Capitalism, women’s oppression & the role of the patriarchal family

By Katia Hancke

In the last 10 years, gender violence and femicide have become terms we are all too familiar with. These issues have been lifted out of the shadows by millions of women worldwide saying ‘No More’ and demanding action to tackle this insidious violence. Horrific newspaper headlines highlight how intimate partner violence has become a shadow pandemic: In Ireland, one in four women has been abused by a current or former partner.

In 2020, Women’s Aid alone dealt with nearly 30,000 calls for help. In February 2022, new research showed that three in five young people under 25 have experienced, or know someone who has experienced, intimate relationship abuse. This is a global phenomenon: one in three women worldwide experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, and every day 137 women worldwide are killed by a partner or member of their own family.

Why does this happen? Why are even the most intimate relationships, in families, in homes — the one place we are taught to be safe— afflicted by such astounding levels of violence? Examining where the violence emanates from is not just an academic debate. In order to effectively fight something, we need to know what its roots are.

The populist-right understands this all too well. They know how important the family is as an institution to push women back into the home and reinforce restrictive gender norms. It spends considerable energy trying to “prove” that male superiority and patriarchy are the natural order of things and isn’t shy about inventing entire branches of pseudoscience to back up its version of events. Just listen to Jordan Peterson going on about some lobster species in which the male lobsters are sexually aggressive and how that “proves” it is natural for men to be dominant. Lobsters also hide under rocks all day long and can only swim backwards, but somehow that doesn’t make it into his notion of “natural behaviours”.

This may be a crude and somewhat laughable example, but biological determinism, sociobiology and genetic determinism are all popular interpretations of science that are used to promote a view of human behaviour that justifies violence and inequality. At root, these versions of human nature are used to protect the status quo and to undermine the growing clamour for fundamental change.

Engels’ vital insights

In fact, there is no need for us to explore the bottom of the ocean when the history of human societies provides us with ample material to find the point at which our intimate relationships were turned into a social institution with rules and regulations. For 99% of history, humanity lived in a huge variety of kinships, in societies with little or no distinction between private and public spheres. These earlier forms of society were no utopias and often people faced a daily struggle for survival. However, what most of them had in common was that they were fiercely egalitarian and based on the redistribution of goods – from each according to ability, to each according to needs, while over-exploitation either of fellow humans or of the environment was unheard of.  Archaeological, historical and anthropological research well documents that only with the development of settlements, particularly with early agrarian societies, did institutions such as the state and the patriarchal family emerge.

This research in broad outlines confirms the theory Friedrich Engels postulated as far back as 1884 in his book, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. Based on the research available to him at the time, Engels traced the development of the state and family back to early agrarian settlements. For him, the birth of class society and patriarchy were linked to the development of private property.

The fundamental change in production methods in early neolithic farming societies led to times of want but also to the potential to produce significant surpluses. Surpluses made it possible for some members of society to no longer be directly engaged in production – the birth of class divisions, between managers and labourers. Surpluses also posed the question of ownership for the first time, and with private ownership came the stratification of society around the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and the need of the former – the propertied classes – to protect what was “theirs” through the institution of the state in public life and the family in private life. The patriarchal family was used to guarantee the dominant position of an emerging ruling class through turning intimate relations into strategic marriages, monogamy (for the women) for inheritance. 

The state was used to defend the interests of those who accumulated an ever-expanding amount of land, wealth and resources. Engels’ description of the state in the last instance as “an armed body of men” highlights how the maintenance of the state is based on making violence – from the police, the army and in warfare – acceptable in the public sphere. The modern cultural expression of this is machismo, an image of men as natural warriors and the dominant gender. This gender stereotyping and rigid expectations of masculinity and femininity are further reinforced by the patriarchal family, as the family sphere is presented as under male authority and private. Class society and patriarchy breed gender violence, both in public and in intimate relations.

Engels’ work is not only relevant as a theoretical framework for anthropologists and family historians to this day, it is also an extremely important reference point for any activist who wants to take the fight against gender violence forward. First of all, it proves that it hasn’t always been like this. And if patriarchal relations haven’t always existed, then they can be challenged and done away with.

