Women's Rights

Is Biology Women’s Destiny? (II)

Evelyn Reed (1905 – 1979) was a Marxist scholar and a decades-long leader of the Socialist Workers Party. At the time of her death, an extensive article documenting her life appeared in the April 6, 1979, issue of The Militant newspaper: Evelyn Reed: Marxist and feminist fighter (p. 26).

Evelyn Reed

Reed was “one of the foremost exponents of the Marxist analysis of the origins of women’s oppression,” the article explained. “She was a historical materialist who made a substantial contribution to Marxism on this subject.”

In 1951, Reed began the anthropological research that would eventually produce her pioneering work, Woman’s Evolution:  From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. She completed the book more than 20 years later; Pathfinder Press published it in 1975.

Prior to the book’s publication, Reed wrote many articles on the origins of women’s oppression and the Marxist perspective on how to fight and end it. World-Outlook is republishing below one of those articles — “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?”

Reed’s research was based on work that Friedrich Engels, one of the founders of scientific socialism, had previously done along with Karl Marx. Reed prefaced the article stating, in part:

Many women in the liberation movement, especially those who have studied Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, have come to understand that the roots of women’s degradation and oppression are lodged in class society… What women remain unsure about, however, is whether or not their biology has played a part in making and keeping them the inferior or ‘second sex.’ … Biology and anthropology … are of prime importance in understanding women and their history. Both are so heavily biased in favor of the male sex that they conceal rather than reveal the true facts about women.

Reed, the Militant’s biographical sketch explained, “had a special personal hatred for the anti-abortion laws.” In the 1930s, she survived two illegal abortions, but was left unable to bear children. A leader of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s, she was a founder of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition and fought to repeal the reactionary U.S. abortion laws.

Today women’s right to choose abortion is under the fiercest attack since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade recognized this right under federal law. The June 24, 2022, U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe left no doubt. Three recent World-Outlook editorials — “A Turning Point in the Fight for Women’s Right to Choose Abortion,” “Abortion Is a WOMAN’s Right to Choose” and “Organize, Mobilize to Defend Women’s Right to Choose Abortion!” — outlined the challenges this attack presents for all women’s rights supporters. In this context, Reed’s writings remain of the utmost importance, especially for younger generations of women’s rights supporters to whom these works may be unfamiliar.

The Women’s Strike for Equality in 1970 put forward three main demands: free abortion on demand — no forced sterilization; free, community-controlled 24-hour childcare centers; and equal opportunities in jobs and education. (Photo: Eugene Gordon / The New York Historical Society / Getty Images)

 “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?” first appeared in the December 1971 issue of the International Socialist Review. The text comes from the essay as it appears in the public domain; subheadings and links to the cited sources are by World-Outlook. Due to its length, we are publishing the article in three parts, the second of which appears below.


(This is the second of three parts. The previous section can be found in Part 1; the next in Part 3)

By Evelyn Reed

Those who subscribe to the “uterus theory” of female inferiority often try to prop up their false conclusions about women with an equally false theory about the everlasting superiority of the male sex. Reducing the science of biology to science fiction, they project the image of the patriarchal family of our times back into the animal world. To them the animal “family,” like the human family, has a male at its head, providing for and protecting his dependent wife and children, and this is what makes him superior.

The ‘dominant male’: fact & fiction

This animal hero is usually called the “dominant male.” As portrayed by the fiction writers, he is the animal counterpart of the husband and father in patriarchal society. The more fanciful even portray this male animal as a kind of princely potentate, surrounded by a harem of wives, concubines, and female slaves, controlling their lives and destiny. What is the truth behind this fantasy?

The phenomenon called the “dominant male” does exist in nature since animal males, as previously stated, are highly competitive and combative against one another. In the sexual realm each strives to gain first place by eliminating rivals. The animal that wins becomes dominant over the other males, at least for a time or until he himself may be displaced by a stronger male.

But the main point about this fight for dominance is usually left out or distorted. It is a struggle among males, each fighting the others. Even after the dominant animal has eliminated his rivals, this does not make him dominant over the female or group of females to which he gains access. So far as the females are concerned, they may accept the winning male as their stud but that is all. Even this acceptance ends when the females enter their maternal cycle, at which time they retire from the orbit of all males to preoccupy themselves with giving birth and caring for their offspring. Whatever the outcome of the struggle among males, the females remain entirely self-sufficient and provide for their offspring without assistance from males.

Contrary to all the children’s stories on the subject often written by men who call themselves scientists, there is no such thing as a father-family in the animal world. Among some bird and fish species males may participate in the care of the eggs. This does not make them families but rather a specialized form of procreation. In the great majority of species, above all the mammals which are in the direct line of human ascent, it is the mothers alone who perform all the functions connected with the care of offspring. As Briffault emphasizes, “Every adult animal, male or female, fends for itself as far as regards its economic needs” and the only exception is the provision made by the mother for her young.

