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Engels, Working Women, and Socialist Feminism

Engels’ sharp critique of the patriarchal family and the institution of marriage remains extremely powerful today. As part of his legacy to socialist feminism, he elevated the problem of the oppression of women to the theoretical level of social production, as part of the core concerns of Marxism.

Josefina L. Martínez

November 28, 2020
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In 1883, still deeply affected by his friend’s death, Friedrich Engels went through stacks of letters, manuscripts, and notes that had been left unfinished at Marx’s house on London’s Maitland Park Road. Among the papers, he found a series of notes on the work of U.S. anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, whose last book, Ancient Society, had been published a few years earlier. The two friends had had several exchanges on the topic, and Engels was excited to organize some ideas. On the basis of Marx’s ethnological notes, Engels developed a historical and materialist analysis of social organizations, specifically related to changes in forms of kinship, the patriarchal family, the institution of marriage, and monogamy. His book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State was published in 1884 and has since been considered essential reading for socialist feminists.

I return to this book later, to point out some of its fundamental contributions as well as some of the controversies it continues to generate. But first it is necessary to consider the general context in which Marx and Engels’ first formulations on the emancipation of women emerged. 

Engels wrote about the dual oppression experienced by working women for the first time in The Condition of the Working Class in England, a book published in 1845. It provides readers with a first-hand view of the life of the English working class, their working conditions, the overcrowding they experienced in the cities, and their great hardships, which he viewed as a foundation for the emergence of various socialist movements, from utopian socialism to communism. Engels was 24 years old at the time and, as he explains in the introduction to the 1892 German edition, the perspective of scientific socialism he would later develop on the basis of his collaboration with Marx was only in its initial stages in that work.

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The book’s beginning is a wonderful visual metaphor for capitalist society. Engels describes the shock one experiences upon entering London, traveling up the Thames. The traveler is captivated by the extraordinary urban development, the number of buildings, the ships, all the signs of a thriving civilization. However, as one gets off and walks down the narrow streets that lead to the “slums,” one begins to understand that:

These Londoners have been forced to sacrifice the best qualities of their human nature, to bring to pass all the marvels of civilization which crowd their city; that a hundred powers which slumbered within them have remained inactive, have been suppressed in order that a few might be developed more fully and multiply through union with those of others.1Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “The Great Towns.”

Engels thus refers to the brutal inequalities created by capitalism, where “all the marvels of civilization” are achieved by crushing a large part of that society — the part that has nothing, the proletariat. Engels’ gaze penetrates even further into working-class neighborhoods, revealing dirty, narrow streets, unheated homes, and food shortages. He then refers in particular to women workers, who were the majority in the textile industry. They worked 10- or 12-hour days, like their male counterparts, but received lower wages. In times of crisis, they were the first to be laid off. And when they returned to their homes, they had to take care of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Although Engels does not develop a theory about the role of working-class women in capitalist society in this book, he repeatedly highlights a social phenomenon that affects women in particular. The capitalist social order, in his view, leads to the disintegration of the working-class family, rendering the conditions for its existence impossible:

Thus the social order makes family life almost impossible for the worker. In a comfortless, filthy house, hardly good enough for mere nightly shelter, ill-furnished, often neither rain-tight nor warm, a foul atmosphere filling rooms overcrowded with human beings, no domestic comfort is possible. The husband works the whole day through, perhaps the wife also and the elder children, all in different places; they meet night and morning only, all under perpetual temptation to drink; what family life is possible under such conditions? Yet the working-man cannot escape from the family, must live in the family, and the consequence is a perpetual succession of family troubles, domestic quarrels, most demoralizing for parents and children alike.2Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “Results.”

