By Dayna Tortorici
August 19th, 2013
This article appears in Issue 17: The Evil Issue, available now. Subscribe to n+1.
• Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. PM Press, 2012.
• Martha Rosler. Meta-Monumental Garage Sale. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2012.
Last November, the artist Martha Rosler had her first solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, an installation and performance piece called Meta-Monumental Garage Sale. It was, in fact, an enormous garage sale, with heaps of toys, furniture, clothes, and crockery arranged on a tidy maze of racks and tables winding through the main atrium. A ladder-like utility shelf stood at the center of the display, from which a crooked flag, French but for the words GARAGE SALE spelled down the white stripe, hung limp.
Silk dresses, lingerie, and cotton T-shirts were pinned high on the walls like items in a boutique secondhand store. A rainbow garland of horse-show ribbons made a miniature proscenium for a smattering of childhood junk: bobbleheads still in their boxes, glittering bangles, balsa-wood dollhouses, and stacks of worn board games likely missing some pieces. MoMA volunteers in red aprons hovered over two registers in the middle of the floor (cash only) as the artist, wearing a canvas fanny pack from Home Depot, milled around. A sign taped to the backboard of a kids’ basketball hoop said HAGGLE, and the artist did. Sometimes she sold things. Sometimes she didn’t.
The show was a continuation of a project Rosler began in 1973 with Monumental Garage Sale, a performance she staged as a graduate student at UC San Diego. She reprised the show in 1977 with Traveling Garage Sale in San Francisco, and in subsequent decades recreated versions of Garage Sale in museums all over the world. Like its predecessors, Meta-Monumental Garage Sale was a meditation on value. It was “meta,” more than usual, because it was at MoMA: the reconstruction had to be gussied up accordingly, which meant no ads on the street for the garage sale (people entering MoMA must know they’re looking at an exhibit, and one they’ll pay to see), and the 14,000 items on display had to be fumigated prior to installation, taking some of the gamble out of street-side shopping. Given its proximity to the museum gift shop, the show was also “meta” in that familiar conceptual-art way: one vendor sold a car with no engine; the other took major credit cards. Both the exhibition and the gift shop issued receipts with the institution’s name on it, but only one challenged you to name the difference.
The show, in other words, dredged up familiar questions about art and money: about what goes into the appraisal of artworks, about the validating power institutions like MoMA still wield. But Meta-Monumental Garage Sale also sought, in the kind of political gesture that sets Rosler apart from peers whose critiques end with the art world, to call attention to the way garage sales expose the unwaged work of women known as “housework.” A catchall term for everything that women do in the home, housework is invisible work. Not only performed behind closed doors, it is endless — done one day to be redone the next, with nothing to show for itself but the material refuse of ordinary life. Old toys, Tupperware, outgrown baby clothes, gardening tools — the garage sale’s discarded offerings chronicle a life devoted to care work. Each object refers to some unseen and unquantified period of time spent caring for spouses, parents, and children; cooking, cleaning, teaching, and entertaining; preparing oneself and others for school and work. Rounding it all up for the public, the garage sale, itself a domestic chore (“spring cleaning”), offers proof of women’s work in the absence of a paycheck.
Much has changed for women in this country since Rosler held her first Garage Sale in 1973, but not this. The mass introduction of women into the waged workforce has changed the face of domestic work, but the new face has not been a man’s, but another woman’s — or the same woman’s, after hours. The uncompensated labor of housework, child care, and elder care has gone largely unseen, and largely, where seen, unconsidered. Work like Rosler’s Garage Sale does what it can to amend this — making matters plain by way of making them strange — and last year, her show seemed to come at the right time. Media “debates” about child care and work–life balance had been flaring up since Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” and the question of homemaking’s “productive value” felt almost central, as even Forbes shared a study that showed how calculating the value of “household production” would affect GDP. (In 2010, housework would have been valued at roughly $3.8 trillion and upped GDP by nearly 26 percent.)
