From “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State,” by Catharine MacKinnon, pages 29-36:
[MacKinnon is still describing Engels' theory of gender from "The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State." -SG] When the home was the center of productive activity, the fact that women labored in the home was superceded by the marketplace as a productive center, the fact that women labored in the home ensured male suprmeacy. This may describe the status of women once commodity production takes over social production, and women are excluded from it. But it explains neither that exclusion on the basis of sex nor its consequences for social power. How did the conception of domestic labor change from “productive” to “unproductive” wiht the rise of classes? At this point, ot the rise of commodity production, women were to have lost power. Apparently, the move to clan society, private property, and monogamy devalued housework, that is, women. As women’s work was devaluedin society, women were deprived of power within the home. Would ithave mattered for women’s power whether their work produced a surplus to be accumulated as private wealth if the work were seen as essential production? Engels dicusses the change as if work in the home were already trivialized as a result of bieng given the low value of women. The work itself changed little. Yet on ce the father had gained increased power through increased wealth in the society,
[excerpt from Engels] Mother right … had to be overthrown, and overthrown it was. This was by no means so difficult as it looks to us today [today being the latter 19th Century -SG]. For this revolution — one of the most decisive ever experiend=ced by mankind — could take place without disturbing one of the living members of a gens. All could remain as they were. The simple decree [sometimes translated "decision"] sufficed that in the future the offspring of the male members should remain within the gens, but that those of the female should be excluded by being transferred to the gens of their father. [end Engels excerpt]
Class power produces gender power [claims Engels -SG]. Marxists do no usually allow a “simple decision” to overturn historically based power relations. [READ THAT AGAIN... IT IS IMPORTANT! -SG] Seemingly men made this decision. Why did the women, who were supposedly supreme in the family at this time, accept it?
The answer appears to be that when the division of labor between menoutside the family changed, the domestic relation inside the family changed. The division of labor within the family before the rise of social classes gave man the important property (such as herds). When the division of labor outside the family became a class relation based on private property ownership, the domestic relation necessarily changed frome female to male supremacy. Leaving aside the questions of why and in what sense men could have “owned” property [which is a legal fiction requiring a state -SG] in the family before private property became the dominant mode of ownership, or why the women were all at home, the essence of the argument seems to be that the power of some m en to dominate other men in production gave all men power over all women in the home. Engels explains the distribution of power between men and women in the family as a function of the position of the family unit in social production, whichin turn expresses men’s relations with men.
From the proposition that class power is the source of male dominance [and Engels DOES make this his central claim -SG], it follows that only those men who possess class power can oppress women in the family. Engels divides his examination of women under capitalism into an exploration of “the bourgeois family” and the “proletarian family,” making clear that the class position of the family unit within which the women is subordinated defines his understanding of subordination. Since working-class men command no increased wealth, probably own little private property, and are exploited by the few (men) whodo, they lack Engels’ prerequisite for male supremacy. The proletarian family lacks property, “for the preservation andinheritance of which monogamy and male supremacy were establsihed; hence there is no incentive to make this male supremacy effetive.” Further, “now that large scale industry has taken the [proletarian] wife out of the home into the labor market and into the factory, and made her often the breadwinnerof the family, no basis for any kind of male supremacy is left in the proletarian household, except perhaps for something of the brutality toward women that has spread since the introduction of monogamy.”
Proletarina and bourgeois women differ in the structure of their sexual relaitons with their husbands. Proletarians experience “sex love”; the bourgeoisie has monogamy. Sex love “assumes that the person loved returns the love; to the extent the woman is on an equal footing with the man.” Sex love is intense, possessive, and long-lasting. Its morality asks of a relaitonship: “Did it spring from love and reciprocated ove or not?” Individual marriage is the social form that corresponds to sex love, “as sexual love is by its nature exclusive — although at present this exclusiveness is fully realized only in the woman.” Sex love is possible only in proletarian relationships. [Are readers paying attention here? This is precisely the kind of preposterousness that leads any thinking woman who is interested in Marxism, and presented Engels as "our" first and last word on gender, to rightfully seek other comrades -- because in this day and age, trotting out this work as definitive on gender is worthy of ridicule. -SG] It “becomes and can only become the real rule among the oppressed classes, which means today among the proletariat … the eternal attendants of monogamy, hetaerism [A supposed primitive state of society, in which all the women of a tribe were held in common. -SG] and adultery, play only an almost vanishing part.” In its relationships, the proletariat, the revolutionary class, prefigures the post-revolutionary society.