Secondly, Engels pinpoints relations and ownership of productive forces as key in determining the type of society we live in, including how our public and private lives are constrained. He traces the different forms and functions the institution of the family has taken and how it has varied hugely depending on historical context, geographic location and social class. If private property is key to the development of these constraints, then capitalism, as a form of societal organisation that worships private property (in the form of profit) above all else, is a fetter on the development of equal relationships between men and women. Thus, Engels’ work points to the need to link the fight against women’s oppression to the fight against a system based on extreme inequality. Linking gender-based violence and women’s oppression to capitalism as a system is a call to action to build a united movement to overthrow this rotten system.

The rise of capitalism and its effects

Engels also highlights in his book how capitalism creates contradictory pressures on women and the institution of the family. Under capitalism the family home is no longer a key unit of production – production is decisively moved into the public sphere in huge factories in which workers have to co-operate to produce goods. This historic process led to the birth of a new class – the working class. The ever-increasing need for labour forces as capitalism conquers the world sucks more and more people into having to sell their labour-power for money – including women. Today, the majority of women globally work outside the home.

On the one hand, this created a situation in which women are expected to work two jobs: a paid one at work and an unpaid one at home — reproducing the next generation of the labour force to be exploited for profit. On the other hand, working outside the home as part of a collective provides working-class women with the opportunity to organise much more effectively — as part of their class — against their exploitation and oppression.

In the 250 years of capitalist development, we have seen multiple waves of women’s revolts. In response, capitalism has had to “reinvent” (or significantly adapt) the institution of the family in multiple ways. The very personal human desire to create a home that provides safety, support and human warmth are common to us all. Under capitalism, it is perverted to a set of expectations and societal norms that suit the particular needs of the system rather than reflect our aspirations. Hence, what we are told is the “ideal family”, the type of personal relationship we should emulate, has under capitalism, become an ever-moving feast — an ideological weapon of the ruling class.

Engels’ book was written at a particular point in history that coincided with the rise of the Victorian Family, which signified a shift away from earlier, more public ways of control. Elements of economic relations based on kinship survived for a very long time beyond the rise of private property. Even in the early development of capitalism, the expanded household was still a key unit of economic production. With the rise of manufacturing towns and cities, factory owners initially tried to control every aspect of the lives of workers: collective housing owned by the capitalist, families were split up, and child labour was normalised. Poor houses were seen as a public responsibility.

As capitalism expanded in the 19th century with the development of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, that level of involvement and control in the private lives of an ever-growing working class was no longer expedient or possible. The growth in power of the nation-state in the public sphere is mirrored by a reinforcement of the institution of the family in the private sphere.

Twists and turns in early 20th century

The growing labour movement organised for better conditions, a rising wage and a shorter working day. Within the labour movement, the socialist left proved that women workers could be organised and become a significant force in both the workers’ movement and the women’s movement. This radicalisation of women is countered with an ideological offensive: the image of the Victorian family with separate lives and spheres of influence for men and women and a separation between the professional occupation of the man and a focus on domesticity/parenthood and charity work for the woman. This separation of “acceptable” male and female work was used to justify the gendering of jobs and lower pay for women.

Of course, this image was based on hypocrisy and completely unattainable for the working class. In fact, the number of female workers employed as domestic servants increased ninefold during this period. The “importance of childhood” seemingly didn’t extend to the millions of children forced to work in incredibly harsh conditions due to industrialisation. In the textile industry in the southern US, 25% of workers were children. On the plantations, only infant slaves were exempt from labour. Frederick Douglas stated he didn’t see his own mother until the age of seven. Yet this ideological image of the family was so widespread that the labour movement itself used it – in its campaign against child labour, working-class organisations quoted the need for good parenting and for childhood play and education to win important reforms such as public schools, legislation against child labour and special protections for pregnant workers and young mothers.

