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Women's Oppression: Origin Stories

Abbie Bakan

February 27, 2012

Karl Marx died in 1883, with much of his writing unfinished and unpublished. His life long collaborator, Frederick Engels, turned his attention to editing and completing Marx’s unfinished works. One of the first of these was the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.

The subtitle of the book tells the story: ”In Light of the Researches of Lewis H. Morgan.” Morgan published a major study of the life and social organization of the Iroquois of northern New York State in 1877, titled Ancient Society.

Considered a founder of modern anthropology, Morgan provided a detailed account of an indigenous population where women were not subjugated by patriarchal oppression.

The study sharply challenged the assumptions of Victorian morality that were current in the lifetime of Marx and Engels. But Morgan’s work also claimed that the origins of all contemporary ‘civilization’ had emerged from similar patterns. Changes from one form of social organization to another were traceable to an evolutionary pattern of social and economic transformation. These changes developed according to four characteristics, which Morgan saw as universal to all human societies: inventions and discoveries, government, family, and property.

Ancient Society

The publication of Ancient Society attracted the attention of Karl Marx. According to a detailed account by Lise Vogel in Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Engels wrote to German socialist leader Karl Kautsky in February 1884, describing Marx’s enthusiasm for Morgan’s book. Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State was published in the same year, based on Marx’s detailed notebooks.

It has since become a classic in the Marxist tradition, and has also attracted much attention among feminist anthropologists. Many have seen more contemporary findings confirm Engels’ main arguments, even though the work had obvious limitations.

Origins was written prior to first wave feminism, when women were widely perceived to be below the status of men in every sense. But in this book Engels made a strong case for women’s emancipation, thoroughly grounded in the historical materialist method he advanced with Marx. As Sharon Smith summarizes (International Socialist Review, Fall 1997):

“Morgan’s research … helped Engels to clarify precisely how women’s oppression arose hand in hand with the rise of class society. Morgan’s careful study of the Iroquois showed two things: 1) that Iroquois women and men had a rigid division of labor between the sexes; but 2) that women were the equals of men, with complete autonomy over their own responsibilities and decision-making power within society as a whole. Women elders participated in the deliberations of the decision-making council.”


But with all its strengths, reading Engels’ Origins in the twenty-first century does not make for light entertainment. It is, arguably, not Engels’ best work, in his own words a “meagre substitute for what my departed friend no longer had the time to do.”

The language of Origins is a challenge. It reflects dominant European thought, also present in Morgan’s study, about the ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ lives of indigenous peoples. Though Engels does not offer a critique, fortunately neither does he mimic Morgan’s sometimes reactionary language, like seeing the “Aryan family” as “the central stream of human progress.”

Morgan was an American of elite training and he expressed undoubtedly racist views. But unlike his contemporaries, he did not see ‘race’ as a scientific category. Instead Morgan focused on the significance of material conditions—property forms and social organization—as formative in human history. It was this approach that Marx and Engels found to be consistent with their own method of social analysis and consequent call for revolutionary change.

Social Theory

Origin stories, as author Joanne Wright explains in her book bearing this title, serve as a central factor in social theory. One of Engels’ aims was to challenge the common sense view of the time that women had always been, and presumably always would be, subordinate to men.

The experiences of the Iroquois families of northern New York became of central importance, and have become part of the canon of the socialist tradition. But this is not the only, or main, strand of critical thought that has highlighted such experiences. Critical race feminism in Canada has also traced its origins to the voices of indigenous peoples, particularly indigenous feminists.

In States of Race, a collection marking these contributions by Sherene Razack, Malinda Smith and Sunera Thobani, the authors pose a radical challenge to capitalism through a focus on the experiences of racialized, immigrant and indigenous women. And as Verna St. Denis summarizes in her contribution to Making Space for Indigenous Feminism, edited by Joyce Green: “[A]boriginal women claim that Aboriginal cultures do not have a history of unequal gender relations; in fact…Aboriginal women occupied positions of authority, autonomy and high status in their communities.”

Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, published in 1884, was radical for its time. Now, in 2012, capitalism and imperialism have extended their reach. The indigenous peoples who helped Marx and Engels to understand the power structures of their day have continued to challenge these oppressive systems. And they also continue to help activists to explain the sexist, racist, exploitative structures that threaten to hold all of us down.

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