The same month as Rosler’s
show, a report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance confirmed
with statistics what many had already known: that 95 percent of domestic
workers were women, 51 percent were women of color, 36 percent were
undocumented immigrants, and the vast majority did not have health
insurance or paid sick leave. Meanwhile, as austerity measures in Europe
shifted even more care work from public services onto individual
households, the memory of Wages for Housework, a movement formed in a
different Europe in the 1970s, was resuscitated among the American left
with the publication of new books by two of the movement’s founders,
Silvia Federici and Selma James.
The Wages for Housework Campaign first formed in Padua, Italy, in the summer of 1972. It grew out of an organization of twenty or so women called the International Feminist Collective, founded by Selma James, Brigitte Galtier, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and Silvia Federici. James, a full-time housewife and Marxist activist, had been living in England with her partner, the radical intellectual C. L. R. James. Galtier, in France, was involved with the group that published the autonomist journal Matériaux pour l’intervention. Dalla Costa, an academic and activist from Italy, had come from operaismo, an intellectual movement inspired by a resurgence of factory strikes in northern Italy. In its rereading of Marx, operaismo argued that it was workers, not factory owners, who determined the shape of social relations under capitalism, and that workers themselves could produce a crisis in capitalism through direct action in the service of their own partial interests. Operaismo saw the wage as central to the struggle for worker control: it was a way of returning surplus value to the worker, and of redefining how much one worked, and for what pay.
This emphasis on the wage was crucial to the formation of Wages for Housework. As Selma James and others brought with them lessons from the anticolonial, civil rights, and student movements, Dalla Costa brought to Wages for Housework the operaisti’s sense of the wage as both economic compensation and political tool. Equally critical to the early thinking of Wages for Housework was Mario Tronti’s concept of the “social factory.” In the movement journal Quaderni rossi, Tronti argued that as social relations are subsumed by capital, society itself becomes a “factory” that organizes and supports production and circulation. Dalla Costa and the women of Wages for Housework deduced from Tronti’s theory what their male comrades had failed to: If all society had been made a factory, wasn’t housework also factory work? If so, why wasn’t it rewarded with a wage?
These ideas were not entirely new. Women had been arguing for wages for housework since at least the early 20th century; Crystal Eastman called for “a generous endowment of motherhood provided by legislation” in her opening address to the First Feminist Congress in 1919. The idea that the work of raising children should be recognized and remunerated as well as any other job surfaced again among American welfare-rights activists in the 1960s, who demanded that welfare be dignified with the title of a “wage.” These efforts built upon Engels’s observation in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State that while the first historical division of labor was one based on sex — leaving the responsibility of household management to women — it was only with the rise of private property and the patriarchal monogamous family that this division became hierarchical, devaluing the social contributions of women. As the communistic household dissolved, Engels wrote, domestic work lost its public character:
“It no longer concerned society. . . . The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife.”
Feminists’ demand for payments to mothers and housewives was an attempt to free women from the “domestic slavery” of dependency on the male wage and to return the private struggle of women to public concern.
But Engels’s observations were also misleading, and Marxist tradition throughout the 20th century largely took the wife being “excluded from all participation in social production” to mean that household work had no bearing on production — that it existed outside the capitalist market. Wages for Housework made this assumption its primary target. Its proponents insisted that the binary between work and home, “productive” and “reproductive” work, was not only a fiction, but a necessary fiction at the basis of capitalism. Capital accumulation depended on unwaged household work: giving birth to the future workforce, yes, but also feeding husbands, children, and parents, cleaning up after them, placating them when the world frustrated their ambitions, and so on. Seeing this more clearly than its predecessors, Wages for Housework understood how much damage a refusal to do unwaged labor could inflict on a capitalist system. In her 1970 pamphlet “Women and the Subversion of the Community,” Dalla Costa wrote, “women are of service not only because they carry out domestic labor without a wage and without going on strike, but also because they always receive back into the home all those who are periodically expelled from their jobs by economic crisis. The family, this maternal cradle . . . has been in fact the best guarantee that the unemployed do not immediately become a horde of disruptive outsiders.”
