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Silvia Federici, “Putting feminism back on its feet”

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Putting feminism back on its feet”

Silvia Federici

Social Text, No. 9/10, The 60’s without Apology (Spring – Summer, 1984), pp. 338-346

Conducted in New York City, summer 1983, by S. Sayres. Questions have been deleted.

Almost fourteen years have passed since I became involved with the women’s
movement. At first it was with a certain distance. I would go to some
meetings but with reservations, since to a “politico” like I was it seemed
difficult to reconcile feminism with a “class perspective.” Or this at least
was the rationale. More likely I was unwilling to accept my identity as a
woman after having for years pinned all my hopes on my ability to pass for
a man. Two experiences were crucial in my becoming a committed feminist.

First my living with Ruth Geller, who has since become a writer and recorded
in her Seed of a Woman the beginning of the movement, and who
in the typical feminist fashion of the time would continually scorn my enslavement
to men. And then my reading Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s The Power
of Women and the Subversion of the Community (1970), a pamphlet that
was to become one of the most controversial feminist documents. At the
last page I knew that I had found my home, my tribe and my own self, as a
woman and a feminist. From that also stemmed my involvement in the
Wages for Housework campaign that women like Dalla Costa and Selma
James were organizing in Italy and Britain, and my decision to start, in 1972,
Wages for Housework groups also in this country.

Of all the positions that developed in the women’s movement, Wages
for Housework was likely the most controversial and often the most antagonized.
I think that marginalizing the struggle for wages for housework was
a serious mistake that weakened the movement. It seems to me now, more
than ever, that if the women’s movement is to regain its momentum and
not be reduced to yet another pillar of the meritocracy system, it must
confront the material condition of women’s lives.

Today our choices are more defined because we can measure what
we have achieved and see more clearly the limits and possibilities of the
strategies adopted in the past. For example, can we still campaign for
“equal pay for equal work” when wage differentials are being introduced
in what have been traditionally the strongholds of male working class
power? Or can we afford to be confused as to “who is the enemy,” when
the attack on male workers, by technological unemployment and wage
cuts, is used to contain our demands as well? And can we believe that liberation
begins with “getting a job and joining the union,” when the jobs we
get are at the minimum wage and the unions seem only capable of bargaining
over the terms of our defeat?

When the women’s movement started in the late 60s we believed it
was up to us women to turn the world upside down. Sisterhood was a call
to build a society free from power relations where we would learn to
cooperate and share on an equal basis the wealth our work and the work of
other generations before us have produced. Sisterhood also expressed a
massive refusal to be housewives, a position that, we all realized, is the first
cause of the discrimination against us. Like other feminists before us we
discovered that the kitchen is our slaveship, our plantation, and if we want
to liberate ourselves we first have to break with our identification with
housework and, in Marge Piercy’s words, refuse to be a “grand coolie
damn.” We wanted to gain control over our bodies and our sexuality, to
put an end to the slavery of the nuclear family and of our dependence on
men, and explore what kind of human beings we would want to be once
we free ourselves from the scars centuries of exploitations have left on us.

These, despite emerging political differences, were the goals of the
women’s movement and to achieve them we gave battle on every front. No
movement, however, can sustain itself and grow unless it develops a strategic
perspective unifying its struggles and mediating its long term objectives
with the possibilities open in the present. This sense of strategy is what has
been missing in the women’s movement, which has continually shifted between
a utopian dimension posing the need for a total change and a day to
day practice that assumed the unchangeability of the institutional system.

One of the main shortcomings of the women’s movement has been
its tendency to overemphasize the role of consciousness in the context of
social change, as if enslavement were a mental condition and liberation
could be achieved by an act of will. Presumably, if we wanted, we could
stop being exploited by men and employers, raise our children according
to our standards, come out and, starting from the present, revolutionize our
day to day life. Undoubtedly some women already had the power to take
these steps, so that changing their lives could actually appear as an act of
will. But for millions these recommendations could only turn into an imputation
of guilt, short of building the material conditions that would make
them possible. And when the question of the material conditions was
posed, the choice of the movement was to fight for what seemed compatible
with the structure of the economic system, rather than for what would
expand our social basis and provide a new level of power for all women.

