Historical Analysis of Gender

The term gender, according to the World Health Organisation1, refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of, and between, groups of women and men. In Kenya, as with other countries in the capitalist world, gender relations are generally connected with oppression of women in modern society. A historical analysis of gender is instrumental to comprehending the concept of gender in the past and its reality in the present. It is necessary to understand the source of women’s oppression in order to know what needs to change in order to achieve gender equality. To do this, it is necessary to be objective and base any analysis on scientific methods. Otherwise, subjective ideas can influence the analysis. Such subjective ideas are dominant in capitalist societies and are embedded in social and cultural traditions dating back many centuries. They manifest themselves in such notions as: it is the will of God that women are subservient to men, women are emotional and therefore cannot be good leaders, women’s place is in the kitchen and they are only supposed to tend to the families. Such ideas are generated by male-dominated societies.

There are a number of people who have written about the oppression of women but few dwell on the root causes of gender oppression. The few that do, often use religion as their principle source. Many religious practices today reflect feudal and male-dominated power structures and thus reinforce the oppression of women. In addition, these ideas reflect capitalist social relations, which again create gender inequality for women. Apart from that, some religious sects influence the state in legislating laws that deny women’s rights to control their bodies. For example, the Catholic Church has always advocated against right to divorce that traps women in abusive marriage and against contraception as well as abortion. In 2010, the Catholic Church asked its congregants to reject the then proposed constitution because of Article 26 which allows a trained health professional to abort pregnancy when the life or health of the mother is in danger2 . It argued that the provision on abortion was sinful and violated the Sixth Commandment.

The genuine liberation of women cannot be achieved through subjective arguments based on one’s thinking, but need to be based on external reality (objectivity). This allows us to understand how reality is changing and understand the forces that bring about social change. That, in turn, shows that everything material including the brain, which helps one to think and develop ideas, is composed of matter that is constantly changing. Once people understand this reality, they will see that ideas are reflections of reality external to their thinking, not the other way round.

It is on the basis of the above paragraph that Frederick Engel’s book “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” is very important. The work of Engels should be understood from a critical angle, taking into account the different geographical and historical context it was embedded in. In fact, Engels himself noted this when he was writing the preface to the fourth edition in 1891; seven years after the first book was published. He hoped that the fourth edition was ‘to take due account of the present state of knowledge3’ . However, the book can be used as a guide to help us understand oppression of women in our society today. 

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State 

Frederick Engels’ book, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State,” provides a materialist analysis of the rise of the institution of family. In writing the paper, Engels used Karl Marx’s detailed notes and also the research of the American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan, who had published Ancient Society in 1877 and focused on the experience of the Iroquois and other Native Americans. Engels argued that the oppression of women arose hand in hand with the rise of class societies. Women before this, he said, were equal to men and were not oppressed in previous periods of savagely or primitive communalism.

Engels equates the family with the state in the sense that the family comes about in the interest of a small ruling class seeking to maintain its control over property. This statement might sound controversial to some who see this assertion as gender economic determinism. But Engel’s meaning becomes clear on reading the entire book. He argues that before the emergence of classes, women and men enjoyed a degree of sexual freedom and there was a totally different concept of family. Children belonged to the community and no man could claim them. They knew about their mother, who had all the care responsibilities. It was only through the mother that the descent of a child could be proven. This is one of the reasons why families in earlier epochs were headed by women (matrilineal kinship). This also applies to some African nationalities whose oral histories show that in earlier times, societies were headed by women, for example the Agikuyu assert that Mumbi was the head of the Agikuyu nation and even today the Agikuyu refer to Mumbi as the mother of their nation (Nyumba ya Mumbi). Further evidence of matrilineality among the early Agikuyu is based on the fact that their clans are named after the ten daughters of Mumbi.i

Engels notes that during the era of primitive communalism that preceded slavery, human beings used to get their food by hunting and gathering. In this situation, there was equality between women and men. Women were in charge of gathering and growing crops. The work performed by women was central to the group’s survival, and therefore valued highly. Men, on the other hand, were involved in hunting of large game and later started to domesticate animals. Domestication of animals made it possible for human beings to create more than the bare minimum that they needed to survive and for the first time, there was an accumulation of surplus, or wealth. This surplus was accumulated by men as they were the ones in control of the production (domestication of animals). Engels associated the rise in inequality with the rise of production by men specifically for exchange purposes because as it developed and expanded, it came to overshadow the household’s production by women. This consequentially transformed the relations between men and women within the household thus leading to defeat of the matrilineal society and ushering in of the patrilineal society. 