In a career-spanning essay collection, Revolution at Point Zero, Silvia Federici recalls reading Dalla Costa’s pamphlet for the first time. “By the time I read the last page,” Federici writes, “I knew that I had found my home, my tribe, and my own self, as a woman and a feminist.”
Federici, born in Italy in 1942, moved to the US in 1967 to study philosophy at SUNY Buffalo. She wrote on theory and left politics, often from the perspective of operaismo; she contributed a critique of Althusser to an early issue of Telos and cowrote with Mario Montano the first-wave autonomist text “Theses on the Mass Worker and Social Capital” under the pseudonym Guido Baldi. She had been ambivalent about the women’s movement; “likely,” she deadpans, “after having for years pinned all my hopes on my ability to pass for a man.” But in 1972, after encountering Dalla Costa’s work, Federici joined the International Feminist Collective and helped see Dalla Costa’s ideas through as a leader of the Wages for Housework campaign. The following year, Federici started Wages for Housework groups in the US. In 1975, the year Wages for Housework opened an office in Brooklyn, she published “Wages Against Housework,” one of the most elucidating texts on the movement’s intentions.
It begins with a chant — or what looks like a chant, in dramatic verse, written for an invisible chorus:
They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.
They call it frigidity. We call it absenteeism.
Every miscarriage is a work accident. . . .
More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.
Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational hazards of the housewife.
It’s a weird opening, without explanation, but it grounds Federici’s arguments in the context of an actual protest, an actual movement. Wages for Housework wasn’t just a discussion point or thought experiment. These groups existed, with real demands and protest songs to go with them (such as the “Wages Due Song,” written in 1975 by Boo Watson and Lorna Boschman:
“What do you think would happen if we women went on strike? / There’d be no breakfast in the morning, there’d be no screw at night / There’d be no nurses treatin’ you, there’d be no waitresses servin’ you, there’d be no typists typin’ you-o-o-o”). The “we” echoes the starting point of James and Dalla Costa’s The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community — an essay that built on Dalla Costa’s original work and was recently reprinted in James’s new book, Sex, Race and Class (2012) — that the proletarian housewife is a figure women could rally around. We, women, are all housewives, Wages for Housework said — not to embrace that work but to denounce it, to argue against the role capitalism reserves for women even if some manage to escape it in its most literal form. It’s also a great opening display of Federici’s style, the sort of humorless humor of an enraged intellect, delivering blows through punch lines: More smiles? More money.
By the time Federici wrote “Wages Against Housework,” Wages for Housework had already encountered some resistance from both Marxists and feminists. To male Marxists, a feminist faction undermined the unity of the struggle, a story familiar enough from American feminism’s difficulties with the New Left. (Dalla Costa recalls one early episode in Italy, in 1972, when some women organized a workshop on female employment open only to women: “The reaction of groups of men generically self-identified as comrades, was to prevent the workshop from taking place, by launching from outside the room condoms full of water that broke the windows. . . . Just the fact that women could meet by themselves could provoke a violent reaction.”) Feminists, in turn, alternately accused Wages for Housework of extending economic rationalization into the home — “the only interstice of capitalist life in which people can possibly serve each other’s needs out of love or care,” as Carol Lopate wrote in Liberation — and of further entrenching women in domestic work by paying them for it. They condemned Wages for Housework for failing to sufficiently glorify the private and then for sticking women there, in that hell, forever.
In “Wages Against Housework,” Federici writes to set the record straight. Feminists ambivalent about Wages for Housework tend to misunderstand the demand for a wage as a demand for a thing, for “a lump of money,” she says. Money certainly helps, but Wages for Housework is more than a simple demand: it is also a political perspective. In asking for wages for housework, women distill a nexus of demands, critiques, and observations into a single phrase, which they can then use to dismantle assumptions about their social role. The gesture strips housework of its naturalism, since to want wages for housework means “to refuse that work as the expression of our nature,” as Federici writes, “and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.” The demand is a wage for housework, not housewives, and is addressed to the state — not to husbands or even to all men — since the state, “the representative of collective capital,” is “the real ‘Man’ profiting from this work.” The big Man, the State, and the little man, the husband, are locked in collusion against the wife:
The more the man serves and is bossed around, the more he bosses around. A man’s home is his castle and his wife has to learn: to wait in silence when he is moody, to put him back together when he is broken down and swears at the world, to turn around in bed when he says “I’m too tired tonight,” or when he goes so fast at lovemaking that, as one woman put it, he might as well make it with a mayonnaise jar.