Though the “utopian” moment was never completely lost, increasingly,
feminism has operated in a framework in which the system-its goals,
its priorities, its productivity deals-is not questioned and sexual
discrimination can appear as the malfunctioning of an otherwise perfectible
institution. Feminism has become equated with gaining equal opportunity
in the labor market, from the factory to the corporate room, gaining equal
status with men and transforming our lives and personalities to fit our new
productive tasks. That “leaving the home” and “going to work” is a pre-
condition for our liberation is something few feminists, already in the early
70s, ever questioned. For the liberals the job was coated in the glamor of
the career, for the socialists it meant that women would “join the class
struggle” and benefit from the experience of performing “socially useful,
productive labor.” In both cases, what for women was an economic necessity
was elevated into a strategy whereby work itself seemed to be a moment
of liberation. The strategic importance attributed to women’s “entering
the work-place” can be measured by the widespread opposition to our
campaign for wages for housework, which was accused of being economistic
and institutionalizing women in the home. Yet, the demand for wages
for housework was crucial from many viewpoints. First it recognized that
housework is work-the work of producing and reproducing the work
force–and in this way it exposed the enormous amount of unpaid labor
that goes on unchallenged and unseen in this society. It also recognized that
housework is the one problem all of us have in common, thus providing
the possibility of uniting women around a common objective and fighting
on the terrain where our forces are strongest. Finally it seemed to us that
posing “getting a job” as the main condition to becoming independent of
men would alienate those women who do not want to work outside the
home because they work hard enough taking care of their families and if
they “go to work” do it because they need the money and not because
they consider it a liberating experience, particularly since “having a job”
never frees you from housework.

We believed that the women’s movement should not set models to
which women would have to conform, but rather devise strategies to expand
our possibilities. For once getting a job is considered necessary to our
liberation the woman who refuses to exchange her work in a kitchen for
work in a factory is inevitably branded as backward and, beside being ignored,
her problems are turned into her own fault. It is likely that many
women who were later mobilized by the New Moral Majority could have
been won to the movement if it had addressed their needs. Often when an
article appeared about our campaign, or we were invited to talk on a radio
program, we received dozens of letters by women who would tell us about
their lives or at times would simply write: “Dear Sir, tell me what I have to
do to get wages for housework.” Their stories were always the same. They
worked like slaves with no time left and no money of their own. And there
were older women starving on Supplementary Security Income (SSI) who
would ask us whether they could keep a cat, because they were afraid that
if the social worker found out their benefits would be cut. What did the
women’s movement have to offer to these women? Go out and get a job so
that you can join the struggles of the working class? But their problem was
that they already worked too much, and eight hours at a cash register or on
an assembly line is hardly an enticing proposition when you have to juggle
it with a husband and kids at home. As we so often repeated, what we need
is more time, more money, not more work. And we need daycare centers,
but not just to be liberated for more work, but to be able to take a walk,
talk to our friends or go to a women’s meeting.

Wages for housework meant opening a struggle directly on the question
of reproduction, and establishing that raising children and taking care
of people is a social responsibility. In a future society free from exploitation
we will decide how this social responsibility is best absolved and shared
among us. In this society where money governs all our relations, to ask for
social responsibility is to ask that those who benefit from housework
(business and the state as the “collective capitalist”) pay for it. Otherwise
we subscribe to the myth-so costly for us women-that raising children
and servicing those who work is a private, individual matter and that only
“male culture” is to blame for the stifling ways in which we live, love and
congregate with each other. Unfortunately the women’s movement has
largely ignored the question of reproduction, or offered only individual solutions,
like sharing the housework, which do not provide an alternative to
the isolated battles many of us have already been waging. Even during the
struggle for abortion most feminists fought just for the right not to have
children, though this is only one side of control over our bodies and reproductive
choice. What if we want to have children but cannot afford to raise
them, except at the price of not having any time for ourselves and being
continuously plagued by financial worries? For as long as housework goes
unpaid, there will be no incentives to provide the social services necessary
to reduce our work, as proved by the fact that, despite a strong women’s
movement, subsidized day care has been steadily reduced through the 70s.

