From egalitarian society to colonialism: understanding the history of women’s oppression

Issue: 179

Sheila McGregor

A review of The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule, Angela Saini (Harper Collins, 2023), £20

Unsurprisingly, Angela Saini’s latest book has received overwhelmingly ­positive reviews from people who want to challenge sexism and who recognise the destructive global impact of colonialism. Saini’s central argument is that we are a product of our history and not our biology, and thus that patriarchy—male domination—is not inevitable. As she puts it in her conclusion, “We cooked it up, almost all of it, and we can invent something else. There are no natural limits to how we make the future—only our imaginations and our courage”.1 She aims to show that where “patriarchal power” emerged there was always “resistance and compromise.” She believes there were no decisive turning points that led to the “historic defeat of women”.2 Instead, change came gradually:

The changes we see through time are gradual and fitful, stealing into people’s lives over generations until they couldn’t imagine themselves any other way. After all, that is how social transformation usually works: by normalising what would have been unthinkable before.3

Saini is right that resistance and change are often slow and incremental. However, the impact of colonialism, something she addresses, means changes have also frequently been abrupt and violent.4 Indeed, resistance from below usually meets violent opposition.

Exploring matrilineal egalitarian societies

At the outset, Saini gives several examples of matrilineal societies and provides a map of the world where such societies either still exist or did until relatively recently. She describes the Nairs in the southern Indian state of Kerala, the Khasi people in the hills of the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya and the Minangkabau communities in the Indonesian state of West Sumatra.5 Matrilineal societies are characterised by collective land ownership that runs through the mother’s line, thus giving women a high social status. Rather than nuclear families, relationships are horizontal, with solidarity and loyalty running between sisters and brothers, and cousins. An individual marries into a lineage but stills owes their primary loyalty to the lineage into which they were born. Often such societies are matrilocal, ­meaning the man moves to live as part of his wife’s lineage and returns to his own if the ­marriage breaks down. Saini discovers no pattern that explains why some ­societies are matrilineal.6

However, Chris Harman proposed that communities based on clan or ­lineage systems, which can also include patrilineal and patrilocal lineage ­societies, fit the needs of non-class, egalitarian societies. In these societies land is owned in common, resources and child-rearing are shared, and women play an important role producing food and making decisions.7 They are often also more relaxed about sexual relationships and gender roles, as Saini points out.8 Nonetheless, when confronted with colonising forces that increasingly take control of communal lands, presume male superiority and work in myriad other ways to undermine their collective way of life, these societies begin to disappear.9 Saini illustrates how some of these factors have undermined the egalitarian practices of the Nairs, Khasis and Minangkabau.

No discussion of egalitarian, non-class societies would be complete without mentioning Çatalhöyük in southern Anatolia, near the modern Turkish city of Konya.10 This is a fascinating archaeological site with a neolithic settlement that flourished from 7,500 to 6,400 BCE and shows no differentiation in terms of wealth. The first archaeologist to discover the site, James Mellaart, initially thought it must have formed part of a matriarchal society, and it became a site of pilgrimage for those bowled over by the unearthing of the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, a clay figure that seems to portray a Mother Goddess. It was presumed that this goddess headed up a matriarchal society. This view was overturned by archaeologist Ian Hodder, director of the Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project, who nonetheless firmly insists that it was an egalitarian society without class divisions, fixed gender roles or a rigid division of labour.11 He also claimed children were not brought up by their biological parents. Saini cites Hodder’s description of life in ancient Çatalhöyük: “‘Most of the time they were working together, cooking together, working in the fields together, making tools together. We just do not find strong categorical differences’”.12

Saini does not discuss the site at Tell Abu Hureyra in Syria, written up in Village on the Euphrates: From Foraging to Farming at Abu Hureyra (Oxford University Press, 2000) by A M T Moore, G C Hillman and A J Legge.13 This site was inhabited from 13,000 to 8,000 BCE, and it thus illustrates the slow transition from a sedentary hunter-gatherer society, which lasted hundreds of years, into horticulture and then full-blown agriculture. The village showed no signs of social ­stratification and class divisions, but there was a clear, though not absolute, division of labour between men and women.

