17 January 2019 — PM Press
Silvia Federici interviewed by Jill Richards
This essay is featured in Boston Review’s print issue Once and Future Feminist. Order your copy!
In 1972 feminists from Italy, England, and the United States convened in Padova, Italy, for a two-day conference. Associated with the extra-parliamentary left, anti-colonial struggles, and alternatives to the communist party, these activists composed a declaration for action, the “Statement of the International Feminist Collective.” The statement rejects a separation between unwaged work in the home and waged work in the factory, pronouncing housework as a critical terrain in the class struggle against capitalism.
“Autonomy from men is autonomy from capital that uses men’s power to discipline us.”
Silvia Federici, an Italian expat living in New York, attended the conference and afterward returned to New York to found the New York Wages for Housework Committee. In the following years, Wages for Housework committees were launched in a number of U.S. cities. In each case, these groups organized autonomously, apart from waged male workers. As “Theses on Wages for Housework” (1974) put it, “Autonomy from men is Autonomy from capital that uses men’s power to discipline us.”
In New York, the Wages for Housework Committee consisted of no more than twenty women, who maintained close ties with the Italian Triveneto Committee and the Power of Women Collective in London. As Federici remembers it, there was high turnover during early years, as members discussed the paradoxical nature of the demand for a wage: was this compensation for housework, and, if so, a mere reformism that further incorporated women’s labor into the capitalist system—or was the demand for a wage a subversion of housework, shifting women’s social roles and identities?
These were central questions in the domestic labor debates of the 1960s to the 1980s. Though Marxist and socialist feminists had long theorized about domestic labor, these new debates focused more specifically on the political economy of women’s housework in the wider arc of capitalist development. In this framework, social reproduction marks the unwaged labor of cleaning, cooking, raising children, but also the expectations of feminized care, comfort, and sex that make men’s waged work in the factory possible.
For more than four decades now, Federici’s scholarship and activism have been central to this work. Her writing offers a foundational account of the demand for the wage as a revolutionary act. Her influential pamphlet, Wages Against Housework (1975), opens with a provocative rebuttal: “They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.” In this document and others, Federici argues that demand for a wage is a critical political nexus for organizing women around a shared condition of alienated labor. The demand for the wage is impossible for capitalism to meet, and that is the point; success would entail a wholescale reconfiguration of the distribution of social wealth.
The enhanced productivity enabled by new technologies does not necessarily change the isolated nature of housework or the normative family forms produced by it.
Wages Against Housework has been recently reissued by AK Press as part of the collection Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972–1977: History, Theory, Documents, edited by Federici and Arlen Austin. This collection includes a number of previously unpublished or difficult to locate pamphlets, speeches, newsletters, photographs, songs, and media coverage. Although the collection focuses on New York, it also includes materials from Los Angeles, Iceland, Italy, Germany, and London. The texts often reject the utopian promise that new technologies will reduce the time spent on housework, freeing up time for other activities. As Federici and Nicole Cox argue in Counter-planning from the Kitchen (1975), the enhanced productivity enabled by new technologies does not necessarily change the isolated nature of housework or the normative family forms produced by it.
Rather than focus on the innovations that make housework look different, the following conversation considers technologies and techniques of struggle developed through feminist organizing around reproductive labor.
Jill Richards: Why did your collective decide to organize separate from other activist groups that were doing related work around labor justice?
Silvia Federici: The women’s movement as a whole was autonomous because it was clear that our concerns were not important to the male-dominated left. By 1969 women were leaving left organizations, such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), because every time women asked for a discussion of their oppression they were booed and silenced. It was crucial for all women’s groups to organize separately from men; we would have never been able to develop an understanding of the specific forms of oppression women suffer in our society if we had remained in mixed organizations. By the time our collective formed in 1973, the need for feminist autonomy was well established.