Women between ages 15 and 20 worked in the textile factories, as did large numbers of children. Engels points out that, many times, women workers after giving birth “return to the mill three or four days after confinement” and during their rest hours they run home from work to feed their newborns. While they spend 12 or 13 hours at the mills, the children are left in the care of a relative or a neighbor, or they wander around barefoot. In addition, sexual abuse was rampant in workplaces. According to Engels, “factory servitude, like any other, and to an even higher degree, confers the jus primae noctis [the lord’s right] upon the master. In this respect also the employer is sovereign over the persons and charms of his employees.”3Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, “Single Branches of Industry: Factory Hands.”

For this reason, Engels insisted that “the employment of the wife dissolves the family utterly and of necessity, and this dissolution, in our present society, which is based upon the family, brings the most demoralizing consequences for parents as well as children.”4Ibid. Today’s society is based on the family, but at the same time breaks it apart; it makes the conditions for its existence impossible. This explosive contradiction has a profound impact on the conditions in which working women and the entire working class live and struggle. This idea, still undeveloped, would be taken up later by Marx and Engels. 

Both would return to this question, offering some definitions on the need to fight for the emancipation of women, an analysis of the historical origins of oppression and a radical critique of the patriarchal family. In The Holy Family, they take up the ideas of utopian socialist Fourier, who argues that “social progress and changes of period are brought about by virtue of the progress of women toward liberty, and social retrogression occurs as a result of a diminution in the liberty of women.” Many utopian socialists had addressed the oppression of women previously, proposing alternatives on how to overcome it. This tradition had considered matters such as the need to socialize housework, end monogamy, and develop free love, as well as the need to reorganize the architecture of single-family homes, drawing plans of small communitarian societies. These outlines, made by pre-scientific socialists, were quite vague. They did not clearly state how to meet those objectives, or by what social force they could be achieved. The experiences of the Owenite communities in the United States failed to prosper, although, as Engels pointed out in a later book, with Owen’s writings, utopian socialists sowed the first seeds of a future communist society.5Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). First published serially in the newspaper Vorwarts (Leipzig), the central organ of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, from 1876 to 1878. First compilation as a book published in 1880 in a French translation by Paul Lafargue.

The work of Flora Tristán, a pioneer of socialist feminism, was midway between utopian socialism and scientific socialism. In her book The Workers’ Union (1843), she outlined a proposal for the social and political organization of the working class and, for the first time, addressed the relationship between class and gender. The third chapter of the book was devoted entirely to women, who she referred to as “the last slaves” of French society. Her book called upon workers to consider this question and noted that it is impossible to sustain a project of human emancipation without taking women into account.6See (Andrea D’Atri,  “Flora Tristán: el martillo y la rosa” [Flora Tristán: The Hammer and the Rose], La Izquierda Diario, March 4 2019).

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels reassert the idea that capitalism tends to destroy traditional family ties in the working class by incorporating masses of women and children into the workplace, exploiting all members of the working family equally. But at the same time, they denounce the “double standard” of the bourgeoisie: while they accused communists of wanting to establish the “community of women,” it was they who actually practiced it through adultery (which was socially acceptable only for men) or through prostitution, regarding women as their property. 

Lastly, although in Capital there are several references to women’s labor, both in terms of the composition of the industrial reserve army of labor as well as of the brutal exploitation of women’s and children’s labor, the most systematic analysis of the family institution and the causes of women’s oppression would be developed by Engels, as mentioned above, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. 

The Family, Women’s Labor, and Communism

The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State continues to be an essential work, despite that Morgan’s studies are now outdated or because of the book’s somewhat schematic view of historical periods. It remains essential, first of all, because it points to the historical origins of women’s oppression, demonstrating that it did not always exist and that it is not natural but rather, is historical and social. In this regard, Engels also engaged in a debate on the work of other socialist theorists, such as Bebel.7Bebel’s book Woman and Socialism was first printed clandestinely in Leipzig and was distributed illegally for several years, under the censorship of anti-socialist laws. By 1895, it had been reprinted 25 times in Germany and also published in English, French, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Danish, Polish, Flemish, Greek, Bulgarian, Romanian, Hungarian, and Czech. It clearly had a significant impact. After the publication of Engels’ book, Bebel reviewed his own work, incorporating Engels’ references to Morgan. and Kautsky, who had published writings on the subject shortly before and had argued that women’s subordination could be traced to the beginning of human societies, as if it had always existed. Engels did not believe this to be the case; instead, he believed there had been “primitive societies” that were more egalitarian and even societies based on matriarchal law, and he sought to highlight this history

