DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 03, 2022, from

4. Sexual oppression and emancipation

The view that the oppression of women could be overcome once they had the same rights as men was therefore compatible with a conventional understanding of the division of male and female labour. But doubt was cast on this whole approach to emancipation by the fact that, once the vote was won, women did not on the whole use their new-found political power to press for further reform. Many suffragists were keenly disappointed, and feminists of more radical political persuasions were strengthened in their conviction that the source of women’s oppression did not lie in their lack of political rights. Reforms such as the married women’s property act and the right to higher education, they pointed out, benefited middle-class more than working women. More important still, the root of women’s subordination lay not in their civic but in their private lives – in their roles as wives and mothers.

This latter view was partly derived from Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) in which he argued that women’s oppression is primarily sexual. There is nothing natural about the patriarchal family. Rather, this institution came into existence at a particular point in history together with private property. To be able to hand down their property to their sons, men needed complete sexual possession of the mothers of their children, and to this end they reduced women to servitude. In capitalist society, women’s subjection consists not in their lack of legal rights, but in their weak position in the labour market which in turn forces them into marriage. Women face a choice between lives of near-destitution as workers or lives of slavery as wives and mothers, or in the case of working class women, both exploitation at work and subjection in marriage. Only once capitalism is overthrown will they escape this plight and be freed from dependence.

In Russia, the predicament diagnosed by Engels was confronted by the revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952), who insisted in The Social Basis of the Woman Question (1909) that proletarian women must refuse to cooperate with the bourgeois feminist movement and attack capitalism, the source of their oppression. As Commissar of Social Welfare in the Russian Revolutionary Government of 1917, Kollontai oversaw the drafting of far-reaching legal reforms designed to revolutionize the family and sexual relations between men and women, and to relieve women of the ‘triple load’ of wage worker, housekeeper and mother. These reforms were organized around a distinction between productive and non-productive labour, and were based on the view that women should be relieved of the burden of non-productive domestic labour (cleaning, cooking, washing, caring for clothes, and many aspects of child-rearing) to engage in productive labour alongside men. In this way they would achieve economic independence. At the same time, women’s work was to take account of their productive childbearing role. The work of carrying and bringing up children was no longer to be seen as the responsibility of individual families but as a task for the state, since it was in the interest of the workers’ collective that children should be born and that they should grow up to be able-bodied and good revolutionaries.

In the early years of the Bolshevik government, Kollontai began to implement a series of radical though short-lived reforms. Women were to have full civil rights; civil marriage and divorce laws were introduced; legitimate and illegitimate children were to have the same legal rights; and in 1920 abortion was legalized. As far as labour was concerned, women’s work was to take account of childbearing. They were not to do heavy work which might damage their health or work long hours or night shifts. They were to have paid maternity leave and health care during pregnancy. As for their children, once out of infancy they were to be cared for in crèches, kindergartens and schools which would also provide meals and clothing.

According to Kollontai, the dictatorship of the proletariat will abolish the family and with it bourgeois sexual morality. For though the state must, in her view, concern itself with children, it did not have any more extended interest in the relations between their parents. Conventional notions of romantic love must not undermine comradeship; yet Kollontai stresses that solidarity can only exist between those who are capable of love and sympathy, and envisages a society in which people are emotionally educated to feel many forms of love for different people.

In the USA, Engels’ view that women’s oppression is rooted in the family was used by the anarchist, Emma Goldman (1869–1940), to ground a different set of conclusions. Access to education and work, for which emancipationists had fought so hard, produced women who were ‘professional automatons’ and lacked ‘the essence that enriches the soul’. By entering the public sphere, women had joined an impure State which prevents both women and men from developing the inner qualities that spring from sexual intimacy and constitute freedom, but is particularly distorting for women, for whom love is even more important than it is for men. The question of how to become free is therefore a question about how to foster sexual self-expression, and Goldman is adamant that this can only happen once women cease to be the sexual possessions of their husbands. As well as eschewing the public sphere, women must reject the private institution of marriage in which, driven by economic need, they purchase financial security at the price of their independence. They must learn instead to recognize and follow what Goldman calls their instinct.

Goldman and Kollontai share with some of their liberal forebears and contemporaries the premise that an institution of marriage in which women are sexually dominated by, and economically dependent on, their husbands, makes them unfree. More radically, both claim that these evils can only be overcome by sweeping away conventional notions of marriage and family. Beyond this, however, they diverge sharply. For Kollontai, liberty consists in productive labour in which both women and men must engage if they are to be equal and equally free. In the case of women, however, productive labour can take the distinctive form of bearing children. Motherhood (women’s difference), is subordinated to an overall conception of equality according to which men and women are not treated in the same way, but make the same kind of contribution by working productively. Goldman, by contrast, conceives freedom as a state of individual exploration and self-expression which needs to be pursued outside the impurity and corruption of the State and has little to do with work. Both men and women need love in order to become free, but for women, sexual intimacy plays a particularly important part in this process. While Kollontai separates reproductive sex from other erotic relations, Goldman tips the balance away from motherhood. Unconstrained love, which may or may not be the love of mothers for their children, is what enables women to fulfil themselves and become free.

Citing this article:
James, Susan. Sexual oppression and emancipation. Feminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-N022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2022 Routledge.

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