“Why Sexuality Is Work,” also published in 1975, hits the same register. Sex, Federici writes, sold to us as the “other” of work, is understood to make the discipline of the workweek more bearable. But it doesn’t, really: “We are always aware of the falseness of this spontaneity. No matter how many screams, sighs, and erotic exercises we make in bed, we know that it is a parenthesis and tomorrow both of us will be back in our civilized clothes (we will have coffee together as we get ready for work).” As a result, “we are bodiless souls for our female friends, and soulless flesh for our male lovers.” Sexual liberation doesn’t offer much help, and the situation applies to both married and unmarried women: “Certainly it is important that we are not stoned to death if we are ‘unfaithful,’ or if it is found that we are not ‘virgins,’” she writes.
“But ‘sexual liberation’ has intensified our work.” Anticipating central concerns of the third wave, Federici writes, “In the past, we were just expected to raise children. Now we are expected to have a waged job, still clean the house and have children and, at the end of a double workday, be ready to hop in bed and be sexually enticing.”
The common strategy of these early essays — which extends throughout Federici’s work — is one of accounting: by recasting all the social activities women perform as “work,” Federici economizes them to the point of logical extremity. The point isn’t actually to put a price on perfunctory marital sex, or to max out categories of value so that their utility disintegrates; it’s to illuminate how supposedly noncapitalist activities shore up the economic system that structures and controls so much of our lives. It’s a conceptual trick to trigger political and feminist consciousness — and in the 1970s, when much of what needed revolutionizing stood in plain sight, in the form of one’s most intimate relationships, this trigger seemed enough.
But even while she relies on this flip of the switch to start a movement, Federici seems to recognize early that her ideas might suffer from conceptual ambiguity. Shifting the title from wages for to wages against housework, she reiterates that the goal is not reform but revolution: “To demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do this work. It means precisely the opposite. To say that we want wages for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it.” In “Counterplanning from the Kitchen,” co-authored with Nicole Cox in 1975, Federici reiterates: “We do not say that winning a wage is the revolution. We say that it is a revolutionary strategy because it undermines the role we are assigned in the capitalist division of labor and consequently it changes the power relations within the working class in terms more favorable to us and the unity of the class.”
Much of Martha Rosler’s early photo, video, and performance work — dating from the late ’60s through the late ’70s — was, like Wages for Housework, intended to spark critical consciousness. And like Wages for Housework, it hit a sort of interpretive snag where the artist’s intentional elisions, meant to inspire critique, were taken by viewers to be insufficiently critical. This never sat well with Rosler, and one sees it in her work: more often than not, she intervenes to clarify — to talk.
Rosler, granted, was an explainer from the beginning. Since 1973, every performance of Garage Sale has featured a reel-to-reel tape recording of Rosler posing reflexive questions about garage sales, speaking alternately as a California housewife and Marxist expositor: “What is the value of a thing? What makes you want it? What makes me want it? Question: How do things get to be commodities? Answer: When they are part of a system in which things are made for exchange, not for use, a system in which people sell their labor to others.” She curbs her self-explicating impulse in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), a short black-and-white video depicting Rosler as an aggressively deadpan cooking show–style hostess who demonstrates the utility of different kitchen objects in alphabetical order. “Egg beater,” she announces. “Fork. Grater.” She clangs metal dishes on the table, holds utensils in a fist and stabs at the air: no change of expression, no voice-over analysis. But it returns with Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained (1977), in which Rosler strips on camera to be tediously and invasively measured by a team of young scientists. Three interns in lab coats whistle at a high pitch, ring a bell, or blow the deflated note of a kazoo to indicate if the measurement falls above, within, or below “standard” range. (“Vaginal depth, relaxed, is six inches — that’s standard,” says the doctor, and a bell tinkles, like she’s won a prize.) It’s a clear enough critique of the measurement and evaluation of women’s bodies, but in case the artist’s naked body draws your attention away from the underlying message, Rosler’s voice-over on the audio track, overwhelming the video, tells you what you should be seeing: “This is a work about perception . . . This is a work about being done to. This is a work about learning how to think . . .
