Wages for Housework changed how we see women’s work forever. In this blog, Louise Toupin and Silvia Federici discuss the campaign, examining its trajectories and its relevance for the revolutionary feminist movement today.
Louise Toupin taught Political Science at University of Quebec in Montreal. She was a member of the Quebec Women’s Liberation Front (1969-1971), and co-authored numerous anthologies of activist and feminist writings, including Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement, 1972-77.
Silvia Federici was born in Parma, Italy, in 1942. She has lived in the United States since 1967, and in 1980 she earned a PhD in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo. She is a professor emeritus of social sciences at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, and the author of key works substantiating the Wages for Housework perspective, including her seminal work Wages against Housework (Bristol: Falling Wall Press, 1975) and Caliban and the Witch.
Louise Toupin: After all these years, and to give today’s feminists an understanding of what the Wages for Housework project meant, could you share some lessons that can be drawn from the life of the International Feminist Collective (IFC)?
Silvia Federici: The IFC served to launch the International Wages for was therefore a very strong political experiment that affected the lives of the women who took part in it. To understand the meaning of our participation in this political project, one has to be aware of the general climate of the time. It was a revolutionary period for many women. We were coming from the Movement – the student movement, the anti-war movement, the civil rights and anti-colonial movements. We were certain that we were part of a process of historic transformation. And, in addition, we were active in the feminist movement, which was promising to completely change our lives. The experiences of those years were unique experiences that are possible only during specific historical periods, times when the ‘bottom rises up’ and all of society seems to be in complete upheaval.
As for the experience in the Wages for Housework campaign, its power resided in the fact that it gave us great comprehension of society and the mechanisms of exploitation, and at the same time it touched the most personal aspects of our lives, while enabling us to connect to all other women with a new sense of solidarity. It was a perspective that allowed us to encompass and also to step beyond the entire spectrum of women’s experiences. I must add to this the feeling of power that came to us from having lived a collective life, a life in which women came first; for all of us, that was our primary interest.
And then there was the joy of seeing our skills and talents develop. We began to learn how to write texts and speak in public, write songs, make posters, analyse the newspapers day after day, and find our life interesting.
The lesson to be drawn? Learn to make a ‘sustainable revolution.’ The feminist movement upset the world, but it did not create the structures necessary to support its revolution (I’m talking about the strategic question of reproduction, which was left behind). The new political generations of women, if they want to complete our work, would do well not to forget that.
LT: But more precisely, what are the specific lessons to be drawn from the experience of the IFC?
SF: The campaign showed the importance of having an international network for an exchange of knowledge, materials, and struggle experiences, giving us the capacity to cooperate on many levels, to communicate about our struggle with a coherent vision, and, periodically, to evaluate the effectiveness of our work.
At the same time, this experience showed us the limits of any organisation that exists in the absence of a mass movement. One of the limits of the International Wages for Housework Campaign was the tendency to interpret the leadership role in a way that was too rigid, centralised, and hierarchical. This would not have been possible if it had been a mass movement, in which people make decisions autonomously, without waiting for permission from leadership.
LT: How did the Wages for Housework perspective influence your activism and your intellectual trajectory after 1977, after the IFC came to an end?
SF: The wage perspective made me understand that capitalism is a production system that depends structurally on non-contractual and unpaid work, in all its forms, and a system that devalues the reproduction of labour power. So, capitalism must continually create classes of workers with no rights who have the task of reproducing labour power at low cost. This is why capitalism, historically, was always essentially a structurally sexist and racist system. Sexism and racism are not moral problems. They are ideological and practical systems that serve to justify and conceal unwaged work regimes. Unpaid work is justified by the use of psychological and mental characteristics.
That is why I say that capitalism cannot be reformed. The Wages for Housework perspective showed me that there is an urgent need to build, from our daily struggles, an alternative to the capitalist system. My interest in the question of the commons springs from that.
