Below is an excerpt from Problems of Women’s Liberation by Evelyn Reed, one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for October. In speeches and articles, Reed (1905-1979), a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, explores the economic and social roots of women’s oppression from prehistoric society to modern capitalism. She explains why the oppression of women is a result of specific property relations, not relations between sexes, and points the road forward toward women’s emancipation. Copyright © 1969 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.
One of the conspicuous features of capitalism, and of class society in general, is the inequality of the sexes. Men are the masters in economic, cultural, political, and intellectual life, while women play a subordinate and even submissive role. Only in recent years have women come out of the kitchens and nurseries to challenge men’s monopoly. But the essential inequality still remains.
This inequality of the sexes has marked class society from its very inception several thousand years ago, and has persisted throughout its three main stages: chattel slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. For this reason class society is aptly characterized as male dominated. This domination has been upheld and perpetuated by the system of private property, the state, the church and the form of family that served men’s interests.
On the basis of this historical situation, certain false claims regarding the social superiority of the male sex have been propagated. It is often set forth as an immutable axiom that men are socially superior because they are naturally superior. Male supremacy, according to this myth, is not a social phenomenon at a particular stage of history, but a natural law. Men, it is claimed, are endowed by nature with superior physical and mental attributes.
An equivalent myth about women has been propagated to support this claim. It is set forth as an equally immutable axiom that women are socially inferior because they are naturally inferior to men. And what is the proof? They are the mothers! Nature, it is claimed, has condemned the female sex to an inferior status.
This is a falsification of natural and social history. It is not nature but class society which lowered women and elevated men. Men won their social supremacy in struggle against and conquest over the women. But this sexual struggle was part and parcel of a great social struggle — the overturn of primitive society and the institution of class society. Women’s inferiority is the product of a social system which has produced and fostered innumerable other inequalities, inferiorities, discriminations, and degradations. …
It is not nature but class society which robbed women of their right to participate in the higher functions of society and placed the primary emphasis upon their animal functions of maternity. And this robbery was perpetrated through a twofold myth. On the one side, motherhood is represented as a biological affliction arising out of the maternal organs of women. Alongside this vulgar materialism, motherhood is represented as being something almost mystical. To console women for their status as second-class citizens, mothers are sanctified, endowed with halos and blessed with special “instincts,” feelings and knowledge forever beyond the comprehension of men. Sanctity and degradation are simply two sides of the same coin of the social robbery of women under class society.
But class society did not always exist; it is only a few thousand years old. Men were not always the superior sex, for they were not always the industrial, intellectual, and cultural leaders. Quite the contrary. In primitive society, where women were neither sanctified nor degraded, it was the women who were the social and cultural leaders.
Primitive society was organized as a matriarchy which, as indicated by its very name, was a system where women, not men, were the leaders and organizers. But the distinction between the two social systems goes beyond this reversal of the leadership role of the two sexes. The leadership of women in primitive society was not founded upon the dispossession of the men. On the contrary, primitive society knew no social inequalities, inferiorities, or discriminations of any kind. Primitive society was completely equalitarian. In fact, it was through the leadership of the women that the men were brought forward out of a more backward condition into a higher social and cultural role.
In this early society maternity, far from being an affliction or a badge of inferiority, was regarded as a great natural endowment. Motherhood invested women with power and prestige — and there were very good reasons for this.
Humanity arose out of the animal kingdom. Nature had endowed only one of the sexes — the female sex — with the organs and functions of maternity. This biological endowment provided the natural bridge to humanity. … It was the female of the species who had the care and responsibility of feeding, tending, and protecting the young.
However, as Marx and Engels have demonstrated, all societies both past and present are founded upon labor. Thus, it was not simply the capacity of women to give birth that played the decisive role, for all female animals also give birth. What was decisive for the human species was the fact that maternity led to labor — and it was in the fusion of maternity and labor that the first human social system was founded.
It was the mothers who first took the road of labor, and by the same token blazed the trail toward humanity. It was the mothers who became the chief producers; the workers and farmers; the leaders in scientific, intellectual and cultural life. And they became all this precisely because they were the mothers, and in the beginning maternity was fused with labor. This fusion still remains in the languages of primitive peoples, where the term for “mother” is identical with “producer-procreatrix.”
We do not draw the conclusion from this that women are thereby naturally the superior sex. Each sex arose out of natural evolution, and each played its specific and indispensable role. However, if we use the same yardstick for women of the past as is used for men today — social leadership — then we must say that women were the leaders in society long before men, and for a far longer stretch of time.