I should add that wages for housework never meant simply a paycheck. It
also meant more social services and free social services.
Was this a utopian dream? Many women seemed to think so. I know,
however, that in Italy, as a result of the student movement, in several cities
during the hours when students go to school, buses are free; and in Athens,
until 9 A.M., during the time when most people go to work, you do not pay
on the subway. And these are not rich countries. Why, then, in the United
States, where more wealth is accumulated than in the rest of the world,
should it be unrealistic to demand that, e.g., women with children be
entitled to free transportation, since everybody knows that at $3 a trip, no
matter how high your consciousness is raised, you are inevitably confined
to the home. Wages for housework was a reappropriation strategy, expanding
the famous “pie” to which workers in this country are considered
entitled. It would have meant a major redistribution of wealth from the rich
in favor of women and male workers as well, since nothing would so
quickly de-sexualize housework as a paycheck for it. But there was a time
when money was a dirty word for many feminists.

One of the consequences of the rejection of wages for housework is
that almost no attempt was made to mobilize against the attack on welfare
benefits that unfolded since the beginning of the 70s and that the struggles
of welfare mothers were undermined. For if it is true that housework
should not be paid, then women on ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) are
not entitled to the money they receive, and the state is right in trying to
“make them work” for their checks. Most feminists had towards women
on welfare the same attitude many have towards “the poor”: compassion at
best, but not identification with their condition, though it was generally
agreed that we are all “a husband away from a welfare line.”

Another example of the divisions fostered by the politics of the
movement is the history of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. Feminists
mobilized when CLUW was formed in 1974, and by the hundreds participated
in the founding conference held in Chicago in March of that year. But
when a group of welfare mothers led by Beulah Sanders and the wives of
the miners on strike at Harlan County asked to participate, claiming they
too were workers, they were turned down (with the promise, however, of
a “solidarity dinner” on that Saturday) because, they were told, the conference
was reserved to card carrying union members.

The history of the last five years has shown the limits of these politics.
As everybody admits, “women” has become synonymous with “poverty,”
as women’s wages have been continuously falling both in absolute terms
and relative to male wages (72% of full-time working women make less
than $14,000, the majority averaging $9,000-$10,000, while women with
two children on welfare make $5,000 at best). Moreover, we have lost most
subsidized forms of child care and many women work on a cottage-industry
basis, at piece work rates, often below the minimum wage, because it is
the only possibility they have to earn some money and take care of their
children at the same time.

Feminists charged that wages for housework would isolate women in
the home. But are you less isolated when you are forced to moonlight and
have no money to go any place, not to mention the time to do political
work? Isolation is also being forced to compete with other women for the
same jobs, so that we see each other as competitors on the labor market
rather than as sisters in a struggle. And isolation is competing with a black
or a white man over who should be fired first. This is not to suggest that we
should not fight to keep our jobs. But a movement that purports to struggle
for liberation should have a broader perspective, particularly in a country
like the United States, where the level of accumulated wealth and technological
development make utopia a concrete possibility.

The women’s movement must realize that work is no liberation; work
in the present system is exploitation and there is no pleasure, pride or
creativity in being exploited. Even the career is an illusion as far as self-fulfillment
is concerned. What is rarely acknowledged is that most career-type
jobs require that you exert power over other people, often other women
and this deepens the divisions between us. We try to escape blue collar or
clerical ghettos in order to have more time and hopefully more satisfaction
only to discover that the price we pay for advancing is the distance that
intervenes between us and other women. Moreover, there is no discipline
we impose on others that we do not at the same time impose on ourselves,
which means that in performing these jobs we actually undermine our own

Even holding a position in the academic world is not a road to becoming
more fulfilled or more creative. In the absence of a strong women’s
movement working in academia can be stifling, because you have to meet
standards you do not have the power to determine and soon begin to speak
a language that is not your own. And from this point of view it does not
make a difference whether you teach Euclidean geometry or women’s history;
though women’s studies still provide an enclave that, relatively speaking,
allows us to be “more free.” But little islands are not enough. It is our
relation to intellectual work and academic institutions that needs to be
changed. Women’s Studies are reserved to those who can pay or are willing
to make a sacrifice, adding a school day to the workday in continuing education
courses. But all women should have free access to school, for as long
as studying is a commodity we have to pay for, or a step in the famous “job
hunt” our relation to intellectual work is nearly impossible.