Further definition of roles of men and women 

Further improvement in technologies of forces of production increased the dominance of men who passed their wealth (surplus) to their biological male children and that is how the monogamous family came to be all-powerful. Thus, monogamy and male supremacy were established and became the means by which property was passed down from generation to generation through to male inheritance. Marriage became little more than a property relationship. Sharon Smith emphasises this perspective when she states: 

The modern family arose for one purpose only: to pass on private property in the form of inheritance from one generation to the next. All of the romantic imagery of “true love” which has since helped to idealize marriage in contemporary society can’t change the fact that marriage is essentially a property relationship. Most people learn this all too clearly if they find themselves in divorce court.

Engels argues that the monogamous family ideal is based upon a fundamental hypocrisy. From its very beginning, the family has been stamped ‘with its specific character of monogamy for the woman only, but not for the man.’ The term family, used to describe such enslavement of women to their husbands came from the Latin word “familia” meaning a household of slaves. It was used in ancient Rome to refer to male-headed household in which not only slaves and servants but also wives and children were counted as the man’s property, over which he held the power of life and death.4

The dominance of men over women came with the imposition of patriarchal ideology, which is still dominant in capitalist societies today. It is no wonder that infidelity among men is more acceptable or seen as normal, while women who engage with multiple sex partners are maligned.

As the demand for surplus increased in earlier societies, so did the demand for labour. Women were now expected to produce more children to perform more labour. In this way, women became tied to the household. It is due to this that Engels suggested that for women to be free they have to be free from household labour and be engaged in social production just as men are. This was to be done by being in employment. This argument however, has been disputed by some socialists who assert that advanced capitalism has only changed the forms of oppression against women. As Sharon Smith in her article Engels and the Origin of Women’s Oppression noted, “most women hold jobs outside the home yet, despite all of these changes, they are still oppressed. Their wages are substantially lower than men’s throughout the capitalist world. They are sexually molested at workplaces and some still suffer from rape and domestic violence”.5 Sharon continues to state that although women play a productive role in advanced capitalism, this alone hasn’t translated into equality with men as it did in pre-class societies. As long as privatized reproduction within the nuclear family continues, so will women’s oppression, she asserts. Sharon’s argument shows how women today are doubly exploited, both in their work places and in their homes. The society expects women to work for a wage and at the same time, expects them to fulfil household and family duties.

The Liberation of Women Many theories or ideologies have been put forward on how women can liberate themselves from this exploitation. Those most popular are those advanced by bourgeois feminists. Their brand of feminism is promoted by the ruling class using state machinery and other means they control such as the media. Such theories dwell on reforming the capitalist state rather than revolutionising it. This creates an illusion of freedom. Thus, these feminists advocate changing certain laws as a solution to women’s problems for instance, the enactment of laws that gives women more seats in the parliament (two-thirds gender rule bill). Advocating for the changing of laws that are oppressive to women is a move in the right direction but the problem is how the bourgeois feminists see it as the end to the exploitation rather than as a means to end it. They knowingly or unknowingly limit themselves at reforms without proceeding to dismantle male dominated structures that are capitalist in nature and that uphold women’s oppression. These feminists, as Thomas Sankara said use women’s oppression to climb the social ladder. They use the gender ticket for narrow material benefit, which has no bearing on the course of women’s emancipation.6

As the majority of the bourgeois feminists come from petty bourgeois backgrounds, their outlook is associated with their class and thus lack proper understanding of oppression which the working class women face. They criticise Marx and Engels for what they see as their economic determinism. Their class outlook as well as ideological bankruptcy hinders them from digesting Engels arguments and thus fail to grasp the concept.

It is the ideas advocated by Marx and Engels that make genuine liberation of women possible. There is need for people to understand that talking about the liberation of women without addressing the cause, which is inequality in sharing social wealth is hypocritical. Liberation of women is interwoven with the fight against exploitation of the oppressed classes and should be carried by both sexes fighting alongside each other. It cannot be achieved by women fighting alone. As Clara Zetkin (a German fervent campaigner for women’s rights and universal suffrage) said in 1896, 

The liberation struggle of the proletarian woman must be a joint struggle with the male of her class against the entire class of capitalists. She does not need to fight against the men of her class in order to tear down the barriers which have been raised against her participation in the free competition of the market place.7

Marx and Engels’ ideas are scientific (materialistic and dialectical) and show how the oppression began and how it can be ended. The advocates of these ideas and revolutionaries who have come to power through a revolution as we will see have authenticated this fact. 

