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Interview with Silvia Federici

A few years ago, I read Revolution at Point Zero (2012), Silvia Federici’s career-spanning collection of essays on reproductive work and domestic labour. The essays articulate, in anger and clarity, what I and other women of my generation have begun, stutteringly, to understand: that the mass introduction of women into the waged workforce has not changed the fact that domestic chores outside of paid work continue to be conducted by women, nor the fact that this work remains invisible, or if seen at all, utterly devalued.

 

Federici, who was born in Parma, Italy, in 1942, has been writing about these issues for almost 50 years. She was a founding member of the 1970s Wages for Housework campaign, an international effort to draw attention to the unpaid labour of women in the home; after she moved to Brooklyn to teach at Hofstra University on Long Island, she became centrally involved in the New York Wages for Housework Committee. She detailed that organisation’s history in Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents (2017), which also reproduced her 1975 pamphlet, Wages Against Housework, famous for its provocative opening lines, ‘They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.’

 

I came late to Federici’s theorising, but once I found her, I engaged with as much of her writing as I could. The collection of essays in Revolution at Point Zero encompasses Federici’s early writings on feminism and housework alongside later pieces on the impact of globalisation on social reproduction – that is, the reproduction of everyday life – on the redistribution of housework onto the shoulders of immigrant women, and on the role of the commons in contemporary society.

 

Federici’s work on capitalism’s war on women’s bodies is encapsulated by two books on witch-hunts, Caliban and the Witch (2004), which argued that the exploitation of women was a central element in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women (2018), which revisited the subject matter following the return of witch-hunting in many parts of the world.

 

Her recent research on the commons, collected in Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2019), suggests, optimistically, that amidst our current economic and ecological collapse, there exist movements that fight to create and maintain communal resources, and a world beyond capitalism.

 

Our conversation began over email in February 2019 and lasted several months. We spoke once again in April 2021, during the height of the pandemic. During our interviews, she was generous and gracious, as we discussed feminism, housework, the necessity for women to look for structures outside of capitalism, and her own political coming-of-age.

 

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Your scholarship on feminism, capitalism and Marxism has been enormously influential, as has your commitment to political organising on these issues over the decades. What are the central experiences that have informed you politically and personally?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— There are many experiences that formed me politically. I was born in 1942 and for the first years of my life, I grew up on a farm, because Parma, the town where I was born, which is close to the main river in Italy, the Po, was being bombarded every night. My first years were on a farm, which I think was very good, and shaped my love for nature and for animals, but for years and years, all my parents talked about was the war. My mother told me that she was pregnant with my sister when she heard Mussolini declare war, that we were joining Nazi Germany. Then there was the bombing at night and running away with the children and never getting undressed; my father losing his shoes and wanting to go back and my mother saying ‘No’, telling me that if he had gone back, he would have been killed because there were many bombs falling. My father was stopped by a Nazi squad in 1943. They put him against the wall. He was safe because they asked him what his profession was and he said he was a philosophy teacher and so they let him go. So, I think, by the time I was 10, I knew I was not in a good world.

 

Parma had been one of the centres of the anti-fascist struggle in Italy. In August 1922, it had three days of urban warfare, to prevent the fascists from coming into town and breaking a strike. Many of the streets in the town are named after people who were massacred. In 1943, during the Nazi occupation, there were lots of people who were killed and tortured. This very strong spirit of resistance to fascism, and also to the Nazi occupation, I think, was one of the major influences on my life. One of my teachers in high school was a communist, and he was a very strong personality. He taught us Italian literature. I remember his class. You could hear a fly.

 