After the huge disruption of family life during WW1 and, in Ireland, the War of Independence and the revolutionary strike wave that went with it, combined with the significant impact of first-wave feminism and ramifications of the socialist revolution in Russia, the image of the family shifted significantly. Marriage for love was portrayed as a key relationship between man and woman, and child-rearing was increasingly seen as a responsibility of the public sphere. The huge outpour of literature romanticising love and focusing on emotional labour as a female trait is just one example of this shift. The Great Depression-era rudely interrupted this romantic utopia.

In Ireland, a weak ruling class reliant on a conservative Catholic Church developed a backward state in which education and health care were left under the private control of a misogynist clergy. The consequences of which we are dealing with to this day – just look at the ongoing scandal about the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital or the lack of access to inclusive sex education in our schools. A very conservative image of the family and of motherhood was used to discourage married women from working, including bans on married women workers in the public sector.

Conveniently for the ruling class, this also meant a lack of investment in public childcare and care for the vulnerable and elderly as all those responsibilities were squarely pushed upon the women within the family. The shameful history of Mother and Baby homes and industrial schools illustrates the huge suffering this caused for working-class women and children. Even today, the 25% of families that are led by a single parent are those most at risk of childhood poverty and marginalisation as a result.  The ideological use of family relations by the Irish establishment is a particularly sharp example of how unrealistic gender and relationship norms have a long-term effect on working-class women and families in particular.

Post-war backlash

Internationally, the most significant push towards (what we today know as) the “nuclear family” as the norm happened after WW2. A study in the US from 1945 recorded that 92% of women who started working in industry during the war did not want to give up their jobs. Financial stability in secure union jobs was the major reason cited. It was the capitalist class that pushed women into lower-paying, “feminine” jobs. In order to get away with this, a huge ideological offensive began, in which the institution of the family played a key role. A new “normal” was propagated – of the perfect family in the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence, with the working father, the doting mother and the pristine two and a half children. It had previously been normal to have an extended family household, allowing for child-rearing, caring and domestic duties to be spread out. This new understanding of the family ripped this support from people, women most of all.

Popular TV shows like The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie (and the national equivalents of these family shows all over the world) gave the impression that this new “normal” was the natural state of affairs. In fact, by the 1960s birth rates were higher and women married younger than at any point in the last 100 years. Female participation in education reduced significantly. For the first time, the woman’s responsibility in the family was portrayed as taking care of every aspect of every family member’s personal needs – an all-consuming task. Durable consumer good production and house building expanded massively, but the time women spent on domestic work actually increased.

Of course, there was a huge political component to all this – this was at the height of the Cold War, with the ruling class trying to undermine the significant strength of the workers’ movement. Anti-communist propaganda was rife. Nixon’s kitchen debate with Khrushchev is a perfect example of how much this ideology of family life was used by the capitalist class – Nixon broadcast from a suburban middle-class kitchen while highlighting in the debate that the domestic lifestyle of a US middle-class woman (complete with home baked cookies, washing machine and fridge) proved capitalism’s superiority.

But even for middle-class suburbia, the nuclear family could only be achieved on the back of huge state subsidies, social housing, education benefits and guaranteed income through constant employment – all gains won by the labour movement in the post-war years. On top of that, this image of family life was miles removed from reality for many working-class families, especially in the US. One in four workers lived in poverty, and 40% of black women had to work outside the home. Life magazine highlighted in 1957 that “10,000 black workers work in Ford in Dearborn, but none live there”. White suburbia was an ideological weapon against, rather than a reality for, working-class families.

The nuclear family was used to push women back into the home (or into low-paid jobs) and to silence them. ‘Wife battery’ was again considered acceptable (something first-wave feminism had challenged), and mistrust and infantilisation of women were encouraged – women lost control over family finances, couldn’t sign contracts or have credit cards without consent from their husbands. Institutionalisation and electric shock treatment of women who ‘didn’t fit were commonplace. All this inevitably led to a revolt. Second-wave feminism of the 60s and 70s exposed all of these outwashes and challenged the very concept of the nuclear family, organised for equal pay and brought millions of women worldwide onto the streets and into activism around equality and against oppression. The powerful slogan “the personal is political” brought all those issues once associated with private family life into public debate – including gender violence, sexual harassment, and oppression within the family.

