Engels and the Debate on Women’s Oppression

Theopoula (Polina) Chrysochou

PhD student at Anglia Ruskin University, Chelmsford, UK.

Communication delivered on 24 July 2013, in the symposium “The contribution of Friedrich Engels in the history of science and technology” at the 24th International Congress of History of Science, Technology and Medicine (ICHSTM, 22-29 July 2013, Manchester University). This paper was submitted to Almagest where it is due to appear in 2014.


Engels developed a theory of women’s oppression in the publication of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) based upon the pioneering research work of Lewis Henry Morgan Ancient Society (1877). His work was the first materialist attempt to understand the evolution of human social organization.

Engels developed a theory of how the rise of class society led to both the rise of the state and the rise of the family, as the means by which the first ruling classes possessed and passed on private property thus locating historically the source of women’s oppression. Engels’ work has defined the terms of the debate around the origin of women’s oppression since the appearance of the feminist movement. Most writers on the subject of women’s oppression have set out either to support or reject Marxist theory based on a critique of Engels pioneering work. In this paper, I present the essence of his theory and discuss the points of controversy.


How can we end women’s oppression has been a controversial question, of great theoretical and social importance, for more than a century and unless we determine the source of this oppression and clarify who or what needs changing, ‘the woman question’ will continue to haunt us.

From its beginnings, the Marxist tradition, with the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, argued that women are oppressed by the ruling class, as well as being relegated to second-class citizens, both in society and within the family.

Although in Capital Marx did not clearly explore the origin of women’s oppression, the question of women’s position is a recurring theme (Smith 2013). His detailed ethnological notes on the subject, late in his life, were turned after his death by Engels, along with his own, into The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. The theory of women’s oppression put forward in Engels’ book, was the conclusion of a lifetime analysis that was from the very beginning an integral part to the overall analysis of class society (Smith 1997).

For their time, Marx and Engels were the most advanced thinkers concerning women’s rights, a contribution that is not widely understood other than for a few exceptions [1], and there is an almost universal ignorance of their writings as a whole, as well as of their political activism on this issue (Bloodworth 2010).

The importance of Engels’ work

Although Engels’ book needed to be revised and updated in light of the new information and data, the fact that Engels was writing in Victorian England, just a few years later than Darwin laid out his theory on human evolution, can help us realise and fully appreciate the contribution of his work.

By using the latest knowledge of pre-historic cultures available in Victorian England, primarily the works of Lewis Henry Morgan (1877) [2], who had just completed an in-depth materialist analysis of early human societies, Engels has historically located the source of women’s oppression. In his book, he has contested the common sense view of his time that this kind of oppression has always existed; and thus he has defined the terms of this debate since the appearance of the feminist movement. The failure of the Stalinist movement to adequately deal with issues of gender oppression led to the emergence of a feminism in the 1960s which was often hostile to the ‘old left’ socialist politics (Cooper and Hardy 2013).

However, despite the fact that Engels’ book has always been surrounded by debates and controversy, it was recognised as a key text by the majority of the feminists during the 1960s and 1970s, whether they agreed with him or not (Bloodworth 2010).

Biology and human nature

Although the argument is often just implied and not clearly stated, the most common theories on women’s oppression have been based on assumptions about biology and human nature.

The biological basis of inequality between men and women can take several forms and within this justificatory context claims range from patriarchy embedded in men’s nature to ‘female nature’ (Frederiksen 2010). Presuppositions that women’s oppression is due to men’s long standing need to dominate and oppress women or simply to their ability to do so, because of their greater physical strength, are held to a greater or lesser extent by both traditional male chauvinists as well as many feminists.

But this conception of the human race, besides being based on mere speculation rather than on concrete evidence, also leads to a pessimistic conclusion (Woods 2001). The assumption that women’s oppression is a biological rather than social phenomenon, a result of something inherent in men which causes them to act in that way, leaves no room for alleviation. If the oppression of women by men always existed, it is difficult not to assume that it will always exist.

In biologically based theories there are two major versions. In the first, the socio-biological version, social behaviour in humans is affected and instructed by genetic factors aiming at maximising the chances of passing on genes to future generations and thus generating different gender roles. The second version, the functionalist perspective, argues that society is additive to biology and that it culturally elaborates the distinction between the two sexes i.e. men have greater strength, women bear children so the different social roles are reflections of these biological givens (Brewer n.d.). These theories of natural difference, pervading different sections of feminist theory, have been used as an explanatory basis by the second wave of the women’s movement (1970s) [3], which rejected the view that the sole base of injustice was economic.