The proletarian women is not, then, oppressed as a woman. Sheis not dominated by a male in the family. She does not live in monogamy. She is neither socially isolated nor economically dependent, because she takes part in social production, as all women will under socialism. She is not jointly or doubly oppressed. Proletarian women are oppressed whn, in working outside the home, they come into contact with capital as workers, a condition they share with working-class men.
The differences between proletarian sexual relationships of sex love and bourgeois sexual relationships of monogamy are highly vaunted but obscure. Sex love in its origins, and even upon its abolition, is merged with monogamy. Individual marriage is the social form of both. Removal of the economic basis for monogamy, and consequent equalization of the sexes, will not free women to experience sex love, but will make men “really” monogamous: “If now the economic considerations also disappear which made women put up with the habitualinfidelity of their husbands — concern for their own means of existence and still more for their dchildren’s future — then, according to all previous experience, the equality of women thereby achieved will tend infinitely to make men really monogamous than to make women polyandrous.” The distinction between sex love and monogamy in Engels’ analysis serves to distinguish proletarian women’s situation from that of bourgeois women in order to idealize the proletariat. Women of both classes are the exclusive possessions of men. Under socialism, the position of allwomen changes because private housekeeping is removed into social industry. “The supremacy of the man in marriage is the simple consequence of his economic supremacy, and with the abolition of the latter will disappear of itself.” [Right! -SG] At most this explains why women must tolerate male supremacy; it does not explain why men want it. A clearer example of one-sided causality between material relaitons and social relations would be hard to find. [as would a clearer error -SG]
Putting housekeeping into social industry “removes all the anxiety about ‘con sequences’ which today is the most essentila social — moral as well as economic — factor that prevents a girl from giving herself completely to the man she loves.” Knowing that communism willenable men more wholly to own women sexaully because women will “give [themselves] completely” — the major barrier to this being housework, which one infers is a euphemism for child care — does not make one particularly look forward to Engels’ millenium. He asks whether communism will not “suffice to bring about the gradual growth of unconstrained sexual intercourse and with it a more toleratn public opinion in regard to a maiden’s honor and a woman’s shame.” How unrestrained sexualintercourse went from being the reason women sought deliverance from group marriage under barbarism to that deliverance itself under communism, not to mention the transformation of the meaning of intercourse for women from transformation in property relaitons, is entirely unexplained, but must be what is meant by vulgar materialism.
Sex love occurs only in proletarian relations, so proletarian women are not oppressed as women; monogamy occurs only in the ruling classes, so only bourgeois women are oppressed as women. Can it be that the entire exploration of the origins of women’s oppression produces an explanation that excludes the majority of women? Onlythose women who benefit from class exploitation — are subordinated to men, and only to ruling-class men. It appears to come to this: women who are oppressed by their class position are not oppressed as women by men,but by capital, whileonly women who benefit from their class position, bourgeois women, are oppressed as women, and only by men of their class. But how would ruling-class men oppress ruling-class women, since class differential is the basis of sex oppression? And since working-class men cannot oppress ruling-class women, bourgeois women cannot be victims of male dominance either. Once working-class men are disqualified from engaging in male dominance, the oppression of women exists, but there is no account of who is oppressed by it, far less who is doing it.
Engels explains sexiam as a kind of inverse of class oppression, which correlates with no known data; it is consistent with one persistent view on the left that feminism is “bourgeois.” [which by the way also underwrote the left's terrible past homophobia -SG] It also substantiates a feminist view that much marxist theory, in interpreting gender through class, convolutes simple realities to comprehend gender derivatively if at all. [Bingo! -SG] A theory that exepts a foavored male group from the probelm of male dominance necessarily evades confronting male power over women as a distinctive formof power, interrelated with the class structure but neither derivative from nor a side effect of it.
