In Mask magazine, Hanna Hurr talks with a living legend of radical feminism, Silvia Federici. Author of the groundbreaking book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, which explained the historical development of capitalism through the lens of witch hunts, Federici has done pioneering work on reproductive labor and is a seasoned activist, most notably with the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s. In this article she discusses the history of the women's movement and the enduring relevance of theories of reproductive labor. Here's an excerpt:
In the 80s, Federici worked as a teacher in Nigeria just as the Structural Adjustment Programs were being introduced across Africa, and it was this experience that inspired her to write Caliban and the Witch. She had co-authored a book on the impact of the transition to capitalism on the process of reproduction together with Leopoldina Fortunati in 1984, but while living in Nigeria she observed firsthand the same process that happened in Europe in the early days of capitalism take place all over again – land privatization, the disruption of local economies an communitarian regimes, the destruction of resources sustaining communal life. But she also realized that many people still see their lives as, she writes, “radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production.” Being reminded of how crucial women have been to the resistance against wage labor and enclosures, she decided to revisit the research they had started 20 years earlier, and study the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the process that Marx calls "originary accumulation."
It’s easy to see that then, as well as now, Federici’s focus was never on the woman primarily; her focus was on understanding the economic forces and institutional mechanisms that together produced the woman as housewife working to reproduce labor power for capital: to guarantee the quantity and quality of labor. When she describes the decades-long cooptation of the feminist movement as “a big heartbreak,” I can only imagine the loss she is describing. If you ask her, the feminist movement – the one that was interested in fighting capitalism – was reduced to silence...
“Since the beginning of capitalism, women have fought to change what it means to be a woman. To me ‘woman’ always meant particular forms of exploitation, particular places in the division of labor, and particular histories of struggle. Clearly there are crucial diversities among women. There are hierarchies, inequalities especially along the line of race and age. But there are also common grounds, though I draw a line, as I don’t see women in the capitalist class as my ‘sisters.’ That’s why I don't want to give up the category ‘woman.’ It is not a biological category, it's a socio-political and historical category. If you cannot name your condition, then you can’t make certain kinds of struggle. When I think of ‘woman’, I place myself in a history and in particular forms of struggle that women across the world are continuing to this day.”
Image of Silvia Federici via Mask.