This is a work about coercion.” It’s Brechtian by way of Godard, inviting the possibility of uncritical pleasure in order to disrupt it. But here, as with Garage Sale, there’s a risk that desire — to buy things, to look at the artist’s body without having that gaze returned — overpowers the disruption. One can eat the treat and spit out the medicine.
With Martha Rosler Reads Vogue (1982), Rosler’s explanatory impulse begins to move from the margins of her work — in voice-over, caption, and crawling text — toward the center, to the point of becoming its substance. In a video for the public-access collective Paper Tiger Television, Rosler talks while flipping through the pages of Vogue, lightly tracing the contours of models’ strained poses with her index finger. The camera reads over her shoulder as she recites a laconic monologue: “What is Vogue? It is a magazine for women, for the woman who wishes and wants and hopes, and identifies with her social betters . . . It is the look, the pose, the skin of luxury. . . . It is the new face under the old face, it’s the pose, the look, the skin of narcissism.” The monologue recalls the looping tape recording in Garage Sale and the voice-over in Vital Statistics, but eighteen minutes in, there’s an abrupt switch: with the reggae drumroll of Blondie’s “Die Young Stay Pretty,” the camera cuts to a scene of women machine-sewing swaths of indigo fabric in a garment factory — dyeing, steaming, pressing — and stays there for four minutes. It’s delightfully didactic, as if Rosler no longer trusts her audience to infer ambiguous cues or take her Frankfurt School meditations for anything but soporific jargon. It’s also jarring enough to suggest that she’s right. Captions onscreen become journalistic: OVER 40 PERCENT OF CLOTHES SOLD IN THE US ARE MADE IN THE THIRD WORLD. MOST OF THE REST ARE MADE IN THIRD-WORLD ENCLAVES IN NYC, MIAMI, CHICAGO, AND LA. IN HAITI, WORKERS MAKING CLOTHES FOR SEARS AND ROEBUCK MAKE $2.60 FOR 12 HOURS WORK — MODELS WHOSE PICTURES ARE IN VOGUE MAKE $150–$200 AN HOUR.
In the late ’80s, the Dia Art Foundation in SoHo invited Rosler to do a solo exhibition; instead of showing her own work, she organized If you lived here . . . (1989), a three-part exhibition on homelessness to which over 200 artists, activists, and self-organized homeless contributed. Each exhibition had a reading room and an open forum discussion, with titles like “Housing: Gentrification, Dislocation, and Fighting Back” and “Homelessness: Conditions, Causes, and Cures.” The show was hardly written up by critics, but it made a big impression on aesthetic practice generally, and on Rosler. The urge to educate with supplementary literature and programming remains with her. For the MoMA Garage Sale, Rosler published two issues of a newspaper featuring articles on e-waste, commodity fetishism, the domestic labor market, obsolescence, and the museum; two panel events brought in the expertise of a psychic, a stylist, an art conservator, artists, activists, and an anthropologist and historian of garage sales. You could shop at the Garage Sale as before, but there was no question this time about what you should be thinking about as you did.