By organizing autonomously, we created spaces where women could speak, hear each other, valorize one another’s experience, and realize that what we had to say was important. Autonomy made it possible for us to find our own voices. I must add that no feminist organization was concerned only with the question of labor justice.
JR: Can you talk about how Wages for Housework found its way to a place of deep interracial engagement, long before intersectionality was something people talked about, and at a time when women’s activism was mostly divided along racial lines?
Black women were the most ready to struggle for their rights. They were the ones who were out in the streets saying: Welfare is not charity. Every woman is a working woman.
SF: The politics of Wages for Housework was shaped by women who had an understanding of capitalism, imperialism, and the anti-colonial struggle. Thus we could not accept that women’s liberation could be a struggle for “equality with men” or that it could be limited to equal pay for equal work. We saw that in the same way as the racialization of black men and women had served to justify slavery, so had gender-based discrimination served to exploit women as unpaid workers in the home. This is why we supported the struggle of welfare mothers, which was led by black women—not because black women were the majority of women on welfare, which was not the case, but because black women were the most ready to struggle for their rights. They were the ones who were out in the streets saying: Welfare is not charity. Every woman is a working woman. They were saying, like us, that raising a child is socially necessary work. They were saying, Don’t tell us that we are parasites. Don’t tell us that we are dependent on the state. When the state needs soldiers, it turns to our children. When it needs people for its factories, it turns to our children.
So they understood that Wages for Housework would give women more power: in the short term, by having more money, by having more control over their lives, by not being forced to depend on a man or depend on whatever job came along because they would be so desperate for some money of their own; and in the long term, by refusing to continue to give the capitalist class an immense amount of unpaid labor, as generations of women have done. And refusing to continue to ignore that the home is a sort of factory, and that domestic work is what makes every other form of work possible, as it produces the workers.
This was never meant to be a prescription for women not to work outside the home. It meant rather that when we did leave the home, we would be able to do that with more power and not out of desperation, not because we would have to accept any job that came along, just so we could have some economic autonomy.
JR: Can you comment on the wider relationship between local and international feminist movements, especially in terms of labor organizing?
SF: Capital is international, so activism against capitalism must also be international. This was something we understood when we formed the International Feminist Collective in Padova in the summer of 1972.
Organizing internationally allowed us to develop a stronger critique of capitalism than we could gain from a purely national perspective. On a day-to-day basis, it meant that our organization focused on what we could do in New York and the United States more broadly, but that we also tried regularly to have international meetings where we could exchange documents and analysis, so that we would have a broader view of the struggles we all shared.
Today, as well, we see the need for international organizing, as is happening around the issue of violence against women. Violence is not uniform; it affects some women much more profoundly than others. Clearly violence affects women of color, especially in the United States, much more intensely than it does white women. Likewise does it affect women in the Global South differently than in the North. And yet as women we all have been raised knowing that we cannot go out at night, that we have to be careful about where we go, when, how we dress because many men will feel entitled to sexually harass us. From childhood, women of my generation were prepared for the fact that violence would be an element in our lives, that men in the streets would make humiliating or threatening comments about our bodies, that fathers and husbands could beat us and it would be tolerated.
Our analysis of violence against women hinged on seeing housework as a form of capitalist production.
A key turning point in feminist organizing was the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women that was held in Brussels in March 1976. Organized by feminists, the tribunal spoke to all forms of violence, not only individual or domestic violence, but also violence related to war and institutional policies. One of the limits of the movement in the United States, however, was that it focused mainly on demanding more severe penalties for the abusers, and often collaborated with the police. This was a mistake. As black women’s organizations have made clear, more severe penalties end up criminalizing the men of already-victimized communities. Today the call—mostly promoted by black feminists—is for restorative justice and community accountability.
Our analysis of violence against women hinged on seeing housework as a form of capitalist production, and analyzing the role of the wage in constructing the whole family’s organization. We argued that violence is always latent in the family because, through the wage, the state delegates to the husband the power to supervise and control the work of the wife, and the power to penalize her in case she does not perform. I would describe it as a sort of indirect rule: the state mediates the control over women through the man and his wage. It is not for nothing that in the 1970s, women on welfare called the state “The Man”!
