Dr Greta Sykes – Nature and the first class struggle in history

Dr Greta Sykes LE Mag April 2019

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Nature and the first class struggle in history by Dr Greta Sykes

Poet, writer and artist Greta Sykes has published her work in many anthologies. She is a member of London Voices Poetry Group and also produces art work for them. Her new volume of poetry called ‘The Shipping News and Other Poems’ came out in August 2016. The German translation of her book ‘Under charred skies’ has now been published in Germany under the title ‘Unter verbranntem Himmel’ by Eulenspiegel Verlag. She is the chair of the Socialist History Society and has organised joint poetry events for them at the Poetry Café. She is a trained child psychologist and has taught at the Institute of Education, London University, where she is now an associate researcher. Her Particular focus is now on women’s emancipation and antiquity. Twitter: @g4gaia.      Facebook.com/greta.sykes.      German Wikipedia: Greta Sykes.

(This article is based on a talk I gave at a Green Party meeting, Haringey, North London, in February 2019.)

Activists in India protest against virginity tests in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Kerala in 2009. Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/19/658155056/u-n-calls-for-end-to-virginity-tests
Activists in India protest against virginity tests in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Kerala in 2009. Raveendran/AFP/Getty Images https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2018/10/19/658155056/u-n-calls-for-end-to-virginity-tests

Current issues affecting women

In a recent New Scientist article (NS, October 2018) a report by the World Health Organisation was discussed. The report calls on doctors, police and employers to ban the use of so-called virginity tests on women and girls. Sometimes the so-called two finger test is used. Such tests have been shown to be unscientific. No such evidence proves a woman has had penetrative sex or not. They are humiliating and degrading. They drive women to depression and suicide. The WHO declares that those professionals who continue using such tests should be prosecuted. However, they are still widely used in countries, such as Indonesia, many parts of Africa, India, Pakistan and the Middle East. Immigrants who live in Europe from those countries may also be subjected to them due to family pressure, says the WHO.

Many researchers now argue that 1975 was the year when more people were better off than any time before that year or after. It is a significant statement and indicates that since the destruction of communist countries – starting with the fall of the wall in Germany, 1989 – we have all become poorer worldwide. We have arrived now at a situation in which four fifth of the global population lives in poverty, while in comparative terms, in the West many people still live as if in a chocolate shop.

Such increases in inequality create a sort of pressure cooker of low status experience in which people who suffer financially feel let down. A sense of humiliation sets in, described in detail by Wilkinson (2005) which can lead to social unrest, racism and sexism. The rise of religious beliefs goes hand in hand with a growth in poverty, leading to people seek comfort from traditional belief structures which are offered by religion. Yet the role and status of women is far from equal in our mainly monotheistic religions. Instead they tend to encourage discriminatory behaviour towards them, such as demanding they wear the hijab.

The growth of jobs in the emerging industries, like IT and engineering, is set to disproportionately hurt women and the progress made in reducing pay inequality. This is suggested by a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF). It found that despite the fact that the gender pay gap (the difference between average earning for men and women) has been narrowing over recent years, there are still 202 years ahead before the compensation parity is finally reached. The progress could even get lengthier if progress is not made in bringing more women into the workforce, said WEF. While we are within the capitalist system such progress in unlikely. The digital world is driven by capitalist profit motives. It harms nature and natural human relations, i.e. less face to face contact, less scope for personal relationships, more abstraction.

Mary Beard and George Thomson

Historian Mary Beard quotes the Odyssey in her book ‘Women and power’ (2017). Telemachus, son of Odysseus, speaks to his mother, Penelope, when she asks a bard to choose a more pleasant song. He says to her:

‘Mother, go back to your quarters and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff… speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all, for mine is the power in the household.’ Beard comments ‘right where written evidence for Western culture started, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere.’

Mary Beard has been subjected to disgusting obscenities in relation to parts of her body after appearing on a TV discussion and debate on women’s rights. Women even if they have not been silenced have to pay a very high price for being heard. Similar to 2000 years ago. Lack of respect in society leads to lack of self-respect which in turn leads to not respecting others who also suffer from low status. Such lowering of status was experienced by Paula Williams, a pastor, who transitioned from male to female. She comments that it was shocking how much less respect or attention she received after the change. (New Scientist, April 2018). She was offered fewer jobs, earned less money and found people were taking her less seriously, preferring the views of men.