Also fascism was very, very anti-women, very misogynist, very patriarchal, very militaristic, and those are things you don’t get over. And fascism grew out of a patriarchal society anyway. In adolescence, there was the struggle with my father with restrictions, with having to lie about where I was going, about having a boyfriend. And then there was the struggle with the boyfriend, the jealousy. I was 19, and I did have a struggle with the male world. When in 1967 I came to the US I was already a natural rebel.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Why did you go to the US?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— I wanted to get away from Italy. I wanted to go out in the world. I had a degree in modern languages and literature, but I knew many years would pass before I would be able to teach in high school and teach literature. So I enrolled again in philosophy, but I was not able to support myself. I was teaching, but as a temp, without much money. So I was living at home, with all the restriction of a patriarchal family. And so I wanted freedom. I applied for a lot of scholarships. Then in the summer of 1966 I got a scholarship to go to Edinburgh in Scotland for a summer school in literature. And I met a lot of American students. Some told me to apply Buffalo, which was very well known for philosophy. So then I applied for the Fulbright Program, and things came together. I went to Buffalo. I had an official reason, which was that I was going to research for my new dissertation. But the real reason was I wanted out. I came to the US at the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement, and shortly after the revolt of Black communities in Detroit. Also in the US I discovered my feminism, which as I said, had been growing since I was a child.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was it around that time that you went to Mexico?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— The first time I went to Mexico was in 1968. That was an important year. It was a month after the massacre in the Plaza de Las Tres Culturas when the Mexican Armed Forces killed students before the Olympics. [Estimates vary on how many people were killed, but the massacre in Tlatelolco, Mexico City on 2 October 1968 remains one of the worst incidents of mass killing in Mexico’s history.] I had heard of it, but I had no idea it had been so terrible until I went. I travelled there with an Englishwoman, a friend I had met on campus in the US. When we arrived, we unpacked and then we said: ‘Oh, let’s go to the campus’, and immediately in the street, we saw guards with rifles. We saw buses plastered with white to cover over the protest slogans written on them. We saw a place that was militarised. The campus was dead, but near the campus in a cafeteria, we met this group of young men who invited us to a party, and at that party, there were some people from the National Council of La Raza [a US-based Latino advocacy group, now known as UnidosUS]. And they said: ‘Okay, if you want to know what happened, tomorrow, we’ll give you something,’ and they gave us this journal called Proceso [a left-wing Mexican news magazine published in Mexico City]. The journal was published clandestinely at that time. It had pictures of pregnant women on the ground and it had a very detailed description of what happened – the fact that there was this demonstration in this plaza, which has three avenues, and those avenues were blocked. And then they started shooting, from the ground and from the top of buildings. I was sick for days after. I wrote my first article in English for a journal called the Town Crier, a grassroots radical journal. I remember I was crying as I was writing, it was so horrible. We stayed in Mexico for a month. After that I worked with Telos, a radical philosophy journal produced by graduate students at Buffalo. I was also working with the Town Crier. That was until 1970, when I came to New York.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— How did the Wages for Housework movement begin and what was your involvement?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— My feminism had already started in Buffalo, as feminist groups were formed in 1970-71. That’s when I read Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ (1971), which became the foundation document of the Wages For Housework campaign. That movement began in 1972 at a meeting held in Padua, Italy, where women from different countries, but mostly from Italy, gathered. These were women who had worked in Lotta Femminista, a feminist organisation. I was involved in it from the beginning and then until 1977. I was in Brooklyn, but we were organised internationally, so I kept contacts with the groups in Italy, England, Canada. At the end of a two-day discussion, we formed an organisation, which we named the International Feminist Collective, whose task would be to launch Wages for Housework campaigns in our respective countries. What connected us was our participation in a network of activists, spanning from Padua, Milan, Turin, London and Detroit, that in the 1960s was developing alternatives to the politics of the traditional communist parties, inspired by the struggles of industrial workers as well as by the anti-colonial movements. This common political background led us to seek a class-based feminism other than that embraced by existing socialist-feminist organisations. In the summer of 1972, I began trying to organise in New York, but the idea, of wages for housework, was really unpopular. I was working with a women’s group and they were not interested in wages for housework. An analysis of reproduction, yes, but not the idea of wages for housework. On the contrary, I think so many women hated us. For them, feminism was about saying we are as good as men, and there we were bringing us back to the kitchen. You know, it was like: ‘You want to confer this degradation on women?’ We were embracing our degradation.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— I read that, at the time, you believed those involved with the Wages for Housework movement were pioneers, but later you realised that wages for housework had, in fact, already entered the feminist agenda by the end of the nineteenth century in the US and elsewhere.

