Silvia Federici Sees Your Unpaid Work
Patriarchy of the Wage Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism
It used to puzzle me that so many feminist books deal in literary criticism. Mary Wollstonecraft takes on Rousseau, Simone de Beauvoir attacks D.H. Lawrence, Shulamith Firestone spends several pages on a story by Herbert Gold, and Kate Millett pulls apart, well, everybody. Freud is a target, for blaming everything on women, as is Marx, for forgetting them. Couldn’t arguments for women’s liberation be mounted in themselves? Why perform the work of dissection when you could be proposing some more irresistible vision of the world?
When Silvia Federici came to the United States from Italy on a Fulbright scholarship in 1967, she was much more interested in what she could do than in how she could argue. In her research, she came across the work of Selma James, who had proposed a simple but startling idea at the third National Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester, England: that women be paid for housework. “I was really inspired,” Federici remembers, and on a trip home to see family in 1972, she went to Padua to visit Mariarosa Dalla Costa, who had recently written a paper with James. The International Feminist Collective was formed at that meeting: They would mount a campaign to ask governments for wages for housework.
Over the last decade or so, PM Press has been reissuing 50 years of Federici’s work—collecting her housework writings in Revolution at Point Zero in 2012 and updating the idea in a new volume, Patriarchy of the Wage. Beyond the thrilling provocation of wages for housework, Federici has been addressing one of the most irritating gaps in Marx for feminists: the fact that he didn’t seem to notice women’s unpaid work, limiting his comments on it to footnotes. She uses Marx’s analysis of the relation between the worker and the boss in Capital and the Grundrisse to supply the gap, and leaves us with ideas that challenge the way things are, even in a world heating up and breaking down.
During her graduate studies in the early 1970s, Federici encountered a pamphlet by Mariarosa Dalla Costa that marked the start of her life as an active feminist. In “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Dalla Costa argued that “women must completely discover their own possibilities—which are neither mending socks nor becoming captains of ocean-going ships.” Dalla Costa wanted a route to women’s liberation that didn’t look just like men’s. By the time Federici had reached the last page, she writes, “I had found my home, my tribe and my own self.” When Federici got in touch with Dalla Costa, she was just in time to contribute to the Wages for Housework campaign. She began organizing the New York committee with Nicole Cox in 1973, and it was her pamphlet “Wages Against Housework” that would become the most accessible and enduring formulation of the idea behind getting paid for doing dishes.
The campaign sparked furious exchanges in the left-wing journals of the time, and was misunderstood by everyone from liberal feminists to Marxists themselves. Some thought that women were just greedy: They were happy as they were, but wanted more money. Others thought that an idea dreamed up in Italy couldn’t hold in the United States, where more women worked outside the home. (In the 1980s, Angela Davis would suggest that more women joining the traditional workforce, and fighting for robust social services from that position, was a better way of tackling the problem.) Still more thought the love shown in the work of making a home was one of the few activities capitalism hadn’t tainted and should stand inviolate. And should the government pay for these wages? Why not businesses? Why not husbands? The New York wing of the Wages for Housework movement organized marches and teach-ins at laundromats and supermarkets. They held table-top sales where you could buy Wages for Housework pot holders. But Federici’s “militant” phase, as she has called it, ended in 1977 when the chapter crumbled.
In her 2004 book, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, she looks through the archives for real-life versions of Sycorax and Caliban, beginning in the Middle Ages. Federici tells us of Gostanza, a widow who was tried as a witch in San Miniato, Tuscany, in 1594. She lived in an all-female household—with a niece and two other widows—and worked as a healer, receiving people in her home but also traveling “to ‘mark’ an animal, visit a sick person, help people carry out a revenge.” She used oils, but also “devices apt to cure and protect by ‘sympathy’ or ‘contact.’” As Federici notes, she was “very popular, everyone would go to her to be cured, to have his or her fortune told, to find missing objects or to buy love potions.” Like Sycorax, she was punished for seeming to have too much power. Federici also writes of a number of young English settlers in seventeenth-century Virginia, who were executed for living among Native tribes. They had formed an alliance against the colonists, which Federici sees as similar to the alliance Caliban forms with the drunken courtiers against Prospero.
