A brief history of ‘marriage,’ part 28

Women and revolution

“As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.”

In 1912, the women textile workers of Lawrence, Mass., went out on strike. Their demands were most eloquently expressed in banners proclaiming “Bread and Roses.” These words inspired a poem by James Oppenheim that was subsequently set to music by Martha Coleman. (folkarchive.de/breadrose.html)

At a time when state victory is following state victory in the countrywide struggle for same-sex marriage rights in the U.S., but, at the same time, reactionary attacks against women’s reproductive rights are spreading, this series has been an effort to step back and examine, from a historic (and prehistoric) materialist perspective, the evolution of the institution of “marriage,” but most particularly the status of women within that institution and within society.

A historical materialist approach, first consistently applied to human social evolution by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, provides a factual, scientific basis for a revolutionary perspective and for revolutionary optimism that dead-end capitalism can be uprooted and replaced by a rational and humane system based on human needs and desires, i.e., socialism.

A much-quoted observation by Marx and Engels in “The Communist Manifesto” — that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” — motivated our exposure, in the first installment of this series, of the intellectual absurdity of noted 20th century anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski’s position on the institution of marriage. We do not think professor Malinowski was an uninformed person. Far from it. What he was, however, was a praised and rewarded intellectual servitor for an imperialist ruling class that was, in the period of powerful and growing national liberation struggles in the first half of the 20th century, losing its hold on its colonial possessions and panicked by the growing strength and influence of the Soviet Union. Such epochal defeats tend to give rise to the most reactionary (and foolish) ideas. Malinowski, despite his erudition and lifetime of anthropological fieldwork, was guilty of promulgating nonsense on the subject of pre-class “marriage” relations.

A scientific assessment of the evolution of human social/sexual relations is unacceptable to the rulers because it brings to the consciousness of the ruled not only that change is possible, but also that it is the very essence of the material world and, thus, of human society. And this understanding brings with it confidence among the masses of exploited and oppressed working people that their struggles in support of social and economic justice and equality will bear fruit.

The first 12 installments of this series focused on pre-class human societies. The overriding message of this calculated emphasis on prehistory is that there is nothing natural or immutable about the subordinate social position that women have occupied through recorded history and up to the present day. Quite the contrary. The material we have reviewed has shown that the role of women in the evolution of our species has been pivotal.

The horrific history of misogyny

Our focus has been on the relative social and economic positions of women and men in nontransitory social/sexual relations. However, as this chronologically organized survey progressed into the period of the so-called agricultural revolution and beyond, we found it necessary to focus more and more on the deteriorating position of married women, and of women in general. One of the shortcomings of this “Brief History” series has been the relatively short shrift it’s given to the despicable tradition in class societies of physical violence against women, both married and unmarried, young and old.

In 1993, Workers World Party published a pamphlet titled “Feminism and Marxism in the 90s.” (New York: World View Publishers) Monica Moorehead, Workers World Party leader, WWP Secretariat member and leader in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement, contributed to that publication with an essay titled “Rape and Racism.” Following a discussion where she contrasted the judicial treatment of Black and white rape defendants in two highly publicized cases of that time, she concluded: “While women certainly do have the right to seek justice in any arena when a crime such as rape, sexual abuse or battering by their husbands, fathers or boyfriends has been committed against them, the judicial system is a dead end in the long run. How can one expect to receive real justice from a system that has very seldom invoked the death penalty against a white man for raping a Black woman while thousands of Black men have been either legally or illegally lynched for just looking at a white woman, especially in the South?

“Under the oppressive capitalist system, prosecuting men who have committed the crime of rape may serve an immediate sense of justice, but in the long run, merely sending rapists to jail will not stop rape or any other form of violence against women. In the final analysis, the basis for eradicating sexist violence as well as racism lies in the unity of both working women and men of all nationalities fighting side by side for the complete eradication of class society.” (p. 17)

Sue Davis, a longtime Party activist, writer and leader in the women’s movement, added her thoughts to the pamphlet with an essay titled “The Sexual Politics of Rape: A Marxist View.” She noted that “the rape of women parallels the economic plunder and military domination of countries around the world by U.S. imperialism.

“Objectively, rape, like other symptoms of severe social dysfunction and crisis — such as escalating unemployment, homelessness, poverty, preventable diseases like measles, [tuberculosis], AIDS and all forms of racist, sexist, anti-gay/lesbian violence and oppression — is a crime against humanity that could be eliminated.

“Why rape persists has everything to do with rape’s historic role in what Frederick Engels calls ‘the world historic defeat of the female sex,’ which he details in his classic study, ‘The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State.’” (p. 18)

In her concluding remarks, she writes: “Marx and Engels stated in their 1848 ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ that ‘the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.’ Taking such a step would abolish the basis for the centuries-old oppression of women initiated through ‘marriage by conquest.’ At the same time labor could once again, as it was under the mother-right, be socialized for the benefit of all.

“‘Only if one understands the historic conditions which brought about the condition of servitude of women will we be able to find the road to complete liberation,’ states Dorothy Ballan in ‘Feminism and Marxism.’ That’s why only in a society where private property — and corresponding class relationships of ownership versus oppression — has been abolished can real progress be made to eradicate rape from human history.” (p. 19)

Misogyny, racism and poverty

Naomi Cohen, a dedicated revolutionary woman, longtime Party member and another of the pamphlet’s authors, began her contribution to the booklet with the words: “In April 1992, close to a million women descended on Washington, D.C., in what turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Reagan-Bush era. While freedom of choice and reproductive rights were the central demands for the protest, it was, in fact, an outpouring against over a decade of attacks on women’s rights that led to the ‘feminization of poverty’ and outrage over the humiliation of Anita Hill at the hands of the all-white, male Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Here Cohen refers to the blatantly racist and misogynist treatment that Anita Hill, an African-American attorney and professor, received in 1991, when she testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences of sexual harassment by Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Rather than accept the veracity of Hill’s testimony against Thomas, or even permit further testimony by other potential witnesses who could support Hill’s account, the committee, then headed by current Vice President Joe Biden, subjected Hill to public humiliation and disparagement and proceeded to confirm Thomas.

Cohen notes both the positive impact and an unfortunate shortcoming of the April 1992 women’s mobilization. “While the organizers of the march on Washington did not adequately reach out to the many millions of Black, Latina, Asian, Arab and Native women who so desperately need representation and a fightback against racism and poverty, the demonstration did provide a platform for some speakers to raise the issues of job discrimination, lack of child care and inadequate medical care that doubly oppress women of color.” (p. 5)

Cohen then elaborates on what she characterizes as “the feminization of poverty.” The process of impoverishment she describes has, if anything, deepened in the last two decades. But as a revolutionary Marxist, she sees opportunity where others might feel despair: “In spite of the grim statistics, working women have a revolutionary potential as never before in U.S. history. The entrance of women into the work force on a massive scale has fundamentally changed the character of the working class itself. While once white males seemed to define the category, today the working class is thoroughly multinational and half women — millions of them African American, Latina, Asian, Native and Arabic, many of them undocumented and subjected to working conditions that approximate indentured servitude.

“This change means that women are a more strategic sector of the working class and lays the basis for the political leadership of the class to shift from that of the conservative white male of the past to that of the more oppressed.” (p. 7)

With this idea, Cohen echoes the perspective of Workers World Party founder and leader Dorothy Ballan two decades earlier: “There is a virtual revolution going on in the minds of women. It is a harbinger of the general socialist revolution and at the same time is an indispensable ingredient for its success.”