Home / General / LGM Review of Books: Silvia Federici and Arlen Austin, Eds., Wages for Housework: The New York Committee, 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents

LGM Review of Books: Silvia Federici and Arlen Austin, Eds., Wages for Housework: The New York Committee, 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents

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We too often forget about the diversity of feminism in the 1970s. Sure, it got largely reduced in the public and political realm to the Equal Rights Amendment and the right to an abortion, but it was so much more than that. Coming out of the maelstrom the 1960s, intense debates raged among feminists about the goals of the movement. Should it focus on the ERA? Or was that a something that basically concerned middle-class white liberal feminists (spoiler: largely, yes)? What about lesbianism? What about welfare rights, a major project for black feminists?

One strand of this diverse feminism was Wages for Housework, a movement in the U.S. led by Siliva Federici, an Italian activist who moved in the U.S. in the late 1960s for graduate school and who co-founded the International Feminist Collective. She then became the leader of the U.S. side of the Wages for Housework movement, an international set of activists focusing on liberating women from housework in part by paying them for that labor. This touched on many key themes of feminism, including the unspoken second job for women–working outside the home for wages and inside the home without wages–which had plagued women ever since they entered the industrial workforce. Correctly arguing that reproductive labor was the foundation of industrial work, it demanded proper compensation within this capitalist economy and lambasted the left for not taking these questions seriously. It was a lesbian-centered movement that argued that lesbians actually deserved even more compensation for their work because of the economic disadvantages that all women faced in the workforce, plus the psychic burden of homosexuality within a hetero-centric world. It called for direct action by women at the workplace and for women of color to start their own groups within the larger movement to focus on the issues that most mattered to them. It was strongly pro-sex work at a time when much of feminism was demonizing sex workers and seeking to ban pornography. It never had too many adherents, but it opened a store in New York and had a few chapters across the country.

Ultimately, Wages for Housework faded out by the late 1970s, as did so many radical movements, but Federici has remained an influential thinker and defender of her ideas to the present. So she, along Arlen Austin, who I believe is primarily responsible for the design, published the lovely Wages for Housework in 2017. This is Federici’s attempt at representing the history of her ideas through the republication of primary source material combined with a new introduction and some other short pieces explaining the movement’s goals. For most people, the real appeal here is going to be those primary sources. This is a good-looking book, especially for a book that is explicitly leftist and is unlikely to make a lot of money. Full color printing of old photographs, posters, newspaper articles, and other documents provide a fascinating archive of a too-often forgotten about movement. The book relives Wages for Housework in all its intellectually diverse splendor, including chapters dedicated to the movement’s branches, international conferences, family policy, welfare, and lesbian autonomy.

Backing all this up is Federici’s own writings from the 1970s and the present. She’s a full-fledged but accessible theoretician who continues to challenge the sexism at the heart of both capitalism and the left. She goes into great detail explaining how WFH was a response to the realities of feminism grounded in the process of capital accumulation and how housework reproduced labor for a capitalist system in a way that was not even recognized by many leftists at the time. WFH didn’t get too mired in policy details of precisely how much women should be paid or how this work–that really wasn’t the job of the women behind it. But Federici builds useful connections between her work forty years ago and Universal Basic Income advocates today, noting that more people are realizing that work is not the ticket to emancipation. Although I am not particularly a supporter of the UBI proposals floating around today, I certainly don’t believe that work leads to liberation. Moreover, no mainstream voices in labor and very few in feminism have ever articulated a meaningful response to Federici’s challenges or how to classify unpaid reproductive labor at all. Behind this reluctance is not just an intractable problem of conceptualization or implementation. It’s that the labor movement has traditionally had a huge sexism problem it has never fully faced up to and that mainstream feminism has a huge class problem that it also refuses to take seriously. Federici and the Wages for Housework activists attempted to challenge both and if it didn’t get too far, the challenge remains there for us to pick up today.

The only downside of this book is that it does really help to have some preexisting knowledge of Marxism and 70s-era feminism to quite get what Federici is talking about. That’s certainly fine for me and for many of you. But I picked this up as a possible book for my Protest and Resistance in America and I think it is a little above their heads without me doing more work on this specific movement than I have time to give to it. I might use a piece of it–after all the visuals are great and will really get the students thinking about feminism in a way they have not before, which is going to be important since 90 percent of the students enrolled in the course are women and if it is like last year’s version, a lot of people will be interested in #MeToo than anything else. But where this book would have its greatest value is in leftist reading groups where people are already thinking in these terms.

Overall, Wages for Housework is a tremendously useful book, one that makes Federici’s legacy easily available for the future and one that should get us thinking about the possibilities and limitations of contemporary feminism.

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