The differences in social roles between men and women are fundamentally due to the impositions of the social organization of work. That is to say, they are neither based on “essential” differences nor can they be overcome through ideological and cultural campaigns. For this reason, ending discrimination requires transforming the relations of production.
Table of Contents
- The class movement and the sexual division of work
- The hoe and the plow
- When social roles become completely autonomous from sex
- The peculiar family structure of the collective cultivators of the highlands
- Towards the future
The class movement and the sexual division of work
Many feminists constantly remind us of the supposed political importance of the differences in behavior between men and women. They insist that these differences are almost innate and on the basis of them they “sexify” certain values. The “care economy”, for example, would have “feminine” values. Apparently, glorifying and sanctifying the association between women and the old values of domesticity, now commodified, would be most “liberating”.
Read also: Against the ethics of care
These essentialist tendencies have been around since the origins of feminism. They sought to give a “feminist” response to the studies that, within the class movement, militants such as Engels or Bebel carried out on the importance of the organization of social work in the formation of the family structure and the sexual division of labor.
For Marxists it was a crucial question: were the essentialist ideas to be accepted, the sexual division of labor would be of “natural origin” and, quite simply, communism would be impossible.
Those works also had direct consequences on the living conditions of women workers. They materialized in the massive incorporation of women workers into class organizations and in the struggle of the entire working class, united as a class, that is, without divisions by sexes, for universal suffrage, the end of wage discrimination, the improvement of physical working conditions, etc.
Read also: Rosa Luxemburg against feminism
But in the context of a massively organized class, this was not only about demands against the state or struggles and strikes in companies and entire sectors.
Those works also founded all kinds of “constructive” initiatives carried out by the class movement as a whole. Initiatives that improved the lives of working women in immediate terms in everything from hygiene and sexual and reproductive health to the design and furnishing of workers’ houses.
Read also: The socialist origins of "co-living".
And of course they were at the basis also of the political action with which, during the years following the Russian Revolution, the organs of workers’ power began to confront from day one the subaltern situation of women even where no modern proletariat existed.
All those political stances, all those mass actions, were based on the idea that the alleged differences between men and women were not essential but came to reflect the demands of the social organization of labor. An organization of social work that was also, and in the first place, the concrete form of exploitation and class division. Putting an end to class division was therefore inseparable from putting an end to the sexual division of labor. But… Was it just an illusion, a scientific error?
The hoe and the plow
For nearly a century, large-scale anthropological studies revealed a peculiar pattern: cultivation methods seemed to correlate with the degree and violence of the sexual division of labor. Many decades later, more detailed studies confirm the relationship: societies that cultivate using the plow have a sharper and stricter gender division and women have a lower status than those in which cultivation is done with a hoe.
This holds true not only at the scale of entire continents, where differences in the degree of development and between different cultures may be confounding the correlation, but also within countries such as Ethiopia or Brazil.
This is a great example of how the social division of labor and the role of exploited women changes and is dependent on the level and productive techniques, but there is much more concealed beneath the surface. Let us look at two Asian examples.
The Khasi of Meghalaya (eastern India) are a good example of a group that farmed on a collective basis with hoes. Living in the forests, the Khasi dedicated themselves to slash and burn cultivation, in which the women participated equally with the men in the use of the hoe, which also allows intermittent use and even carrying small children on their backs while working.
In addition to the collective work in the fields, women – as in other forest societies – had the specific task of collecting wood and taking care of the forests, organizing their collective exploitation and rotations.
The Indian state, however, nationalized the ownership of forests – supposedly to protect them, in reality to put their control and exploitation in the hands of a few central bureaucrats – and prevented the Khasi from collecting firewood. At the same time, government-driven “modernization” was changing the family and social structure of the group.
Smallholding spread and families took to cash crop farming for the market. The general standard of living kept falling. The sexual division of labor became more and more accentuated until women were driven out of cultivation. Women were removed one by one from the councils, and family units traded women as investments and property.
By the time the Indian state “returned” the forests to the communities – actually handed them over to a local bureaucracy – it was too late. The peasants lived in destitution and the female voices that emerged were those of the heirs of the new owning families who used the old collective control of the forests by women as an argument in their patrimonial quarrels.
On the other side of the divide, in the land of the plow, it is true that in “Han” China of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, peasant women had been relegated to strict domestic work under the explicit slogan “men to the plow and women to the loom” (男耕女 ), but this was the result of a long process of decline in the Chinese countryside.
Primary documents from the 16th century indicate that around that time women in the rich agricultural areas of the Yangtze Delta worked in the rice paddies alongside their husbands and children in similar proportions. At that time, the average field size was two to three times larger than that of the 19th century and was sufficient to feed the family and provide for other needs.
With overpopulation and partitioning of the land among heirs, the fields became smaller and smaller and the added inflation pushed families into piece-rate cottage manufacturing under increasingly horrendous conditions.
It was in this moribund state of small agricultural property that the sexual division of labor on Chinese plowland became pronounced.
When social roles become completely autonomous from sex
On the Kenyan hills lives a group, the Nandi, historically at odds with the collective cultivators such as those described above. Warrior herders who once possessed militarized societies and were famous for their great cattle raiding expeditions.
As is common in such societies, until recently farming was secondary and family ownership of large herds fell exclusively to the men of the family. In fact, the family structure is designed to ensure the maintenance of the family property.
Husbands obtain their livestock from heads passed on from other families through their wives, with a clear sexual division of labor and behavior. Because of the link between the wives and the cattle they contribute to the extended family, should the husband die, the widow and her children remain the property of the deceased husband for the rest of their lives. This society is almost a classic example of a patriarchal warrior group.