There is a story told about American feminism in the 1980s, and it goes like this: after the tremendous victories of the ’60s and ’70s, feminists who had come of age during the Women’s Liberation Movement hit a series of walls. One was the Reagan presidency, which embraced a token feminism at the top while systematically disassembling feminist organizing efforts below — appointing the first woman to the Supreme Court, for example, while dismantling the legal and policy initiatives that had won the previous decades’ battles. Then came the rise of “post-” and antifeminists, many of them young beneficiaries of the former movement, who caricatured their predecessors as overly censorious, sex-negative, numb to the pleasures of domestic life, and unduly pessimistic about the promises of careerism. (So began “have-it-all” feminism.) Some older feminists retreated into art, culture, or separatist Gaia worship. Many others turned toward the project of a new “global feminism.” Global feminism was capacious and, as a single category, unwieldy — lumping ineffectual UN conferences, worry over clitoridectomies, proliferating acronymic NGOs, and site-specific solidarity work under one banner. But there was also a strain of global feminism, emerging from the socialist-feminist wing of the movement, that sought to connect the situation in the US with the one in the developing world and vice versa. There were not different feminisms in different places, but one global situation, and injustices reverberated from one place to the next.
In the 1970s, Western women who were radicalized by feminism were women doing housework. They knew firsthand what that work was like: how strained and boring it was, what social obligations it involved, how it shored up their position in relation to men. Self-knowledge was fundamentally what made consciousness-raising — talking in a room to other women — such a powerful tool: it confirmed that your personal experience of sexism didn’t belong to you alone. It offered solidarity as well as a theoretical framework, a picture of social reality, on a scale that made the personal, as they say, political. The early work of people like Rosler and Federici — and Flo Kennedy, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Shulamith Firestone, Ellen Willis, Kate Millett, Valerie Solanas, and many others — allowed women, suddenly, to see their lives anew. It was like changing the lights in a room: all the furniture was the same, but, seen in a new cast, never quite the same again.
Decades later, the daughters of the predominantly white, middle-class women at the front lines of the WLM (if they had daughters) were no slaves to housework. If they valued it, they hired someone else to do it — and the people they hired were overwhelmingly women from the global south, pulled by the growing demand for domestic work in the West and pushed by structural and political forces in their home countries. This happened on such an enormous scale that an international division of labor emerged: maids, nannies, and nurses working in the US, Canada, Europe, and Saudi Arabia increasingly came from South Asia, North and East Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines, Central America, and the former Soviet countries — and still do. This was, and is, no mystery to employers, but what may seem mysterious is why these women left their countries to begin with.
By the 1980s, the error of trusting epiphany to do the work of revolution was clear to Federici. In “Putting Feminism Back on Its Feet” (1984), she writes, “One of the main shortcomings of the women’s movement has been its tendency to overemphasize the role of consciousness in the context of social change, as if enslavement were a mental condition and liberation could be achieved by an act of will.” Nowhere is this more apparent than in the global south, to which Federici turns her attention. Since the 1980s, economic policies liberalizing global trade have created structures of oppression no one could possibly expect a person to will away; “enslavement,” in Federici’s words — to debt, to need, to circumstance — is undeniably material.
As the international division of labor grows starker, the condition of the housewife is writ large, leaving the women of the “third world” to clean up the damage inflicted by the first. The questions raised by Wages for Housework are therefore more crucial to consider than ever, and Federici says as much. But as she does so her writing abandons the conceptual and consciousness-oriented posture of her early essays. Instead, footnotes multiply as information performs the task of argument.
This shift in style and focus coincides with a gap in Revolution at Point Zero, between 1984 and 1999. For two of those years Federici taught in Nigeria — years she described as “a turning point” for that country, as international pressures forced a program of “economic recovery” that would leave most Nigerians impoverished and destabilized. Witnessing this process firsthand influenced Federici’s later work, and her urgency to communicate what she saw trims the fat from her prose, if also the flair. When she writes about the effects of structural adjustment in 1999 — describing how new economic policies “solved” the housework crisis in Europe, the US, and Canada by “incentivizing migration,” pulling women from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the former socialist countries to do the domestic work middle-class women in the West no longer would — facts argue for themselves. Similarly, in an essay about how humanitarian intervention and food aid are anything but — creating unstable governments and food dependency, clearing the ground for multinational industry — she turns to research and journalism when invective and critical introspection no longer suffice. Federici calls on feminists to take action: to support the cancellation of “third world debt”; to demand an end to structural adjustment; to “organize against the recolonization attempt of which NIDL [the new international division of labor] is a vehicle.” It isn’t new for her to tell readers what to do, but it is new for her to tell them what to know.
