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).
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.
“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 last of which appears below.
By Evelyn Reed
There are a number of primitive communities scattered around the world where old matriarchal practices and customs survive to a greater or lesser extent. These are usually called “matrilineal” communities because the line of kinship and descent is still traced through the mothers alone. But the matter goes deeper than this. In such regions the father-family is still poorly developed. A man may be recognized as the husband of the mother and yet not be recognized as the father of her children or, if recognized, has only an extremely tenuous connection with them. As this is usually expressed, the children belong to the mother and her kin.
Have women always been oppressed?
This means that the children belong not only to the mothers but also to the brothers of such a matrilineal community. In other words, the mothers’ brothers, or maternal uncles, still perform the functions of fatherhood for their clan sisters’ children that in patriarchal societies have been taken over by the father for his wife’s children. For this reason, such a community is sometimes called “the avunculate.” The term “avunculate” refers to the mother’s brother as the term “patriarch” refers to the father.
These matrilineal communities are survivals from the matriarchal epoch and, however much they have been altered since the patriarchal takeover, testify to the priority of the earlier social system. In fact, by the time anthropology began in the last century, most primitive clans had already become altered in their composition to a certain degree. Pairing couples, or what Morgan called “pairing families,” had made their appearance in communities that had formerly been composed solely of clan mothers and brothers (or sisters and brothers).
But the pairing family, which was still a part of the collectivism maternal clan system, was a totally different kind of family than the patriarchal family which came in with class society. A new man from outside the clan was added to the maternal group – the husband of the woman who became his wife. However, while the husbands participated in providing for their wives and children, so long as the clan system prevailed the husbands remained subordinate and even incidental to the mothers’ brothers. The mothers’ brothers remained the basic economic partners of their clan sisters and guardians of their sisters’ children.
Field anthropologists who reject the historical approach are caught in a serious dilemma when they encounter such primitive clan communities. For instance, Malinowski in his studies of the Trobriand Islanders describes these people and their “Principles of Mother-Right” as follows:
“We find in the Trobriands a matrilineal society, in which descent kinship, and every social relationship are legally reckoned through the mother only, and in which women have a considerable share in tribal life, even to the taking of a leading part in economic, ceremonial, and magical activities” (The Sexual Life of Savages).
A tortuous search for the father
But because “these natives have a well-established institution of marriage,” that is, cohabit as pairing couples, Malinowski goes through a tortuous search for the father in a region where the mother’s husband has not yet developed into a father in the true sense of the term. According to the natives themselves, the tama, which Malinowski insists upon calling the “father,” is no more than “the husband of my mother.” In some instances, he is not even that; he is a tomakava, a “stranger,” or, as Malinowski puts it “more correctly an ‘outsider’” (Ibid). In other words, the man from “outside” the clan, who has achieved recognition as the husband of the mother in some places, still falls short of achieving his true father status.
There is a man, however, who performs the functions of fatherhood for his sister’s children, in particular for her male children. That is the mother’s brother. Malinowski writes:
Social position is handed on in the mother-line from a man to his sister’s children, and this exclusively matrilineal conception of kinship is of paramount importance … people joined by the tie of maternal kinship form a closely knit group, bound by an identity of feelings, of interests, and of flesh. And from this group, even those united to it by marriage and by the father-to-child relation are sharply excluded. (Ibid)
Malinowski significantly observes what he calls the “two-fold influence” or “duality” that permeates this matrilineal community as a result of matrimony impinging upon matriliny. Male children look to, and feel divided between, two adult men connected with the mother. On the one hand is the old-established mother’s brother; on the other hand, there is the newcomer, the mother’s husband. What Malinowski doesn’t bring out is that the Trobriand Islanders represent a matrilineal community in transition to patrilineal forms.
The pioneer anthropologists of the last century found many examples of matrilineal communities passing over to patrilineal and patriarchal forms of social organization. As E. Sidney Hartland sums up the evidence, patriarchal rule “made perpetual inroads upon mother-right all over the world; consequently, matrilineal institutions are found in almost all stages of transition” (Primitive Society).