George Thomson, historian (Studies in ancient Greek society, 1949) had studied ancient languages, Latin and Greek. He was able to trace the origin of words and their role in defining family relationships. Using linguistics, he found that the whole of the Mediterranean basin used to be matriarchic. He suggests that the arrival of Athenian democracy meant that women were banished from the street to the house. Both Thomson and Beard point to the fact that our short history of the western world of 2000 years is based on subduing the voice of women and shutting her away indoors via childcare. Subduing the voice of women, is, of course, not a prerogative of the western world, other cultures engage in similar discriminations of women.

Within the scope of human life on earth, thought to have existed for at least 50000 years, 2000 years is a short time. This indicates that it is important to look further and altogether outside modern times to explore what the mechanism might be by which it is achieved to oppress women.

The first class struggle in history

According to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels it is private property that plays this significant role. When human tribes began to be able to accumulate property beyond their immediate needs, either by owning herds of cattle or by building food surplus or making goods, issues of inheritance emerged. At such a time man began to take an interest in their progeny, thus leading them to want to make sure a woman with his children was their property. Marx and Engels called this ‘the first class struggle in history (The origin of the family, private property and the state, 1979).

When women had equal power with men property issues were dealt with by the whole community of a clan, tribe or in the early cities through the development of rules. Early societies like that tended therefore to be called matriarchies and matrilineal succession. Thomson could illustrate by accessing names and changes to names in the original language how clans and tribes around the Mediterranean employed matrilineal succession, as well as how it gradually changed to patrilineal succession. In a matrilineal society or group all names are inherited from the mother. It means succession passes from mother to daughter. Women stay in the female household. Men have to move into the household of the woman they wish to have a family with. Women own the wealth and decide over it. Gradually over time men begin to deputise for women in local functions they hold and stand in for a woman. In this manner chiefs and priests gradually obtain rights which used to belong to women. Eventually men demand that their sons or daughters are given their name, and so husbands and fathers emerge in the role of leader of a household or village, giving their names to their children. While originally priestesses were in charge of temple activities, such as brewing, baking and scribing, priests began to take their place. In her moving novel ‘The red tent’ Anita Diamant (1997) writes:

‘This is not your fault or mine, the chain connecting mother to daughter was broken and the word passed to the keeping of men, who had no way of knowing.’

We learn about the Semitic herdsmen referred to in the bible and their custom to own all the women and the herds and decide over their fate. It becomes apparent that the ownership of a woman or women demands owning her sexuality and fertility. The emphasis in later centuries on having to prove her virginity, as is still a practice found today illustrates the power men gained to own a woman.

From polytheism to monotheism

Jan Assmann stresses that the shift from polytheism to monotheism changed the world radically (From Moses to Akhenaten, 2016). Ownership of property meant that the diversity of many gods and goddesses which had so far fulfilled the spiritual needs of the people had to give way to the one god. It may not be surprising that the religion to believe in one god arose in the desert where nothing grew. Societies, like Egypt and Mesopotamia, on the other hand, had fertile land. Great societies developed through the labour of men and women who successfully used the fertility of the land to grow food. Their spiritual inclination led them to adore nature and pray to nature. All the gods and goddesses are figures who represent aspects of nature, such as the earth, water, rivers, reeds, the moon etc. Figurines of gods and goddesses were washed, dressed and fed at the time of festivals when they were carried through the town or village to honour them. In Diamant’s story Jakob orders his women to destroy all their god figures, a poignant example of no permission of more than one god.

In Mesopotamia, similar to Egypt, a sophisticated society developed under a belief system of many gods and goddesses. Cities were built in which temples were at the heart of social activity. In the temples priestesses were in charge of brewing and baking. The invention of writing is said to originate in Mesopotamia around the years 3000 BC. Everything was recorded on terracotta tablets in writing called cuneiform. The flood is reportedly an event which took place near the Sumer city of Ur. The story of the flood was passed on from generation to generation and finally arrived in the bible at about 400 BC.