Within the above framework, the perspective on gender differences has been central to feminist-informed theories throughout the years and much of the feminist analysis on gender inequality rested upon suppositions, dependent on the writer’s own views and imagination. Although the range of the assumptions was wide, the justifications given for the male dominance mainly varied from men’s contempt for women and their jealousy of women’s ability to bear children, to the overthrow of a long-lasting matriarchy and men’s patriarchal tyranny (Lerner 1986). Till today, eco-feminist theory, by arguing the parallel exploitation of nature and women by male-dominated societies, relies on a similar explanatory basis (Brewer n.d.). Nevertheless, at this point, it would be remiss not to point out the contribution of some feminist anthropologists like Coontz and Henderson (1986) to the historical understanding of women’s oppression, as well as the extensive data provided by the studies of some others, like those of Draper and Brown (Smith 1997) that reinforced Engels’ claim of the existence of pre-class egalitarian societies.

However, up till now the biological determinism remains a key concept in feminist theory and research, even for those radical feminists who argue that they have rejected it. Either by failing to provide a full and satisfactory explanation for such assertions or by arguing that their woman-based theory is unpolluted by male theory and culture, there is always room in such analyses for explanations with a biological base.

Anthropology: The Flight from Materialism and Evolutionism

The question of women’s oppression was also largely approached in the field of anthropology, a branch of science that was born about 150 years ago, through a series of struggles against religious dogmas and petrified ideas (Read 1957). The first major battle, situated in the field of archaeology and paleontology, was waged around the antiquity of mankind. Continued discoveries of ancient human fossils and tools dated the emergence of humankind to a million years or more. This challenge to the divine origin of humanity, alongside with Darwin’s theory of organic evolution, became in the latter part of the nineteenth century the point of departure for the first scientific study of the formation of humanity, by the classical school of anthropology (Read 1957).

But at around the turn of the century, the fear of the revolutionary implications of this evolutionist and materialist method of thought in the field of anthropology led to the emergence of a new school, the reactionary school of anthropology. As a result of that, in place of the genetic-historical method and dynamic view of the classical anthropologists, the Twentieth Century School of anthropology has substituted a static and purely descriptive approach. Until a few decades ago, most anthropologists and Western observers, characterised by their own cultural prejudices while studying human societies, have brought along their own cultural biases and were led to sexist assumptions, often broadly generalised (Smith 1997).

Engels on women’s oppression

Under the influence of Darwin’s theories, a scientific approach was used to address the question of the origin of human species and theories of the evolution of human societies, based on studies of prehistoric societies, emerged by anthropologists like Lewis Morgan (1818-1881), Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and Jacob Bachofen (1815-1877) [4].

Engels, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State [5], built on the work and drew from the data of Morgan and the other evolutionary anthropologists of the 19th century that showed the existence of egalitarian social and sexual relations, collective production and communal ownership of property in primitive societies. Morgan’s research, as well as his retrospective reconstruction of the history of the family, helped Engels to support his claim that a period of “primitive communism” preceded class society but also to clarify how women’s oppression arose historically, hand in hand with the rise of class society.

Engels in his book, developed a theory of how the rise of class society let both to the rise of the state and the family. The state on the one hand represented the interests of the ruling class, while the family represented the means by which private wealth was possessed and passed on (Engels [1884] 1972; 2004). This dialectical and materialist explanation of Engels reflects both Marx and Engels’ thesis that the form taken by a society, at any point in its historical development, is “determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour on the one hand, and of the family on the other” (Engels [1884] 2004, 25).

The main part of Engels’ theory on women’s oppression is based on the relationship between the sexual division of labor and the mode of production which was fundamentally transformed with the rise of class society. In the development of his theory, Engels accepted Morgan’s general outline of three main stages of social evolution that were respectively called “savagery, barbarism and civilisation” (Brewer 2004, 9-10), reflecting the terminology of the Victorian period. Although the names have changed since then, the basic outline still remains valid.

In his analysis, Engels places the division of labour and the consequent commodity exchange at the third stage of the social development (Brewer 2004). In his book, he argues that in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies (savagery and first part of the stage of barbarism), although there was a sexual division of labour defining the responsibilities of women and men, both sexes were enjoying a high degree of autonomy. Women, by providing much of the food or in some cases most of the food in these pre-class societies, were central to production, combining motherhood and productivity. Consequently, there was no systematic inequality between the sexes.