The position of women in some of these surviving communities-in-transition remained largely unaltered, and they continued to enjoy economic independence and social esteem. In other regions, however, particularly those in which class relations, patriarchalism, and male supremacy have been superimposed upon a rude economy, women became as degraded as their sisters in class society. In such regions women can be as much oppressed by their brothers as by their husbands and fathers.
Native tribes of central Australia
Australia is often offered as proof of the debased condition of primitive women. But, according to Spencer and Gillen, the highest authorities on the central tribes, there is a “great gap” between the old traditional period and the present. They conclude that the women formerly occupied a far different and higher position than in recent times (The Native Tribes of Central Australia).
Robert Briffault summing up this and other reports, maintains that patriarchalism, male domination, and the debased condition of women “are features of comparatively late origin” and have supplanted a former condition of female influence and esteem. “The Australian natives are not only a primitive, they are in many respects also a degraded race” he says, and that is why male domination, once instituted, proceeded to “its extreme consequences” (The Mothers, Vol. I). This should not be surprising in a continent where, through disease and other causes, the aboriginal population of 500,000 was reduced to 50,000 within a century after the coming of the white man.
In sharp contrast there are many regions in which matriarchal customs have been preserved and there is no such debasement either of the women or of the men. Such examples can be found among the North American Indians where male supremacy and oppression of women were nonexistent until they were brought over, along with whiskey and guns, by the civilized settlers from Europe. Briffault cites the following from the missionary J. F. Lafitau:
“Nothing is more real than this superiority of the women. It is in the women that properly consists the nation, the nobility of blood, the genealogical tree, the order of generations, the preservation of families. It is in them that all real authority resides; the country, the fields, and all the crops belong to them. They are the soul of the councils, the arbiters of war and peace.” (Ibid)
According to Alexander Goldenweiser, woman’s influence was paramount in the election of chiefs. The activities of these chiefs were carefully watched and supervised by “the matrons,” especially in questions of war, and if found unsatisfactory in any respect the dissatisfaction of the women brought about the deposition of the chiefs. As late as in the period of the Iroquois confederacy, he says, “women were more influential than men both in the election of chiefs and in their deposition … public opinion was more significantly that of the women than of the men in the group.” Many a devastating war, he adds, “must have been averted by the wise counsel of the matrons” (Anthropology). The reality of woman’s power is evidenced by the fact that deeds of land-transfer of the Colonial Government nearly all bear the signatures of women.
One of the most interesting confrontations between the Iroquois men and the white men who looked down upon women as the inferior sex is cited by Briffault. The chosen orator of the Iroquois, “Good Peter,” addressed Governor Clinton in this manner to explain the high esteem of the Native Americans for women:
Brothers! Our ancestors considered it a great offence to reject the counsels of their women, particularly of the Female Governesses. They were esteemed the mistresses of the soil. Who, said our forefathers, brings us into being? Who cultivates our lands, kindles our fires, and boils our pots, but the women? Our women. Brother, say that they are apprehensive. … They entreat that the veneration of our ancestors in favour of the women be not disregarded, and that they may not be despised: the Great Spirit made them. The Female Governesses beg leave to speak with the freedom allowed to women and agreeable to the spirit of our ancestors. … For they are the life of the nation. (The Mothers, Vol. I)
These are hardly pictures of “eternally oppressed” women. The fact that some women in primitive regions became as oppressed as the women of patriarchal civilized nations does not prove that women have always been oppressed. All it proves is that in some regions, but not all, the degradation of the mothers and sisters also brought about the degradation of the mothers’ brothers. Some mothers’ brothers became as much male supremacists and oppressors of women as the patriarchal men who served as their models.
But historically, before the patriarchal takeover, there was no such thing as male supremacy over women – or contrariwise, of female domination over men. The clan community was communistic; a sisterhood of women and a brotherhood of men. The keystone of that social structure was equality in all spheres of life, economic, social, and sexual. Thus women were not always oppressed. The oppression of women began as an integral part of an oppressive society that overturned and supplanted the old matriarchal commune.
The ‘avunculate theory’ of female oppression
The “avunculate theory” of eternal female oppression is only a more sophisticated variation of the “uterus theory” of female inferiority. The one, like the other, must be rejected by women of the liberation movement.
