A woman's place is in the struggle: Gender inequality: is it 'natural'?

January 19, 2005

Women's oppression is often portrayed as a permanent feature of human life. The argument claims that the basic unit of society has always been the male-headed family made up of bread-winning, dominant father, nurturing, dominated mother, and their offspring. And as a result of these roles in the family, men "naturally" dominate in public life, while women tend to be confined to private, household, tasks.

If, however, social inequality between men and women — men's privileges and women's oppression — arose in particular social circumstances, the way may be open to struggle to change those social circumstances and win women's liberation.

In the past, and to a lesser extent still today, women's second-class status was given religious justification. But the power of religion to appeal to people as a rational explanation for anything has been declining since the rise of scientific accounts of natural and social phenomena.

Ruling class justifications of women's subordinate status have acquired a scientific veneer over the last couple of hundred years, in an alternative attempt to make women's oppression seem natural, moral and unchanging.

The earlier forms of this now seem very crude — for example, assertions of women's smaller brains as the basis of their inferior status. (Actually, women's brains tend to be larger in proportion to the rest of their bodies, so you don't see that argument made so often now.) But even the more sophisticated versions have as a weakness the same flawed methodology — reducing the cause of social phenomena to biology, with the claim that the biological differences between men and women is the cause of different social roles.

Every so often, these theories hit the newspapers as "new scientific discoveries". And so we "learn" that men are genetically "wired to hunt" and thus are hormonally inclined to be more aggressive and dominant (and thus are the main political leaders today), while women genetically 'wired" to be become mothers, and hence carers.

Or we find that women and men have different, though both compelling, genetic imperatives to breed. Men produce millions of sperm, while women produce only one egg at a time. So to maximise their chances of passing on their genes, men are biologically driven to impregnate as many women as possible, while women are driven to be more selective — seeking out higher genetic quality in their mates. As a supposed consequence, men are naturally promiscuous, but don't want infidelity in their partners (lest they devote time to bringing up children that aren't their biological offspring).

By contrast, women can tolerate promiscuity in men, because it won't impede their own urge to procreate and nurture their own children (whom, of course, they know to be theirs). But their hunt for quality sperm leads them inevitably to seek out and marry men of higher status; in the competition for access to females, the stronger, more aggressive males win, and so tragically, women are biologically destined to be dominated by men.

While this stuff is presented as science, it is really ideology masquerading as science. For example, according to Margaret Ehrenberg in her 1989 book Women in Prehistory, the fossil record shows at the beginning of human development a decrease in sexual dimorphism. That is, the difference in size between male and female hominids declined. So if mate selection was doing anything it was favouring relatively smaller males over larger ones. We can postulate a selective advantage for smaller, less aggressive, more cooperative males.

It's certainly not science, but ideology, to claim women have some natural programming to go for dominant men. It's apologetics for how things are today, not a searching out of how it arose.

And the explanations don't confine themselves to academia or the newspapers, but are ubiquitous in popular culture. From the Flintstones to the Jetsons, our Stone Age past to an imagined high tech future, the message is the same — the nuclear family is natural and timeless.

However in reality, women have not always been oppressed. Women's oppression arose at a time in human social development when changes in the way people produced food gave rise to inequality in the possession of productive wealth and led to the disintegration of the early collectivist clan and tribal societies into exploiter and exploited classes made up of separate family units, in which women — for the first time in human history — were subordinate to an individual man, their husband.

Capitalist mass production, based on wage labour, has again made possible the entry of women into public productive life. It has also made technically possible the transformation of the private services rendered in individual families into public industry. Of course, capitalist governments don't organise such services on a social scale because that would mean cutting into the capitalists' profits from the sale of washing machines, vacuum cleaners, etc, to each individual family household. That will only become possible when the capitalist private profit system is replaced by a socialist economic system — a system of public ownership of productive resources oriented through democratic social planning toward meeting people's rational needs.

Kamala Emanuel

[The author is a member of the Socialist Alliance and of the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an organised current within the Socialist Alliance.]

From Green Left Weekly, January 19, 2005.
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