Simone Weil wrote in Gravity & Grace:

Up to now, history has only shown us societies divided up into classes, except for altogether primitive societies in which no differentiation has yet occurred.

There is a fundamental division that is inscribed on the human body, that of gender. But is this a class division?

In Marxist terms this division would have to be driven by economics. In 'primitive' societies its been noted as a general factor that work is gendered: some work is in essence female, but can be done by men; some work is in essence male but can be done by women.

  • Again posted as a comment since the answer is opinion based. Yes. As an example the option to pursue a full time career is available to men of all classes, but only to women of upper classes (since only they have the resources to employ full time baby sitters). That Sheryl Sandberg's lean-in was implicitly aimed only at upper-middle class and upper class women is a prime example. I hope I am getting your concept of class correctly. Apr 24 '15 at 15:34

Engels clearly sees the gender divide as the first class divide and the prototype for all later classism. This is where we get Marxist-feminism originally. From an earlier analysis of Celtic culture, he saw the initial ownership of land as having been restricted to women. As a continuation of hunter-gathering culture, after agriculture, men owned cattle, which needed to continually move, so as not to overgraze land, and women owned houses, which controlled access to safe fields. As agriculture intensified, it was more necessary to hold land, and it was held by women.

The original Welsh tradition of passing land titles to sisters'-son's (maternal nephews), and not biological heirs, is the oldest recorded form of male-to-male inheritance. So women were the holders of lineage, and the ruling class. Then, as war became a larger and larger scale of endeavor, men formed a sort of protection racket that eroded women's hold on land, in what then becomes the prototype of the first economic revolution.

(Sources "We are All Part of One Another" by Barbra Deming, and "Truth or Dare" by Starhawk.)

I don't agree, or at least, if there is such a divide it has more than two classes. A more basic arrangement of human culture from a more modern perspective is the sort of polygynous collective agriculture still practiced in parts of Africa. In such an arrangement, men who hold land have multiple wives, and the remaining majority of men and minority of women are consigned to the role of workers on other's land.

This is supported by evidence that several times more neolithic women than men have descendents. http://io9.com/how-female-dna-came-to-dominate-the-human-gene-pool-1638621568

It is a majority of men and a minority of women because if married men all take two or three wives, then there are between equally many and twice as many men who never get married, while almost all women will become wives. If married men do not take two or three wives in this model, they cannot feed their cattle in hostile seasons, because there is a hard division of labor: men do not farm, they only clear land and manage animals. Tropical land where we originated in Africa is often single-use, once you grow on it one season, you have to let it grow over before it will bear decently again. So clearing land is a constant occupation that used up the labor of all those unmarried men.

In such a system, one cannot make the argument that men as a whole or women as a whole are the more powerful economic class, since the majority of men hold nothing, and the majority of women jointly hold land, even if they cannot hold land in their own right. Men in such societies also do not hold land until married. The inheritor is the son first chosen by a woman's family for an arranged marriage.

Eventually two things happened to break this down. We developed a more plant-based diet, so the women's work became much more important than the men's, and the men started doing it with them. And we learned that we can improve soil by putting waste back into it, so land recovers fast enough that it does not have to be cleared of trees each time. I don't imagine it took too much pressure to break down universal polygyny once that was possible -- humans do not seem predisposed to sharing mates well.

From such a direction, you can only see this as a class system if you see it as a three-tiered one where women form the middle class and men form both the upper and the lower class. But that keeps gender itself from being a class divide per se.

To my mind, this accords better with reality than the Marxist-Feminist notion that since that first deposition from power women have always been the losers. In modern society we have difficulty with women leading, but 90% of the people we kill, lock up or just let die are male. The fate of women is thus intermediate between the fates of these two classes of men.

  • +1 but w.r.t. "the majority of men hold nothing, and the majority of women jointly hold land" -- I'm confused by this, do you have a cite or can you maybe expand/clarify? It wouldn't seem arithmetically possible, but maybe I'm missing something? :)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Oct 29 '14 at 2:23
  • Coverage of the modern form is on Wikipedia under 'polygyny'. But the modern form is more male dominated than the hypothesized original, because it lives alongside patriarchal alternatives (like our modern cities.) So the men who do not marry can just disappear into a different culture, and real land owners actually have to do their own work, keeping families much smaller, and the workload more even, by forcing people onto a diet that is more plant-based.
    – user9166
    Oct 31 '14 at 18:55
  • @JosephWeissman I added the 'math' to the post. I tried to put it in comments, but I am just too verbose by nature. My sources are from evolutionary psychology, and they are more concerned with the effects than the causes. I cannot find a decent reference that lays this out.
    – user9166
    Oct 31 '14 at 19:30

If the gender divide was a class divide, then gender would be a class. Maybe it is, but such usage is definitely not Marxist. To Marxists, classes are hereditary, which means that you do not have people of different classes within a family. And evidently there are people of different genders within each family, and it is not the case that the children of men are exclusively male, or that the children of women are exclusively female.

The confusion seems to arise from this sentence from Engels:

The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.

But, besides the technical question of Engels not being Marx, nor conversely, the above is absolutely not synonymous to "Engels clearly sees the gender divide as the first class divide", as jobermark puts it. "Coincides" is by no means the same as "equates".

What Engels says is that the opposition between classes coincides, historically, with the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage. Of course, it does not exclude the possibility that men and women could have been in antagonic relations within other forms of family organisation; for all we know such antagonism could have been present in clanic group marriage; it just wouldn't be historically contemporary to class oppression.

True, Engels then goes to say that the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male. This still doesn't mean that sexual oppression is tantamount to class oppression, much less that the first social classes were the sexes, male and female. It only means that sexual oppression is absolutely necessary for the reproduction of class relations, through reasonably clear rules of inheritance. No monogamous marriage, no possible straightforward inheritance rules, consequently no solid base for property and no smooth reproduction of social inequality.

(Also, it is not true that the gender division is inscribed into the human body. Sex is, but "gender", to the extent that it is a significant category, is a social construct, the sum of socially expected/accepted attidudes and characteristics of males and females, and as such, strictly cultural, not biological.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.