Engels established a connection between the emergence of private property, society’s class divisions, and the crystallization of a family institution in which women played a subordinate role. Through the establishment of marriage and monogamy, women and children became “the private property of man.” In this regard, he states:

The man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude, she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children. … In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.8Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, chap. II, “The Family,” part 3, “The Pairing Family.”

In addition, in the preface to the first edition, there is an important passage in which he highlights the relationship between production and reproduction, as the central point from which to consider the question of the family and the role of women in society.

According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the final instance, the production and reproduction of the immediate essentials of life. This, again, is of a twofold character. On the one side, the production of the means of existence, of articles of food and clothing, dwellings, and of the tools necessary for that production; on the other side, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social organization under which the people of a particular historical epoch and a particular country live is determined by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labor on the one hand and of the family on the other.9Engels, ibid., Preface to the First Edition.

This passage has been cited many times, and also questioned from different theoretical positions. While Engels was still alive, there was a debate between those who defended the struggle for women’s emancipation as a fundamental part of the socialist program and some more conservative sectors within social democratic parties unwilling to accept it. In October 1886, for example, during the Congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany in Gotha, Clara Zetkin made an important speech on the question of working women and socialism. She asserted that the struggle for the emancipation of women was linked to the struggle for socialism, and that it was thus essential to promote socialist agitation among women and their organization into unions. English socialist Belfort Bax, known for his misogynistic positions, harshly criticized the speech.10Some time later, in response to John Stuart Mill’s book The Subjection of Women (1869), Bax would write a book provocatively entitled The Legal Subjection of Men (1908) that contains all sorts of assertions against the women’s movement, maintaining that women are the ones who enjoy “privileges” in marriage. In his arguments against Zetkin’s position, Bax attempted to appeal to Engel’s authority, citing his perspective on the matter. 

Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter who was very close to Engels, publicly responded to Bax, reaffirming that Engels and Zetkin were in agreement in this regard. Her answer highlights the issue of housework and the double burden borne by working women. She began by pointing out the numbers of working women in several European countries: about 4.5 million in England, 3.7 million in France, 3.5 in Italy, more than 5 million in Germany, and 3.5 million in Austria-Hungary — were more than 20 million women workers in the main European states, who in many cases were the main breadwinners for the elderly, children, or their unemployed husbands. She then referred to the fact that, although many tasks once done in homes had become part of the tasks of modern production, a large volume of work was still done privately in people’s homes. In relation to this controversy, she stated the following:

But besides this factory and other wage-labor the women have also to do their housekeeping work. I know that Belfort Bax or others of his opinion, can point out that the capitalist industrialism has freed the woman of many important functions which were once the duties of a housekeeping women; that she has not any more to knit socks, to sew linen, etc, for the home; and that other housekeeping functions of hers have decreased to a minimum; still, there is some housekeeping yet to do, such as cleaning, washing, cooking, etc. Capitalism has not yet invented housekeeping machinery, and has not at the same time “domesticated” the unemployed husband to such a degree as to make him take care of the house and children, and thus free his wife of a part of her burden. Yes, comrade Belfort Bax, Clara Zetkin had a full right to say, with Engels, that the woman is a “proletarian in the home.” She ought to have rather said that the woman, under our capitalist regime, is a double proletarian — she has two kinds of work to do, the work of a producer in the factory and the work of a housekeeper, wife, and mother in the home. On one hand her muscles and blood are spent for the immediate profit of the capitalist, and on the other for his future profit – in bearing and feeding up a new generation of proletarians. Toil there, toil here! 