Unfortunately, this has not been done by some influential writers such as Kate Millett, although she is scornful of the proposition that biology is woman’s destiny. This fighter on the side of women’s liberation has been influenced by the anti-historical anthropologists. In her book Sexual Politics, she writes that “both the primitive and civilized worlds are male worlds,” and that women have always been oppressed, if not by patriarchal men then by men of the “avunculate.” Oddly enough she takes this position while admitting she does not know whether or not there was a matriarchal period.
Shulamith Firestone, in her book The Dialectic of Sex, plunges even deeper into the error of the eternal oppression of women. She recites the whole man-made litany on this score. According to Firestone, female oppression is older than recorded history; it goes all the way back “to the animal kingdom itself.” Because of female biology, she says, productive work was beyond women’s strength – showing her ignorance of the extensive labor record of primitive women. Again, says the author, because of her biology woman “remained in bondage to life’s mysterious processes,” in which she takes over male designations for breeding and baby-tending. Thus, she concludes, women have been “at the continual mercy of their biology” which has made them “dependent on males,” whether these were clan brothers or husbands and fathers.
Anti-feminist theme: ‘Biology is woman’s destiny’
Firestone has fallen lock, stock, and barrel for the “uterus theory” of female inferiority. Sweeping aside Marx and Engels who, she says, knew “next to nothing” about women as an “oppressed class,” she maintains that “it was woman’s reproductive biology that accounted for her original and continued oppression, and not some sudden patriarchal revolution.” Firestone, the feminist, parrots the anti-feminist theme that “biology is woman’s destiny” without bothering to critically examine the facts.
It is unfortunate that even some women anthropologists have made similar errors despite their studies of the subject. Influenced, or perhaps intimidated, by the male-supremacist and bourgeois ideology which permeates anthropological circles, they too subscribe to the myth of the everlasting inferiority and oppression of women.
The British anthropologist Lucy Mair states, “In the simplest societies, and indeed in some industrialized ones, women are never wholly independent …” They have always had to depend on males, whether brothers or husbands and fathers (An Introduction to Social Anthropology). This sweeping statement is not even true of some matrilineal survivals in recent times where women retained their economic independence and social esteem. It was not true at all for the matriarchal epoch of social organization before male supremacy was born.
Kathleen Gough Aberle, of Vancouver, made the best contributions to the book Matrilineal Kinship, published in 1961 on the 100th anniversary of Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (Motherright). Yet she, too, thinks that women have always been oppressed. In a recent article written for the women’s liberation movement she states, “The power of men to exploit women systematically springs from the existence of accumulated wealth” backed by the power of the state. This adheres to the Marxist viewpoint. But then she departs from the method of historical materialism when she says, “Even in hunting societies it seems that women are always in some sense the ‘second sex,’ with greater or lesser subordination to men” (Up From Under, January-February 1971).
While this may be true of some hunting communities that have become altered in recent times, it was not true of the original hunting communities that existed in the period of the matriarchal commune. Let me emphasize: It was not the occupation of hunting that gave men superiority over women – it was the introduction of private property, class divisions, and the patriarchal family that brought about male supremacy and the oppression of women.
This brings us to the final point in the tangle of myths aiming to prove that women have always been the second sex. This one concerns the distinction between the primitive and civilized division of labor between the sexes. According to the prevailing propaganda, the division of labor between the sexes has always been the same with woman’s work confined to home and family. What is the truth in this matter?
Social vs. family division of labor
It is often said or implied that from the very beginning of human history to the present day the division of labor between the sexes has been a division between the husband and wife of a family. The husband goes out to work while the wife stays at home to take care of the household and children. Some women in the liberation movement are indignant because the husband gets paid for his work while the wife does not. But the injustice goes deeper than this. It involves the stunted, dependent culturally sterile life of a woman caged up in a domestic enclosure doing stupid and stupefying chores.
There is little need to dwell in detail on all the factors in capitalist society that have brought about this reduction of woman’s work to family servitude. They are deprived of the kind of socialized work which would give them economic independence; such work is largely reserved for men. Marriage and the family are upheld as the fittest career a true woman can pursue. Reactionary contraception and abortion laws force women to bear children whether they want to or not and in the absence of child-care centers each individual woman is saddled with the burden of raising the children herself.