Engels speculates that with the development of private property the whole situation changed. According to him, this shift resulted from the creation of new social wealth that came with the rise of domestication of animals and the breeding of herds. The shift toward agricultural production increased both the productivity and the demand for labour. Although that the sexual division of labour remained the same, production shifted away from the household, causing a change in the role of reproduction. Men, as they traditionally tended, have taken charge of heavier agricultural jobs, like plowing as it was more difficult for pregnant or nursing women to do so. At the same time, the need for more field workers turned women to the reproducers of society who were gradually excluded from social production. By the same token, since men were traditionally doing most of the hunting it made sense for them to be the ones concerned with the care and breeding of domesticated cattle (Smith 1997).

Those changes, which drove men to production and women to reproduction, firstly appeared among the property-owning family, the first ruling class according to Engels. When Engels argued that the formation of the isolated patriarchal family as the economic unit of society should be seen as the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” (Engels [1884] 2004, 67) he in fact was identifying the institution by which the “world-historic defeat of the female sex” was accomplished (Dixon 1977). Nuclear family, no longer serving anything but a reproductive function, was transformed into the basic economic unit of society, within which a woman and her children became dependent upon an individual man (Leacock 1972).

Summing up, we could say that the essence of Engels’ analysis is that the first erosion of gender equality took place when the household became a sphere primarily for reproduction, with the rise of class society and the dominance of production for exchange. It was the first time in human’s history that women’s ability to give birth excluded them from the production (Brewer n.d.)

Engels’ critics

Engels has many critics and given the fact that when writing his book he was far ahead of his time, it’s not surprising that he has made a number of errors and false premises in The Origin (Brewer n.d.). Indeed, his analysis needs some updating and further development and we have to keep that in mind in order to avoid an incorrect reading of his arguments and a dwelling on particulars that obscure Engels’ conceptual theoretical framework.

Invaluable criticisms of various forms come from various directions and some examples in that direction might be the work of the anthropologists Eleanor Burke Leacock (1972; 1981) and Karen Sacks (1975), who have provided us with more recent data, as well as the analysis of the rise of patrilineal descent from Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson (1986) and the critique of Engels developed by Chris Harman (1994) in which there is an attempt to clarify his insights.

Firstly, it might be wise to bear in mind while reading The Origin that Engels and Marx based their explanations on the available archaeological and anthropological evidence that was very limited, since these sciences were relatively new at the time. As every society around the globe could not experience identical changes as far as the mode of production, Engels had to rely on ethnographic material (Brewer 2004). Although his personal knowledge was considerable, it was limited to Germany and other European societies, so Engels had to depend on others’ work and primarily on Morgan’s data in order to evaluate non-European societies that were differently organised. Despite the fact that he notes in his book that we can’t know exactly how and when the transformation of the family took place, he fails in the end to avoid exaggerations when he wrongly concludes that all the early hunter-gatherer societies were matrilineal (Engels [1884] 1972, 120). By making such kinds of generalisations he seems to obscure the fact that the Iroquois, the society that Morgan analysed, was a relatively advanced horticultural society. According to Harman (1994, 130-132), although we can make assumptions, we cannot prove or disapprove that all human societies organised kinship in this way, especially when there are no written records.

Secondly, when Engels develops his arguments about the appearance of women’s oppression he bases his theory on a number of incorrect speculations. He thought that the domestication of cattle arose before agriculture and that men were the natural providers, although today’s evidence show that these two processes developed at the same time and after horticulture (Engels [1884] 1972; 2004), as well as that tending to domestic animals, while they remained small in number, were primarily a female activity. The gender bias of his period is reflected in Engels’ assumptions of man’s role as a provider, when he is trying to explain how men became the owners of the means of production by using the term “naturalness” (Engels [1884] 2004, 151). However, at this point I should point out that despite Engels’ false premises, there is modern anthropological and archaeological evidence that can support a Marxist explanation for the emergence of private property and the oppression of women (Ehrenberg 1989).

A final point, concerning Engels’ errors and false premises which are strongly related with Engels’ acceptance of certain aspects of Victorian morality, is the fact that he wrongly tries to predict what sort of relationships people will choose in a society, in which sexuality will no longer be expropriated. Thus he guesses that in socialism there will be a flowering of monogamy in the form of “individual sex love” (Engels [1884] 2004, 59), despite the fact that there is no way to make such predictions.

Thirdly, the fact that Engels did not develop a complete theory of sexuality is often the reason for him been accused by many feminist writers of not being interested in anything else but crude economics. Summarising the main points of these critics, we could say that for many feminists Marx and Engels fail to explain the more personal aspects of women’s oppression and they subordinate it by reducing all social questions to class relations (Smith 1997). However, in contrast to that, we could support Engels’ position that by locating the economic roots of inequality, we can understand how different forms of oppression, that may seem at first different and independent, reinforce all together the system of exploitation.