Almost. Because the extreme emphasis on family property has led to the creation of a very particular institution.
When one branch of the family fails to bear sons, the Nandi do not consider it acceptable for property to pass to the husband’s brother or to the sons of secondary wives. Direct adoption of a male child from outside the family is also unacceptable. In this case only one option remains. The older wife goes through a rite of “inversion” and becomes legally and socially a man in the eyes of the Nandi. She can now marry a woman and adopt her male children to continue the family branch.
To the Nandi, a female husband is a full-fledged man and to pretend otherwise is taboo. The new husbands treat their wives and children as property, behave in a warrior-like manner and fall completely on the male side of the sexual division of labor:
No, I don’t carry things on my head. That’s a woman’s duty and it has nothing to do with me. I became a man, I am a man and that’s it. Why should I take on women’s work?
And this is not just about “appearances”, for the Nandi women should stay at home, obey and show no initiative. Sexist roles that are familiar to everyone and that condition the behavior of Nandi wives and women when quantitative tests are carried out. But the situation changes completely with female husbands. These husbands, after the reversal, behave just as competitively and show the same – or more – initiative than the other men.
This is a clear example of how social roles linked to property outweigh the biological conditioning factors of a given person.
In most societies there exist no individuals as such, and what must be maintained is the division between roles and family property, no matter whether this implies apparently absurd or paradoxical situations.
The peculiar family structure of the collective cultivators of the highlands
Almost at the antipodes of the Nandi, both geographically and socially, are the Na (more commonly known as Mosuo), a group of collective cultivators in the mountains of southwest China. At 3000 meters in elevation and almost on the shores of the beautiful blue Lugu Lake is Yongning, the main settlement of the Na with its large rice paddies. Here the climate is relatively harsh (annual average of 9 degrees Celsius) and the Na live in large families.
The Na are a well-known group, especially because of their peculiar family structure. The large family units are organized in such a way that – contrary to the previous examples – the women always stay in the same house and the family unit raises and takes care of the children in each house. The men of each family are the ones who move – but only at night – between houses to spend the night with their wives in their wives’ family house.
During the day, each man takes care of the family work with his sisters and of his nephews and nieces. From the point of view of Na institutions, the “real” family is the one living under their roof, which will always be the same.
Attitudes towards female sexuality and relationships are consequently quite different from those of the surrounding communities. Although couples do not show affection in public when surrounded by family, it was until recently common for both men and women to have several partners in their lifetime. The word “jealousy” literally does not exist in their language.
Women have equal weight in family decision making and there is little sexual division of labor or stereotyping, which also translates into a different behavior of Na women compared to those living in other Chinese communities (qualified as “Han” or patrilineal in general).
This is quite shocking for example when girls from both communities meet at school, Na (Mosuo) girls show much more initiative and take more risks (something considered stereotypically masculine) than Han girls.
In empirical tests girls show a similar level or are more proactive than boys when starting school but end up reaching the level of Han girls as they grow up surrounded by them at school.
And this is not just about behavior, the social situation within the family and a much less marked sexual division of labor have an impact at all levels. Na women have much better health and lower levels of inflammation than their patrilineal neighbors with Confucian families.
Most studies stop there, they are only interested in differential roles and behaviors, but do not go to the social causes.
But the fact is that the Na are collective cultivators. Their system ensures that families with many members go to help their neighboring families communally, working in other people’ fields and vice versa.
The few studies that have investigated the issue have concluded that distributing husbands by weaving links between family units but without breaking these units each time a new couple is formed is a particularly advantageous solution to ensure that everyone shares in the benefits of collective work.
However, it is neither a matriarchy (uncles are equal to mothers), nor is the work distribution system really egalitarian. Although the result is better than in competing smallholders, the system of inter-family unions has a weakness: poorer families tend to try to have children preferentially with richer ones, which causes the latter to receive proportionally more help in the fields than the poorer ones, and migration added to commodification is destroying the system.
Towards the future
As seen above, forms of property and collective work have a direct and measurable effect not only on behavior and the social division of work, but also on morality (imagine what a Nandi would think about the “appropriateness” of a Na woman’s life and vice versa) and even on the general health of women.
The living conditions of exploited women will not change on the basis of identitarianism, i.e. by identifying themselves with the problems of the women of the exploiting class. And even less on the basis of placing more women in the front line of the ruling class.
It is the social relations, starting from their nucleus, the relations of production, which have to be changed at the root.
It is not enough to pretend, for example, for domestic work within the family to become salaried. Commodifying even more spaces, trying to “equalize” on the basis of “market mechanisms” and “incentives”, will not only not work but will reinforce the origins of the problem.
Without decommodification and the socialization of production there is no truly egalitarian transformation that can be sustained. Without decommodification of labor power, that is, without an end to wage labor, no decommodification of everything else is possible. That is to say, only communism, as a movement and as a future mode of production, is consistent with the demolition of the causes of social inequality between men and women.
By definition, communism is the communitarization of social organization and the socialization of the satisfaction of everyone’s needs. Including today’s so-called “care”. Instead of commodifying, socialize. Instead of atomizing and individualizing, collectivize and communitarize. And this is absolutely incompatible with maintaining a sexual division of work. If sexual division of labor were to exist, the reality of communism would be denied at the root.
In a reunited society, without classes, there is no possible division of labor by groups of birth or ascription, but voluntary and socialized contribution of each one according to their capacities… which will be, but it is another matter, multiplied and not denied by the new society.