Italy: Autonomist feminism

Hence we must refuse housework as women’s work, as work imposed upon us, which we never invented, which has never been paid for, in which they have forced us to cope with absurd hours, 12 and 13 a day, in order to force us to stay at home. We must get out of the house; we must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home, to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether the ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or asylum. To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions, and so all those who work out of the home would then demand that the burden carried by us until now be thrown squarely where it belongs-onto the shoulders of capital. This alteration in the terms of struggle will be all the more violent the more the refusal of domestic labor on the part of women will be violent, determined and on a mass scale. The working class family is the more difficult point to break because it is the support of the worker, but as worker, and for that reason the support of capital. On this family depends the support of the class, the survival of the class – but at the woman’s expense against the class itself. The woman is the slave of a wage-slave, and her slavery ensures the slavery of her man. Like the trade union, the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he and she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial. To meet other women who work inside and outside their homes allows us to possess other chances of struggle. To the extent that our struggle is a struggle against work, it is inscribed in the struggle which the working class wages against capitalist work. But to the extent that the exploitation of women through domestic work has had its own specific history, tied to the survival of the nuclear family, the specific course of this struggle which must pass through the destruction of the nuclear family as established by the capitalist social order, adds a new dimension to the class struggle.

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, Women and the Subversion of the Community

Voices of revolutionary feminism …

One of the most important contributions to contemporary feminism emerged in the late 1960s, in italy, with Lotta Feminista and the Wages for Housework movements (the latter would also spread to north america), which, inspired by operaismo/workerism, placed the reproduction of capitalist social relations at the centre of theoretical criticism and political militancy.

If marxism traditionally focused on the centrality of wage labour, of labour as commodity, in the structuring of relations of social production under capitalism (with the practical consequence that the factory was seen as the principal site of political, class conflict), the italian feminist critique of the period attributed equal importance to the reproduction of labour outside the factory, a reproduction necessary for the very possibility of commodity production; a labour which as unwaged (consequently judged to be “unproductive”) was assigned to “marginal” populations, most notably women (along with the slaves, the colonised, racial and ethnic “minorities”, and the like). And it was in this subaltern place of reproduction that modern sex and gender identities would be constituted.

If patriarchy predates capitalism, the latter appropriates patriarchy its own ends, such that a revolutionary feminism can only be anti-capitalist.

We share below four articles. The first serves as an introduction to radical italian feminism of the 1970s. This is followed by articles co-authored and authored by three central figures of the Wages for Housework movements: Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James and Silvia Federici.

We close with a video recorded interview with Selma James and talk by Silvia Federici.

An article about the autonomous women’s movement in Italy in the 1970s, with particular focus on Wages for Housework and Lotta Femminista. (

Italian feminism, workerism and autonomy in the 1970s: The struggle against unpaid reproductive labour and violence

Patrick Cuninghame

We spit on Hegel.
The master-slave dialectic is a settling of accounts among male collectivities:
It does not consider the liberation of woman, the great oppressed of patriarchal civilization.
The class struggle as a revolutionary theory developed from the master-slave dialect, also excludes woman
We question socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Carla Lonzi1

One of the foremost practitioners of autonomy has been the women’s movement, the meeting of whose needs had historically been postponed by “the revolutionary party ” until after the conquest of State power and the establishment of socialism, the issue of gender being firmly subordinated to that of class. Feminist movements in particular have tended to be autonomous, given that women as a social category have been oppressed by patriarchy in all its social relations, including within left political parties, trade unions, social movements and by revolutionaries. They were among the first in Italy and elsewhere, after the profoundly important but ultimately ambiguous experience of the movements of 1968, to develop a fundamental critique of the political forms and practices of the “New Left”, which in practice, if not in theory, minimized the needs and differences of women, subordinating them to the demands of the class struggle, in a similar way to the organizations of the older, Institutional Left. This critique caused many women to leave the New Left (NL) parties and groups in the early Seventies to form the first self-managed feminist organizations, so provoking, along with the question of participation in “armed struggle”,2 its crisis. This led to its dissolution and the creation, from its fragmented remains, of Autonomia, a radically anti-capitalist social movement, influenced by the feminist organizational critique, but in which relatively few feminists participated.

Operaismo (workerism), originally a tendency within trade unionism and the parties of the Institutional Left, also deeply influenced the Italian feminist movement, especially through the theoretical and political work of Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Leopoldina Fortunati and other women of Lotta Feminista (LF/Feminist Struggle). This organization campaigned for a salary for housework, given its strategic importance to the capitalist economy through the reproduction of the next generation of workers and the care of the current generation with no direct cost to the State or the market. Or as the authors of the pamphlet, “New Feminist Movement” put it:

[…] and all this work that the woman does, an average of 99.6 hours weekly, without the possibility of strikes, nor absenteeism, nor to make any demands, is done for free.3

This campaign, which quickly spread throughout Europe and North America, resulted in the founding of one of the first transnational social movements, Wages for Housework (WfH)4, and prompted a critique of the Welfare State as the protector and guarantor of the sexual division of labour and the reproduction of the labour force. This resulted in the creation, along with other feminist groups – then in the process of demobilization after a cycle of huge public protests and demonstrations in the mid-1970s for the right to divorce and abortion – of alternative social services, particularly in the fields of health, birth control, abortion and the prevention of intrafamilial violence. Since the crisis of such movements in the Eighties, feminists have conducted much research and theoretical analysis, often as academics, on women’s social status and their struggles within post-Keynesian capitalism, making comparative analyses with the conditions and forms of struggle of contemporary indigenous, environmentalist and anti-war movements.

