the recognition of the family dwelling, garden, or orchard as distinct from the common land. But unlike movable goods this petty private domain did not originally enter into the exchange circuit.

The accumulation of the first private wealth was made possible by the higher economy that began with agriculture and stock-raising. The abundance of food led to more concentrated populations and new divisions of social labor. Men who had formerly been hunters now became farmers, herdsmen, and craftsmen. The more productive economy and augmented labor force gave rise to surpluses over and above the immediate consuming needs of the primary producers.

At first these surpluses were used to sustain the village elders who coordinated work on community projects such as irrigation systems. But gradually some men elevated themselves into priest-kings, nobles, and overlords, standing above the common people, exacting foodstuffs, livestock and handicrafts as tribute and later as taxes. Private wealth was now accumulating in the hands of an elite, a ruling class.

The subsequent development of commodity exchange on a larger scale leading toward a money economy speeded up the formation of new strata of wealthy proprietors and traders. In place of the old tribal warriors there appeared soldiers in the service of their warlords, sharing in the booty as a reward for their services. The captives they took were not adopted but put to work as slaves to augment the wealth of their masters.

The introduction of slavery sealed the downfall of women. Removed from productive and social life, they were relegated to the individual home. Although women continued to produce on farms and in home crafts, these were no longer social but family functions. Wealthy women were even more removed from productive activities, becoming little more than breeders of legal heirs to men’s property.

All this, however, still leaves certain questions unanswered. How did women’s downfall coincide with the rise of private property? And why, when women were at the height of their power and prestige, did this property come into the hands of the men, not the women?

Wilhelm Reich touches on this subject in The Invasion of Compulsory Sex-Morality. He agrees with Engels that the advent of private property imposed the need to transmit wealth through children. But “this hypothesis does not show how wealth got into the man’s hands … it does not indicate the mechanism behind the historical process” (p. 89). His own hypothesis calls attention to the “marriage gift” and its development into “purchase marriage” as the mechanism behind the advance from mother right to father right. But the matter goes deeper than this.

The origin of private property and how it came into the hands of men is tied up with the replacement of the matrifamily with undivided father right in the one-father family. The process to study, therefore, is the victory of father right over mother’s brother right. The defeat of the mothers’ brothers also brought about the downfall of the mothers.

As Reich detected, the turning point came with the development of the marriage gift into purchase marriage. Marriage gifts were the primitive interchanges of food and other items to bring hostile groups of men together, a necessary precondition for matrimonial relations. At a certain point in history this gift-giving between men passed over into a new and different kind of transaction—the exchange of what had become personal property. With this the marriage gift became the bride price. Since gift interchange had taken place between men, the bride price likewise became a transaction between men. This was the first factor behind the rise of private property in male, not female hands.

The gift could not become a price until a sufficiently high economic level had been reached. To go beyond the interchange of token items, goods of value such as cattle had to be available for exchange. The first regions in which gift-giving passed over into barter were the pastoral regions of the Old World, and cattle became the first value involved in the transition from the marriage gift to the bride price.  
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