In Italy in 1973 the metalmechanic workers won as part of their contract
150 hours of school on paid work-time and shortly after many other
workers began to appropriate this possibility, even if it was not in their contract.
More recently in France a school reform proposed by the Mitterand
government opened access to the university to women, independently of
any qualifications. Why hasn’t the women’s movement posed the question
of liberalizing the university, not simply in terms of what subjects should be
studied, but in terms of eliminating the financial cost of studying?

I am interested in building a society where creativity is a mass condition
and not a gift reserved to the happy few, even if half of them are women.
Our story at present is that of thousands of women who are agonizing
over the book, the painting or the music they can never finish, or cannot
even begin, because they have neither the time nor money. We must also
broaden our conception of what it means to be creative. At its best, one of
the most creative activities is being involved in a struggle with other people,
breaking out of our isolation, seeing our relations with others change, discovering
new dimensions in our lives. I will never forget the first time I
found myself in a room with 500 other women, on New Year’s Eve 1970,
watching a feminist theatre group: it was a leap in consciousness few books
had ever produced. In the women’s movement this was a mass experience.
Women who had been unable to say a word in public would learn to give
speeches, others who were convinced they had no artistic skills would
make songs, design banners and posters. It was a powerful collective experience.

Overcoming our sense of powerlessness is indispensable for
creative work. It is truism that you cannot produce anything worthwhile
unless you speak to what matters in your life and are excited about what
you write or draw. Brecht used to say that whatever is produced in boredom
can only generate boredom and he was right. But in order to translate
our pains and pleasures into a page or a song we must have a sense of
power, enough to believe that our words will be heard. This is why the
women’s movement saw a true explosion of creativity. Think of journals
from the early 70s like Notes from the First Year, (1970), No More Fun and
Games, (1970), or the Furies, (1971), such powerful language, almost all of
a sudden, after we had been mute for so long.

It is power-not power over others but against those who oppress us
– that expands our consciousness, not vice versa as it is mistakenly assumed.
I have often said that our consciousness is very different depending
on whether we are with 10,000 women in the streets, or in small groups or
alone in our bedrooms. This was the strength the women’s movement gave
to us. Women who ten years earlier may perhaps have been subdued suburban
housewives called themselves Witches and sabotaged bridal fairs, dared
to be blasphemous, proposing, as in the SCUM Manifesto (1967), suicidal
centers for men, and from the vantage point of our position at the bottom
declared that we had to shake the entire social system off its foundations.

But it is the moderate soul of the movement that has prevailed. Feminism
now is winning the ERA, as if the objective of women’s struggles were the
universalization of the male condition. Let me emphasize, since criticism of
the ERA is usually taken as a betrayal of the movement, that I am not against
a legislative act stating we are equal to men. I am against concentrating our
energies around a law that at best can have a limited effect on our lives. We
should also decide in what respect we want to be equal to men, unless we
assume that men are already liberated. One type of equality we should refuse
is equality in the military, i.e. women’s right to have a combat role.

This is a goal organizations like NOW have campaigned for for years, so
much so that the defeat of Carter’s proposal to draft women could be represented
as a feminist defeat. But if this is feminism I am not a feminist, because
I don’t want to assist the U.S. imperialistic politics and perhaps die in
the process. To fight for equal rights in this case undermines the struggle
men are waging to refuse the draft. For how can you legitimize your struggle
when what you refuse is presumably considered a privilege by the other
half of the population? Another example is protective legislation. There is
no doubt that protective legislations were always instituted with the sole
purpose of excluding women from certain jobs and certain unions, and not
out of concern for our well-being. But we cannot simply demand that protective
legislation be struck down in a country where every year 14,000
people on an average die in work-related accidents, not to mention those
who remain maimed or die slowly of cancer or chemical intoxication.