Front cover of Pathfinder Press edition of Engels’ seminal work, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. The book describes how the emergence of class-divided society gave rise to repressive state bodies and family structures that protect the property of the ruling layers and enable them to preserve wealth and privilege.

In other words, male sexuality in the animal world does not bring about fatherhood functions; on the contrary, the combativeness connected with male sexuality is a hindrance to the development of such functions. It is only in the human world that we find a fully developed male counterpart to maternity which we call paternity. This came about when males began to emancipate themselves from direct biological control – or instincts – and cultivated new and human traits. It was in and through social life that they learned a new kind of sexual behavior and subsequently acquired paternal functions.

It is sometimes said or implied that because males are the combative sex, they are the “protectors” of their animal families. This too is a fiction. Among some primate species a periphery of males circles around a central core of females and offspring and in an indirect way furnishes an outer group of “sentinels” who sound an alarm in the event of danger. But male animals do not fight to protect their mates and offspring. They fight in defense of their own lives.

In the animal world every animal defends itself, either by fight or by flight. The sole exception to this rule is the female animal who will fight to defend her offspring. Thus, the so-called animal family is no more than a female brood, provided for and protected by the mother. It does not have the slightest resemblance to the patriarchal family in our society where the father provides for and rules over his wife and children.

Another familiar argument supposed to prove the natural superiority and dominance of the male sex over the female sex is based on the fact that in some species (although by no means all) the males are larger than the females or have more developed muscle power. There can be little doubt that the combative traits of males contributed to this extra musculature. As Henry W. Nissen of the Yerkes Laboratories said about primate males: “The bigger animal gets most of the food, the stronger male most of the females” (Scientific American, September 1960).

But it is wrong to assume that this extra musculature represents a superiority of males over females; it is only a superiority of stronger males over weaker males. In nature it is the females who determine whether or not they wish to admit a male into their midst, and this holds true of the stronger males as well. When such admission takes place, it is only during his good behavior and so long as the females find his presence convenient. This is borne out by the fact that when a female retires, as she does when she gives birth, she is left entirely alone by the males.

It is therefore a gross misrepresentation of animal life and behavior to portray the female as a helpless, dependent creature that cannot survive without the provision and protection of a “dominant male” playing the part of a husband and father. The father-family is exclusively a human institution which, moreover, came into existence very late in social history, coincident with the development of private property and class divisions. Thus the myth of the animal “father-family” goes hand in hand with the “uterus theory” of female inferiority. The true facts about biology are distorted and falsified for the sake of concealing the social roots of female oppression.

Let us turn now to examine the way in which anthropology is distorted to buttress a falsified biology. I call this:

The ‘hunting theory’ of female inferiority

This theory bases itself upon the first division of labor between the sexes which is usually described as follows: men were the hunters and warriors while women were the food-gatherers and did the chores around the camp or home. Man’s work of hunting is, of course, portrayed as by far the most important work, while woman’s labor is considered inferior. Due to the handicaps they suffered from being born with a uterus, they had to stay at the campsite or dwelling place to nurse the children.

This stands the real situation on its head. The most important work in the primitive division of labor was not done by the male hunters but by the so-called stay-at-home women. Let us start with the food supply, the first and most basic requirement since people must eat before they can do anything else. It was the women gatherers and not the male hunters who provided the most stable and ample supplies. During the period when hunting was still precarious and men often returned to camp empty-handed, the community’s hunger was satisfied by the food collected by the women. In addition, it was the women who gained control over the food supplies, not only by preparing them for today but preserving stocks for tomorrow. Women were the mainstay of the primitive commune.

But this was only the beginning of woman’s work. There is no need to dwell here upon the enormous labor record of primitive women which is set forth in detail in my article, The Myth of Women’s Inferiority. While men were occupied in seeking out animals as game food, it was the women who carried out the diverse forms of production from leather-making, pot-making, and handicrafts of all kinds to construction, medicine, and the development of the earliest forms of science.

While one branch of woman’s work, soil cultivation with the digging-stick, led to agriculture, another branch, the taming of wild animals, led to the raising of stock animals. These major advances not only laid the foundations for civilization but liberated men from hunting to participate in – and eventually take over – these higher forms of production. Thus, it was not the men hunters but the women producers, proto-scientists, nurses, teachers, and transmitters of the social, cultural, and technical heritage who did the most important work in the first sexual division of labor.

The great mistake made by those who are blinded by the assumed superiority of the male sex is to overlook this broad social production of primitive women and view them as mere homebodies serving a little family circle. There were no isolated, shut-in, private family households in the primitive clan system, just as there was no propertied ruling class to reduce women to family servitude as their share of labor. The primitive “households” were the pivot of a communal life and represented the earliest factories, laboratories, medical centers, schools, and social centers. The women of the matriarchal commune, working collectively, had not the slightest resemblance to their descendants today, each one puttering around in a little stump of a household.

