Workers' Liberty #58


Women and socialism

In 1879, August Bebel's book Women and Socialism was published. Bebel wrote the book whilst he was imprisoned under Germany's Anti-Socialist Law. Women and Socialism rang like an alarm clock amongst working class women. Working class men, too, read the book and woke up to the issue of women's oppression. Ottilie Baader said that Bebel's book made her a socialist; she went on to become a leading organiser of socialist women. Clara Zetkin described the book as "an event - a great deed". By 1895, 25 editions had been printed in Germany alone.

Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was published in 1884. Engels used the recent work of American anthropologist Lewis Morgan to explain how the position of women had developed historically, and how the class structure of society had shaped it. In doing this, he argued against those people who persisted with the view that sex divisions were "natural".

The Origin… pointed out that the original meaning of "family" was the set of domestic slaves belonging to a man: "The term was invented by the Romans to denote a new social organism, whose head ruled over wife and children and a number of slaves, and was invested under Roman paternal power with rights of life and death over them all."

Engels also argued that, looking far back into history, monogamy had developed according to economic demands, rather than for any romantic reason: "It was the first form of the family to be based, not on natural, but on economic conditions - on the victory of private property over primitive, natural communal property... the sole exclusive aims of monogamous marriage were to make the man supreme in the family, and to propagate, as to the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own."

Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, Engels' work contained factual inaccuracies and left important questions unanswered. But the book is very significant, for two main reasons: it argues that women's oppression can be explained through history rather than biology; and it links women's oppression to class divisions and property relations.

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