Although she misses out a discussion of Tell Abu Hureyra, Saini does write about the initially marginalised work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and her interpretation of cultural artefacts as well as her claims about how patriarchal society emerged in Europe.14

Saini is alive to how the worldviews of anthropologists and archaeologists skew research and interpretations of evidence, and she gives several examples of this. One is the discovery of the skeleton of a hunter dating from 9,000 years ago and found in 2018 in the Peruvian Andes. Since these remains belonged to someone who was hunting, they were assumed to be male, but they turned out to be female.15 Another example is a Mesopotamian word, “harimtu”, which was taken to mean a prostitute until this was challenged in 1998 by Julia Assante, an Assyriologist, who could find no historical evidence of sex workers in texts from ancient Mesopotamia.16

Saini also opposes traditional assumptions, which were often shared by feminists in the past, that women in history were somehow incapable of violence. She highlights the role of women hunters and quotes Pamela Toler, a military and women’s historian from the United States: “The ­horse-riding nomadic tribes of the Eurasian Steppe may win the prize for being the earliest (and most consistent) cultures to allow women to openly fight alongside their male counterparts”.17

Marx, Engels and the Haudenosaunee

In 1616, the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in North America, the “Land of the Free”, set in train a process that led to the demise of the ­pre-existing indigenous egalitarian societies. In these societies women had equal standing to men, and many communities also had no rigid gender binary. They were often based on the kind of lineages described at the beginning of Saini’s book. The colonisers brought with them a patriarchal society led by white men. Ironically, this really did comprise a “great replacement” of an ­egalitarian society by a class society with racist and sexist divisions at its heart. The US Declaration of Independence’s clause, “All men are born free and equal”, ­obviously excluded women and black slaves.

As Saini points out, Seneca Falls in New York State was both the site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848, bringing together “white, middle-class and fairly well-connected Christian women” in the battle for their vote and the location of an earlier meeting of Haudenosaunee (formerly known as Iroquois) women.18 She writes:

In 1590…women from across the Seneca, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Cayuga Nations met to call for peace as war raged between their peoples. These Haudenosaunee women were not powerless activists railing against male authority. Far from it. They belonged to communities in which they already wielded significant control, as they had done for generations. They were just in the process of consolidating it further. By the 1600s, women would secure veto power over any future wars.19

A further irony, which Saini fails to mention, concerns Lewis H Morgan, the author of Ancient Society. Karl Marx took copious notes from this book, which was written in 1877, and it also inspired Friedrich Engels in his writing of the socialist classic The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.20 Morgan was adopted into the Hawk Clan of the Seneca Nation as the son of Sos-heo-wa (also known as Jimmy Johnson) in October 1847 due to his support for the claims of the Tonawanda Seneca reservation against the Ogden Land Company. Saini, however, dismisses Marx, Engels and Morgan. Addressing Marx, she writes that although he “dreamed of abolishing class inequality through ­communism”, he “could not escape the suspicion that sexual inequality was an exception to other forms of oppression, resting in biological difference rather than in history.” She writes about Morgan, “Female-centred North American society was not superior in his view. It was just simpler”.21 Moving her fire to Engels, she write that “he did not advocate living like modern-day indigenous peoples any more than Morgan did, because he saw them as ‘primitive’ and as belonging to the past”.22 There is insufficient space in a review to engage properly with these arguments. It must suffice to say that Saini appears to misunderstand a judgement made by Morgan and accepted by Engels that the tools used by the Haudenosaunee to secure their existence as hunters and foragers were not as highly developed as those of capitalist society, with its trains, factories and steam-powered machinery. Recognising this is no moral verdict on indigenous Americans. Instead, Morgan’s key insight was into the horizontal nature of relationships in these kinship societies.

Saini’s main disagreement with Morgan and Engels is that they were attempting “to come up with a single, coherent story that might explain human development as a progression from matriarchal to patriarchal.” Saini accused them of viewing the Haudenosaunee as “living skeletons” instead of “as a modern, breathing community of people who happened to have developed rules that worked better for women, in some ways, than other societies”.23 Indeed, the same ­argument could be made about all anthropologists who study human societies other than their own with a view to understanding how they work.24 Singling out Engels and Morgan in this fashion is a result, I suspect, of Saini’s hostility to their fundamental project: looking at the material basis of different ­societies in order to understand the nature of institutions such as the family (and, in Engels’s case, the state) and how they change. In any case, as well as being a leader of the revolutionary movement, Engels was a committed anti-colonialist, opponent of slavery and a believer in women’s liberation.

Saini takes issue with Engels’s theory of the “world historic defeat of women” and the role of the development of agriculture in preparing the way for women’s oppression. Instead, she argues, “Where we can really start to spot a shift in gender relations and the first shoots of overarching male authority is with the rise of the first states”.25 She links this to these states’ need to increase population: “Keeping a population growing was best served by creating conditions in which as many women as possible were having as many babies as they could and raising these children to be useful to the state as future breeders, workers and warriors”.26 Saini neither explains how states come about nor demonstrates any insight into the relationship between the evolution of fully-fledged agriculture, the rise of social classes and the need for a state.

