Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

May 12, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte explains how Frederick Engels' classic book identifies the source of women's oppression in the development of class society.

"OBEDIENCE IS the most necessary ingredient to be required from the child," wrote neanderthal Rev. Jack Hyles in his book How to Rear Children. "This is especially true for a girl, for she must be obedient all her life. The boy who is obedient to his mother and father will some day become the head of a home; not so for the girl.

"Whereas the boy is being trained to be a leader, the girl is being trained to be a follower...This means that she should never be allowed to argue at all. She should become submissive and obedient. She must obey immediately, without question, and without argument."

This is, of course, one of more grotesque expressions of the sexist adage "a woman's place is in the home," and many people believe it is exceptional--that, by and large in society, such ideas have fallen out of favor.

But the reality is that women's oppression is alive and well. If we are ever to abolish it, pinpointing the source of that oppression is key.

DESPITE THE myths that people like Hyles try to propagate about it--as well as the prevailing common wisdom--the nuclear family and women's role in it haven't always been the norm in the history of human society.

Frederick Engels wrote The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State with the purpose of providing a materialist analysis of how the family as we know it came to be with the rise of class society--and with it, the oppression of women.

This groundbreaking book was written in the context of the abysmal status of women in Victorian society. In the U.S. in the year the book was published, 1884, Susan B. Anthony was called a fanatic for speaking before Congress on behalf of women's suffrage. The movement for an eight-hour day also began that year.

The book came out only 25 years after Charles Darwin presented his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species and only a few years after The Descent of Man.

While Origin of the Family was written after Karl Marx's death in 1883, it was largely based on notes that Engels and Marx made on the research of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who had published Ancient Society in 1877, making him one of the first to apply a materialist analysis to tell the story of how human social organization had evolved over time.

What else to read

When Morgan observed the Iroquois Indians in upstate New York, he saw kinship relationships totally different from the family relationships considered "normal" during the Victorian era. He found that in more than one case, Native American men and women were organized in communities of relative equality, and that women had a status that would be unfamiliar to readers in Morgan's supposedly more civilized day.

Today, some of Morgan's data is considered outdated, but newer evidence has been uncovered to support his general arguments. Anthropologist Eleanor Burke Leacock, for example, who wrote a 1971 introduction to Origin, has made several contributions to further Engels' work, in part to combat a prevalent idea in her time that men "naturally" dominated over women.

In Origin, Engels uses the materialist method--looking at actual developments in the history of human society--to expand on Morgan's ideas and argue that the family as we know it is not a staple of all human societies, but the result of the rise of class society. Like the state, the family comes about in the interest of a small ruling class seeking to maintain control over their property.

The book provides examples of ways that human beings organized themselves which were nothing like the monogamous family of Engels' day--pre-class societies where women and men enjoyed a degree of sexual freedom, and where there was a totally different conception of family.

Engels retells the story of an American traveling in Brazil who, "when he was introduced to the daughter, he asked after her father, presuming him to be her mother's husband, who was fighting as an officer in the war against Paraguay; but the mother answered with a smile: 'Nao tem pai, e filha da fortuna' (She has no father. She is a child of chance)."

Engels quotes the American as saying,

It is the way the Indian or half-breed women here always speak of their illegitimate children...without an intonation of sadness or of blame...So far is this from being an unusual case, that...the opposite seems the exception. Children are frequently quite ignorant of their parentage. They know about their mother, for all the care and responsibility falls upon her, but they have no knowledge of their father; nor does it seem to occur to the woman that she or her children have any claim upon him.

Engels hilariously takes on the proponents of the traditional family of his time who used comparisons with the animal kingdom to prove their points (not unlike the so-called evolutionary biologists of today).

Engels writes, "[E]xamples of faithful monogamy among birds prove nothing about man, for the simple reason that men are not descended from birds. And if strict monogamy is the height of all virtue, then the palm must go to the tapeworm, which has a complete set of male and female sexual organs in each of its 50-200 proglottides, or sections, and spends its whole life copulating in all its sections with itself."

WITH A change in the social forces, Engels argues, comes a change in the conception of the family. The domestication of animals and the advent of agriculture made it possible for human beings to create more than the bare minimum that they needed to survive. For the first time, there was an accumulation of surplus, or wealth.

With the rise of class society came the rise of inequality--between those who accumulated wealth and those who did not, and also between men and women.

In pre-class hunter-gatherer societies, a sexual division of labor existed--with women usually in charge of the gathering and growing of crops. The work performed by women was central to the group's survival, and therefore valued highly. Men for their part took care of the hunting of large game, and later, with the domestication of animals, oversaw that work. Systematic inequality between men and women did not exist.

The rise in inequality came with the rise in private property, as men came to control the sphere of production. The monogamous family became the means by which property could be passed down from generation to generation. Marriage became little more than a property relationship.

As the demand for surplus increased, so did the demand for labor. Women were now in the position of having to produce more children to perform more labor. In this way, the women became tied to the household. In other words, the division of labor between men and women didn't change, but production was moved out of the household. As Engels wrote:

The legal inequality of the two partners, bequeathed to us from earlier social conditions, is not the cause but the effect of the economic oppression of the woman. In the old communistic household, which comprised many couples and their children, the task entrusted to the women of managing the household was as much a public and socially necessary industry as the procuring of food by the men.

With the patriarchal family, and still more with the single monogamous family, a change came. Household management lost its public character. It no longer concerned society. It became a private service; the wife became the head servant, excluded from all participation in social production.

Regarding changes in the family under capitalism, Engels rightly makes the argument that women entering the workplace was a positive development, taking them out of the isolation of the household.

But Engels overestimates the positive impact this has for working-class women, and in some ways has a rosy picture of the working-class household. Engels writes, "Here, there is no property, for the preservation and inheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were established; hence, there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effective."

In this passage, Engels underestimates the powerful role ideology plays in perpetrating the false idea that women are as less than equal to men. This is especially important among workers, where capitalism depends on the division of men and women to keep them from uniting and overthrowing the system. He also misses the fact that working-class women suffer oppression more severely than ruling-class women.

Much has, of course, changed since Engels wrote Origin of the Family. A solid majority of women now have jobs outside the home. Single mothers make up an increasing part of the workforce. And while technological advances have made housework less time-consuming than in Engels' time, women carry a heavy double burden of work inside and outside the workforce.

Fundamentally, though, Engels' Origin is as useful as ever. By locating the source of women's oppression in class society, he locates the source of its possible demise.

As Engels concludes,

What we can now conjecture about the way in which sexual relations will be ordered after the impending overthrow of capitalist production is mainly of a negative character, limited for the most part to what will disappear.

But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman's surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences.

When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual--and that will be the end of it.

Further Reading

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