A note: Out of defensiveness, some will protest that MacKinnon has “attacked” Engels. But the critique of Engels by MacKinnon happened decades and decades after Engels published OFPPS, and the questions she raises are actually relatively straightforward and should have been expected in any rigorous critique. Those questions should have been raised from inside the Marxist tradition as part of its critical method, which MacKinnon herself uses as a yardstick. Her critique is not constructed as an “attack” on Engels, unless any critique is labeled an attack. It was made necessary by the failure of Marxists to critique themselves on gender, and the propensity to deploy this text in lieu of a serious engagement with the questions raised by radical feminism/womanism.
The defense that Engels attempted to explain gender from the point of view of materialism misses MacKinnon’s point. Lamark also attempted a materialist explanation of evolution. But his explanation was wrong.
The perennial regurgitation of Engels as the last theoretical word on gender was not an engagement by Marxism with feminism at all, but a method of dismissal. We can correct this, but the first step is to overcome our defensiveness, and treat these women as the comrades that they are. -SG
Heretofore, this post will be pure MacKinnon (from Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, pages 25-30):
To assert that frequent and varied sexual intercourse necessarily appeared degrading and oppressive to women fails to explain the “origins” of a society in which it is so. Consequence is presented as cause. The explanation for socia change is: virtuous women wanted husbands. (Unvirtuous women, presumably, were having intercourse with the unfaithful husbands.) Men are ready at aqll times for “the pleasures of actual group marriage.” Here we have the sexed men, the firgins and the whores, characters in the basic pornographic script before the dawn of history.
Engels goes on: “Just as the wives whom it had formerly been so easy to obtain had now acquired an exchange value and were bought, so also with labor power, particularly since the herds ha ddefinitely become family possessions … according to the social custim of the time, the man was also the owner of the new source of subsistence, the cattle, and later of the new instrumen ts of labor, the slaves.” Engels connects tings and socialmeanings, relations between things and relations between people, with extraordinary offhandedness. How did wives come to be “obtained,” much less sold? Womenm were sold because herds were family possessions? What can the power of “mother right” have been if the wife was purchased by the husband? Labor power came to be sold “just as” women were sold? How did these social divisions come to be “the social custom of the time”? What made herds considered wealth in the first place? Why did not women own or tend herds? Why were not husbands bought and sold? Could it really be that slavery arose because “The family did not multiply so rapidly as the cattle. More people were needed to look after them; for this purpose use could be made of enemies captured in war, who could also be bred just as easily as the cattle themselves.” Because cattle reproduce more efficiently than people, slavery arose?
In contrast with this approach to explaining the social status of a non-class group [women], Marx asked: “What is a Negro slave? A man of the black race. The one explanation is as good as the other. A Negro is a Negro. He only becomes a slave in certain relations. A cotton spinning jenny is a machine for spinning cotton. It becomes capital only in certain relations. [Hornborg actually confronts this as "machine fetishim" in his book "The Power of the Machine," but MacKinnon's point is still valid in this limited context. -SG] Torn from these relationships it is no more capital than gold in itself is money or sugar is the pric e of sugar.” Yet even Marx was apparently convinced that what makes a domesticated woman is not social relations, but being a person of the female sex. Engels procedes as if one can explain the creation of the social relations of slavery by pointing to the existence of the need for the work the slaves performed.
Engels also notes that “the exclusive recognition of the female parent, owing to the impossibility of recognizing the male parent with certainty, means that the women — the mothers — are held in high respect.” Out of a context that grants specific social meaning to descent and maternity, there is no basis to believe that social respect is a necessary correlate of the only possible system of tracing descent. Mothers’ recognizability need not maek them respected. As a prior matter, it is most unclear why women, a biologically defined group, are “in the house” at all, or, rather, why the men are not there with them. Engels says, “According to the division of labor within the family at that time, it s the man’s part to obtain food and the instruments of labor necessary for that purpose. He therefore also owned the instruments of laobr, and in the event of a husband and wife separating, he took them with him, just as she retained her household goods.” To Engels, this state of affairs does not require explanation. Woman’s place in the household is an extension of the division of labor between the sexes — originally non-explitative and “for purposes of procreation only.” How did it become housework? This question is addressed at most by: “The division of labor between the two sexes is determined by quite other causes than by the position of women in society. Among peoples where the women have to work far harder than than we think suitable, there is often there is often much more real respect for women than among out Europeans.” Engels does not specify the “quite other causes” that determine this division oflabor between the sexes. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the social division of labor might influence the social position of the people who fill the roles, as well as the reverse. He reassures us that the hard-working woman of barbaric times “was regarded among her people as a real lady … was also a lady in charcter.” Just in case anyone is worried that socialism, by having women do real work, would make women unladylike.
No other divison of labor in Engels’ account divides work along the same lines as another human characteristic in the way sex does. Other than the division between the sexes, divisons of labor separate “men” in production. Each advance in the division of labor supercedes the previous historical one. “The division of labor slowly insinuates itself into this process of production. It undermines the collectivity of production and appropriation, elevates appropriation by individuals into the geenral rule, and thus creates exchange between individuals… Gradually commodity production becomes the dominating form.” It would seem that when work is divided between women and men (as it continues to be under capitalism without being superceded) Engels feels no need to explain it, but sees it as justified by unspecified “quite other causes.” But when work is divided between men and women in production, particularly in class society, it lies at the root of the exploitation of one class by another.