As we can see, Eleanor Marx’s forceful response directly references Engels. She and Clara Zetkin, as well as other socialist leaders, would subsequently focus on organizing working women and fighting for social and political rights for all women, while continuing to denounce the double burden of housework in the home. Decades later, the Russian Revolution would try to make these ideas a reality. The revolution would make it possible to take some basic measures: the legalization of abortion and divorce, the recognition of children born out of wedlock, equal pay for women, and the establishment of nurseries, soup kitchens, child care centers and laundromats, to take steps towards the socialization of housework. The subsequent regression in this area, particularly during the 1930s, took place in the context of an internal counterrevolution. While Stalin’s repressive dictatorship was being consolidated,  the reactionary ideology in which women were viewed as “guardians of the home” within the traditional family began to regain ground. The later policy implemented by Communist Parties of separating women’s struggle from class struggle, as if it were secondary to the struggle of the working class did not arise from an original misconception of this matter in early Marxist texts. It arose  from a conservative revision of Marxism aimed at justifying bureaucratic positions and an economistic interpretation of class issues.11Eleanor Marx-Aveling, “The Proletarian in the Home” (1896).

Patriarchy, Production and Reproduction

With second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, other debates regarding Engels’ book reemerged. On the one hand, radical feminist authors such as Shulamith Firestone and Kate Millett wrote about Engels’ contribution to denaturalizing the family institution and conceptualizing the oppression of women as a social phenomenon. At the same time, they criticized historical materialism in general as if it were a kind of “economism.” Shulamith Firestone, for example, goes so far as to propose that a new historical materialism needed to be developed on the basis of sexual class struggle.12Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (New York: Morrow, 1970). She criticizes an economistic version of Marxism, which she inverts by focusing on the question of sexuality. But by erasing or diminishing the importance of the material and economic phenomena of social relations, Firestone shifts towards an idealistic conception, according to which the possibility of change is limited to cultural movements. On this basis, separatist tendencies developed in the radical feminist movement in the years after that were opposed in a reactionary way to any common struggle between various oppressed sectors of society.

From a different perspective, the same paragraph quote above from “The Pairing Family” chapter of Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was criticized as a source of subsequent errors in that it separated, to an excessive degree, the sphere of production from that of the reproduction of life. This idea that Engels “dualistically” separated the sphere of production from the sphere of reproduction was put forward by the Marxist feminist Lise Vogel in her 1983 book Marxism and the Oppression of Women.13Lise Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983). This critique has been taken up more recently by various authors, such as Susan Ferguson, who develop what they define as a theory of social reproduction.14Susan Ferguson, Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (London: Pluto Press, 2019). In Ferguson’s view, although Engels’ text made fundamental contributions to socialist feminism, the perspective it offers led sectors of the Social Democratic and Communist parties later to argue that women’s “special” struggle could be separated from the struggle of the working class, or even that it needed to be “postponed” until after the revolution. 

From my point of view, however, the oft-quoted passage from Engels does not posit such a separation. On the contrary, it establishes a relationship between both spheres and, as Ariane Díaz points out, this is “precisely what is novel about Engels’ analysis; he elevates the problem of the oppression of women to the theoretical level of social production, as part of the core concerns of Marxism.”15Ariane Díaz, “El marxismo y la opresión de la mujer” [Marxism and the Oppression of Women], Ideas de Izquierda, April 28, 2017). And by associating the oppression of women with social phenomena, production and reproduction, the question is released from any biological determination, which naturalizes the subjugation of women. 