Case Studies of Women Liberation 

The liberation of women has only been witnessed in the countries in which the oppressed classes have taken over the state after overthrowing the oppressive capitalist system and ushering in a socialist society. They dismantled capitalism and liberated women in their respective countries. This however, should not mean that socialist revolution is all that is required to end women’s oppression. Old customs and attitudes take time and cannot be changed at once. The socialist revolution creates a path for the genuine liberation of women. The following case studies on Russia, China, Burkina Faso and Cuba will shed light on this assertion.


Russian revolutionaries led by the Bolshevics party overthrew a reactionary government in 1917. The Bolsheviks understood that the revolution was not the end, but the beginning of the struggle to win women’s liberation. The party therefore started to enact laws aimed at liberating women. According to Raymond Rotta of the Revolutionary Communist Party of USA, the church-sanctioned system of marriage that codified male authority over women and children was abolished.8 Marriage now took place through a simple registration process based on mutual consent. Each partner could take the other’s name or keep their own and men were legally stripped of their authority over wives and girl children. The concept of illegitimate children was abolished and all children were treated equally, whether they were born in or out of marriage. Divorce was made easy and could be achieved if one person demanded it, even without the other partner’s consent. Both men and women were paid the same for the same job. Maternity hospital care was provided free and in 1920 the Soviet Union became the first country in modern Europe to make abortion legal. All restrictions on women’s freedom of movement were removed. Before the revolution a wife was legally bound to remain with her husband. Far-reaching changes in property relations weakened the family as an economic unit, as well as the father’s dominant position within the family. 


In China the situation of women before the revolution was hell. Instances of wife beating, child arranged marriages, and forced prostitution were normal. One of the most oppressive and hideous customs in Chinese society was the practice of foot binding. Seven-year and eight-year-old girls had their feet tightly wrapped and bent until the arch was broken and the toes permanently bent under. This horrible practice was done to keep women’s feet small and forced women to sway when walking so that they could look sexy to men.

The diabolic culture of foot binding was banned after the socialist revolution and new laws like the marriage law that ended child and arranged marriages were installed. The law that guaranteed the right to divorce for women as well as men was enacted. However, a man was forbidden to divorce his wife if she had a child less than one-year-old. But the China revolution was more than the enactment of new laws as it majorly dealt on revolutionising the mind of both women and men through conscientisation. This was aimed at transforming oppressive social relations and backward ideas. Women, who earlier on were dehumanized by the system thus opting to sell their bodies, were re-educated by the revolutionary government and offered opportunities to engage in productive activities. Prostitution was strictly forbidden and disappeared from Chinese society only to emerge after the reintroduction of capitalism in the mid 70s. 

Burkina Faso 

In Burkina Faso the situation of women and the entire population before the 1983 revolution was pathetic. For example, according to the article on “Thomas Sankara and the Black Spring in Burkina Faso”, 9 the infant mortality rate was the highest in the world standing at 208 for every 1000 live births. The average illiteracy level was 92%, meaning that less than one child in five attended school; the average annual income was US$150 and there was only one doctor per 50,000 people. Outdated cultural practices harmful to women such as genital mutilation were common practice and women who lost their husbands could not inherit their marital property and were left to fend for themselves.

When a 33-year-old Thomas Sankara took power following the overthrow of a comprador imperialist backed government, he brought about profound revolutionary changes which empowered women and to some extent liberated them from many years of oppression. For example he banned polygamy and forced marriages, he outlawed prostitution and created training programs to provide prostitutes with a means of earning, he advocated for pregnant girls to stay in school so that they could continue with their education and female genital mutilation was banned. Moreover, new policies were put in place where widows were allowed to inherit their marital property and a living education program was set up to teach home economics and parenting. He also created the position of street sweeper exclusively for the poorest women. Aside from this, the revolutionary government appointed women to high government positions, encouraged them to work, recruited them into the military and granted pregnancy leave during education. The average literacy level in a span of four years had jumped from below 10% to 73%. It was unfortunate that the imperialists together with their lackeys were not pleased with the revolutionary work of Thomas Sankara and therefore plotted and killed him in 1988. 


