“While all women are oppressed, not all women are oppressed equally.”

Women’s oppression is the most deeply entrenched oppression. It is seen as biological, psychological, universal and age-old. This view impacts on how we understand and challenge oppression. Marxists approach this subject from a materialist perspective. Frederick Engels (the partner and supporter of Karl Marx in the 19th Century) explained:

“According to the materialist conception, the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of immediate life… On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools necessary for that production. On the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species.”

Human beings interact with their environment, changing the world around them and in the process changing themselves. The thing that makes us different from other animals is our ability to consciously harness nature and the ways in which we can plan and work socially to meet our needs.

Engels argued that for most of human history the social organisation of people has not been class-ridden or defined by domination and oppression. Our earliest human ancestors appeared about two million years ago, while Homo sapiens have existed for about 200,000 years. But the earliest forms of agriculture, that allowed the possibility of significant inequality and class societies, appeared only about 10,000 years ago.

So for at least 95 percent of human history, “wealth” was not a concept that would have made any sense. People lived in small collective groups enjoying relative equality both in terms of wealth and power (and this broadly continued in some parts of Nigeria, for example in some areas of Igboland, until the arrival of the colonialists in the late 19th Century). Engels referred to this type of society as “primitive communism”. The concept of the nuclear family, with parents married for life and ‘owning’ their children, did not exist.

Engels contended that in these societies, while people played different roles, there was no structured domination of one group by another. Under primitive communism there was a division of labour between men and women, but this did not confer any significant privileges to men. Women, who tended to be the main gatherers, were often given authority over men—because their work provided the main source of nutrition for the group.

It was only with the rise of class societies that women came to occupy an inferior place in society.  In some places, for example, in the Benin Empire this happened from around 1500, in other parts of Nigeria women’s oppression, in the modern sense of the word, did not start until the arrival of the colonialists in the nineteenth century.

The development of more advanced agriculture was the turning point. Heavy ploughing and the widespread use of domesticated animals changed this. The adoption of the plough gave the ability to produce more than was immediately needed by the group. It led to the development of elites who were able to control the “surplus” (especially in areas of high population density like much of Nigeria, where families could not just leave and establish another village in the empty land of the next valley or across the river).

A pregnant woman or one with small children could not easily plough fields or tend domestic cattle, sheep or goats., These tasks increasingly became the responsibility of men. Agriculture also demanded labourers. Where hunter-gatherer societies had tended to limit the number of children so as not to deplete resources, agriculture could be more productive with more children needed to help in the fields. As men became mainly responsible for agricultural production, women saw their primary role shift to that of child bearing, cooking and looking after the children and the home.

Greater productivity benefited every member of the group. But once the surplus fell into the control of a minority, inequalities and class societies began to form.

One consequence was the division of society into “public” and “private” spheres—with women operating mainly in the “private” sphere. The private family became the mechanism by which private wealth could be passed on from one generation to the next. This entailed a final degradation of women’s influence. Men, because of their economic role, became heads of the household, passing their wealth on to their sons. As Engels wrote:

“The overthrow of mother right was the world historic defeat of the female sex. The man took command in the home also. The woman was degraded and reduced to servitude.”

So the family that we know was a consequence of the development of class— not an age-old “natural” hierarchy. As production was increasingly geared to exchange rather than use, the household became a unit of consumption rather than production. Engels’s argument shows how it was economic compulsion that led to class society and the associated inequality and oppression. However, with the wider social and economic changes throughout history, the role of the family also changed.

by Tina Ndi