How does Marxist theory explain the systematic oppression of women?

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The following summary reflects work from Frances E. Mascia-Lees’ “Gender and Difference in a Globalizing World (pages 136–150).”

Marx and Engels engaged in anthropological research in order to better understand how cultures changed over time. Based on this research, Freidrich Engels argued that pre-capitalist societies did not have private property but, rather, worked to redistribute resources regularly to be sure that all members had their basic needs covered. In Engels’ view, inheritance was not a concept that existed before property was owned privately. As people were not amassing wealth, no one was working to ensure that their families would receive inheritances.

In Engels’ view, pre-capitalist society viewed all contributions as equally valuable and that this value system held the creation of life in high regard. In other words, women who had children were viewed as continuing the survival of the people, and this contribution was highly valuable to the society. Engels argued that women had equal standing in these societies because of their valuable contributions. Children, in this context, were viewed as community members rather than property for any specific family. In fact, as Engels continued, family didn’t exist in the way we understand it today.

Engels argued that, when private property was socially constructed, individuals became interested in making sure that their own children would benefit from the private property that they had amassed in their lifetime. So, as inheritances were socially constructed, the idea of “family” needed to develop. In Engels’ view, women were not expected to remain monogamous before this time because children were not considered to be individually owned by families but they were, rather, part of the community-at-large. But, when inheritance became a cultural tradition, women were expected to remain monogamous so that men could be certain about whose children might receive their inheritance.

During this time, because childrearing does not amass more private property, women lost cultural power and lost their equality in society. The role of women quickly evolved from equal contributors to the community to, essentially, an employee to a husband expected to produce and raise the children who were, themselves, viewed as the husband’s property.

Engels argued, essentially, that the patriarchy, marriage, and capitalism were historically intertwined and he described the establishment of private property, inheritance, and monogamy as “the world-historical defeat of the female sex.”

Explore the below topics to better understand how social scientists examine culture and society through a Marxist lens:

Marxist Basics

Religion and Capitalism

What does “The Opium of the People” mean?

Marxism and Anthropology

Examining Class Struggle


Works Cited

“Anthropology for the 21st Century.” Essentials of Cultural Anthropology: a Toolkit for a Global Age, by Kenneth J. Guest, W. W. Norton and Company, 2020.

Beverley, James A. Religions A-Z. Thomas Nelson, 2005.

Bloch, Maurice. Marxism and Anthropology The History of a Relationship. Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Kuper, Adam. Anthropology and Anthropologists: the Modern British School. Routledge, 2014.

Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Gender & Difference in a Globalizing World: Twenty-First Century Anthropology. Waveland Press, 2010.

McCurdy, David W., et al. Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology. Pearson, 2016.

Moore, Jerry D. Visions of Culture: an Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Roseberry, William (1988). “Political Economy”. Annual Review of Anthropology.

Stein, Rebecca, and Stein, Phillip. Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. 3rd Ed.

Stocking, George W. Race, Culture, and Evolution.

Wallerstein, Immanuel (2004). World-systems analysis: an introduction (5. print. ed.). Durham: Duke University Press.

Winick, Charles. Dictionary of Anthropology. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2014.


This text is part of “Beliefs” an open-source textbook on “The Anthropology of Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.” Written and recorded on Soundcloud by Amanda Zunner-Keating and edited by Ben Shepard for Los Angeles Valley College. Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cultural Anthropologist in Los Angeles

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