Federici and Rosler make good case studies in the feminist activism of the past several decades. Their writing and art mirrors a shift in strategies over time, from consciousness-raising to broadcasting across a barrier, which the two of them happened upon while seeking out the best methods for their political projects.
But why are they popular now, when their best work has been around for decades? One answer is that institutional recognition always lags at a safe distance, and it’s taken time for these women to see their works published and publicized on this scale. Another is Occupy, which drew people back to autonomism, operaismo, and Wages for Housework, and which Rosler and Federici both vocally supported.
Something else, too, may explain why even Rosler’s and Federici’s earliest work feels contemporary and urgent. Young people in the West who have spent their formative years in the workforce as freelancers, part-timers, adjuncts, unwaged workers, and interns are beginning to feel — granted, later than most of the world — that they’re not compensated for the work that they do. Not “not paid enough,” but not paid at all, since the ballooning service, communications, and private-care industries increasingly demand the kind of work that people are expected to do out of love. Under these circumstances, the longstanding critique of the exploitation of mothers, wives, grandmothers is felt with new force, among a much younger and much wider population of women and men, with children and without.
It’s an improvement, if a somewhat discouraging one. The belatedness with which mainstream culture has come to recognize the value of unwaged work seems to confirm that women’s issues only become relevant once they’re successfully recast as “general” issues that pertain to men. (“Patriarchy hurts boys,” we’re told. It does — but does it have to in order for us to care?) It’s also a symptom of American politics generally, where turbulence elsewhere is only registered if we personally feel the aftershock: a trickle-up theory of oppression to complement the country’s trickle-down theory of wealth. For years, mainstream Western feminism has been stuck in the echo chamber of its own narrow politics. The same debates play out with little variation — about work–life balance, abortion, the sexual double standard, equal pay — as the movement’s perceived protagonists, still predominately white, straight, and wealthy, run up against the limits of their own experience again and again, waiting for the fourth wave to crash. As they spin their wheels, the experiences of women around them offer plenty indication of where the movement should apply its focus. The richest, most successful C-suite feminists may still find female oppression under their noses in the household, but odds are it isn’t theirs but their cleaning ladies’. Meanwhile, the greatest systemic crimes against women that affect our daily lives — and not only the most gruesome ones — remain beyond sight.
What would happen if, at long last, women and especially mothers were paid the market rate for their services? To begin with, it might buoy the baseline value of such work above zero, so that rank-and-file nurses, cleaners, and child care workers moiling in the waged economy wouldn’t get such lousy pay. Rosler and Federici belong to a generation of leftists largely suspicious of economic rationality, but to extend it, rather than battle to incrementally reduce its influence, could do women good. Put a price on women’s work, they say. If that work suddenly seems too expensive, it should. Perhaps men — increasingly the sex without work — might just do “women’s work” at lower pay, as women have done men’s since the Industrial Revolution. And perhaps women, as studies have shown they do, will use their wealth to improve the quality of life of entire households, entire societies.
Economists have known for a long time that women do a lot of work for free in times of social need. Remarkably, they have used this fact against women as part of the rationale behind massive neoliberal retrenchment: Why fund state services when you know that women will supply them for free? In the ’80s and ’90s, policy planners called this “crossing the desert,” a catchall for phenomena like maternal autostarvation (not eating and giving food to children), trekking to faraway water sources, and generally picking up the slack when state services retreat and infrastructure collapses. There’s another side to this sacrificial tendency of women, though, that doesn’t always compromise their health and well-being: during WWI, the British government discovered that income given directly to women, as opposed to men, raised the quality of life of an entire household. Later “experiments” in microfinance revealed the same. If the goal for neoliberal planners was to inflict the least damage on the tightest budget, you’d think this fact — sound enough to justify massive austerity programs — would also be sound enough to make the case for a universal income for women. In other words: wages for housework