According to Engels, agriculture created the basis for producing a social surplus over and above what was needed for subsistence. This was essential for developing a more complex division of labour, with sections of the ­population devoted to tasks other than growing food. In turn, under ­certain ­circumstances this created the basis for a division of the population into different classes. Once society is divided into classes, the state developed in order to protect the minority class’s control over the social surplus—both from external threats and from those internal enemies who might resist their newfound ­subordinate position. The rise of a class society involves a slow process in which women cease to play a key role in the ­production of the surplus, undermining the ­egalitarian structures of the old way of living. This ­subordinates women and most men to the new ruling class, establishing a new form of the family to ensure the perpetuation of class rule. Once this occurs, there is no going back because there is no longer the space, habitat and skills for a much larger city population to revert to hunter-gathering or “slash and burn” horticulture. Therefore, this process spells the “historic defeat” of women. This occurred in several places in the world at different times, as Harman explains:

Very few agricultural societies developed into full class societies as a result of their own internal development. This began to happen in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years ago; in Egypt, Iran, the Indus Valley and China several ­hundred years later; on the middle Nile (in what is now Sudan) and the Eastern Mediterranean a thousand years after this; and in Meso-America, the Andean region, the Ethiopian highlands, and West and Southeast Africa between 2,500 and 1,000 years ago. In all these cases the main pressures for the development of a new social order were internally generated. In most other parts of the world external pressures were necessary. The old, purely horticultural or agricultural, societies continued to persist until foreign trade, military defeat or colonisation led to change. This was true, for instance, of Northern Europe until between 2,500 and 1,000 years ago, and of the New Guinea Highlands right through until the early 1930s.27

Engels and Marx contended that egalitarian social systems could only be reintroduced if based on the collective control of the new forms of production ushered in by capitalism, which are sufficiently productive to be able to meet everyone’s needs.


Saini describes the many different forms taken by women’s oppression, and she points out that some women play a role in enforcing these oppressive social structures. However, the glaring weakness in her account is her failure to look beneath the surface at the material basis of human societies to understand the relationships of oppression and subordination between people. Marx and Engels insisted that a focus on how human beings produce their living should be the starting point for understanding social relations, including the ­existence or otherwise of classes and states as well as the form taken by the family, religion, culture and so on. Thus, where women and men contribute equally to food and shelter in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies, egalitarian relationships usually prevail. However, changes to the ways of producing react back on these producers and their relationships to one another. These changes may well be slow, sometimes taking millennia, and can be triggered by changes in climate and habitat and may have unintended consequences. Nonetheless, they are the basis for understanding the emergence of, and different forms, of class and oppression.28

This weakness shows when Saini comes to look at women’s position in Soviet Russia between 1928 and 1989 and in the Eastern European states between 1945 and 1989. She lacks the necessary analytical tools to see how these states, albeit in the name of socialism and initially with a rhetoric of women’s emancipation, relied on the privatised reproduction of labour power through the family—a system very similar to that in Western capitalism. The need of these states for a supply of labour after the Second World War drove their recruitment of women into higher education, and Eastern Bloc women enjoyed access to a far wider spectrum of full-time jobs than did women in the West; yet, those women were still expected to carry the household as well as doing their paid work.29

Similarly, when it comes to writing about Iran, Saini has valuable insights, but her historical analysis is inadequate. She has some interesting things to say about how certain symbols of women’s oppression such as the veil can turn into signifiers of opposition to imperialism, but her analysis of the defeat of the Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 revolution is one-sided, only looking through a gendered lens. She ignores the mass workers’ movement and is unable to see the way in which Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had to manoeuvre over a period of several years to break the workers’ councils, which constituted an alternative source of power and decision-making in Iran. Khomeini had to defeat the workers’ movement, as well as the social movements for the rights of women and oppressed minorities, and thus secure the continuation of capitalist rule with a differently constituted ruling class. Islamism was the ideological weapon that he used to achieve this objective.30

There is much of interest in The Patriarchs, but it fails to answer the question of “how men came to rule”. Nor does it answer the question of how women can be liberated. Change may often seem to be slow in coming, a point Saini makes continually throughout the book, but sometimes mass movements erupt onto the stage of history, and this opens possibilities that seemed remote the day before. At such moments, it is insufficient to simply want change—or even to be courageous.31 Rather, we need roadmaps that explain how class struggle can both infuse and be shaped by the struggles of the oppressed as well as how we can overcome the power of the state, which holds us all in check. We make our own history but not in circumstances of our own choosing.