Before the revolution in 1959, Cuba was not different from other countries. Malena Hinze in her article “The Revolutionary Role of Women in Cuba” says that the women’s general situation was characterized by Illiteracy, unemployment (only 12% of women were employed and only 19.2 % of the work force in 1953 were women), sexism, racism and exploitation. Women could only find work outside the home in demeaning, low-paying jobs. Many women were forced into prostitution to survive and feed their families. Contraception was generally unavailable and abortion was illegal. The general lack of medical care meant that 80% of all babies were not born in hospitals. Many died at an early age.

The July 26 Movement that led to revolution in Cuba understood the power of women and involved them in the struggle for freedom. There was even a female military platoon, named Mariana Grajales. Mariana Grajales was woman who struggled and fought for an independent Cuba in the 17th century. After the revolution, the socialist government embarked on empowering the women and assisted them in creating the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). FMC played a crucial role in fighting illiteracy. It spread out across the country teaching a million people to read and write. It also worked on developing access to healthcare and eliminating prostitution. It unbanned abortion and made it free and more easily accessible. The revolution has to some extent liberated women and Cuba today is distinctly ahead of many countries including economic power-houses such as USA. The following statistics shows how the revolution can liberate women. Now, the literacy level of women in Cuba is 99%, while the level of AIDS (highly prevalent in many third world countries) is very low. Whilst in Kenya the most infected are women, less than 25% of those infected in Cuba are women.

It has also made great strides on health even with the embargo on it shoulders. Women comprise of 51% of all Cuban doctors and 63% of the employed professionals and technical personnel are women. The major thing that has contributed to the success of the Cuban liberation has been the revolutionary consciousness driven by the Cuban revolutionary government. 


Now the fundamental question is – how a society can make the lives of more than half of the population better? This demands critical analysis of the capitalist system. It is important to understand that we live in a class society and each class has its own outlook driven by its own interests. Every class believes that its outlook is the outlook of the entire society and it would do whatever it can including the use of violence to defend or protect it. For example, the capitalists believe that what they do to the lower class is right or natural and there is no way things can be different. On the other hand, the working class have a different outlook, which leads them to understand that what the ruling class does to them is not right and have their own justifications. It therefore important to bear this in mind while pursuing women’s liberation from thousands of years of suppression. 

Based on the above analysis, it would not be wrong to state that the exploitation of women is related to the private ownership of the means of production and also the private distribution of social wealth. It means that people have to get rid of the system that promotes injustice and replace it with the one that promotes public ownership of the means of production and that, as it has been seen, will usher in women’s liberation. The defeat of the oppressive system should be followed by raising the consciousness of men and dismantling old ideas that are governed by class instincts. This is because old conservative customs and habits of both women and men take longer to change. And changing them is a continuous process, which takes years and even decades. This means that the struggle against patriarchy, especially contempt towards women, and women’s attitude about their ‘natural’ role in family and the acceptance of general inferiority to men will continue to be waged even after winning the battle. 

The revolutionaries or progressives should not just sit and wait for the revolution to come. Rather, they should prepare the ground for the revolution which entails challenging laws that are oppressive to women in capitalist states, conscientising or educating people and exposing the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. This will certainly contribute to hastening the revolutionary condition that will make it easy to mobilise people and eventually overthrow capitalism and bring freedom to the oppressed class. As Lenin said ‘women will never be free without the emancipation of their class’.


