Nowadays, the second half of the 19th century (de facto extended into the early 1900s) is being commonly referred as one of the most ‘intellectually productive’ periods in the history of human civilization. Such a practice appears fully justified. The reason for this is apparent – throughout the historical time-stretch in question, the socio-cultural progress in the West has attained an exponential momentum. The sheer number of scientific discoveries that took place through the late 1800s/early 1900s serves as the best proof, in this respect.
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There is, however, even more to it – the specified decades mark the time when many of the world’s prominent intellectuals began to realize that there are strongly defined systemic subtleties to the spatially prolonged phenomenon of the gender-based inequality and oppression. To exemplify the validity of this statement, we can refer to Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman – the individuals who succeeded in exposing the clearly societal preconditions for the social status of women in human societies to be lower than that of men.
Being remembered for their authorship of the 1848 Communist Manifesto and their intellectual contribution to the development of Communist ideology, Marx and Engels used to share the belief that gender inequality/oppression originates in two of the most fundamental principles of the Capitalist (and strongly patriarchal) society’s functioning – the exploitation of man by man, and the continual legitimation of the social institution of ‘private property’.
The line of Engel’s argumentation, in this respect, is concerned with his assumption that even though the male-dominated society does recognize and cherish women, on the account of their ability to act as the agents of social progress, it simultaneously commodities the representatives of the ‘weaker gender’. The latter is accomplished by the mean of referring to the women’s traditional preoccupation with the matters of procreation/child-raising, in terms of their ‘biologically predetermined’ (and therefore unpaid) social function.
As Trat noted: “According to Engels, the division of labor between men and women bears no relation to the other great divisions of labor that were to emerge when herds were domesticated and production was developed… (it) is based on procreation and never questioned” (93). It is understood, of course, that this could not result in anything else but in disadvantaging women, as the seekers of social prominence. Hence, Engels’ belief that the key to making a particular society gender-egalitarian is the elimination of the social preconditions for the measure of one’s evolutionary fitness to be considered reflective of this person’s ‘monetary’ worth – something best achieved through the worldwide Communist revolution (Pelz 118).
Marx’s views on the innermost causes of gender inequality/oppression are thoroughly consistent with those of the earlier mentioned theoretician of Communism. In essence, Marx used to insist that both determine the socially disadvantaged status of women in the Capitalist society:
- the fact that men exercise an undisputed control over the means of production/capital,
- the perpetuation of men’s complete dominance in the society’s intellectual sphere.
While striving to substantiate this idea, Marx had made a deliberate point in referring to the inter-gender dynamics within a family as having been economically rather than biologically predefined. As the main proof of this suggestion’s soundness, Marx considered the fact that the patriarchal conventions of a ‘proper family-living’ are perfectly consistent with the socially constructed discursive prerequisites for the representatives of the ruling class (bourgeoisie) to be able to exploit the proletarians in the most merciless manner.
What differs Marx from Engels, in this respect, is that unlike what it was the case with the latter; he believed that the very logic of historical progress presupposes the dialectical objectiveness of the process of women’s continual empowerment, in the social sense of this word.
As Brown aptly observed: “In contrast (to Engels), Marx not only noted the subordinate position of women, but also pointed to the potential for change, even under private property… Marx tended to take a more nuanced and dialectical approach (while addressing gender inequality)” (54). According to Marx, the on-going technological progress results in diminishing the value of physical assets as ‘things-in-themselves’ and intensifying the division of labor within the world economy. Consequently, this empowers the representatives of the underprivileged social classes, in the sense of enabling them to attain existential autonomy as hired workers.
The resulting beneficence for women is quite apparent – ever since the time of the Industrial Revolution, they have effectively ceased to be completely dependent on men as the ‘natural born’ agents of prosperity. At the same time, however, women continue to remain the subjects of Capitalist exploitation. According to Marx, this implies that the struggle for women’s liberation from the yoke of patriarchal oppression is an integral part of the worldwide Socialist endeavor.
