The oppressor/oppressed gender dichotomy (OOGD) is a view of gender held by many feminists that sees men as an oppressor class and women as an oppressed class, and looks at gender issues and gender relations in terms of class warfare and class oppression—essentially a “battle of the sexes” with “men keeping women down”. A similar approach has been applied to other demographic traits like race (in social justice), and economic class (in Marxism).
A lot of the seemingly extreme or unexpected behaviour from feminists makes more sense in light of the fact that many of them see the world this way. And a lot of the aversion from people to identifying with feminism comes from not seeing the world this way. (The term was coined by /u/Karmaze on reddit.)
- Oppressor/Oppressed in Feminism
- Oppressor/Oppressed in Social Justice
- Oppressor/Oppressed in Marxism
- Problems with Oppressor/Oppressed in Gender
(Length: 2,100 words)
1. Oppressor/Oppressed in Feminism
Although it’s influential in some other varieties of feminism, the oppressor/oppressed gender dichotomy is especially characteristic of radical feminism. (Radical feminism is an actual type of feminism, not a term meaning “extremist, non-mainstream feminism”. In her 1990 book Theorizing Patriarchy, Sylvia Walby calls it one of the three most influential types of feminism in Britain and America.) Ginette Castro, in her 1984/1990 book American Feminism: A Contemporary History (p69), writes that “[t]he first necessity of any organized protest movement is to identify the oppressor” and that “radical feminists deliberated who was responsible for the oppression of women and came up with the answer: men are the enemy”. She says that this is “aimed not at the genetic individual man but rather at men collectively as an oppressor class” (although one source she quotes says “all men have oppressed women”). For liberal feminists, on the other hand, “the problem of culpability [is] effectively evaded, since blame is vaguely attributed to society or some institution”.
British feminist journalist Laurie Penny addresses the “average male” and says that “while you, individual man, going about your daily business […] may not hate and hurt women, men as a group –men as a structure – certainly do” in a 2013 article in The New Statesman.
Also in The New Statesman, British feminist journalist Suzanne Moore says that “If you are interested in the liberation of women, you’ll find that the biggest barrier to this is men: men as a class” (2016 article).
Steven P. Schacht, associate professor of sociology at State University of New York, Plattsburgh (now deceased), wrote an article in 2001 (published in the journal Men and Masculinities here) called “Teaching About Being An Oppressor: Some Personal and Political Considerations”, where he said that “both in action and mere presence, much of my life has been spent being oppressive to others” and referred to the “oppressive basis of my being” because of being a man (and white, etc.).
Marilyn Frye, in her article “Oppression” in Gender Basics: Feminist Perspectives on Women and Men (2000), writes that “it is a fundamental claim of feminism that women are oppressed”. She dismisses the argument that men are oppressed too by describing it as saying that “oppressors are oppressed by their oppressing”.
2. Oppressor/Oppressed in Social Justice
The social justice movement more broadly believes that just as men oppress women, it’s also true that whites oppress non-whites, heterosexual people oppress homosexual people, able-bodied people oppress disabled people, etc.
Feminism and the social justice movement shouldn’t really be considered separate because feminism has, since the 80s or 90s, become “intersectional”—which usually means that it looks at areas other than gender and applies oppressor/oppressed to them as well, as in the chart above. This sometimes involves no longer calling our society a “patriarchy” and instead calling it a “kyriarchy” (which includes patriarchy as well as the other “axes of oppression”).
As an example, EverydayFeminism writer Sian Ferguson, in the article “Privilege 101: A Quick and Dirty Guide”, refers to many different power structures in our society: “patriarchy, white supremacy, heterosexism, cissexism, and classism — to name a few”, and says that “[p]rivileged groups have power over oppressed groups”. (She doesn’t specifically use the term “oppressor”, but if one group “has power” and the other group “is oppressed”, it’s clear that the first group is the oppressor.)
3. Oppressor/Oppressed in Marxism
The idea to apply oppressor/oppressed to demographic groups came, in part, from the idea of oppressor and oppressed economic classes in Marxism. Ara Wilson, professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University, says that patriarchy (a term commonly used for the oppressor/oppressed gender dichotomy) “helped feminists think systematically about sex and gender, in ways that borrowed from, but also necessarily separated from, the Marxist analysis of capitalism” (from her article “Patriarchy: Feminist Theory” in the Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge).
Let’s look at what the “original” application of oppressor/oppressed. Marxism and many other types of socialism (e.g. left-anarchism, though not anarcho-capitalism) divide people living in capitalist society into two main classes: labour and capital. Labour is made up of people who make a living primarily by selling their labour to other people (i.e. being employed), while capital is made up of people who make a living primarily by owning the means of production (infrastructure: buildings, machines, land, etc.) and hiring other people to work for them.
They view the employment relationship as exploitative and oppressive. First, the worker does not receive the full value of their labour (the product or service they produced). Part of the money made goes to them, part to expenses (like raw materials and energy), and then the owners skim some (or a lot) off the top for themselves, making them generally much more wealthy than the workers (without doing much more work, or sometimes any work at all outside of investing). Second, the employer is in control of the employment relationship to a much greater extent than the worker is, which includes setting the terms and conditions of employment. A worker can quit, but they generally need a job much more than an employer needs any one employee (for reasons of numbers and finances), so a threat to fire means more than a threat to quit.