The relative lack of a “female memory” on Autonomia as a social movement reflects an historical tendency in all societies for that voice to be silenced or ignored, alienated from or conflated (along social class lines) with male discourse, including within the autonomous, libertarian Left. Feminist methodologies generally criticise the myth of “academic disengagement”, presenting social research instead as a dialogical process which the researcher’s past experiences necessarily both motivate and affect, as do those of the researched.5

Accepting these methodological considerations and in outlining the historical development of Italian feminism during the 1970s, this essay will identify and discuss some of the main differences between Italian workerist feminism and liberal, socialist and separatist feminisms, on the questions of reproductive labour and the role of paid work outside the home in promoting (or not) the economic independence and social emancipation of women. First, it will outline the emergence of the two main workerist feminist organizations, Lotta Feminista and Wages for Housework around the issues of unpaid reproductive and domestic labour and of the capitalist use of physical and sexual violence against women. Second, some of the problems linked to relations between feminism and the Autonomia social movement will be explored. The article concludes by examining the continuity of workeristinfluenced feminism, compared to other Italian feminisms.

Lotta Feminista and Wages for Housework: Struggles against Violence and Unpaid Reproductive Labour

Following the 1969 “Hot Autumn” wave of wildcat strikes and generalized industrial and social conflict in which Potere Operaio [PO/Workers Power], the main workerist group, played a pivotal role, the factory-based autonomous workers’ movement continued to organize its resistance to capitalist work, exploitation and restructuring through the autonomous assemblies in the factories of the North. Simultaneously, a wider form of autonomy and democratisation spread throughout the entire working class, including unwaged sectors such as homemakers, students, the unemployed and military conscripts, reaching as far as sectors of the middle and professional classes.6The most significant development was the emergence of Italy’s first mass-mobilised women’s movement, which according to Mariarosa Dalla Costa:

had two souls: one was self-awareness, the other was the operaista feminism of [LF] that eventually turned into the groups and committees of the wages for housework campaigns.7

Della Porta claims that a significant characteristic of Italian feminism compared to other European countries was its organization of mass mobilization campaigns:

In 1974 10,000 women took part in the national conference at Pinarella di Cervia; between 1975 and 1977, a series of national initiatives – mostly on the theme of the legalization of abortion – saw the oscillating participation of between 30 and 50,000 women. […] On 18th January 1975 there was the first large demonstration in Rome on the theme of abortion with 20,000 participants […] In April 1976, the UDI (Unione donne italiane,8 linked to the PCI9) and the feminist organizations of other parties agreed to participate in a separatist demonstration which saw 50,000 participate.10

Some ex-PO theorists, active in the feminist movement, concentrated on the category of unpaid reproductive labour, which was seen as vital for the reproduction of living labour and therefore capital, particularly Mariarosa Dalla Costa on women’s unpaid housework,11 while a completely separate workerist-influenced feminist position was represented by Alisa del Re’s critique of the Welfare State.12 According to the former’s theory, there is a hierarchical division between waged/productive labour (the industrial working class) and unwaged/reproductive labour (women, students, the unemployed). Thus, the different sectors of the working class seek autonomy from official working class organisations and from each other.

On the basis of the work of Mariarosa and Giovanna Franca Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati and others, Lotta Feminista began a campaign known internationally as Wages for Housework, linking up with Selma James’ similar movement in Britain, while in the USA and Canada there were also WfH groups, with Silvia Federici in New York and Judith Ramirez in Toronto. The same network was present also in Germany, and in Switzerland. Mariarosa Dalla Costa describes LF’s political principles and strategy in the following terms:

We wanted money for housework primarily in response to the serious problem of women’s lack of money, but also as a lever of power with respect to services […]. This claim was combined with another for a drastic reduction in external work for all women and men (demanding a working week of 20 hours) so that the time necessary for reproduction could be freed up without always having to look for solutions (very partial anyway) in additional layers of work, as is also happening today through the great migrations. On the other hand, there was the typical emancipationist position that aimed only at working outside [of the home] and called for a strengthening of social services. This was the position of the institutional left but also of other feminist strands.13

However, the demand for wages for housework from the State opened a sharp polemic with other parts of the feminist movement, who saw such a demand as a “renunciation of the objective of the socialization of domestic labour”.14

In June 1974 Rosso,15 as part of a debate between those demanding wages for housework and those who saw this as its “ratification”, published a report by the Paduan Committee for Wages for Housework on three days of discussion with the feminist movement in Mestre.

