The Means of Reproduction: The Evolution of Women’s Oppression and Exploitation

Marxist have long held that the working classes would find their way out of a life of exploitation by seizing the means of production. Only this would lead to the revolution and true workers’ liberation. In The Dialectic of Sex Shulamith Firestone adapted Marxist arguments to speak of women, and how we would find our way to the revolution and true women’s liberation. Her discussion of the means of reproduction speaks to the very nature of our oppression and exploitation: the ability to bear children. That is, our biological nature.

Many people argue that speaking of women’s oppression in these terms is limiting and exclusionary. The claim that it leaves out those women who are unable to bear children, for whatever reason. They claim it leaves out transwomen. I would argue that neither of these arguments are relevant. The nature of women’s oppression and exploitation has evolved over the millennia, but it is rooted in one simple truth: the idea that all women are assumed to be child-bearers, and those children and the women who bear them are assumed to be the property of men. It does not matter whether an individual woman has a child, wants to have a child, or can have a child; it is assumed that she is capable of doing so, and that she inevitably will do so. It is assumed that the woman’s children will take the names of their father, because that is the only heritage that matters.

As I have written previously, and as many other historians and thinkers of the past have written, the original family unit of the human being is mother and her offspring. This is true of most mammals—indeed, most animals, in general. The mother and her offspring are the primary unit. The larger clan is made up of female relatives. Males are with the group until they reach sexual maturity, then they leave and join an unrelated group of females for procreative purposes. In this social set-up, there is no lifelong pair bonding of male and female. They procreate, but the father is not considered integral. In fact, the father may be unknown, since the female may have had sexual relations with more than one male.

Most Socialist thinkers, along with many anthropologists and historians, believe this set-up began to change when humans began to settle into permanent or semi-permanent societies. Although it has some historical weaknesses, Frederick Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State explores this from a Marxist perspective. The idea is that the social status of women was destroyed when humans began what we now call “civilization”. This was often based upon agriculture and landowning. Under earlier socioeconomic arrangements, there was little surplus. Hunter-gatherer societies, for example, gathered the food they needed for the present moment and a short time in the future (e.g. the winter months). In these societies, women were often actively engaged in the accumulation of food, not just in its preparation. They could do this, while also bearing and rearing children; the physical drain was not too great for this to be possible. This gave them much more freedom in their personal lives. To know you can subsist without the aid or protection of another is a primary requirement for personal freedom.

It was only after the invention of agriculture that surplus was gathered and that food production became a physically difficult task. It was no longer as easy for a woman to engage in food accumulation and childbearing. This change in food production also led to a sense of ownership over the land, hoarding of goods, and trading of this surplus. All of these things required a female to have a long term, stable tie to a single man. The man’s primary (or exclusive) role in food production meant that the means of this production came to be seen as his sole property and his sole domain. This was property that he wanted to remain in “his” family, to follow a patrilineal inheritance path. As a result, he needed a guarantee that the children borne by “his” woman were, in fact, his biological children. Hence, the desire to control female reproduction and sexuality. That is, the drive to control the “means of reproduction”.

The growth of patriarchy can be seen as based upon the drive to control the means of reproduction. As such, the exploitation and oppression of women are direct outgrowths of our ability to bear children. The myths, methods and excuses for exploiting and oppressing women took on lives of their own, but were and remain rooted in this fact. Patriarchy would become entrenched, but was borne out of socioeconomic arrangements. Social organizations and belief systems would arise to reinforce the patriarchy. All lived together in one incestuous relationship.

As the socioeconomic reality changed, women became more and more tied to the one thing that we did that was different from men: our childbearing capabilities. The various manifestations of patriarchy are built around this. We see this in the view of women’s sexuality, in the social requirement of marriage, in sexualized and other male violence towards women, in the battle against reproductive choice, and in the discrimination against women in the political and economic arenas.

In order to keep control over their property, assuring it passed to their male heirs only, men had to control the sexuality of women. This was accomplished in a number of ways. First, female sexuality had to be shown as dangerous. Women had to be convinced that sex was not desired by a virtuous woman. We had to feel in our very bones that it was something we did as a duty to men, but not ever for our own enjoyment. Sex would be based upon what brought pleasure to men. It would reinforce the overall social dictates of dominance and submission, teaching women that everything in our lives—up to and including our sexual interactions—should illustrate our submission to men.

To keep control over our sexuality, we had to be taught that it belonged to a single man—our husband. The demand of female chastity outside marriage was put into place. The demand that marriage be our one and only goal in life became integral to the very definition of “woman”. We were to provide men our bodies and the fruit of them (i.e. children). In return, men were to provide us with the very material means of survival. If we were not tied to one man, we would be forced to serve many men in order to meet our material needs. This might mean prostitution, or it might mean serving patriarchal religion. Regardless, we were not allowed the means to survive without ties to men.