It is not my intention here to address the entire prolific debate on social reproduction, to which many new contributions have been made in the past few years. For a more detailed analysis of this topic, the reader may refer to several articles in the endnote.16Andrea D’Atri and Celeste Murillo, “Nosotras, el proletariado” [We, the Proletariat], Ideas de Izquierda, July 22, 2018; Ariane Díaz, “Economía política de la reproducción social I: trabajo y capital” [Political Economy of Social Reproduction I: Labor and Capital], Contrapunt, July 14, 2019; Paula Varela, “¿Existe un feminismo socialista en la actualidad?: Apuntes sobre el movimiento de mujeres, la clase trabajadora y el marxismo hoy” [Is There a Socialist Feminism at Present?: Notes on the Women’s Movement, the Working Class, and Marxism Today], Theomai Journal 39, no. 1 (2019). However, it is important to point out that “understanding the relationship between reproduction and production — and highlighting the subordination of the former to the latter under capitalism — is essential for building a strategy of struggle” from a socialist feminist perspective.17Josefina L. Martínez and Cynthia Luz Burgueño, Patriarcado y capitalismo. Feminismo, clase y diversidad [Patriarchy and Capitalism: Feminism, Class, and Diversity] (Tres Cantos, Spain: Akal, 2019).

It is true that a more systematic Marxist theorization of housework done by women in the family emerged onlyin the context of second-wave feminist debates in the 1960s and 1970s, when different theoretical positions and political strategies were debated within the feminist movement. However, this does not mean that Marxists had not previously viewed this as an important issue, or that it was presumed that the fight against women’s oppression was limited to achieving democratic demands and a more egalitarian participation in the labor market so women could gain financial independence. Nothing could be further from the truth. These were fundamental issues, but so was the struggle for the socialization of housework, since women were also “proletarians in the home.” And all of these struggles were connected to a socialist strategy to bring an end to capitalism. 

Engels himself put forth this perspective in an 1885 letter: “It is my conviction that real equality between men and women can come true only when the exploitation of either by capital has been abolished and private homework has been transformed into a public industry.”18Engels, Letter to Guillaume-Schack, c. July 5, 1885.

With regard to Engels’ legacy to socialist feminism, it is important to note that his sharp critique of the patriarchal family and the institution of marriage remains extremely powerful today. On the one hand, it is important given the growth of conservative and “familialist” positions that, in the context of the crisis of neoliberalism and capitalism, suggest that the role of the traditional (patriarchal) family must be uncritically revalidated. Engels reminds us that this institution is neither “natural” nor an “oasis” in the middle of the storm, but is based on economic dependence, permeated by patriarchal hierarchical relationships, and reproduces social contradictions within it. It is difficult to talk about gender-based violence without centering a critique of this patriarchal institution and the idea of the “ownership” of women by their husbands. At the same time, as mentioned above, capitalism degrades the living conditions of the working family — denying millions even the right to a home or a job — while maintaining it as one of the pillars of this society. This creates profound contradictions. 

From Engels’ point of view, women will be able to overcome patriarchal oppression only when families and marriage cease to exist as units of compulsory economic dependence, when reproductive work is socialized, and even when “the care and education of the children becomes a public affair.”19Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, chap. II, “The Family,” part 4, “The Monogamous Family.” It should be noted that when Engels wrote those words, women still educated their children at home in much of the world; there was no universal public education or kindergarten. Only the women of the bourgeoisie could free themselves completely from part of their childcare work, through the poorly paid labor of working women. Beyond the historical differences, this continues to be a key issue, considering the decline in education and public health as a result of the policies implemented by capitalist governments that do not guarantee kindergartens or free nurseries during the first few months of children’s lives. More recently, we have seen the triple burden borne by many working women who need to help with their children’s virtual education during the pandemic. 

Finally, Engels’ critique of the social mechanisms that regulate and impose restrictions on emotional and sexual relationships between human beings makes it possible to imagine a society in which these obstacles can be overcome. It allows us to envision a society in which personal relationships can be freed from the limitations imposed by a society governed by private property and the exploitation of a large part of humanity, so that love, sexuality, and friendship can be rebuilt on new foundations. 

First published in Spanish on November 21 in Izquierda Diario in the Spanish State.

Translated by Marisela Trevin.


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Josefina L. Martínez

Josefina is a historian from Madrid and an editor of our sister site in the Spanish State, IzquierdaDiario.es.


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