A-Z of Feminism: F is for Family

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In this weeks A-Z of Feminism, Cat Boyd examines Engel's theory of the family, and it's usefulness in explaining the role of the nuclear family unit in society today.

To write an introductory piece on this subject is no mean feat. Academics and scholars have dedicated their working lives to this subject. Despite the relationship between Marxism and feminism that has developed over time, there are very few systematic studies of Marx’s actual writings on women and gender. In today’s academic debates, postmodern variants of feminism have been positioned as having won the battle against Marxist-feminism; that feminist theory itself is postmodern theory. The intention here is to give an overview of the ideas of a key visionary of Marxism – Frederick Engels’ and his theory of The Family as the root cause of Women’s oppression. Engels’ theory is not without its faults. It should not be held up as the start and end point of Marxist discussions on Feminism; however, it is still a useful text. This article aims to give an overview of the concepts explored by Engels in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, written in 1884. It concedes too its gender binary format, and the heteronormativity of the theory discussed. There are many further writings on Engels’ ideas; however, as part of this education series, a short, introductory overview of Engels’ theory may be useful. It is not intended as a definitive analysis of feminism and the family.

The Marxist theory approaches the question of women’s oppression from a materialist standpoint; that history is determined, in the final instance, by production and reproduction of life. Human beings produce and reproduce life; both as the production of the things needed to exist, and the reproduction of human beings themselves. Human beings are also social beings in that we live in the world, and we are products of that world, but simultaneously have the capacity to shape it. By this process, humans change themselves and the world around them. This is the starting point for Engels’ theory. The overarching point is that women’s oppression goes hand in hand with a class society. Engels knowledge was of course, vast. However, it should be noted that it was not without its own gaps. Much of his knowledge was on societies such as his own, and surrounding areas of Europe and central Asia. The changes that took place in the development of private property, the creation of the family and so on- were not an automatic development. The change of one mode of production did not automatically change the mode of reproduction. Nor were all societies globally changed equally, nor rapidly, but a transformation on the whole did take place, replacing old forms of organisation with another.

Before class society, the idea of a strictly monogamous pairing of males and females was unknown. This notion comes from research and evidence dating back to missionaries from the 1700s, who described tribal societies in this way. The same evidence shows that these societies – referred to by Engels as primitive communist societies – had a rigid division of labour between the sexes. However, tribal women were seen to be equals of men; with control and autonomy over their responsibilities, while holding equal decision-making power in society. In this same society, there was no hard-line separation between the productive and reproductive fields. The production of the means of existence (what is needed to survive) and existence itself (reproductive labour, which is done to enable a future productive labour to be done) were not seen as two distinct functions of tribal society. All of this changed with the development of private property.

Agricultural societies which began to form, and develop private holdings, private property, domestic livestock and so on, demanded a greater number of offspring. The sexual division of labour followed that men worked the machinery, and the women were increasingly placed in the home, and into child rearing. This meant that gender roles became much more exclusive; men took on productive roles and women became central to the reproductive role. Although sexual division of labour did exist prior to pre-agricultural households; productive shifted away from the “household”. The family became a unit of consumption, a reproductive function. Domestication of livestock, mechanical farming of the land and so on – even at an early stage – created a surplus of wealth. This surplus grew at a faster rate than reproduction. This surplus, which wouldn’t have existed without the emerging social and economic structures, was not for consumption but instead was used for commodity exchange and traded for other productive units. Production – with the existing sexual division of labour, i .e men in the productive sphere – began to dominate over the households production for use. As production of exchange began to outweigh production for use, the nature of the household, the role of women within it, and their power and place in society, began to change. This is why Marxists view the nuclear family as the root of women’s oppression. These changes took place primarily between the first property-owning families- i.e, the ruling class families. Over time, however, the concept and structure of the “nuclear family” became an economic unit of society as a whole.

The form of the monogamous, nuclear family began to take shape during this period. The modern family arose for one purpose only; the inheritance of power, social standing and private property from one generation to the next. Romantic notions, imagery, phrases about finding a “one true love” are idealizations only of marriage. Marriage is a property relationship which ensures the inheritance of the private property, along patriarchal lines. The wealth and property belonging to the productive sphere of men demanded monogamy of his wife to ensure an inheritance which travel along the male side. Without monogamy of course, a man cannot be sure his children are his own. And so, particularly in Victorian times – the ideology of the ruling class, who must so avidly protect their property, their power and social status – ensured that women, far more than men, were shamed for adultery, or shamed for having more than one sexual partner. Within the nuclear family, all of the contradictions which extend throughout society are replicated. The rise of this unit of the family brought with it something that was unknown in pre-class societies; this particular degradation of women. The monogamy and patriarchal nature of society in this sense replicates and reinforces the gender roles it creates; making child-bearing, heterosexuality and domesticity compulsory, and shunning any self-identifying women who do not fit within this model.

The rise of the family in the form we see today was a consequence of the rise of class society. Society became organised from nomads, tribes and clans to monogamous marriages of family units. At the heart of Engels formulation is the deep rooted connection between the emergence of the family as a patriarchal economic unit and the development of class society. However, I want to categorically state that this should not simply mean that Marxists state that feminist thought and practice are subjugated to the “more important” class politics. To do so would be purely reductionist.

There are feminist writers and thinkers who would accuse any attempts at Marxist-feminism development as being “reductionist”. I argue that this is a false accusation. Marxism does not subordinate women’s oppression to class- although some Marxist tendencies have undeniably done this on occasion. Marxism is a living, breathing method of understanding the world. It must be approached non-dogmatically, and subject to vigorous renewal.

The arguments laid out in this piece, and the notion from Engels line of thought that, “with the abolition of private property, will come the abolition of the family” is where the sometimes-robotic “after the revolution, women will be free” line comes from. However, I would suggest that the inference here is that the abolition of private property will create the material conditions for the abolition of the family. but of course, this is not a given, deterministic notion. Moreover, I think it is worth stating too that the development of Marxist-feminist theory must go hand in hand with the development of Marxist-feminist practice in the fight against women’s oppression. This includes building revolutionary organisations which take feminism seriously. Second and third wave feminist criticisms of Engels, in terms of heteronormativity and so on, are useful too, and should be approached too with a clear, bur critical mind- as at their core, these waves of feminism undermine the institution of the nuclear family, and hence in turn, attack the concept of private property. In the process of building revolutionary organisations which take feminism seriously, we should ensure that we do not minimize the challenges we face in fighting sexism, acknowledging that sexism exists cross-class and developing a strategy that encourages the fight for women’s liberation to be a key part of working class struggles.

The analysis discussed in this piece is not without fault and criticism – developments of Engels’ theory have been investigated and written on extensively. However, it can still be useful and informative, if approached with a clear mind, and if it can help build theoretical and practical steps toward women’s liberation, then it has great worth.

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