A debate about sexism erupted when female prime minister Julia Gillard attacked the opposition leader in Australian parliament for his misogynist attitudes.
It was a reminder that even after all the advances in the past 40 years, many women still face high rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, they shoulder the burden of child care and housework, in the workforce they make up most casual and underpaid jobs while earning 70% of what men earn, and battle daily with sexism in culture and relationships.
There’s nothing natural about this. Women haven’t always had to face oppression. So how did it get this way?
It is not an accident of evolution or a result of women being the ones who give birth. Nor did any religion decide it should be like this. Nor is there anything fundamental in the nature of men that drives them to dominate women.
Early in human history, people lived communally and there was no evidence of any discrimination against women. The modern idea of “families” didn’t exist, because people lived in clans and responsibility was shared.
Everyone helped raise children and care for sick members, and food was gathered and shared collectively. Men and women had different roles, women gave birth and nursed babies and young children, but that didn’t stop them from holding an equal position and fully taking part in society.
That changed when society began to develop classes. As people gradually stopped living a nomadic lifestyle and settled down to live off agriculture, the position of women also changed.
For the first time it was possible to produce a surplus — of food, shelter and clothing — which meant that not everyone in society had to work, and a system of exploitation developed under which one class of people could live off what was spare.
In this new society food and goods were no longer produced and shared communally, but within small groups — the family unit arose out of a need for people to work together to survive in the new social system. As class societies developed upon the exploitation of labour, women, being the ones who could bear children (to become workers), became valuable “property”.
Women ceased to have an independent economic role in society, and were instead relegated to raising children and doing domestic tasks. The institution of marriage began as way to tie women and her children to one man, and to ensure that women could not just take the children and leave.
Overtime these divisions solidified into new class relationships — there were those who possessed property and lived off the wealth produced by the work of others, and those who owned no property, and had to work for others to live. What family a person was born into tended to determine their position in society, and the family system perpetuated these class divisions, as wealth was passed down family lines.
Sexist ideas developed to justify the second-class position of women. In the same way that slave-owners needed racist ideas to justify slavery, the state and religious institutions gathered support for the sexist idea that it was natural for women to occupy this role.
Today, women are no longer confined to being just wives and mothers. Through campaigns for their rights they have won economic independence and been drawn into the workforce.
The family has evolved, but it remains a crucial part of society for all of the same reasons. Capitalism still needs women to work for free in the home, but women have also become indispensable as workers, so a constant battle is waged.
The state now provides some welfare, subsidies child care and health services, but this cuts into profits and fosters the idea that society, not the family, should take responsibility for these needs.
In periods of economic crisis like today, social services come under attack as the 1% tries to shift the cost of these back onto individual families. The gains that were won in providing parental leave, child care, even rights like reproductive control, can be lost.
This economic and social reality means that women still do not have full equality. The persistence of sexism in culture and the way women are treated springs from the capitalist system's need to put profit before everything else.
To overcome sexism and the oppression of women permanently, a total restructure of society will need to take place that does away with class divisions.
A socialist society, in which wealth would be used democratically in the interests of everyone, would allow all women to be economically independent.
It would provide services such as child care and health care for everyone, freeing women to participate fully in society. As women gain an equal economic and political position, sexist ideas will be broken down.