Last but not least, Engels in his analysis of the family focused on the role of the ruling-class family without providing an analysis of the working-class family. Although he was right that the entry of the working-class women into production would be a step forward, he overestimated the degree of this improvement, when at the same time he underestimated the extent to which middle- and ruling-class women would enter the workforce. It is clear that Engels couldn’t predict at his time the degree to which advanced capitalism would find a way to incorporate working-class women into the labour force, without diminishing their central role in the family. The experience of capitalism has proven that women nowadays are expected to fulfil both roles (Smith 1997).


Nevertheless, despite the criticisms and the updating needed, a Marxist explanation of the oppression of women is in accordance with modern anthropological and archaeological data and the overall thesis of a social explanation of the oppression and exclusion of women stands the test of time and evidence well (Brewer 2004). In the absence of adequate evidence, it is unscientific to discuss the superiority of men or women outside the framework of the actual processes of history. As Evelyn Reed argues, “the denial of evolution of gender relations is not based on examination of evidence but is political, a refusal to accept the evidence gained through observations of societies organised very differently from those of the social scientists” (1978, 98-113).

Engels’ method in The Origin of The Family, Private Property and the State, not only laid out for the first time the theoretical framework for understanding the source of women’s oppression but it also articulated a forward vision to liberation. If women’s oppression and capitalism do not rest on the foundations of an unchanging ‘human nature’, they are no more inevitable and can both be defeated.


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[1] For such exceptions see August Nimtz’s book and Hal Draper’s article.

Nimtz, A. (2000), Marx and Engels: Their Contribution to the Democratic Breakthrough. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Draper, H. (1970), “Marx and Engels on Women’s Liberation”. International Socialism, July/August, (44):20-29. Available at Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/archive/draper/1970/07/women.htm.

[2] Morgan, L. H. (2000 [1877]), Ancient society. Reprint. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Originally published as Ancient society: or, Researches in the lines of human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilization. London: MacMillan and Company. Available at Marxists Internet Archive, www.marxists.org/reference/archive/morgan-lewis/ancient-society/.

[3] The Second Wave Feminist Perspective evolved during the 1970s and conceptualised gender equality in all spheres and dimensions in society. In the political culture of 1950-1970 injustice was viewed as unfair distribution of economic opportunities and resources, which was manifested in class and gender disparities. Second Wave Feminists rejected the view that the sole base of injustice was economic. They saw injustice as having social, cultural and political roots as well.

[4] The British Evolutionary School in Anthropology was led by Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917), the American School by Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881) and the German or Continental School by Johann Jacob Bachofen (1815-1877).

[5] Engels’ book was originally written in German and firstly published as Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats in October 1884, in Hottingen-Zurich. Between 1884 and 1881 there were several published editions of the original. The fourth and last edition of Engels’ book, which was not subjected to any further changes, was published in Stuttgart, 1892. In that last edition, Engels introduced revisions, changes and amendments in his original text as a result of his further research on the subject. In the light of new data and largely based on the works of the Russian scientist Kovalevsky, M. M. (the fourth edition was dedicated to Kovalevsky), Engels made considerable insertions especially to the family chapter. Engels’ Preface to the fourth edition of the book was published before the appearance of the book in 1891 as “On the History of the Primitive Family” in Die Neue Zeit (41). The English translation of the book appeared after Engels’ death in 1902. It was firstly translated by Untermann, E. (1902) as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Frederic Engels. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company. Available at: www.digilibraries.com/html_ebooks/122134/33111/www.digilibraries.com@33111@33111-h@33111-h-0.htm#Page_5.

However, the most widely circulated English version is the English translation by West, A., and Torr, D. (1942), The origin of the family, Private Property and the State. New York: International Publishers. Although, at this point, it should be noted that this edition was not translated from Engels’ original German text, but it was a translation from the 4th Russian edition, Moscow, (1934). The (1978) English edition of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In Connection with the Researches of the Lewis H. Morgan. Peking: Foreign Languages Press has been revised against the original German text as it appeared in 1962 in Marx-Engels Werke 21. Berlin: Dietz Verlag. Where necessary corrections have been made and the spelling of names and other terms has been modernized. Available at: www.marx2mao.com/M&E/OFPS84.html.

The same goes for the online version of The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Marx/Engels Internet Archive (marxists.org) 1993, 1999, 2000. Available at: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm.

Against the original German text has also been revised the 1972 edition of Engels’ book with intro and notes by Leacock, E. B.