Because Charlotte Perkins Gilman never ceased being closely affiliated with the ideals of Socialism, it comes as no surprise that her stance on the foremost causes of gender inequality/oppression does appear discursively compatible with those of Engels and Marx. After all, just as it was the case with these intellectuals, Gilman remained thoroughly committed to endorsing the idea that the social roles of men and women must be assessed systemically – that is, in full observance of the fact that human societies are essentially the spatially extended phenomenological entities of their own.
As Gilman pointed out: “Society is an organization… It is composed of individual animals of genus homo, living in organic relation. The course of social evolution is the gradual establishment of organic relation between individuals, and this organic relation rests on purely economic grounds” (101). On one hand, this implies that as the socially integrated beings, men and women are mutually interdependent, and subsequently defies the feminist assumption that the latter are in the position to aspire to gain a complete independence from the former. On the other, however, it assures the conceptual soundness of Gilman’s criticism of the patriarchal oppression of women, as we know it.
The author’s main claim, in this respect, is that women are denied the chance for their social contributions to be evaluated, within the context of what account for the resulting long-term systemic effects on the society’s overall well-being (Weinbaum 274). After all, there would be no human civilization to speak of if it was not up to the women’s willingness to seek self-actualization through motherhood and to assume the responsibilities of ‘housewives’.
Hence, what Gilman believed accounts for the main (gender) inequality-inducing hypocrisy of modern times – even though the male-dominated Capitalist society does endorse the idea that people’s activities are economically (interest) driven, it fails to acknowledge that, in this regard, women are no different from men. Had it been otherwise, women would be paid on an hourly basis for enabling the procreation of humanity and for taking care of their ‘household’ duties – something that the affiliates of ‘fair sex’ usually do at the expense of denying themselves the prospect of social advancement. As it can be seen, this idea correlates with the earlier outlined Engels’ take on the subject matter in question.
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Nevertheless, even though Gilman remained an ardent advocate of women’s emancipation, her views on the innermost causes of gender inequality/oppression are not ultimately connected with the matters of political economy – something that sets the author apart from Marx and Engels. According to Hausman: “Women’s economic dependence on men and its effect on the ‘sex-relation’ were not for Gilman completely ‘social’ instances of subjection.
Rather, they represented the development of a particular social relation through human evolution” (497). In its turn, this naturally prompted Gilman to theorize that along with the purely social means of helping women to achieve the complete equality with men; there are also a number of those that now would have been deemed ‘bio-technological’. For example, Gilman believed that the era of women’s subservience would come to an end on the day when humanity decides to switch to artificial insemination, as so much more effective tool of procreation when compared to sexual intercourse.
The reason for this is apparent – in the aftermath of the initiative’s implementation, it will be no longer appropriate to think that women’s positioning in life is suggestive of the sheer ‘biologicalness’ of a female psyche.
Thus, it will be thoroughly logical to conclude this paper by restating once again that Marx, Engels, and Gilman did contribute rather substantially toward enlightening their contemporaries on what account for the societal determinants gender inequality/oppression in the West. This appears to be one of the reasons why the intellectual legacy of all three historical figures continues to be held in high regard by a great many people even today.
Brown, Heather. “Marx on Gender and the Family: A Summary.” Monthly Review 66.2 (2014): 48-57. Print.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Women and Economics: A Study of the Economic Relation between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Print.
Hausman, Bernice. “Sex before Gender: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Evolutionary Paradigm of Utopia.” Feminist Studies 24.3 (1998): 488-510. Print.
Pelz, William A. “Class and Gender: Friedrich Engels’ Contribution to Revolutionary History.” Science & Society 62.1 (1998): 117-126. Print.
Trat, Josette. “Engels and the Emancipation of Women.” Science & Society 62.1 (1998): 88-105. Print.
Weinbaum, Alys. “Writing Feminist Genealogy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Racial Nationalism, and the Reproduction of Maternalist Feminism.” Feminist Studies 27.2 (2001): 271-302. Print.