Even when Engels grants that women can engage in production — not just socially necessary labor — he cannot manage to conclude that they derive social power from it. To the extent that women have power, it comes from their role as mothers and is exercised in the home. Men are workers, even when women engage in produciton and men are recognizable parents. Men derive neither power nor social position from paternity; they derive these from their role in production. Engels’ analysis of paring marriage precisely tracks liberal theory. A split between work and home is defined in terms of a split between male- and female-dominated spheres, and socil power for women is reckoned not by relation to production but by sex.
Engels’ purpose is to explain how male cominance occurred. Yet it is present before it is supposed to have happened. The picture of pairing marriage that emerges looks like nothing so much as class society under male supremacy: women are “obtained” or sold as wives, they labor in the house; men own and control the dominant means of subsistence, women are sexually possessed. This arrangement does not describe the exceptions to the general rule late to emerge full-blown in class society, but the general condition of women’s life in this period. Although antagonism between men and women is not supposed to have begun until civilization, the relations described here do not look especially harmonious, unless one thinks of them as somehow suitable. One is left wondering how female monogamy, “rather right,” and other oppressive features of class society could make women’s lives subtantively worse and sexual relations newly antagonistic.
With the generalization of privte property and class relaitons, the communal family was replaced by the modern nuclear family. The nuclear family is characterized by monogamy “for women only” for the sole purpose of “mak[ing] the man supreme in the family and to propogate, as the future heirs tohis wealth, childrenindisputably his own.” Only the husband can dissolve the marriage bond. Female monogamy is accompanied by male adultery, hataerism, and prostitution: “the step from paring marriage to monogamy can be put down to the credit of men, and historically the essence of this was to make the position of the women worse and the infidelities of the men easier.” The initial stimulus for monogamous marriage came when (and because) improved labor productivity increased social wealth. Considerable wealth could concentrate in the hands of one man. To guarantee that the man’s children would inherit this wealth, “father right” had to replace “mother right,” a change that Marx said “in general … seems to be the most natural transition.” In Engels’ words, “Thus on the one hand, in proportion as wealth increased it made the man’s position in the family more imortant than the woman’s and on the other handcreated an impulse to exploit this strengthened position in order to overthrow, in favor of his children, the traditional order of inheritance.”
Thus female monogamy arose from the ocncnetration of wealth in the hands of one “man” and from the need to bequeath this wealth to his children. Again many connections between material objects and their social meanings are simply presupposed. Engels assumes that an increase in wealth stimulates private appropriation of that wealth; that private wealth is male owned; that an increase in male-owned private wealth creates a need for its inheritance; and that an increase in wealth by husbands has an effect on relaitons with their wivesin the family. He also assumes that the mother’s power in the home both can and must be overthrown in order to guarantee that inheritance will pass to his children, even though under pairing marriage paternity was traceable becasue female fidelity was demanded. And that descent systems autmatically correlate with power.
Why would an increase in the produced numbers of any object above immediate need constitute of itself an increase in wealth, in the sense of having the social consequences wealth has for the individual owner? If increased productivity created surplus wealth, why was it not communally owned? The existence of more things does not dictate the form of social relaitons their organization will take. [I would argue this point, but not from Engel's perspective, because he and MacKinnon essentially agree on this -- MacKinnon is showing how Engels contradicts himself. Again, see Hornborg on machine fetishism. -SG] Must one assume that people inherently desire to have private possessions? If so, the prosect for socialism under any but subsistence conditions seems dim indeed. Why did not women acquire wealth for themselves? [Of course, they occasionally did, and in Europe this led to witch trials to expropriate them. -SG] Why was the wealth acquired by men not considered owned by the paired unit? Just becasue the man did the labor of tending herds, why did that mean he owned them? Surely a division of labor does not autmatically produce a corresponding division of ownership.
Why does having private property imply a beleif that it is important that someone, specifically one’s “own” children, acquire it on one’s death? A discussion of the social meaning of private property is needed to attach property ownership to fathers through marriage and to children as heirs. Possessiveness of objects, parental possessiveness of children (“his children”), possessiveness of spouses for each other, all require grounding in the meaning of social relations. If, for example, private property ownership reflects positively on personality in a given culture, and if death culturally means the end of personality, one might want to pass on property to someone with whom one identifies. Inheritance becomes a defense against death by perpetuation of the self through the mediation of property ownership, to which end monogamous marriage is (at least for men) a means. Whatever the account, one is needed. Engels proceeds as if the need to bequeath (or own) property is a physical quality of the objects themselves.
Why does an increase in social wealth give menpower over women in the household? Even presumng that wealth is male-owned, why is it relationally signficant between the sexes? Under pairing marriage, women worked in the hosue, where they were supreme as well a ssocially coequal. Passng property on to children did not require that “mother right” be overthrown; wealth could pass through the mother, whose maternity is seldom in question. What changed under monogamy was the importance for social power of production outside the home. The reason for that shift in social meaning and its effect for gender relations within the home remains unexplained.
[End of part 3]