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Is Biology Women’s Destiny?

Evelyn Reed (1905 – 1979) was a Marxist scholar and a decades-long leader of the Socialist Workers Party. At the time of her death, an extensive article documenting her life appeared in the April 6, 1979, issue of The Militant newspaper: “Evelyn Reed: Marxist and feminist fighter” (p. 26).

Reed was “one of the foremost exponents of the Marxist analysis of the origins of women’s oppression,” the article explained. “She was a historical materialist who made a substantial contribution to Marxism on this subject.”

In 1951, Reed began the anthropological research that would eventually produce her pioneering work, Woman’s Evolution: From Matriarchal Clan to Patriarchal Family. She completed the book more than 20 years later; Pathfinder Press published it in 1975.

Prior to the book’s publication, Reed wrote many articles on the origins of women’s oppression and the Marxist perspective on how to fight and end it. World-Outlook is republishing below one of those articles — “Is Biology Women’s Destiny?”

Reed’s research was based on work that Friedrich Engels, one of the founders of scientific socialism, had previously done along with Karl Marx. Reed prefaced the article stating, in part:

Many women in the liberation movement, especially those who have studied Engels’ Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, have come to understand that the roots of women’s degradation and oppression are lodged in class society… What women remain unsure about, however, is whether or not their biology has played a part in making and keeping them the inferior or ‘second sex.’ … Biology and anthropology … are of prime importance in understanding women and their history. Both are so heavily biased in favor of the male sex that they conceal rather than reveal the true facts about women.

Reed, the Militant’s biographical sketch explained, “had a special personal hatred for the anti-abortion laws.” In the 1930s, she survived two illegal abortions, but was left unable to bear children. A leader of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s, she was a founder of the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition and fought to repeal the reactionary U.S. abortion laws.

Today women’s right to choose abortion is under the fiercest attack since the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade recognized this right under federal law. The June 24, 2022, U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe left no doubt. Three recent World-Outlook editorials — “A Turning Point in the Fight for Women’s Right to Choose Abortion,” “Abortion Is a WOMAN’s Right to Choose” and “Organize, Mobilize to Defend Women’s Right to Choose Abortion!” — outlined the challenges this attack presents for all women’s rights supporters. In this context, Reed’s writings remain of the utmost importance, especially for younger generations of women’s rights supporters to whom these works may be unfamiliar.

“Is Biology Women’s Destiny?” first appeared in the December 1971 issue of the International Socialist Review. The text comes from the essay as it appears in the public domain; subheadings and links to the cited sources are by World-Outlook. Due to its length, we are publishing the article in three parts, the first of which appears below.

By Evelyn Reed “Females in nature suffer no disabilities compared to males… It was with the rise of patriarchal class society that the biological makeup of women became the ideological pretext for … keeping them in a servile status.”

Many women in the liberation movement, especially those who have studied Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, have come to understand that the roots of women’s degradation and oppression are lodged in class society. Quite correctly they coined the term “sexist” to describe the capitalist social system, the final stage of class society, which discriminates against women in every sphere of life.

What women remain unsure about, however, is whether or not their biology has played a part in making and keeping them the inferior or “second sex.” Such uncertainty is quite understandable in a male-dominated society where not only is history written by those who uphold the status quo but all the sciences are likewise in their hands. Two of these sciences, biology and anthropology, are of prime importance in understanding women and their history. Both are so heavily biased in favor of the male sex that they conceal rather than reveal the true facts about women.

Perhaps the most pernicious pseudo-scientific propaganda on female inferiority is that offered in the name of biology. According to the mythmakers in this field, females are biologically handicapped by the organs and functions of motherhood. This handicap is said to go all the way back to the animal world and makes females helpless and dependent upon the superior male sex to provide for them and their young. Nature is held responsible for having condemned females to everlasting inferiority.

Biological differences

It is obvious that females are biologically different from males in that only the female sex possesses the organs and functions of maternity. But it is not true that nature is responsible for the oppression of women; such degradation is exclusively the result of man-made institutions and laws in class-divided patriarchal society. It did not exist in primitive classless society, and it does not exist in the animal world.

It is not difficult to see why this falsification of natural and social history has been propagated. It exonerates a sexist society and justifies the oppression of women on the grounds of their biological makeup. The implication is obvious: why should women fight against their oppression and seek their liberation when their troubles flow from their genetic makeup? What good will it do to change society if women cannot change their biology? This theme is drummed into our heads by every means available, from the cradle on. To believe the male supremacists who pose as scientists, biology is woman’s destiny and she had better recognize and submit to it.

