Silvia Federici Sees Your Unpaid Work

The crisis that Federici identified in the 1970s has reached a boiling point.

By Joanna Biggs
The New Republic
February 11th, 2022

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.

Federici helped set up the New York branch of the campaign (their first public action was to hand out flyers saying “No More Work for Free” in Prospect Park on May Day 1974) and wrote a pamphlet titled “Wages Against Housework.” Her version of the argument was subtle but boldly expressed: “We are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle.” The work that goes on in the home—the cooking, the cleaning, the childcare, the elder care, the gardening, the shopping, the fixing, fetching, wiping, and carrying—wasn’t seen as work, but as something women did for love. This made it hard to refuse, or to share; it made what women did difficult to value, and even to see. But if a price was put on that work, wouldn’t that be the first step to changing it? And if we recognized that the work wasn’t in fact love, well, then “we might rediscover what is love.”

Although Federici speaks of capital and labor, class and wages, she doesn’t mention Marx by name in that first pamphlet, which has become a touchstone for feminists since the crash of 2008 and the Occupy movement. When she disentangled love from work, she laid the groundwork for arguments, recently mounted by Melissa Gira Grant and Juno Mac and Molly Smith, to recognize sex work as work. When she suggested care work was worth payment, she staked a claim for the type of collective care that abolition feminists such as Mariame Kaba hope will replace the carceral system. The coronavirus lockdowns also brought about a small revival of Federici’s ideas, as the work done by day-care centers, schools, and care homes as well as (in the homes of the upper middle class) cleaners and nannies fell back onto the family, and the simmering care crisis that Federici had identified in the 1970s reached a boiling point.

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.