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— Yes, between 1880 and 1930 it was among the strategies that feminists adopted in the US in what Dolores Hayden has called the ‘grand domestic revolution’ [in her book of 1981, The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs For American Homes, Neighbourhoods, and Cities]. Hayden wrote that these feminists ‘challenged two characteristics of industrial capitalism: the physical separation of household space from public space, and the separation of the domestic economy from the political economy.’ These first endorsements paved the way to the recognition that the housewife is a worker, a member of the working class in her own right. It’s hard to tell how widespread such a demand was but a New York Times editorial from 10 August 1876, rebuking a woman from Kentucky who demanded wages for housework from her husband, suggests it may have not been limited to a few radical circles. There was, however, a profound difference between the perspective of the nineteenth-century supporters of wages for housework and that of our campaign. They accepted the existence of a separate female sphere of activity, but wished to see it reorganised in a way that was less isolating. Our position was more in line with that of Mary Inman, whose work I came across only about three or four years ago, as I was compiling the book about the New York Wages for Housework Committee. Inman published In Woman’s Defense in 1939, and in it she wrote that workers’ wives were as crucial to the production process as their husbands and that the home never ceased to be a place of production, because ‘the most valuable of all commodities is still produced there: Labor Power.’

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You write in Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972-1977 (2017) that you opened a store front in Brooklyn in the autumn of 1975, where you could more easily meet the women you wanted to reach.

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— We got a miserable little room, but it was great. A storefront with a big window onto the street. It’s a New York thing. So the room was small, but we filled it with all our posters. Whenever possible, the door was open so women could walk in, pick up a flyer and then periodically, we had meetings and we posted about it in the community. That was a way of getting the information out. Back then, New York was really cheap. I was paying $200 a month for a duplex apartment with a small garden in a very cheap neighbourhood. But in the summer of 1975 New York City had declared bankruptcy and soon the austerity regime we were subjected to reduced the spaces and resources that had been available to us: easily found part-time jobs, cheap rents, adjustable working hours. Two years after the beginning of the economic crisis in New York the New York Wages for Housework Committee decided to dissolve.

 

But we were strong for three years, between 1974 to 1976. I think what was mostly achieved during that time was a change in a conception of what housework is. I think there is now a sense that what we call domestic work is the production of the workforce. And it gave a material basis to a radical feminist analysis of sexual and personal relations, the idea that the personal is political, because what happens in the home is connected to the broader organisation of work. The privatisation of the home actually hides the exploitation. Also, the analysis of the wage as a way of structuring hierarchy, of structuring inequality, as a way of hiding, concealing, naturalising exploitation: I think that all of that has become common sense. 

 

I think more could have been achieved if the feminist movement had been on side. For instance, at the time, there was the struggle of women on welfare – the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that had been in place since the 1930s and by the 1970s was under attack, with the women themselves being constantly vilified in the press, and by politicians of all brands, as frauds and parasites. We supported their struggle. But the feminist movement did not come out supporting women on welfare the way they did abortion. The struggle in the feminist movement was always about the struggle not to have children, never about having the resources to also have children, which created a big division with Black women who were fighting against the question of denied maternity, from slavery on. That’s what they have had to fight against: sterilisation, not having money, always having to do housework, but in other people’s homes. 

 

The feminist movement was all about having a career, joining the union, getting out of the home. Now most women work outside the home in the US. But they don’t make enough money to have any autonomy. Going out to work costs. If you’re in New York transport is a lot of money. And then you are feeding trash to your children. There was no discussion concerning what would happen to children, to not self-sufficient elders, to those with chronic infirmities who in the past depended on women’s care work. The only demand was for government-supported day care centres, and for women and men to share the housework. Sharing the housework may change the relationship with men – and it’s good that you don’t have to do it all – but it doesn’t change the relationship with capitalism, it doesn’t change the devaluation of housework. Also we have seen that those women who can afford it now hire care-workers, mostly migrant women. Those who cannot afford it have to reduce the housework, with all the consequences that we know. It’s become a mantra, to share the housework, but this is a disconnection of the feminist struggle from the broader struggle to transform society. There has not been a debate, a struggle, a mobilisation to decide what would replace the presence of thousands of women in the home – how the work that we used to do would be done, with what resources, with what forms of organisation. That in fact is still an open problem, though we are more and more aware that the lack of a solution contributes to the reproduction crisis we are witnessing and living.