This explains why domestic violence has been tolerated for so long and rarely treated by the state as a crime. We began to even see rape as a form of domestic discipline. It is a way of regulating women’s time and space: You should not be out at night alone without your husband, you should be in your house with your children, doing housework, preparing for the next day, etc. If you are out, then be prepared, you know The threat of rape is an unspoken discipline on women’s time and space.
We must not forget, also, that violence against women is related to the abuse of children, the other major population that is subjected to violence which is not recognized as such. Children can be beaten up because, as with women, the state accepts that this is a necessary way of disciplining them, to prepare them for future forms of exploitation. And violence against women is continuous with violence against all black people, women and men, though from slavery to the present this has taken much more brutal, destructive forms. Violence is always necessary to force people to accept a subordinate place in society, to impose intense forms of exploitation.
JR: What aspects of the Wages for Housework platform were most frequently misunderstood at the time?
SF: The wider feminist movement was concerned with improving the conditions of women, but not equally concerned with transforming society away from capitalism. We felt that it was impossible to do the former without doing the latter.
Violence is always necessary to force people to accept a subordinate place in society, to impose intense forms of exploitation.
Wages for Housework was misunderstood as saying, Give us money so we can stay home, doing the same domestic work. We actually saw wages for housework as a strategy of refusal, as a strategy giving us more options, more power to decide how to organize our lives. We were accused of “institutionalizing women in the home.” But many women we met would tell us that they were already institutionalized in the home because, without any money of their own, they could not go anywhere or they could not leave their husbands even if they wanted to.
Wages for Housework was not the end goal for us, as some critics supposed—which is not to say that it was not a powerful goal in itself. We believed that the struggle for Wages for Housework would be the quickest way to force the state to give us free daycare and other key support services. Unfortunately the women’s movement has still not been able to obtain them! I think this is in part because the movement put all its energy into entering male-dominated spaces, and did not struggle to change the conditions of reproductive work, particularly in relation to domestic work, child-raising, and other forms of care work. Meanwhile, instead of providing more services to women, the state has actually reduced access even to the services that were available. Today it is more difficult to get eldercare and childcare than it was at the end of the 1960s.
Our strategy was to struggle on the terrain in which women are strongest, over issues that affect us all, such as domestic work, sexuality, and child-raising, as well as paid labor. When the issue of paid maternity leave went to the Supreme Court in 1976, few feminists supported it because they were afraid that if they were granted these “privileges,” they would never be entitled to ask for equality.
However, when by the early 1980s masses of women were entering wage work, they found that “equality” remained elusive because they still had to carry out a lot of unpaid work at home, caring for children, relatives. And then they had to fight their battles separately, each in her own workplace, and at a time when the whole organization of work was being turned upside down due to globalization. There was the dismantling of the industrial complex in the United States, with jobs going abroad, with the state cutting services—so women were entering the work force at the moment in which the roof of the factory was falling down.
JR: In what ways was your activism aided or hindered by the technology of the day?
Capital is international, so activism against capitalism must also be international.
SF: It is hard to tell. But I don’t think that the lack of computers and the Internet was a problem. It meant we spent more time talking to women in the street, in laundromats, and other places where women would gather. I think that was very important, the face-to-face encounters; it helped establish better communication than is made available by encounters online. Generally I think that the Internet consumes a lot of our time but not necessarily in more politically productive ways. We are submerged by more information than we can handle, have constant requests that we cannot respond to or that force us to become very superficial in our responses. In addition, I still have stacks of letters I exchanged with women in England, Italy, and Canada, and some are like articles in the ways they analyze the political situation in these localities—a lot of thought went into these letters. There is nothing like that today. That said, I do not doubt that the Internet and computers are also opening up new possibilities.