Otherwise the equality we gain is the equality of black lungs, the equal right
to die in a mine, as women miners have already done. We need to change
working conditions for both women and men, so that everybody is protected.
The ERA, moreover, does not even begin to address the question of
housework and childraising, though as long as they are our responsibility,
any notion of equality is doomed to remain an illusion.

I am convinced these are the issues the women’s movement must
confront if it wants to be an autonomous political force. Certainly there is
now a widespread awareness of feminist issues. But feminism risks becoming
an institution. There is hardly a politician who dares not to profess
eternal devotion to women’s rights, and wisely so, since what they have in
mind is our “right to work,” for our cheap labor is a true cornucopia for the
system. Meanwhile feminist heroines are no longer Emma Goldman or
Mother Jones, but Sally Ride, the first woman in space, the ideal symbol of
the self-reliant, highly skilled woman capable of conquering the most secluded
male territories, and Mrs. Wilson, the head of the National Caucus
who, despite her pregnancy, decided to run for a second term.

It is also a sign of the crisis in the women’s movement that at the time
when this country is witnessing the most intense attack on working people
since the Depression and a militarization foreboding another world war, the
main debate among feminists is about the vices and virtues of sadomasochism.
Glorifying sado-masochism seems to me a step back with respect to
the “woman-loving-woman” relations we wanted to build in the movement.

I also think that sado-masochistic desires are the product of a society
where sexuality is so emmeshed with power relations that sexual pleasure
and violence, either suffered or inflicted, are difficult to separate. It is good
that we stop feeling guilty for our “perversions,” and what perversion, by
the way, compared with what is daily carried on by this government as the
highest example of morality. Sticking pins in each other’s breasts is an act of
great civilization compared with what takes place daily at the White House.
It is also good that we play out our fantasies at a time when we are continuously
asked to center our lives around church, work, and the heterosexual
couple. But is practising sado-masochism liberating our sexuality? It may
have a therapeutic effect to admit to our secret desires and cease to be
ashamed of what we are. But liberation is being able to fully determine
when, under what conditions, with whom we make love, outside of any
exploitative relation.

The truth of the matter is our sexual lives have become quite boring
because the possibility of experimenting with new social relations has been
drastically reduced. In fact we have become quite boring to each other, for
when we are not on the move we have little to offer our friends except mutual
complaints, hardly a recipe for sexual excitement. So we prick our sensibility,
find new ways of stimulating ourselves. Actually they are old ways,
what is new is that now women are openly practising them. This is a new
area of equality we are opening up, it is like getting a job as a construction
worker. But liberation is being able to go beyond both.

There are signs today that the paralysis the women’s movement has
suffered from may be coming to an end. A turning point has been the
organization of the Seneca Women’s Encampment, which has meant the
beginning of a feminist-lesbian antiwar movement. With this our experiences
are coming full circle. The first feminist groups were formed by
women who had been active in antiwar organizations but had discovered
that their “revolutionary brothers” so sensitive to the needs of the exploited
of the world would blatantly ignore theirs, unless they took their
struggle into their own hands. Now, fourteen years later, women are
building their antiwar movement and starting directly from their needs.
Today the revolt of women against all types of wars is visible all over
the world: from Greenham Common to Seneca Falls, from Argentina,
where the mothers of the desparecidos have been in the forefront of the
resistance to military repression to Ethiopia, where this summer women
have taken to the streets to reclaim their children the government has
drafted. A women’s antiwar movement is particularly crucial in a country
which seems bent on asserting, by the power of its bombers, its domination
over the planet.

In the 60s we were inspired by the struggles of the Vietnamese
women, who showed to us we too can fight and change the course of the
world. Today we should be warned by the despair we see on women’s
faces cast every night on our screens as they crowd into refugee camps, or
wander with their children among the wrecks of their homes destroyed by
the bombs our wage cuts have paid for. For unless we regain our impulse to
change this society from the bottom up, the agony they presently suffer
may soon be our own.

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