In truth, it is no less false to say that biology is woman’s destiny than to say that biology is man’s destiny. This reduces humans to the animal level. For if women are nothing but breeders, then men must be nothing but studs. Such a reduction leaves out the decisive distinctions between humans and animals. Humans are above all social beings who have long since separated themselves from their animal origin and conditions of life. To understand the differences between the sexes, let us first examine these distinctions between humans and animal, which make humanity a totally new and unique species.

Humans — a unique species

Ever since Darwin demonstrated that humanity arose out of a branch of the higher apes, numerous studies have been made showing the similarities between humans and animals. But there are all too few studies showing what is even more important – the enormous distinctions between humans and animals that make us a unique species standing above and beyond all forms of animal life.

The central source of this uniqueness has been pinpointed by the Marxists. It is the capacity of humans to engage in labor activities and produce the necessities of life. No animal species does that. This “labor theory” of human origins was first set forth by Engels in his essay “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man.”

Today such leading authorities in archaeology and anthropology as Sherwood Washburn, William Howells, Kenneth Oakley, V. Gordon Childe, and others use toolmaking as the criterion that distinguishes humans from animals. As Washburn sums this up, “It was the success of the simplest tools that started the whole trend of human evolution and led to the civilizations of today” (Scientific American, September 1960). Gordon Childe sustained Engels’s thesis when he said, “Prehistoric archaeology shows how man became human by labor” (What Happened in History).

June 24, 2022, women’s rights protest in Seattle, Washington State, after U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade ruling that had established a federal right to abortion 50 years earlier. Reed’s writings remain essential today, especially for younger generations of women’s rights supporters who may not be familiar with her work. (Photo: Lisa Ahlberg)

Those who downgrade labor activities often contend that apes likewise use natural objects as tools and therefore labor cannot be taken as the basic factor that brought about the humanization of our species. But the point is, no matter how clever a primate is in the use of its hands – and in captivity they can be taught to do quite a number of things – no animal species, including primates, is capable of becoming a toolmaker. There is no division of labor between the sexes among primates and no pre-human species depends upon systematic labor activities for its survival. “Hands with which to pluck and arms with which to convey the edible plunder to the mouth suffice. This is the technique of our anthropoidal relatives,” says E. Adamson Hoebel (Man in the Primitive World).

By contrast, humans are so completely dependent upon labor activities that should this productive capability cease, we would soon perish as a species. Labor activities, therefore, have brought about a new mode of survival and development for a unique species: humankind. We are not merely reproducers but producers of the necessities of life.

Importance of production

The importance of production can be seen in the drastic change this brought about in the relations between humans and nature. Fundamentally, animals are the slaves of nature, subject to biological forces and processes over which they have no control. Humans, on the other hand, have reversed this relationship. Through labor activities humans have brought nature under their influence. In other words, one species, humankind, not only became liberated from direct biological control but even became the controller of its former dominator-nature. As this is sometimes put, the history of animals is made for them, but humans alone make their own history.

Along with this mastery over nature, humans also began to cultivate new needs, which is another characteristic absent from the animal world. While animals are limited to satisfying the same old natural needs for food and procreation, humans have developed an endless series of new needs, all of them higher (at least in the sense of being more sophisticated) cultural needs.

To take a few examples from the technical realm: out of the first fist-axe there arose the need for an axe with a handle on it. From the crude digging stick there came the need for and invention of the plough. The simple loom and spinning wheel led on to the complex textile industry. Construction needs passed beyond thatched huts to the building of factories and skyscrapers. The oxcart was left behind as new needs for rapid transit after the industrial revolution led to the train, the automobile, the jet plane, and the spaceship.

Cultural needs of all types, in education, arts, science, arose as part of the new activities and relations of humans in social life. Even the basic biological needs for food and sex became altered and reshaped in human life. Humans do not eat, mate, or procreate as the animals do, but in accordance with their own changing cultural standards. As Marx wrote, “Hunger is hunger; but the hunger that is satisfied with cooked meat eaten with fork and knife is a different kind of hunger from the one that devours raw meat with the aid of hands, nails, and teeth” (A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).

Along with the vast changes made by humans in external nature, their environment, they made equally important changes in their own internal nature. It is often pointed out that in their physical appearance humans shed the hairy coat and other apelike characteristics they started with. Even more important was the shedding of their former animal reactions which were replaced by a humanized social nature. Today we have lost virtually all the animal instincts we started with; these have been displaced by learned behavior.

