The social inequalities between men and women are increasingly questioned by women from quite diverse milieux and waging their fight in various ways. Theoretical positions and forms of struggle which a short time ago still had some credibility, and indeed some importance, have began to be transformed by the breadth of the movement, the resulting debates and analyses, and the active encounter with the labour movement and the parties of the Left. For some people, male domination in the life of our society is the sole important form of oppression and must therefore be an exclusive target of struggle. This position, adopted by some ‘radical feminist’ currents, can even attract bourgeois and petty bourgeois favour, at least when ‘the war of the sexes’ is held up as the only social battle to be waged. For others, by contrast, male domination is the least important form of social oppression, coming a long way behind class exploitation, imperialist domination, and racial segregation. At the extreme—and this was at times the view of some militants and left-wing circles—such domination could wait its time, fated to disappear together with class exploitation, imperialism and racism.
Today we can wait no longer: the fight for the social equality of women has become a mass struggle; and it deeply involves the working class, since all the negative consequences of sexual inequality pile up on the shoulders of working women. This demand should be integral to working-class struggle to change society. For all social inequalities, though never coextensive, feed off one another and ultimately benefit the same class; each one, that is, enters into the reproduction of the dominant mode of production, which in our society is the capitalist mode of production. Now, once this has been recognized, it is crucial to pinpoint the real importance, or specific weight, of each social inequality within the hierarchy of causes that shape the functioning and evolution of our society. This requires, first of all, that we should not take one inequality for another, and still less reduce one to another. In each case, therefore, we must establish the specific nature, duration, origin and mode of evolution of the social inequality in question, so that we may uncover its mode of articulation with other inequalities and its real impact on the functioning of our class society. Inequality between the sexes does not exist only in capitalist society: it exists elsewhere and is older than capitalism. In order to analyse it, we must therefore have recourse to the comparative data of anthropology and history.
We shall have little to say about history. That is the task of other writers more competent in this field, and we shall confine ourselves to analysis of the anthropological data. Let us merely say that if we turn to the class societies of Antiquity, both western (Greece, Rome) and eastern (China, Japan), or, in the middle ages, to the state societies of pre-Columbian America (Incas, Aztecs), or to the caste societies of India, we find that social life has been dominated by men. To own land in the city-state, to sacrifice to the gods, to defend one’s territory arms in hand, to exercise judicial powers and political sovereignty, to develop philosophy, mathematics and the rest—these are male privileges in classical Athens. For a Greek to be fully a man is above all to be a man and not a woman, a free man and not a slave, an Athenian and not a barbarian. Marriage bonds enclose the free Greek woman in the family of her master-husband, whose household economy she partially manages. The master’s female slaves are at his beck and call in sexual matters. Aristotle, himself, clearly defined these relations of subjection: ‘The primary, irreducible parts of the family are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children. . . .’ And he adds: ‘Hesiod was right to say that the first family was composed of a woman and an ox to draw the plough. For the poor, in fact, an ox takes the place of a slave.’
Here we can see the relationship between family structure and the structure of the mode of production, as well as the bases of woman’s twofold subjection, in the city and in the family. Of course, Greek society was a class society, of a patrilineal character like our own. But this was not always the case in the Europe of Antiquity: we should recall Tacitus’s surprise when, having been sent on a mission among the Britons and Germans, he discovered that women sat on the council of
The question inevitably arises as to whether women’s subordination to men has always existed, and whether it exists in every society today. The example of the Germans or the Iroquois leaves room for doubt. We shall now give an anthropologist’s answer to the question, basing ourselves on anthropological material and discussion.
Before we begin, we must make clear what is meant by the subordination of women. It is, in fact, a social reality with three dimensions: economic, political and symbolic. At the economic level, it is enough to look around one in order to observe that women do not have access to the same occupations as men, and that they never go as far as men in any given occupation. At the political level, women make up less than 10 per cent of National Assembly delegates in France, while they account for slightly more than half of the nation itself. Lastly, at a symbolic level, the mass media daily present contrasting images of the man-subject and the woman-object. Stereotypes learned from the early years of life prestructure the perception of social reality. In this context, we should mention Irène Lézine’s account of an experiment conducted in the United States. A group of American students were shown babies of both sexes, first all dressed as girls and a second time as boys, and were then asked to comment on their behaviour. When one of the babies cried, the following kind of comment was made: if it was dressed as a boy, then its crying was a sign of infantile rage, proof that as a boy it was acting upon the world; but if it was dressed as a girl, the crying was a sign that something was wrong, that it was whining, and so on. It would be easy to run through the symbolic representations and modes of behaviour which continually testify to, and help to reproduce, male domination. But what is the situation today in other societies?
To begin, how many societies are there today on the surface of the globe? No one knows the number, even approximately. By society I am referring to a local group which recognizes its own identity, history and culture distinct from, and even opposed to, those of its neighbours. I would suggest a figure of 10,000, based on information about the number of languages spoken in Africa, Asia, and so on.