Sheila McGregor is a long-standing member of the Socialist Workers Party and sits on the International Socialism editorial board.


1 Saini, 2023, p245.

2 Saini constantly refers to Friedrich Engels’s notion of the “world historic defeat of the female sex”, which he used to describe the emergence of women’s oppression from the rise of private property and the monogamous family in his 1884 book The Rise of Private Property, the Family and the State.

3 Saini, 2023, p7.

4 As the Communist Manifesto puts it, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”—Marx and Engels, 1969, p14.

5 On the Nairs, see Saini, 2023, pp20-22. For the Khasi, see Saini, 2023, pp24-25. Information on the Minangkabau can be found at Saini, 2023, pp27-28.

6 Saini, 2023, pp29-32.

7 Harman, 1994.

8 The British Empire was notorious for imposing laws against divergent sexual practices that were judged contrary to Christianity. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code banned anal sex in 1860. More than half of the 80 countries that ban homosexual acts today are former British colonies.

9 Indeed, the extinction of entire peoples can result from colonial violence and the previously unencountered diseases introduced by colonial settlers. The indigenous population of Tasmania had almost disappeared by 1877, less than a century after the first colony was established on the island in 1803—Flannery and Joyce, 2014, p47. For a more detailed analysis of the impact of colonial settlers on egalitarian ways of living among indigenous people, see Leacock, 1981.

10 Saini, 2023, pp68-98.

11 Hodder, 2006. For a fascinating introductory talk on Çatalhöyük and the neolithic site at Çayönü Tepesi, see Ron Margulies’s talk at Marxism 2015, entitled “Çayönü & Çatalhöyük: Revolution and Egalitarianism in Neolithic Turkey”, which is available at

12 Saini, 2023, p96.

13 For further discussion, see McGregor, 2021a.

14 Saini, 2023, pp79-88.

15 Saini, 2023, p108.

16 Saini, 2023, p139.

17 Saini, 2023, p108.

18 Saini, 2023, p35.

19 Saini, 2023, p46.

20 The full text of Morgan’s classic Ancient Society is available online via the Marxist Internet Archive at Marx’s Ethnographical Notebooks, which include his extensive notes on Morgan’s anthropological work, is accessible at

21 Saini, 2023, p52-54.

22 Saini, 2023, p55.

23 Saini, 2023, p56.

24 Of course, many early anthropological observations of indigenous societies were undoubtedly made by missionaries and colonisers who despised the different societies they came across and were intent on destroying them.

25 Saini, 2023, p135.

26 Saini, 2023, p135. This would appear to root women’s oppression in their reproductive capacity—something Saini is otherwise at pains to reject.

27 Harman, 1994.

28 The classic statement for this approach can be found in the Preface to Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production that correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”—Marx, 1859.

29 For a full analysis of how women’s oppression was shaped by the state capitalist regimes of Eastern Europe, see McGregor, 2021b.

30 See Poya, 1987, pp123-168.

31 I started writing this review at the outbreak of the power struggle for control over the state in Sudan by two warlords, General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known by the nickname “Hemedti”). Certainly, no one can claim that the women and men who rose up against and toppled the regime of President Omar El Bashir in 2019 lacked courage.


Flannery, Kent, and Joyce Marcus, 2014, The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery and Empire (Harvard University Press).

Harman, Chris, 1994, “Engels and the Origin of Human Society”, International Socialism 65 (winter),

Hodder, Ian, 2006, The Leopard’s Tail: Revealing the Mysteries of Çatalhöyük (Thames and Hudson).

Leacock, Eleanor Burke, 1981, Myths of Male Dominance: Collected Articles on Women Cross-culturally (Monthly Review Press).

Marx, Karl, 1859, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels, 1969 [1848], Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Selected Works, volume 1 (Progress),

McGregor, Sheila, 2021a, “Engels on Women, the Family, Class and Gender”, Human Geography, volume 14, issue 2.

McGregor, Sheila, 2021b, “Sexism, Socialism and the State: Women in the Eastern Bloc”, International Socialism 170 (spring),

Poya, Maryam, 1987, “Iran 1979: Long live Revolution!…Long live Islam?”, in Colin Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (Bookmarks).

Saini, Angela, 2023, The Patriarchs: How Men Came to Rule (Harper Collins).