This brief review of some of the vital distinctions between humankind and all other species refutes the thesis that humans are “nothing but” animals with a few extra tricks. It is far more accurate to say that while we still share certain biological characteristics in common with the animals, we have raised ourselves far above their limited existence. We have been formed and transformed in and through our own productive activities and social forces, so that we are no longer the slaves of our biological makeup.

As the Michigan anthropologist Marshall Sahlins puts it, “The liberation of human society from direct biological control was its great evolutionary strength. … Human social life is culturally, not biologically, determined” (Scientific American, September 1960). This is the starting point for demolishing the myth that biology is woman’s destiny. Beginning with the primary proposition in this propaganda, let us examine what I call:

The ‘uterus theory’ of female inferiority

Biology, like anthropology, is a young science and equally subject to misinterpretations, superficial conclusions, and downright lies in questions that have grave social and political implications. This makes it doubly difficult to uncover the truth about the female sex since so many biologists as well as anthropologists are captives of capitalist ideology. They assume that because woman is born with a uterus, she can never liberate herself from direct biological control and must forever remain enslaved to her procreative functions.

This “uterus theory” of female inferiority is no more valid than its corollary, the “penis theory” of male superiority. For some curious, unexplained reasons, these sexual-procreative organs are supposed to have determined all the other capacities of the sexes. Woman, rendered stupid by the functions of her uterus, was unable to develop her brains, talents, and higher cultural capabilities. Man, on the other hand, with his upstanding sexual muscle instead of the ignominious uterus, could develop his intellect and associated abilities. Both propositions are fiction, not science.

In actuality, it is the male that is handicapped in the animal world, not the female. This is due to the disruptive characteristics of male sexuality in nature. As the record shows, males are highly competitive and fight other males for access to females. Although this is often called “jealousy,” it is not jealousy in our sense of the term, namely, the desire to possess a particular female. Rather, it is a crude, pugnacious instinct unmodified by any feelings of individual preference or tenderness, which drives the male animal to seek access to any and all females. In some species, the males may fight one another merely for a place in the breeding grounds; in others, they may fight even in the absence of females. As Sir Solly Zuckerman says, “The pugnacity of rutting animals is an expression of their physiological condition and not necessarily determined by the presence of females” (The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes).

Due to this combative characteristic of male sexuality, male animals are separatistic, individualistic, and unable to band together in mutually cooperative groups. At best, under favorable conditions they are able to tolerate one another’s presence in the same feeding or breeding grounds. In some species, as among the large carnivores, they are solitary prowlers. This inability of males in nature to cooperate with one another is a serious handicap so far as the development of group ties is concerned.

Maternal functions favor cooperation

The females, on the other hand, thanks to their maternal functions, are not handicapped in this manner. They form into broods composed of the mother and offspring in which cooperation exists and filial ties have a chance to develop. In some species, such as the primates, or even in a pride of lionesses, a number of females and offspring band together in a larger brood.

Moreover, while the male animal has only himself to consider in the struggle for survival, the female through her maternal functions must provide for and protect her offspring as well as herself. Through the constant exercise of these group functions, it is normally the female, not the male, that is more intelligent, sagacious, cunning, and capable. This is recognized by hunters who regard the female, particularly those with cubs, as the more dangerous sex and take appropriate precautions. This keener wit in females developed to its highest degree among the higher mammals where maternal functions and the care of offspring are most protracted, reaching its apex with the primates. Even Robert Ardrey, an ardent partisan of male superiority, admits: “As the kingdom of the animal ascends, so likewise ascends the power of the female … Masculine woolly-mindedness has been a source of female power for a long way back” (African Genesis). Robert Briffault more bluntly calls male animals more stupid than females.

These considerations show that there is no basis in nature for the “uterus theory” of female inferiority. If anything, nature favored the female sex since that is the sex upon which the perpetuation of the species pivots. Carrying out their maternal functions gave the females an advantage in the struggle for survival, enabling our branch of the anthropoids to pass from nature’s mode of survival to the human mode of survival through labor activities. In the transition from ape to human it was the female, not the male, that led the way. Already more developed in her capabilities and capacity for cooperation, it was the female who began productive life and thereby founded the new and unique human species.

That is why, out of the maternal brood in the animal world, there arose the maternal clan system or “matriarchy” in the ancient human world. It is only in patriarchal class society, which came a million years after the birth of the human species, that woman was reduced to an animal-like level, forced to preoccupy herself with her maternal functions at the expense of the higher human values developed in the course of social life. In a society founded upon private property, the family institution, and male supremacy, woman’s natural endowment – her uterus and maternal functions – were turned into the chains of exploitation and oppression she endures today. But this is a situation made by man, not by nature.

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