In addition to the means of survival, men were to provide us something else: protection. Protection from whom and from what? Well, other men, of course. The threat of sexualized and other male violence is a very effective tool for keeping women tied to “good” men. We know all too well that we are vulnerable to attack. This is based purely on our biological nature as women. When we are victimized, it is almost always by men. That victimization is then turned on us; we are blamed for the violent actions of these men. It may mean being married off to a rapist. It may mean being put on trial for “adultery”, if we are married or the rapist is married. It may mean being asked why we were in that place at that time doing whatever we were doing. It may mean having someone demand to know what we did to provoke this man. And what is the fix for this? The protection of “good” men—fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.

Since all of these things tie into the control of women’s reproductive capabilities, it stands to reason that reproductive choice would be the enemy of patriarchy. Giving women the right to control when we have children and how many children we have negates the male control over our bodies. It implies that we are full human beings. It says that our bodies and our children belong to us. It also denies the essential nature that patriarchy has assigned us: the means of reproduction. The means of creating new workers, new bureaucrats, new warriors, new power brokers, new captains of industry. This is why the “old maid”, the childless woman, is the most hated person in patriarchal society. We have but one purpose under patriarchy: to give men more men. This has been true whether the economic structure was feudalist or capitalist, whether the political structure was monarchic or pseudo-democratic.

Keeping women from the spheres of political, social or economic influence was both a function of the control over our reproduction and a means to perpetuate that control. Our biological capability to give birth has been used as an excuse to keep us from the means to economically support ourselves. We have been told that some jobs are just too physically difficult for us. We have been told that other jobs are dangerous for us due to our childbearing capacity. We have been told that, as mothers and nurturers, we do not have the “nature” to perform some jobs. We have been told that our biological nature and hormones make us emotional and unstable, thereby unsuited for some jobs. We have been told that taking time off to give birth and rear our children is an undue economic burden on potential employers; that we will eventually want time off to marry and to have children.

Of course, this is a vicious circle. Women have been cut out of the means to succeed or even to survive in society, regardless of the socioeconomic system of that society. Then, the fact that we have not enjoyed success at the same rate as men is considered proof that we aren’t capable; that patriarchal attitudes and practices were right all along. With the advent of technological means of production, that has subsided to a degree, but it still exists. We are still told that women don’t get to the highest levels of government or business because we take too much time off to bear or rear children.

An even more insidious practice is to relate our biological nature with socially constructed gender and the physical expression of gender norms. The concept of femininity is culturally tied to submission, physical representations of our biology (i.e. accentuation of breasts and the “feminine” form are what makes us worthwhile human beings), expressions of nurturing behavior, and a willingness to sacrifice Self for the benefit of others, among other things. All of these concepts which are tied to the feminine gender are based upon the patriarchal requirements placed upon us because of our biological nature as child bearers. Gender is yet one more tool in the patriarchal toolbox of our oppression and exploitation.

Some have adopted a misguided notion that gender is integral to the fight for women’s liberation. The historical record and years of fighting for political rights has proven that our oppression and exploitation is rooted in our perceived child bearing capabilities, so a fight based upon gender will never liberate women. We will continue to be oppressed based upon this capacity–whether or now we, as individual women, want or can have children–so such a tactic is doomed from the start. We must recognize that the roots of our oppression lie in our biology, and the attempts to control that biology. We will not become free or safe by being more or less feminine, since femininity is something created in attempt to justify and reinforce our oppression. We will only become free by taking control over our own biology, by attacking the ideology that gives men a say in controlling our sexuality and our reproduction. To tear down the structures that allow men to use our biology as an excuse for keeping us from the places of power, whether that power is economic, social or political. That means attacking the deeply entrenched cultural biases about what it means to be a potential bearer of children.

To rid us of exploitation and oppression is not an easy task. It is not about just ending patriarchy. It is not just about ending capitalism. We must end both at the same time. We must demand that the means of reproduction be seized and controlled by those of us who do the labor. We must dismantle the structures in place that seek to allow men and the societies built on patriarchal philosophies to control our reproduction. Only Socialism can allow for this. Only in a society where women and their children are guaranteed the right and the ability to survive and to thrive—whether or not they are attached to a man—will females be free of exploitation and oppression.

Meanwhile, we must tear down the supporting structures that have taken on lives of their own. Patriarchal religion, the concept of gender, male violence against females—all of this and more serve to keep us entrenched in a world where the female is not valued. Where Socialism has failed in the past is that it has focused solely on the economic structures and philosophies of a society. The rise of patriarchy may be linked to socioeconomic evolution, but it has taken on a life of its own. It has developed its own ideology and social structures that are apart from government and economics. These ideologies and structures, which are based upon our biology, must be attacked and destroyed.

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