Federici even suggests you can glimpse what a Sycorax-ruled island might have looked like by examining the way women worked under feudalism. Female serfs worked the fields as well as cooking, spinning, and keeping an herb garden at home, drawing no great division between work done inside and outside. And as women washed, harvested, and tended animals collectively, their work became a source of “intense female sociality and solidarity” that allowed them “to stand up to men.”
Caliban and the Witch was published by Autonomedia, a tiny left radical press run as a collective, but has grown in influence and was republished as a Penguin Modern Classic last year. It’s an attractive argument in much the same way that Wages for Housework is: It takes an aspect of women’s lived history and re-situates it as a source of power. A single woman living in a city apartment building might feel less lonely if she saw herself as part of a tradition of resistance to capitalism that began in the sixteenth century, just as a frustrated housewife in Brooklyn 50 years ago could find a movement in which her work was finally valued.
After a long period of neglect, Federici’s ideas were in circulation again, and her next book, Revolution at Point Zero, reprinted and repopularized her writings about housework, care, and social reproduction. By the 2010s, a whole generation had come of age expecting to build careers outside the home, largely thanks to the advances of the 1970s. But they hadn’t been able to shed their work inside it. As Arlie Russell Hochschild identified as early as 1989 in her book The Second Shift, many women were working a second job when their nine-to-five was over: doing the full-time work of taking care of their homes and families in the evenings and early mornings, on top of their paid work. Housework hadn’t gone away: In many ways, it had become even more important.
What else do wages hide? Federici notices that a father’s wages hide a mother’s work. The mid-century ideal was the “family wage” with its expectation that a male breadwinner should earn enough to keep a wife and children, who are concealed from capital. What would happen, Federici asks, if you didn’t hide that work? In asking the government for a paycheck, as well as for more social services and free social services, Federici and her peers were asking society at large to see them, to recognize their work, to negotiate. They were questioning what wages are for, who they reward, and how they operate. As you ask these questions, you find that all wages start to look strange, the premise they’re based on arbitrary and confusing.
“The struggle for the wage is at the same time a struggle against the wage, for the power it expresses and against the capitalist relation it embodies,” Federici writes in the opening essay to this volume, a 1975 piece titled “Counterplanning From the Kitchen.” When people who are not paid for their work start asking for pay, they’re often told there simply isn’t enough money to meet their demands. What becomes clear is that neither private businesses nor public entities can afford to pay for all the unpaid work done in society. If the system operated logically, it could not stand. The demand for a wage reveals, too, that no one’s wages are adequate for the work they do, that no one’s life should be sacrificed to work. “We have always belonged to capital every moment of our lives,” Federici writes in italics, “and it is time that we make capital pay for every moment of it.”
It is not as if we haven’t tried mechanizing care. During the pandemic, when care workers couldn’t run dining clubs for older adults, New York State’s Office for the Aging gave robot cats and dogs to their charges. Although the owners often forgot their pets were electronic, their loneliness persisted: Katie Engelhart wrote in The New Yorker of the way an interviewee would keep her on Zoom at the end of their conversation, asking her questions about the weather where she was.
Wollstonecraft, De Beauvoir, Firestone, Millett, and Federici—all used arguments with their intellectual fathers to work out what they didn’t want their worlds to look like. But as much as feminism was sharpened through these literary-critical encounters, it has always drawn strength from the life experience of its mothers. Federici sees her own work renewing and revitalizing Marx as the making good of her mother’s invisible work. “What often saves me when I cannot protect myself,” she wrote in June 2011, “is my commitment to protect her work and myself as the child to whom it was dedicated.” It is this that makes emotional labor, care work, social reproduction, whatever you like to call it, different from other work. It is an investment in a person for its own sake, a debt that can be considered paid not at clocking-off but on returning the investment in the same spirit. It is our first recognition that we must rely on one another to get through life, and our first intimation of how the relying and the getting through might be done.
This article appeared in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “All Work and No Pay.”