The Code of Hammurabi

Around the years 1,700 BC Hammurabi had a code or law written which is considered to be the first such code. We know from assyrologists who have deciphered thousands of cuneiform tablets that the rights of women were reduced by the time of 1700 BC. Jean Bottero (2001) comments that Mesopotamian women before Hammurabi could freely possess property of any kind, jewels, money slaves and could bequeath them as they wished. She could borrow funds, lease land and act as a witness. She had rights over her own body, meaning her sexuality and her fertility were her own.

In 1928 Sir Leonard Woolley, archaeologist, made a major discovery in southern Mesopotamia, when he found a mass grave. One of them contained the skeleton of queen Shuh-bad from Ur. All her jewellery was still on her body, as well as a beautiful crown and many artefacts such as beakers and vases, illustrating the high esteem in which she was held.

Skewed history of time

If we take one hour to be equal of 1000 years we are only 5 or 6 hours away from the beginning of civilisation. Such a metaphor can bring us closer to comprehending that we are small in the face of the human story and the ancient epics and myths are likely to feature larger in it than we usually think. We usually study just the last few hundred years, perhaps as far back as the birth of Jesus Christ, while the human story of civilisation goes back much further, at least to 3000 BC in terms of the invention of writing. In that sense we tend to look at a skewed perspective on history. Mark van Mieroop comments (2009);

‘Somehow, when women’s history is involved very atemporal attitude emerges in scholarship, as if a woman’s lot is a natural condition – much of it determined by the bible and Semitic interpretations and Aeschylus.’

Egypt and Mesopotamia had highly developed cultures with belief systems in a multitude of gods and goddesses while the Semitic tribes were herdsmen in the desert. In these myths goddesses often feature as at least as powerful as gods, thus reflecting the human society from which they emanated. Such early myths were told and retold, such as the story of the flood which later ended up in the bible. As society changes the new rulers adapt the myths to their new belief and power structure.

Jainti women from a sub-tribe of Khasi (matriarchal), Meghalaya, India. https://www.utsavpedia.com/attires/khasi-garo-jaintia-mikir-meghalaya-tribes/
Jainti women from a sub-tribe of Khasi (matriarchal), Meghalaya, India.

Matriarchy in early Greece and now

A matriarchal society can be defined as one in which women enjoy recognisable economic, social and religious privileges. As we know rights to a woman’s sexuality and fertility disappear when the other rights are under attack. George Thomson argues that women began a lot of the cultural activities that led to civilisation’s success, such as cultivating plants, seed planning, herbal remedies, writing, brewing, all came under the power of the temples and priestesses. George Thomson studied ancient Greek societies using the language clans and tribes were using and found early matriarchies around the whole Mediterranean. However, this changed when classical Greek writers like Aeschylus arrived. He used his substantial skills to portray the change from matriarchy to patriarchy in order to world-build an architecture in which the control of women evaporates and is handed over to men. Shrewd, powerful Clytemnestra rebels against battle hungry men by taking a lover during Agamemnon’s absence. By the last play the young god Apollo, champion of conjugality and law, with the support of androgynous Athena – who was not born from a woman- wins, and Orestes, the murderer of his own mother, is declared innocent.

Matriarchies still exist today. The Khasi people live in India near Assam. All property goes to the youngest daughter, and she has the responsibility to look after the old parents. Men leave to live with the family of a woman he has children with.


In the course of a relatively short time human society has become dominated by men who forced their desire for property and ownership on most aspects of life. The ownership of women goes hand in hand with a belief that nature can be owned and controlled by human action. Thus nature, women and art are degraded to become instruments for buying and selling and the enhancement of property. We have reached a stage where 1% of humans own 99% of the wealth. Along the way spirituality has been destroyed leaving many people feeling a sense of loss, confusion and hopelessness. By returning to a feminist inspired ecological spirituality we can begin to rebuild a society that becomes worth living in with an attitude of care towards each other and towards nature. This rebuilding entails confronting the nihilism that arose when ‘capitalism won’ and the wall in Germany fell and beginning to rebuild socialism and an ownership of the means of production by the many, instead of by the few.

© Dr Greta Sykes