 

We must also assess the reproduction crisis deriving from the deterioration of the natural environment, which is especially dramatic when we look at this question in continents like Africa, where you have a process of desertification where water is becoming in many places more and more scarce, and the crops are withering and women have to walk miles every day to fetch some. We need to re-appropriate resources. The problem of care is the lack of time and lack of money, lack of resources, lack of housing, lack of good food. It is the problem of contaminated water, contaminated air, contaminated rivers, contaminated seas. We have to change all of that. There’s a connection between the lack of health care, and all the domestic work over time, no money, no resources, and also the broader ecological issue. That’s part of the care. Eco-feminists and women in Latin America have been saying that all along.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Was it soon after the Wages for Housework movement dissolved that you moved on to your work on the witch-hunts?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— The historical work began very soon after that. Because, for me, the issue was always the housework. It’s non-historical, a kind of naturalised activity. So we look at the history to show how we got here. How did we get to the family? I began by looking at the nineteenth century, and then realised I was not going to go anyplace unless I started much, much earlier. In the end, I decided to begin with the rise of capitalism. I had read Witches, Midwives & Nurses (1972) by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English. For me that pamphlet was like – Boom! I saw on the very first pages, it said the witch-hunts became widespread in Europe in the sixteenth century. Then I knew it was caught up with the slave trade, with the enclosures. I know enough about that period to know: this is capitalism. These big witch-hunts were organised not by the church, but mostly by lay authorities. They took place in the sixteenth century, in the seventeenth century. It went on until the Enlightenment, until the eighteenth century. Women were still being killed in the eighteenth century.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

Caliban in the Witch (1998) addresses the witch hunts as a tool of subjugation, part of the sexual division of labour, which happened during the transition to capitalism, when the feudal system was replaced with the factory system. In the book you explain how ‘witches’, predominately women, were charged with reproductive crimes – controlling their fertility with ‘potions’, having abortions. Why did this take such a central role in the public imagination at the time?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— To understand you have to build a context. It is a magnification, a creation of the monster, the monstrous. It’s not so different now. Women are still called ‘baby killers’ in the US today. In many states, there are local bills demanding the death penalty for abortion – for the woman and for the doctor [such as a bill filed in Texas in March 2021]. There’s a capitalist, patriarchal order that has continued into the present. If they could, they would burn us. And they are burning women. All over the world today they are burning women as witches.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Is that why you felt it was necessary to revisit the subject of the witch hunts?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— In recent years we have seen a return of witch-hunting in Africa, India and other regions, and there are good reason to think that these new persecutions are connected with the expansion of capitalist relations in the areas affected. So, for example, in many communities in Africa if a woman lives alone and has access to land, she’s accused of being a witch, and the land is taken away, because the land is scarce and now there is a competition for resources, a struggle for survival. And many times behind all of this there are local chiefs who are collaborating with mining companies, with oil petroleum companies. So there’s a lot underground that isn’t visible. But the connection between women being charged as witches, the burning of women, and taking away the land, is very clear. The new violence against women is rooted in structural trends that are constitutive of capitalist development and state power.

 

Then there are the elderly women. In the north of Ghana, you have witch detention camps, and many women go to them spontaneously after menopause. I read this in Spellbound: Inside West Africa’s Witch Camps (2010) [where Karen Palmer reports on a 2007 visit she made to some of the ‘witch camps’]. The women go because they know that after menopause, they are going to be charged with being witches, because there’s a patriarchal code: if you cannot provide sexual services or children, you’re no good. You’re just another mouth to feed in a population that is now being deprived at a level that is hardly imaginable.

 

It takes a different form, but it’s the same as the persecution seen in the sixteenth century. The expansion of capitalism is actually tearing communities apart. People are competing for resources. And then you have this overwhelming presence, of course, of the Pentecostal, the Evangelists, the Christian fundamentalists who are coming in talking about the devil, saying ‘You are poor because there are these people in the community.’