The wage perspective also helped me understand the function of under- development and the political significance, starting in the late 1970s, of the restructuring of the world economy as a process of ‘primitive accumulation’ – that is, as an attack on the most fundamental means of our reproduction and the value of labour power.2 This comprehension was reinforced by my stay in Nigeria in the mid-1980s, during which I saw the effects of globalisation – in the form of the debt crisis and structural adjustment policies – on the population’s living conditions. My stay in Nigeria opened a new political horizon for me because, for the first time, I was in a country in which the majority of the population was still living off the land, and the land was still owned by the community. I understood then that the Wages for Housework struggle was only one aspect of the struggle for valorisation of the work of reproduction and the construction of an alternative to capitalism.
LT: Do you think that Wages for Housework analyses are still relevant today? And how could they be updated?
SF: Yes, I think they’re still relevant, for a number of reasons. To start with, it is clear that the first task to undertake in the struggle is to adopt programs that can bring people together, that can unite them and undermine the hierarchies built on the division of labour. This is where the strategic importance of the Wages for Housework strategy lay – and still lies – because domestic work, reproductive work, is a question that affects all women and can therefore constitute a field of political reunification among us.
Second, the Wages for Housework perspective is still relevant because the capitalist reorganisation of labour that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s (Reaganism, Thatcherism, neo-liberalism, globalisation) resulted in a direct attack on public resources devoted to reproduction (health, education, working conditions, and so on), an attack on the means of reproduction which produced a very large crisis in reproduction.
Third, the sphere of unpaid work, instead of shrinking, has considerably expanded in the last two decades. In effect, we have seen the reappearance of slave-like labour conditions, even in industrialised countries, with the proliferation of sweatshops; the change from welfare to workfare; the development in the United States of a mass incarceration regime within which prison labour is often appropriated; overexploitation and criminalisation of undocumented immigrants; and deployment in the ‘third world’ of food-for-wages programs. More than ever, unpaid work and devaluation of labour power – which is the devaluation of our actual lives – are essential components of capitalist development. The Wages for Housework politics is therefore still current.
Today, however, the Wages for Housework perspective and struggle need a broader basis. It is not enough to demand just a paycheque; we must also demand other means of reproduction less subject to monetary manipulations: houses, health services, communal spaces, urban collective food-producing gardens where people may sow and harvest.
Everywhere, the struggle over reproduction is very openly also a struggle for reappropriation of the land, and also for the control of territory. All dimensions of the land question are fundamental. Earth, water, air, the ocean, as well as health and education, must be considered common goods, not subject to market logic.
LT: What do you think of the evolution of feminism today?
SF: There is not a single feminism; there are feminisms. With the intervention of the United Nations in feminist politics, we have seen an attempt to institutionalise the movement in order to defuse and neutralise its struggles and its subversive potential. We have also seen an attempt to redefine the feminist program to make it compatible with the neo-liberal program. Since 1975, starting with the UN conference on women in Mexico City, the United Nations has tried to delegitimise all feminism that is not compatible with the needs of international capital, in the same way as it tried to dominate the anti-colonial movement in the 1960s, by ensuring that decolonisation was compatible with the needs of ex-colonial powers and the United States.
With its global conferences on women, the United Nations has created ‘global feminism,’ with a category of feminists who believe that they have the right to define what women want, what the feminist program is, what a legitimate claim is and isn’t. At the same time, feminism has become internationalised. Its battlefield has shifted to the international stage. And today there exists a feminist movement, what in Latin America is called ‘popular feminism,’ which formed in response to liberalisation of the world economy and has grown up outside of the institutional constraints of the United Nations, creating forms of reproduction outside of the market and the state. For me, that is real feminism. I think, for example, of women’s movements in Chile, Argentina, and Peru, which, in the 1980s and 1990s, built forms of reproduction oriented toward self-subsistence and organised collectively.
However, institutional feminism has caused great damage, in my view, because it has neutralised the subversive potential of the feminist movement and created a state feminism that has served to confuse and disarm many women. For ‘global feminism,’ the problems are no longer, or not mainly, the policies that emerge from the global development of capitalism and their effects on women, but the fact that women pay a disproportionate price compared with men, because of the restructuring of the global economy.
Wages for Housework: A History of an International Feminist Movement, 1972-77 by Louise Toupin is available from Pluto Press.