IGNORE THE TITLE and dust-jacket copy of Elizabeth Fisher's Woman's Creation. They have nothing to do with the fascinating theory within, best summed up by the author as she acknowledges her intellectual debts: waking one "visionary" night after a intense week of planning, she exclaims, "I've just rewritten Engels' Origin of the Family, Property, and the State." Indeed, Fisher's work might justly have been called Engels Enriched by a Century of Other People's Scholarship and Quarreled With by the Addition of Female Sexuality Which He Couldn't Manage At All in the Victorian Age and No Wonder. But this accurate summary would not only have taken up the book's entire front cover (thus obliterating Doubleday's grayly awful cover design); it would also have enraged non-feminists on the Left because of its obvious feminism and non-Left feminists because of its obvious Marxism. As it is, nobody is enraged because nobody is enlightened; everyone simply remains innocent of what the book is about and (so far) placidly ignores it.
That's a pity, for Fisher has finally put Engels' brilliant speculations on solid, scholarly ground. Woman's Creation is, to my knowledge, the only thoroughly documented theory in existence that explains the economic origins of sexism and also offers impressive evidence that female subjugation, children as wealth, property in land, private property in general, economic class, large-scale agriculture, animal-breeding (as district from mere animal-keeping), slavery, the transformation of sex from pleasure to profit, sadomasochism, war and the king-headed state (which precedes and then serves as model for the partriarchal family) are necessarily that nasty package deal we high-mindedly call "civilization" -- except when we are bitterly calling it governmental oppression, religious persecution, war, poverty, starvation, misery, insecurity, sexual deprivation and the nightmare of history.
In Fisher's view, agriculture is the prime mover of this change. The foraging-hunting life typical of the paleolithic period is one of abundant leisure, a good and varied diet (foragers, as anthropologists have finally noticed, know their territory), the non-possessive enjoyment of children, free and joyful sexuality, surprisingly effective means of birth control (another recent "discovery" that confutes earlier views), a loose, matrocentric web of authority (Fisher spends little time on Victorian-minded popularizers of the Robert Ardrey ilk), property in nothing but utensils and clothing, and a rich imaginative life, Agriculture creates private property in land and feeds more people much worse with immensely more labor; hence children become a source of wealth as potential laborers and women as child-producers. In conjunction with lessons about impregnation, castration, and forced mating learned from animal-breeding, women and female sexuality are controlled in the service of men's profit (now that private property is possible), many men are controlled by few men for their profit (ditto), and sex -- no longer a pleasure but a means to wealth -- becomes a commodity hostilely controlled by men, the resultant sadomasochism making it even easier to keep all people in their economic and social places.
Where Engels was forced to gloss over the transition from savagery to civilization as undocumented, Fisher has 50 years of Sumerology to draw on; where he dismissed primate behavior as insufficiently reported on, she has a decade of assumption-overturning observations to quote; where he assumed on one page that women were naturally chaste, on another that they weren't and on a third made exasperated remarks about some readers not being able to get their minds out of the brothel, she has a decade of feminist understanding to illuminate her material, from female chimpanzees' scandalously polyandrous swinging to Australian women's hymning the joys of the clitoris, to modern American women's comments on the falsity of the supposed sexual revolution. Woman's Creation, sometimes grim reading, is also often a mine of marvelous information, for example the sexual behavior of stump-tailed macaques or the fact that one-quarter of the priestly population of Catal Huyuk (6500 B.C.) exhibited ballet-dancer's turnout and why.
The book has its faults. One is Fisher's gleeful attribution of the invention of just about everything to paleolithic women; another is the bias inevitable in selecting from others' work, though she sometimes minimizes this by quoting from puzzled or actively anti-feminist sources. To my mind she dismisses too briefly the immediate satisfactions of foraging, which often include eating (remember "One for the pot and one for me"?), as against the fact that the gratifications of agriculture are about as deferred as any can be. Nor does she distinguish between climates in which large-scale agriculture is practicable very early in the neolithic (those cradles of civilization) and those where climate or terrain kept it small-scale.
Nonetheless, Woman's Creation is indispensable proof that whatever Marxist and feminist people may think of each other, Marxist and feminist theories are more than compatible: they are the same. As feminism finally ended the non-question about who had it worse, housewife or career woman (by asserting that both did), Fisher ought to end squabbles about whose oppression came first. They all did. Important news, and it's Woman's Creation that brought it to us.