Because capitalist society protects private property and this “oppressive” relationship, they see capitalism as a system of class oppression: the capital class is the oppressor and the labour class is the oppressed. Their solution is socialist revolution, where labour breaks free and liberates themselves by taking over the means of production (through workers’ cooperatives or through the government nationalizing industry) in order to get control of the working conditions and the profit of their labour.
For more (from actual Marxists): “What is Class Oppression? Who is the Working Class?”, “Introduction to Marxism”, and “What is Marxism”.
Economist Anold Kling offers in his book The Three Languages of Politics (also on his blog) the “three-axis model”. According to him, conservatives look at the world in terms of civilization vs. barbarism, libertarians in terms of freedom vs. coercion, and progressives in terms of oppressor vs. oppressed. He’s clearly onto something because we’ve seen oppressor/oppressed applied to economic class, gender, and then all sorts of other demographic traits too. Let’s look at how these areas compare.
4.1 A Fundamental Difference: Economic Class vs. Others
The application of oppressor/oppressed to economic class is fundamentally different from its application to demographic traits like race and gender. In economics, Marxists judged a certain behaviour to be oppressive (employing other people and making a profit from their labour) and then identified the people who do that thing as the oppressor class. You or I might disagree that what they do is wrong or oppressive, but it’s clearly still something that they do.
On the other hand, social justice advocates identify the oppressor classes based not on actions but on identities. They didn’t say “men who beat their wives are oppressors”, or “men who discriminate against women in hiring are oppressors”, they said “men as a group are oppressors”. That’s inherently worse and we should be skeptical, because it can’t literally be true that men’s (or white people’s, etc.) existence is oppressive. There have to be some oppressive actions that we’re generalizing to these groups. What exactly is the correlation between being in that group and performing the oppressive actions? Is it possible for someone to be in the group but not perform these actions? How common must those actions be to be considered representative of the group?
There are many inconsistencies for who gets the label of oppressor and who gets the label of oppressed. Men are more common than women in positions of political and economic power, which is one fundamental argument behind men having power and being oppressors. Looking at age, old people are substantially more common than young people in these very same positions, but instead young people are put on top of the “privilege, domination, and oppression” line for some reason.
Black people are substantially more likely to be in jail (because of discrimination and other reasons) and to be killed by police. This is a core argument for them being oppressed (see. Black Lives Matter), but if we look at gender it’s men who are in that same position and they’re still on top of the “privilege, domination, and oppression” line.
Men earning more money than women (and whites more than blacks) is a common argument for “patriarchy” gender oppression and “white supremacy” racial oppression. But Asians make approximately $12,000 more a year than whites (in a U.S. context, 2012), even though whites are supposed to be their oppressors (since Asians are “People of Color” and of a non-European origin).
5. Problems with Oppressor/Oppressed in Gender
As Warren Farrell mentions in his book The Myth of Male Power, “[n]owhere in history has there been a ruling class working to afford diamonds they could give to the oppressed in hopes the oppressed would love them more”. A lot of other arguments against oppressor/oppressed accurately describing the state of gender relations and gender issues in the present-day Western world can be found in the Non-Feminist FAQ. Most importantly, it’s not clear that women are much worse off, and the size and the effect of the power imbalance between men and women have been exaggerated. Since the truthfulness of the oppressor/oppressed gender dichotomy is challenged there, here I want to focus on the negative effects of that view.
Class-based analyses are collectivist in the sense that they involve primarily thinking in terms of groups, which can push people too far in the direction of seeing individuals as instances of the group they belong to rather than as the individuals they are. For example, if a mostly male legislative body introduces restrictions on abortion, this will often be held not just against those politicians (or the men and women who elected them) but against men as a group. Or if most of the powerful people are men, they’ll ascribe the trait of “having power” to men as a group, even if a regular man hardly has any more connection to this power than a regular woman does.
One particularly strange example of this collectivist approach to gender is that many feminists dismiss the fact that men face higher levels of many types of violence with “but that’s just other men doing it”. It’s as if they see all men as one person and male-on-male violence is like that person hitting himself, while male-on-female violence is that person hitting someone else, which is much more serious. Similarly, I’ve seen many feminists dismiss the fact that men have almost always been the ones sent away to war (which easily counts as oppression, even though oppression is not a term I use lightly) with “but it’s just other men doing it”. It’s as if genders are teams and that’s just an own-goal, a blunder that doesn’t matter.
Oppressor/oppressed is also an antagonistic world-view in the sense that it looks at these groups as being in conflict with each other. In Marxism the term “class warfare” is commonly used, and in gender a common term for male feminists is “allies” (example), which is also suggestive of warfare. “Gender as class warfare” often leads to approaching men as enemies (albeit ones who might defect), or seeing women who are skeptical about feminism as traitors to their gender rather than people with genuine concerns about feminist ideas and actions. It also leads to differing standards of treatment for men and women (because the oppressors need/deserve much less in terms of courtesy and concern).
For more on the consequences of applying oppressor/oppressed to gender, there’s an excellent (albeit long) post entitled “The simplistic, mono-directional model of oppression and privilege” on the /r/FeMRADebates subreddit.