 

I’ve been working a lot on this. And I’ll be working more on it. I’m very interested now in Scandinavia. In March 2022, at the Steilneset Memorial in Vardø, the Norwegian Government is planning to commemorate the witches who were killed in the Finnmark area [in 1621 of 91 people were executed for witchcraft]. Louise Bourgeois was involved in building the memorial. It’s a very powerful work, a chair with a flame in the middle. In France, they are publishing a many-volumed encyclopaedia on femicide and the first one is on witch hunting.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— What do you think about the reclamation of the sexy witch stereotype from within feminism? How do you understand it?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— I don’t like it. Scores of movies now centre on the theme of the witch – promoting again the idea that women are demonic beings, with destructive powers they cannot control, and this at a time when violence against women is growing worldwide. I think that’s very dangerous. There is a lot of identification with the witches but there is no struggle. There is only commercialisation. I told young women, why don’t you boycott these movies? Why don’t you protest? Worse, the witch has been turned into a folkloristic, mythical figure, and an object of ridicule. She is the old woman with a satanic smile, riding a broom that children can buy in tourist shops, in the very localities where women have been arrested, horribly tortured and often hanged or burned alive. It is only because the history of the women who were murdered on charges of witchcraft has been cancelled that it is possible today to have these shops, and for little girls to dress like witches and play trick or treat or buy witch dolls. The loss of historical memory is dangerous. This is not a game. This is another reason I decided to return to the witch-hunts. It is a history that has been erased from the collective memory. The book is only a part of a project I share with other women, which is to re-examine collectively this history and draw from it some lessons for the present.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— Has the pandemic spotlighted the ways we have devalued care and reproductive labour? Is there any wider understanding of this issue now? I wonder will there be any change?

A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— Lots of people wrote to me following Covid. There was a huge silence and I thought the whole story was forgotten. And then I discovered that my article, ‘Wages Against Housework’, has become wildly popular, it has been translated and so forth. For example, I was in Argentina in 2018, in Buenos Aires, and I saw a slogan on a big wall that said in Spanish: ‘They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work.’ The woman with me explained that some women wrote it in a few places and then the police went and erased it. So, the women said: ‘Now we’re going to write it everywhere.’ They even gave me posters of the slogan written on different walls. I think now people know much more. Women are now back home with the children and they don’t know if they’ll ever be able to work outside the home again, many employers are saying this is good. In the US, it’s calculated that five million women have lost paid employment. Officially, two million left work spontaneously because they had to take care of their children.

Q

THE WHITE REVIEW

— You suggested, in an interview I read, published by Sur Journal in 2016, that, despite the narrative of feminist emancipation, it’s difficult to be a young woman, more difficult than it was for your generation. Why?
A

SILVIA FEDERICI

— Younger women today cannot be sure of what is most important in their lives. Women of my generation faced more repression, more restrictions, but we had a clearer understanding of what we wanted. Now, women live in a world where there is the illusion of more options, and for many of them this is certainly the case. But at the same time, it is more difficult for them to decide where to direct their energies and desires. The more radical ones reject the nuclear family but have not generally constructed a viable alternative. Work is also precarious, so the question of locality is not easy to resolve. The experience of solidarity with other women – of sisterhood – that was so strong in the first years of the feminist movement is not there any longer. The material conditions of life have changed too. We lived in times in which wages were higher, jobs were often fairly secure, not for everybody but for a considerable percentage of the population, and welfare programs existed that gave women and young people some space, some options. Education was generally free, while now to obtain a degree you have to take on a major debt.

 

Of course I do not want to paint a wholly negative picture, only to underline the greater challenges and difficulties young people and women in particular experience today. The positive thing is that in so many places a new feminist movement is developing, which, I hope, will learn from the experiences of the past and bring the struggle forward.

 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

Silvia Federici is a feminist activist, writer, and a teacher. In 1972 she was one of the cofounders of the International Feminist Collective, the organisation that launched the Wages For Housework campaign internationally. In the 1990s, after a period of teaching and research in Nigeria, she was active in the anti-globalisation movement and the U.S. anti-death penalty movement. She is one of the co-founders of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, an organisation dedicated to generating support for the struggles of students and teachers in Africa against the structural adjustment of African economies and educational systems. From 1987 to 2005 she taught international studies, women studies, and political philosophy courses at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. All through these years she has written books and essays on philosophy and feminist theory, women’s history, education and culture, and more recently the worldwide struggle against capitalist globalisation and for a feminist reconstruction of the commons. Her most recent volumes are Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women (2018), Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018) and the revised and expanded Revolution Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (2020).

Rachel Andrews’s essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in outlets including the London Review of Booksn+1Brick literary journal, the Stinging FlyLongreads, GorseBanshee, the Irish Times and the Dublin Review. In 2017 she was shortlisted for the Fitzcarraldo Essay Prize. She is working on a book about the female body in domestic space. 

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