Friedrich Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884) has been a central text for Marxist-feminist thinkers in the 20th century and up until the present. But its centrality is not marked by a universal acceptance or agreement with the central tenets of Engels’ elaboration of Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (as well as Marx’s own notebooks on Morgan’s landmark work of anthropology). On the contrary, feminist thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Carol Gould, Terrell Carver, and Lise Vogel have all voiced their concerns about the shortcomings of Engels’ text. While these four thinkers (Beauvoir, Gould, Carver and Vogel) both differ and overlap in different formulations as far as their criticisms of Engels, I believe one thread runs through them all: a recognition that there is something missing in Engels’ formulation of the origins of gender oppression, some factor that has yet to be systematically accounted for. Even if one reads Engels as an important precursor to the so-called “dual-systems theory feminists” a century avant la lettre, as Carver does, some necessary factor escapes Engels’ formulation.
Most of Engels’ critics accuse his account of being too narrowly economic. For Engels, gender oppression coincides with the advent of private property and the necessary class oppression that follows. The shift from a matrilineal society to a patrilineal one allowed for the position of women in the household and in the community to fall as the wealth of the men rose: inheritance of property, of course, traditionally goes from the (male) head of household and property owner, to the (male) eldest descendent (Engels 1978). The concept of the patriarchy, says Gould, is the feminist response to Engels’ overly deterministic and “one-sidedly economic” account for the origins of gender oppression (Gould, 1999). De Beauvoir, too, seeks a way beyond the “economic monism” of Engels’ Origins (Beauvoir, 2012).
If one would want to defend Engels as laying a groundwork for understanding gender oppression as something more than just related to (economic, material, waged) production, which, I believe, is what Carver is doing when he suggests that Engels can be thought of as a kind of forerunner to dual-systems theory, one would surely want to point to Engels’ treatment of reproductive labor and the productive position of women in the household. Indeed, we get here a more robust, or at least more open-ended, evaluation of the contributing factors to gender oppression as well as the possibilities of overcoming that oppression. We might, however, argue, along the lines of Gould, Beauvoir, and Vogel, that Engels’ explicit treatment of reproductive labor is unduly brought into the framework of productive labor and becomes something more like an elaboration on Marx’s treatment of gender oppression in the first volume of Capital. That is, treating biological reproduction as economically — or even just socially — productive does not amount to “dual systems” — rather, it amounts to an expansion of the single, already articulated system of gender (and class) oppression: the economic system.
Of course, arguing for what tended to be understood as unproductive labor (say, child-rearing) to be considered productive labor (although differently productive than, say, factory labor), is to the benefit of the struggle of proletariat women, which strengthens the unity of the proletariat as a whole, increasing its force and consciousness as a class. But if feminists — all feminists, not just Marxist ones — seek to understand gender oppression in terms of more than just the capitalist framework in which it currently exists, the task of reproduction-as-productive is simply not enough.
Of course, we can articulate the concept of patriarchy to reflect this: patriarchy can, and indeed often does, stand in for every other form of gender oppression that isn’t related to issues of productive or unproductive labor. Through a further articulation of patriarchy, we can reach the limit of the burning question — the answer to which provided by Engels is a moment of some discomfort — what remains of gender oppression in the proletariat household itself, or even after the proletarian revolution. Engels himself states that the socialist revolution will destroy the material conditions of gender oppression in the household, since the position of the sole (male) breadwinner, so central to proletarian family dynamics under capitalism, will be abolished. Here, Engels writes, “the last remnant of man rule in the proletarian home has lost its ground — except, perhaps a part of the brutality against women that has become general since the advent of monogamy” (Engels, 1978). Engels, here, has perhaps reached the limit of his conceptual power to think beyond the episteme of his day, and can only allude to this “brutality” as some unavoidable fallout of human relations. Today, though, we ought to be more equipped to articulate and resist this brutality.
Contemporary feminists (and anthropologists?) may want to embark upon a genealogical history of this “brutality,” one that doesn’t stop at its possible economic origins: after all, while an economic basis for gender oppression is undeniable and well-articulated in Engels and elsewhere, it simply cannot be the whole story. Of course, as genealogical history, the sources of this brutality — cultural, religious, some would argue biological — would have to be understood not as isolated elements that go into the current state of gender oppression, but rather how they interact and congeal with other factors (capitalism, for instance), to best understand the vast network of history and influences that go into present gender oppression. If Marxist-feminists are interested in exploring the claim that class oppression and gender oppression are inseparable and would do well to work together in mutual overcoming, how would we theorize the interaction between gender relations and world monotheisms? What other cultural considerations are inseparable from the current state of gender relations — gender relations that cut across classes, that can cut across races and other factors. What “brutality” of language might be contributing to gender oppression in its current form(s)? Is the term “patriarchy” flexible enough to include whatever may be found in this genealogical history? These questions, of course, are not designed to downplay the role of the economic in the history of gender oppression. On the contrary, Engels’ Origins, even considering its faulty data and wanting systematicity, is a landmark work in articulating that one sphere of this genealogical history, and should not be thrown out for its narrow scope. Rather, feminists have been, and ought to continue to, explore alternative genealogies of gender oppression, in hopes of coming to a more complete picture. Only this further articulation will better inform the multiplicity of present action against such oppression.