Neoliberalism’s rise in the 70s and 80s saw the family once again used to justify cuts and privatisation of essential services. Thatcher’s famous speech, “There is no such thing as society”! There are individual men and women and there are families…”,  was a thinly veiled justification of the dismantling of major reforms won by the workers’ movement such as public childcare, social housing and the NHS. Every attack on public services was accompanied by a discrediting of “feminism” and “socialism”. No effort was spared to hammer home the impression that “the political is personal”, i.e. individual effort and responsibility are all that is needed to overcome inequality, exploitation and oppression.

The impact of the new feminist wave

The last ten years have seen a growing rejection of that reactionary narrative. Once again, a movement is developing on the streets that not just exposes and fights against gender violence and oppression in all its forms, it also links these aberrations with the functioning of the system as a whole. In the public sphere, the justice system, the police, the capitalist state has been put in the dock as responsible for the proliferation of gender violence – blaming the victims and perpetuating violence and the status quo. We see the ideological weapon of the family institution play a parallel role in our private lives – distorting expectations of relationships and family life to suit the system rather than fulfilling our diverse needs and aspirations.

Today, the family is not as economically central as it was in the past, when it was a key unit of production. But it still performs an important function in capitalism, with trillions of dollars of unpaid labour to show for every year. Worldwide working-class and poor women continue to be vital for capitalism in reproducing the labour force. The capitalist system makes use of gender-based oppression rooted in the domestic and family sphere in this way – because profit cannot continue to be realised without this unpaid work of the labour force. The huge majority of this work is done by women either through unpaid labour in the home or as underpaid care workers. The intricate connection between exploitation (as underpaid workers) and oppression (as women) is clear to see.

The family will inevitably be reshaped again by the current trends in capitalism. Younger people, even if they want to, increasingly cannot afford to start families or have children because of the housing crisis which exists in so many countries, the rise in precarious work and the generalised economic insecurity that capitalism now imposes. There is also a steep rise in loneliness and isolation

It’s not a coincidence that in this context we are seeing in many countries a reactionary offensive to try to reassert traditional gender norms and ‘family values. In North America and Europe, the populist right and others attack ‘gender ideology’, abortion rights and feminism. Right-wing quacks like Peterson can gain an audience among some young men by selling nostalgia about the supposedly happier times when ‘traditional’ families and gender roles predominated. In China, the regime is increasingly worried about the falling birth rate, and alongside this comes renewed vilification and repression against feminists.


The family you were born into still determines what class you belong to – through ownership of wealth and political power. And that is revealed in a multitude of ways: family background predicts earnings up to 85%; school learning is more influenced by “family resources” than school resources; divorce is still the greatest single predictor of poverty for women and children. 

The importance of tracking how the family has been transformed and used as an ideological weapon over the past 200 years is to understand its role in proliferating oppressive, restrictive gender norms – clearly for women, but with consequences for people of all genders. For working-class people, economic pressures hugely increase the potential to be trapped in loveless family life. This economic reality gives a sharp class dimension to any struggle against gender violence. But family ideology also still plays a role in creating unrealistic gender expectations and a distorted view of private relationships.

Gender violence is an extreme expression of women’s oppression. Women’s oppression is inevitable under a system in which private greed has to be protected at all costs. Under capitalism, even our private lives are not safe from exploitation and distortion for the pursuit of profit. However, the means are there to free us from this fetter – if the enormous wealth, resources and key levers of the economy were freed from the grip of the very few to be used democratically for the vast majority, the basic needs of all could be met. Such economic security would lay the basis to truly free our private lives and liberate our family lives from the constraints and expectations heaped on them by a system that never had our interests at heart.

In the words of Engels: “But what will there be new? That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little about what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual – and that will be the end of it.”

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