  1. World Health Organisation, (2020) Gender, equity and human rights. (online) Available at: https://www.who.int/gender-equity-rights/knowledge/glossary/en/(Accessed 2 April 2020) 
  2. https://www.nation.co.ke/kenyareferendum/Yes-vote-bad-for-Kenya-say-Catholic-bishops-/926046-967324-h4tyd9/index.html 
  3. Engels, F (2010). The Origin of the family, Private Property and the State. 4th ed. London: Penguin Group, pg 38. 
  4. REVCOM.US, (2009). A Declaration: For Women’s Liberation and the Emancipation of All Humanity. (online) Available at: https://revcom.us/a/158/ Declaration-en.pdf (Accessed: 2 April 2020). 
  5. Smith, S. (1997). Engels and the Origin of Women’s Oppression. The International Socialist Review Issue 2, Fall 1997, (online). Available at: https://www.isreview.org/issues/02/engles_family.shtml (Accessed: 2 April 2020). 
  6. Sankara, T (1988). Thomas Sankara Speaks – The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-7 1st ed. New York: Pathfinder Press. 
  7. Marxists.org, (2002). Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious. (online) Available at: https://www.marxists.org/archive/zetkin/1896/10/women.htm . (Accessed: 2 April 2020). 
  8. Lotta, L. (2009). The Communist Revolution and the REAL Path to Emancipation: Its History and Our Future. The Revolution, [online]. Available at: https://revcom.us/a/323/you-dont-know-what-you-think-you-know-en.html#chapter0303 [Accessed 2 April 2020]. 
  9. Robb, J. (2014). Thomas Sankara and the Black Spring in Burkina Faso. (Blog) A Communist at Large. Available: https://convincingreasons.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/thomas-sankara-and-the-black-spring-in-burkina-faso/ (Accessed: 2 April 2020)

Women in the Struggle

Rosa Luxemburg

“Women’s freedom is the sign of social freedom.” Aside from the few who have jobs or professions, the women of the bourgeoisie do not take part in social production. They are nothing but consumers of the surplus value their men extort from the proletariat. They are parasites of the social body. And co-consumers are usually even more rabid and cruel in defending their ‘right’ to a parasite’s life than the direct agents of class rule and exploitation. The women of the property-owning classes will always fanatically defend the exploitation and enslavement of the working people by which they indirectly receive the means for their socially useless existence. Economically and socially, the women of the exploiting classes are not an independent segment of the population.. Their only social function is to be tools of the natural propagation of the ruling classes. By contrast, the women of the proletariat are economically independent. They are productive for a society like the men. By this I do not mean they are bringing up children or their housework which helps men support their families on scanty wages. This kind of work is not productive in the sense of the present capitalist economy no matter how enormous an achievement the sacrifices and energy spent, the thousand little efforts add up to. This is but the private affair of the worker, his happiness and blessing, and for this reason nonexistent for our present society. As long as capitalism and the wage system rule, only that kind of work is considered productive which produces surplus value, which creates capitalist profit. From this point of view, the music-hall dancer whose legs sweep profit into her employer’s pocket is a productive worker, whereas all the toil of the proletarian women and mothers in the four walls of their homes is considered unproductive. This sounds brutal and insane but corresponds exactly to the brutality and insanity of our present capitalist economy. And seeing this brutal reality clearly and sharply is the proletarian woman’s first task. 

Source: Luxemburg Critique of Bourgeis Feminism and Early Social Reproduction Theory


Claudia Jones C

“Marxist-Leninists fight to free women from household drudgery, they fight to win equality for women in all spheres, they recognise that one cannot adequately deal with the woman question or win women for progressive participation unless one takes up the special problems, needs and aspirations of women as women” “The capitalists exploit women doubly, both as workers and women. Woman have to face special oppression in every field in capitalist society — as a worker, a wife, homebuilder and citizen” “It was out of my jim crow experiences as a young Negro woman, experiences born of working class poverty that led me in search of why these things had to be, that led me to join the Young Communist League and to choose at the age of 18 the philosophy of my life – the science of Marxism-Leninism — that philosophy that not only rejects racist ideas but is the antithesis of them.” “I was a victim of the McCarthyite hysteria against independent political ideas in the USA, a hysteria which penalizes anyone who holds ideas contrary to the official pro-war, pro-reactionary, pro-fascist line of the white ruling class of that country. I was deported from the USA because as a Negro woman Communist of West Indian descent, I was a thorn in their side in my opposition to Jim Crow racist discrimination against 16 million Negro Americans in the United States. [I was deported for] my work for redress of these grievances, for unity of Negro and white workers, for women’s rights and my general political activity urging American people to help by their struggles to change the present foreign and domestic policy of the United States. I was deported and refused an opportunity to complete my American citizenship because I fought for peace, against the huge arms budget which funds should be directed to improving the social needs of the people. I was deported because I urged the prosecution of lynchers rather than prosecution of Communists and other democratic Americans who oppose the lynchers and big financiers and warmongers, the real advocates of force and violence in the USA.” 

Taken from various sources