Books of the Month

Cosmetics, fashions and the oppression of women today

March 26, 2018

In honor of International Women’s Day March 8, the Militant is reprinting an excerpt from the preface to the Cuban edition of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women by Evelyn Reed, Joseph Hansen, and Mary-Alice Waters. The Cuban publishing house Ciencias Sociales launched the Spanish-language edition at the Havana International Book Fair in February 2011. The English edition — published in 1986 — is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. The preface is copyright © 2010 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


Two questions asked by thoughtful readers since the initial publication of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women are useful to consider.

First, are questions addressed in a debate over cosmetics and fashions more than fifty years ago still relevant? Aren’t they long bypassed?

Second, isn’t Reed’s article on “Anthropology: Marxist or Bourgeois?” outdated? Hasn’t knowledge of the earliest human societies moved far beyond what was known in the mid-1950s?

The response to the first question is underscored by Hansen’s rhetorical question in “The Fetish of Cosmetics.” In the whole history of capitalism, he asks, “has the bourgeoisie ever gone about cultivating the fetish of commodities more cold-bloodedly than American big business?” …

The “marketing” Hansen pokes such fun at in the 1950s seems amateur by comparison to the sales techniques employed today. “Shop until you drop” has gone from being a humorous exaggeration to a description of an actual social condition pushing increasing numbers of working-class families into more and more debt at usurious rates.

The impact of the twenty-first century capitalist advertising “industry” is, if anything, even more insidious as it spreads into areas of the globe previously buffered to some extent from the imperialist world market. In large areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, marked by imperialist-enforced agricultural and industrial underdevelopment, as well as in countries previously part of the now-defunct economic and trading bloc once dominated by the Soviet Union, the siren song of the commodity fetish is an imperialist weapon like none other.

In the eloquent words of the Communist Manifesto, “the cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which [the bourgeoisie] batters down all Chinese walls. … It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

As the not-so-outdated polemic of the 1950s makes clear, in periods of working-class retreat such as we have lived through the last quarter century — a period of retreat far longer and more devastating than the relatively brief post-World War II interlude — the “heavy artillery” of capitalism takes its greatest toll, including among the most politically conscious layers.

The answer to the second question is equally important. …

The focus of the sharp polemic in Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women is what Reed often referred to as the “Hundred-Year War in Anthropology.” Here, as elsewhere, Reed defends the historical materialism of nineteenth-century anthropologist Lewis Morgan, whose work Karl Marx and Frederick Engels drew on extensively in their writings on the subject, and Morgan’s twentieth-century continuator Robert Briffault.

As Reed points out, one of the major battle lines in this century-plus war over historical materialism has been the question, does something akin to the modern bourgeois “patriarchal system of marriage and family relations [go] all the way back to the animal kingdom”? Or did what is often referred to as “patriarchy,” and the second-class status of women, arise in relatively recent times, on the scale of evolution, as a cornerstone of class-divided societies? As private rather than communal property came to dominate all social relations, including those between men and women, didn’t a small handful of men emerge for the first time as a ruling class, subjugating other men — and, in the process, women as well?

“Concealed behind the debate,” Reed explains, is “a question of class struggle and class ideology.”

If class society and the accompanying subordinate status of women is only a stage of human history, one that arose at a certain historical juncture for specific reasons, then it can be eliminated at another historical juncture for other specific reasons.

If there has been an evolution of social relations through distinct stages of the prehistory and history of human society, determined by increasing levels of labor productivity and changing property relations — and accompanied by enormous, and extended, conflict and violence — then capitalism is no more permanent than the property and social relations that preceded it.

Those studying and writing today about the development of social labor and the earliest stages of social organization are able to draw on a larger and richer body of research than the earliest anthropologists, or even those of Reed’s generation. Of that there is no doubt. Light will continue to be shed on the complexities and variety of human social evolution. But as Reed points out, recognition of diversity “is no substitute for probing into social history and explaining the evolution of human society as it advanced through the ages.”

To argue that different marriage forms are found in the relics of primitive groups the world over, thus “all you have to do is pay your money and take your choice,” Reed explains, is like saying “that because there are still relics today of feudalistic and even slave class relations, there was no historical sequence of chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism; that all we have is merely a ‘diversity of forms.’”

The hundred-years war in anthropology is far from over. If anything, the dominance today of “politically correct” ideologues, comfortable in their middle-class academic and professional sanctuaries, who dissolve difficult questions of history and the forms of class struggle into the soothing balm of “cultural diversity,” only sharpens the debate.