Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes of Marx, Gender, and Feminism in College & Research Libraries

By Melissa A. Hubbard, University at Buffalo
College & Research Libraries Journal
May 2022

Activist and Marxist scholar Silvia Federici is perhaps best known for the Wages for Housework campaign launched in the 1970s, which demanded payment for domestic labor in an attempt to make a critical intervention in the capitalist exploitation of women.1 Like most of her work, Patriarchy of the Wage emphasizes “reproductive labor,” labor that does not directly produce profit for the owning class, but instead reproduces and cares for the laborers whose work creates that profit.

In this book, Federici analyzes various forms of reproductive labor to generate new understandings of Marxist theory, and new possibilities for socialist organizers. Ultimately, Federici argues that understanding reproductive labor and its gendered nature is necessary for building a strong socialist movement, and an equitable world where everyone can thrive.

Chapters 1 and 2 constitute a defense of the Wages for Housework campaign against
critique from other socialist activists. Federici argues that many leftists depict waged la-
borers as the protagonists of socialist struggle while marginalizing unwaged laborers such
as housewives, to the detriment of both women and the socialist movement. These leftists
position domestic work as a natural act of love and care that would occur even without the
organizing presence of capitalism in workers’ lives. Federici argues that this narrative serves
the owning class by separating reproductive labor from waged labor, when in fact both are
necessary for profit generation. The Wages for Housework campaign demands payment for
the “real length of the workday,” which extends beyond the time spent directly laboring for
a wage into the time spent caring for the bodies, minds, and children of workers (20). In these
chapters, Federici connects the patriarchal positioning of women as natural domestic labor-
ers who deserve no wage to low wages in feminized professions, arguing that once women
become “used to working for nothing,” it is easy for employers to justify low wages in fields
like librarianship, nursing, and teaching (15). The central argument here is that true working-
class solidarity requires valuing all labor, including reproductive labor.

Federici moves from socialist practice into socialist theory in chapters 3 through 5, arguing
that classical Marxism is incomplete without the feminist critique that unpaid reproductive
labor is central to capitalist exploitation, and thus an important site of working class struggle.
These chapters are very much part of a conversation between Federici and other Marxist theo-
rists and may be of less interest to readers with little grounding in this discourse. However,
library workers may find much of value in chapter 4, “Marx, Feminism, and the Construction
of the Commons.” Federici argues that one of the flaws in Marx’s analysis was his belief that
industrialization would build the conditions necessary for socialist revolution by increasing
productivity and reducing scarcity. Federici incorporates the work of ecofeminists who argue
that while industrial advancement may increase productivity, it also devastates the planet
and creates new demands for reproductive labor required to sustain human life in increas-
ingly damaged ecosystems. This chapter calls for a shift away from Marxist communism
toward a politics of the commons, focused on building a society modeled on “spaces [such
as community gardens] that are self-organized and both require and produce community”
(67). While libraries are not named in this chapter (nor are they typically self-organized), I
found myself thinking about how they serve as a commons, providing space and labor that
supports a variety of productive and reproductive communal activities.

In the final two chapters, Federici discusses the history of two categories of feminized
laborers: housewives and sex workers. The central argument of both of these chapters is
that as capitalism shifted into heavy industry in the late nineteenth century, workers’ bodies
required more care so they could handle the physical demands of the labor. Workers also
needed to be replaced more often. This led to the development of the family wage and the
housewife required to care for a male worker’s body, as well as to bear and care for children
who would serve as future laborers. This duty to reproduce led many married women to resist
sex and created the need for another kind of reproductive laborer: the sex worker, who could
serve men’s need for sexual pleasure when their wives would not. These are interesting argu-
ments, but I wish these chapters had been longer and contained more supporting evidence
for Federici’s historical claims. The history of sex workers, the history of housewives, and the
complex relationship between the two in the context of patriarchy and capitalism is simply
too much to cover in two short chapters. These chapters would also have benefited from more
analysis of race and how it intersects with dominant views of housewives and sex workers.
Patriarchy of the Wage offers an important feminist intervention into socialist practice and
theory, and I admire Federici’s commitment to addressing both at once. This book has much
to offer for anyone interested in socialist praxis that accounts for reproductive labor and
the environmental toll of capitalism. While some of its arguments are underdeveloped, it is
particularly strong when laying out Federici’s politics of the commons, pulling in arguments
from Marxist and feminist theory, and examples from feminists and socialists struggling in
a variety of contexts. Library workers will value this book for contributions to theory about
reproductive labor and feminized professions, and for the possibilities it offers in viewing li-
braries as sites for building a politics of the commons.

1. Federici frequently uses the word “women” to refer to cisgender women whose bodies are capable of
producing children. I believe she does so because this artificial conflation of sex and gender is fundamental to the systems of oppression she is exposing in her work. Capitalism and patriarchy position “women” as a biological category destined to engage in reproductive labor because of the assumed reproductive capacities of our bodies. Federici’s arguments in this book would be stronger if she had engaged critically with this use ofthe word women and its power to reinscribe the gender binary and reinforce patriarchy.

Back to Silvia Federici’s Author Page

Patriarchy of the Wage: Notes on Marx, Gender, and Feminism