Men’s and women’s work in perspective

This is not to denigrate the skills and techniques that men developed in their occupation of hunting. It is simply to redress the balance and put men’s work in its proper place and perspective. Indeed, not only has woman’s work been slighted; even man’s work of hunting has not received a fully rounded appreciation. The most important aspect of the human hunting band was not connected with man’s capacity for brute force or even with increasing the food supply as such. It was the qualitative advance made by men over the animals in achieving a working collaboration with one another.

Protesters gather in Denver, Colorado, following the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022. Demonstrators vowed to continue the battle to defend women’s rights. Reed’s writings are of the utmost importance, especially for younger generations of women’s rights supporters who may be unfamiliar with her work. (Photo: Michael Ciaglo / Getty Images)

It is often pointed out that hunting requires both strength and skill if man is to master the large and dangerous animals, and this is true. What is seldom mentioned, however, is the even more important aspect, that men had to overcome their former animal nature, their rivalry, separatism, and individualism, to be able to band together in the human hunting group. They had to transform their competitive, combative animal relations into close-knit, cooperative human relations.

The superiority of the human hunting band over any animal pack comes from the unbreakable principle that men hunting together must never under any circumstances hunt or kill one another. This is exclusively a human regulation and relation which does not exist in the animal world. Thus, even in the matter of increasing the food supply of the community, it was only when men learned how to form the cooperative hunting band that this aim could be achieved.

How was such an impressive change brought about? All the evidence points to the collectivism society created by the clan mothers, which assimilated the men as clan brothers. As Robert Briffault writes on this point:

In human societies there always exist means of establishing understandings and guarantees, and there are bonds of fellowship and brotherhood which are absent and impossible among animals. Hence primitive humanity, owing to its social character, is not under the same necessity to secure the satisfaction of its sexual instincts by sheer competitive struggle… Animals tear their closest associates and even their sexual mates to pieces in the struggle for food; the member of the rudest and most primitive social group will starve rather than not share his food with his fellow-members … So likewise in no human society, however primitive, is a lawless scramble for the possession of females to be found. (The Mothers, Vol. II)

Primitive communism

It required a communistic society, which provided for the needs of all its members on an equal basis, to bring men together as cooperators who had formerly been separated and hostile to one another as animals. In that society men as well as women did their share of the work according to the division of labor that the primitive peoples themselves found to be most practical under the given conditions of life at that stage of their socio-economic development.

It is necessary to bring out the real worth of the work done by the women since so many writers have downgraded it while glorifying man’s work of hunting. The archaeologist, Grahame Clark, for example, sees women as lowly beings because “like their simian forebears” they are merely food-gatherers, while he refers to “the resplendent figure of Man the Hunter, prototype of Man the Warrior” as the great and superior sex (From Savagery to Civilization). This is male bias.

Elman R. Service, the Michigan anthropologist, takes a similar although more restrained view of the matter. He thinks males were the hunters not only because they “were probably stronger, swifter, and more combative, but more importantly, because females are so frequently handicapped by pregnancy and care of offspring” (Primitive Social Organization).

We can accept the deduction that the combative characteristics of males made them adaptable to hunting. But we must reject the conclusion that females were incapable of hunting because they were biologically handicapped by their uteruses. One has only to observe the behavior of the carnivores, the hunting animals, to see the fallacy of this argument, since the females are just as swift and skillful hunters as the males. There is no uterus handicap imposing hunting inferiority upon lionesses and tigresses.

To be sure, the human species did not arise out of the hunting carnivores but out of the food-gathering primates. But women who want to challenge the “hunting theory” of female inferiority are not obliged to unravel the whole complex of reasons why women were not the hunters in the first division of labor. It is sufficient to show the vastly superior amount of work and types of work done by the women as compared to the main occupation of men, the hunters. The exclusion of one occupation – for whatever reasons – only signifies that the women left this one out of their multiplicity of labor activities.

In the end, then, the “hunting theory” of female inferiority is just as absurd and untenable as the “uterus theory” from which it is derived. The one is a distortion of anthropology as the other is of biology. Yet these furnish the pseudoscientific platform under the propaganda that women have always been the inferior or second sex.

Since the rise of the women’s liberation movement some women writers and even anthropologists have become so influenced by these unscientific propositions that they have drawn a very pessimistic conclusion. Women, they say, have been the oppressed sex not simply under patriarchal society but throughout all human history. According to this view, if women are not subjugated to their husbands and fathers as they are in patriarchal nations, then they were under the thumb of their brothers or uncles in primitive communities. This can be called the “avunculate theory” of female oppression. What is the truth in the matter?

(This was the second of three parts. The previous section can be found in Part 1; the next in Part 3.)

Yvonne Hayes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, copy-edited this series. World-Outlook extends its appreciation. We welcome Yvonne to our copy-editing team.

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