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Wages for housework


The New York Review of Books -- which has had a strong bias toward growth and more growth -- has a "Daily" about forgotten feminists. Toward the end of the essay the featured writer praises Silvia Federici and the feminist movement called "Wages for Housework." Wages for Housework movement challenged our deepest beliefs about work. Here's the NYR piece:

On the NYR Daily this week
This morning on the NYR Daily we published Judith Shulevitz’s essay on Ernestine Rose, a nineteenth-century agitator for women’s rights and mentor to both Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, and the third subject in Shulevitz’s “Forgotten Feminisms” series for the Daily, which she plans to turn into a book. (Johnnie Tillmon, organizer for the 1960s–1970s National Welfare Rights Organization, and the authors of The Appeal, a nineteenth-century book-length attack on the patriarchy, are the subjects of her first two pieces.)
I asked Shulevitz how she came up with the idea. “Ever since I became a mother (years ago now) and discovered that I really liked motherhood but that it was doing meaningful damage to my career, social status, and income, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write a book about an idea sometimes called ‘maternal feminism’ and sometimes ‘care feminism,’” Shulevitz told me. “I didn’t want to write one of those dry public policy books calling for more family-friendly policies and such. I wanted to write about this old subject in a new way, and to figure out how to accomplish that quixotic task, I had to start reading. And I discovered a whole strain of feminist argument that had somehow gotten lost.”
“As far as I could tell, the American feminist discussion was focused entirely on paid work and workplace issues,” Shulevitz said, “equal pay and glass ceilings and sexual harassment by bosses or colleagues. These are urgent problems, and we won’t achieve equality until we solve them. But it seemed to me that the focus on paid work was blinding us to what I was starting to see as a more fundamental basis of gender inequality: the theft of the value of women’s unpaid work that has been going on for centuries and centuries.”

“As it turned out, there are a lot of thinkers, male as well as female, who have fruitfully analyzed discrimination against care as a human activity, and caregivers in general, and many of these thinkers have been left out of the feminist canon, in part because they don’t fit into the narrative of women’s emancipation from the prison of domesticity,” Shulevitz continued. “And a great number lived in the nineteenth century, perhaps because it wasn’t assumed back then that domesticity necessarily was a prison.” Ernestine Rose, a Jewish, communitarian socialist atheist was even more radical in her views on equality than many “ultraists” of the time, lecturing against the church and in favor of abolition, and lobbying successfully for The Married Women’s Property Act. Her socialist education helped Rose to see that husbands grew rich on womens’ unpaid labor. “To the Owenites,” Shulevitz said, “in theory anyway, domestic labor was just another kind of labor, as important as farm labor or craft work. And to other reformers, the home was just one part of the general apparatus of female oppression, and far from the worst part. (Sexual slavery through marriage was.)”
I wondered what more recent feminist actions or movements she felt inspired by. “I love the 1970s feminist Marxist group called Wages for Housework. These women called for the overthrow of a capitalist order that was subsidized, in their view, by the unpaid slog of homemaking and, yes, sexual services. ‘Not one of us believes that emancipation, liberation, can be achieved through work,’ they wrote in their most widely-read manifesto. ‘Slavery to an assembly line is not liberation from slavery to a kitchen sink.’ At the time, liberal feminists accused them of wanting to push women back into domestic drudgery, but they denied it.” When Shulevitz asked Silvia Federici, a founder of the New York chapter of Wages for Housework, what it was the movement actually wanted—wages? in what form?—she said the real aim of the movement was to make people ask themselves, Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?
Shulevitz, like many writers, has also worked as an editor, at Lingua Franca and Slate among other publications, and I wondered how she thought of the two activities. “For me, the relationship between editing and writing is zero-sum. You do one or you do the other. I’m a very slow and insecure writer and if I’ve turned on my editor brain, I can’t write. All I can think about is how pathetic my stabs at prose are, and how I’d rather be doing anything other than sitting at my computer. Dishes. Laundry. Scrubbing grout. My editor self has a very chilling effect on my writer self. I had to stop editing entirely—at the age of thirty-six—in order to become a writer. Financially speaking, it was a very poor decision. But as others have said, though I hate writing, I love having written.”

Sandra Lindberg

My take-away from this post:
she said the real aim of the movement was to make people ask themselves, Why is producing cars more valuable than producing children?
Federici and her ability to bring these ideas before the US culture decades ago is to be admired. What she accomplished was important.

All the assumptions, tendencies, traditions and prejudices that put caring for where one lives or the children at the bottom of compensation graphs are created constructs.

For theories about how cultures, matrifocal in nature, once did things, some turn to Marija Gimbutas and her analyses of artifacts from thousands of years ago when women, apparently, were central to prehistoric European societies.

I am not advocating for a return to the worship of goddesses, many of whom we can only guess about, but I agree with Federici: let's continue to question patriarchal capitalist assumptions about what work is most (and least) valuable. Questioning, though, is not enough. Especially with climate change looming around us, we must dismantle the assumptions about cultural values that have contributed to our current existential catastrophe.

Especially now, producing cars should be seen as the wrong way to spend one's life. And figuring out how to mitigate for impending catastrophe needs to be seen as the most important work we can do. Along with fighting to keep the worst temperature increases from happening. And I'm not advocating here for dollar compensation to reflect such drastic changes in values. I'm advocating for a revolutionary turn to our lives.

I would like all those who insist that babies are born whether women are ready for them or not become the same people fighting to make sure that birth into contemporary human culture comes with basic realities: housing, food, healthcare, education, the ability to engage in meaningful work, safety from discrimination, and the fostering in each person of the understanding that rights and social responsibilities must be shared by all, regardless of accidents of birth. If being born does not carry such a social construct, men who make laws about reproduction should shut their mouths in shame. And women scrambling for a place in the patriarchal order should look inside and reconsider what they are attempting to attain.

I, too, believe it is impossible to dismantle the master's house with the master's tools. I think we need to thoroughly study the master's tools and then invent new ones.