Engels fails to grasp the impact across classes of women’s relaitonship to the class division itself. he dows not notice that the tension between women’s family duties and public production cuts across classes” “if she carries out her duties in the private service to her family, she remains excluded from public production and unable to earn; and if she wants to take part in public production and earnindependentoy; she cannot carry out family duties. And the wife’s position in the factory is the positin of women in all branches of business, right up to medicine and the law.” Engels does not develop his implicit awareness that the relaitonship of women to class, while often direct and long-lasting, can also be attenuated or crosscut because it is vicarious as well.
From a fmeinist perspective, a woman’s class position, whether or not she works for wages, is as much or more set through her relation first to her father, then to her husband. It changes through changes in these relations, such as marriage, divorce, or aging. It is more open to change, both up and down, than is a man’s in similar material circumstances. Through relations with men, women have consierable class mobility, down as well as up. A favorable marriage can rocket a woman into the ruling class, while her own skills, training, work experience, wage scales, and attitudes, were she on her own, would command few requisites for economic independence or mobility. Divorce or aging can devalue a woman economically as her connections and attractiveness to men declines. Women’s relation to men’s relations to production fixes a woman’s class in a way that cuts acorss the class position of the work she herself does. If whe does exclusively housework, her class positin is determined by her husband’s work outside the home — in spite of the fact that housework is increasingly similar across classes and, when paid, is considered working-class work. This is not to suggest that women’s relaiton to class is less potent than men’s becasue it is vicarious, but to point out that women’s relation to class is mediated through their relations with men.
Engels presupposes throughout, as liberal theorists do, that the distinction between the realm inside the family and the realm outside the family is a distinction between public and private. “Private” means “inside the family.” “Public” means the rest of the world. That is, the family is considered to be a truly private space, private for everyone in it — and not just becasue there is an ideological functopm served by regarding it so. In analyzing women as a group in terms of their role in the family, and men in terms of their role in social production, Engels precludes seeing social relations, inside as well as outside the family, in terms of a sex-based social division. Are owmen really treated very differently by male employers in the marketplace from the way they are treated by husbands at home? in the work they do? in the personal and sexual services they perform? in the hierarchy between them? To consider the home “private” is to privatize women’s oppression and to render women’s status a question of domestic relations to be analyzed as a derivative of the public sphere, rather than setting the family within a totality characterized by a sexual division of power which divides both home and marketplace.
Engels private/public distinction parallels and reinforces Marx’s nature/history distinction be defining women’s issues in terms of one side of a descriptive dualism in which women’s status is the least subject to direct social change. For Marx, woman’s natrual role is morrored in her role as worker; for Engels, woman’s natrual role is mirrored in her role in the family. To identify women’s oppression with the private and the natural, on the left no less than in capitalist society itself, works to subordinate the problem of women’s status to the male and domnant spheres and to hide that relegation behind the appearance of addressing it.
Thekey dynamic assumption in Engels’ analysis of woman’s situation, that without which Engels’ history does not move, is (in a word) sexism. The values, division of labor, and power of male supremacy are presumed at each crucial juncture. The subject to be explained — the development of male supremacy — is effectively presumed. As as account of the “origins” of that development, the analysis dissolves into a mythic restatement devided into ascending periods of an essentially static state of women’s subordination, without which one can see grwoing inequalities but cannot figure out how they started or why they keep getting worse. If the intent was to give “the woman question” a place in marxist theory, it did: woman’s place.
Engels’ method made this inevitable. His approach to social explanation is rigidly causal, unidirectional, and one-sided. Material conditions alone create social relations; concsiousness and materiality do not interact. Thought contemplates things. Objects appear and relate to each other out there, back then. The dicourse is mythic in quality, passive in voice. “There arose” certain things; then something “came over” something; this “was bound to bring” that. Theory, for Engels, is far froma dialogue between observer and observed. he does not worry about his own historicity. He totally fails to grasp the subject side of the subject/object relation as socially dynamic. [This is why MacKinnon says, correctly, that Engels is hopelessly positivist. -SG] And he takes history as a fixed object within a teleology in which what came before necessarily led to what came after. This is to fail to take the object side of the subject/object relation as socially dynamic. One must understand that society could be other than it is in order to explain it, far less to change it. Perhaps one must even understand that society could be other thanit is inorder to understand why it necessarily is at it is. Engels’ empiricism can imagine only the reality he finds, and therefore he can find only the reality he imagines.