According to the churches and the guardians of the established order, woman’s place is in the home and always has been, serving a husband and children because the family has always existed. But it is not true that procreation, which is a natural function, is identical with the family, which is a man-made institution. While women have always been the procreators of children, they have not always been isolated in self-enclosed units, each woman serving a husband and family. The “eternal family” hoax is only the ultimate expression of the “uterus theory” of female inferiority.
The first division of labor between the sexes was not as it is today, a division between husband and wife, with the man doing outside work while the wife stayed at home doing housekeeping chores. Both sexes in primitive society performed social labor. This was possible because their system of communal production was accompanied by communal childcare and education. Female children were trained by the adult women into their future occupations, while the male children at a certain age were turned over to the adult men, who became their tutors and guardians. Both production and child-raising were originally social functions, performed by both women and men. It was only with the downfall of the matriarchal commune and its equalitarian relations between the sexes that women were dispossessed from social production and put into family servitude. Men took over in the new divisions of labor.
Historians often point out that with the advent of the new economy founded upon agriculture and stock-raising, many new divisions of labor came into existence, replacing the former sexual division of labor. To give a few examples, pastoral activities became separated from farming; metallurgy, house construction, shipbuilding, textiles, pottery, and other crafts became specialized trades. Along with these divisions of labor in the crafts, there grew up specializations in the cultural sphere from priests and bards to scientists and artists.
Transformation of the roles of the sexes
The roles of the sexes were radically transformed in the process. As these new divisions and subdivisions of labor grew and proliferated, they came more and more – and finally exclusively – in the hands of the men. The women were squeezed out of these fields of social and cultural work – and pushed into home and family life. With the rise of state and church power, women were taught that their whole lives were bounded by the four walls of a home and the best women were those who served their husbands and families without complaint. In this elevation of men and downgrading of women, they forfeited not only their former place in social production but also their former system of communal childcare.
To be sure, women of the plebeian classes, the “common people,” have always worked. In the long agricultural period, they worked on farms as well as in cottage crafts, and they did all this along with bearing children and taking care of households. But working in and through and for an individual husband, home, and family is by no means the same thing as engaging in socialized labor in a communal society. Participation in social production develops the mind and body; isolation and preoccupation with home chores weakens them and narrows the outlook.
In other words, the division of labor between the sexes has not always been the same. The male-dominated division of labor that came in with class society, private property, and the patriarchal family represented a colossal robbery of the women. This is even more true today with the reduction of the extended, productive farm family to the tiny, nuclear, consuming family of the urban era.
To refute the myths that have helped to keep women oppressed — from the “uterus theory” to the “eternal family” propaganda — is not simply a matter for scientific and historical correction. It has profound implications for the women’s liberation movement. The argument that woman’s biological makeup is responsible for her social inferiority is the chief stock-in-trade of the male supremacists. If this claim proves to be unfounded their position collapses – and that is what I have tried to argue.
Females in nature suffer no disabilities compared to males as a result of their biology. Nor were women downgraded as a result of their maternal role in pre-class society. They were held in the highest esteem for their combined functions as producer-procreatrix. Woman’s position in society, therefore, has been shaped and reshaped by changing historical conditions. The drastic transformation that overturned matriarchal communism brought about the downfall of the female sex. It was with the rise of patriarchal class society that the biological makeup of women became the ideological pretext for justifying and continuing the dispossession of women from social and cultural life and keeping them in a servile status.
Only by recognizing this can women come to grips with the real causes of our subjugation and degradation which are today bound up with the structure of the capitalist system. Our struggle for liberation will be hindered so long as we are hoodwinked into believing that nature rather than this society is the source of our oppression.
A banner carried by women in a recent demonstration proclaimed: “Biology Is Not Woman’s Destiny.” This should become a watchword of the feminist movement as we work and fight together to redirect our destiny.
Yvonne Hayes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, copy-edited this series. World-Outlook extends its appreciation. Yvonne, welcome to our copy-editing team!
Categories: Women's Rights