In 1884 Frederick Engels first published The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. This work systematically set out to provide a social explanation for the emergence of women’s oppression with the development of the social institutions of the patriarchal family and private property at a particular historic period. Such an explanation stood as a direct challenge to the dominant religious view that women’s inferior status rested on God-ordained biological, physical, intellectual and moral inferiority. Even as science and scientific methodology gained credibility as the basis for the pursuit of knowledge during the 19th century, the explanation for gender difference and the inequality of women shifted from being based on religious to a very similar explanation that such inequality was based on natural difference. Nature, not God, determined this difference and this provided the rationale for inequality. Engels, like his co-worker Karl Marx, disputed this type of explanation, arguing that such views determined women’s oppression as timeless and unchangeable.
Today we face a situation where these types of explanation have regained credibility. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise across the globe — in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam. At the same time, with the development of genetic science, a new variant of biological determinism has emerged. So a new edition of Engels’ famous work is very timely.