A large number of homemakers, teachers, shop assistants and secretaries had gathered to denounce their triple exploitation by their employers, their partners and the State, rejecting the misery and appalling conditions of work that all imposed:

Our struggle is against factories, […] offices, against having to sit at a check-out counter all day […]. We are not fighting for such an organisation of work, but against it.16

They rejected the view of the political parties and extra-parliamentary groups that women’s emancipation lay in employment, instead demanding that the State, the organizer of capitalist society whose most basic cellular structure was the nuclear family, pay them wages for their unpaid housework since they were “reproducing” its citizens and workers. Also denounced was the inadequacy of the few social services provided, the lack of crèches and nurseries for housewives as well as for employed women, and the abuse of women’s bodies by the “masculinist” health system. They called on women to reclaim their bodies and take control of their lives:

We women must reject the conditions of pure survival that the State wants to impose on us, we must always demand more […], reappropriate the wealth removed from our hands everyday to have more money, more power, more free time to be with others, women, old people, children, not as appendages but as social individuals.17

Women were also especially active on the issue of the overcrowded and underfunded State education system, as they were on virtually all social issues in the mid 1970s, the peak of the mass mobilisation phase of the women’s movement, marching on schools, organising pickets, occupying class rooms, setting up road blocks, all with the demand for better schools and day-care facilities.18

These mobilisations were self-organized with the participation of Autonomia, the New Left groups, particularly Lotta Continua (LC/Unceasing Struggle)19 in the South, as well as some of the unions, but were otherwise characterised by their autonomy from and hostility towards political parties.

Similar struggles took place over the community control of reproductive needs (housing, rent, bills, shopping) and later of leisure needs (eating out, cinema and rock concerts). These conflicts were allied to the demands of the emerging women’s movement for control of their own bodies and lives through the defeat of the 1974 referendum to abolish the 1970 divorce law and the concession after many years of hard struggle of the legalisation of abortion through Law 194 in 1978, as well as the democratisation and feminisation of medical and social services.20 Thus, a new conception of autonomy was required to mirror the transition from the industrial factory to the social factory, from traditional working class struggles to those of the new social movements.

Nevertheless, the intensity of the activism of the women’s movement in the early 1970s took a heavy toll on the health and private lives of those involved, despite their previous criticism of the New Left’s obsessive militancy and sacrifice of any kind of private life to political struggle, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa recounts:

[…] we had national and international organizational groups but what was striking was the level of extreme poverty of the means with which all this activity was carried out. The means of communication were mainly the leaflet and the paper, called “Le operaie della casa” (the houseworkers).21Such an exasperated and totalizing militancy, that left no room for anything else in our lives, was surely derived from the experience of [PO], but I think that at the time in other groups the situation was similar to ours. This was obviously even harder for those of us who had a leading role. And here it would be important to underline something else… Towards the end of the decade we were exhausted by that kind of life and activism. All our margins of reproduction had been eroded, notoriously narrower than those men, comrades included, enjoyed.22

However, the women of Lotta Feminista and Wages for Housework made some primordial contributions to international feminist theory, particularly concerning the role of male physical and sexual violence against women within the family as a disciplining force, similar to the physical and psychological violence used to discipline workers in the factory. Of particular importance on this question were the works of Leopoldina Fortunati23 and Giovanna F. Dalla Costa, the latter of whom argues that:

Since its origins, the Feminist Movement has charged that the relation between men and women in capitalist society is one based on violence. In fact, this was the first issue around which the movement developed both a wide-ranging debate and a high level of organized struggle […] Male violence against women was certainly not born with capitalism, but rather has a long history behind it. But even if some aspects of this form of violence remain basically unchanged (women were beaten, raped, killed, genitally mutilated, forced to abort pregnancies or bear children, long before capitalism), under capitalism male violence against women has been re-established and endowed with a function […] entirely internal to the work which women are destined to perform: housework.

Such work is the work of the production and reproduction of labour power, its fundamental site of performance is the home and the primary unit in which it is performed is the family.24 […] The extreme violence in the relationship between capital and women is reflected in the violence of the man-woman relationship: a relationship which is necessarily violent on the part of men against women.25

The same author also criticizes the failure of the workers movement, including the operaismo that influenced herself and her sister and other members of Lotta Feminista and Wages for Housework, to listen to and comprehend the novelty of their theory, without conflating the “house worker” with the factory worker:

[L]ike all women we tangibly feel in our bones […]: we are “house workers”,26 “every woman in the home is an unpaid worker!” Since we began to define ourselves in this way, those on the Left who wished to charge us with “old workerism” raised their voices,27 demonstrating that they confused an absolutely new criteria such as “house worker” with “worker”, and were equally ready to attribute to us political theories which we had never formulated. […] This tone-deafness on the male front doesn’t surprise us: to men who can’t see or hear women, nothing exists except “preaching to the converted”.28

Such a closed attitude by the male Left contrasted with the seriousness of the debate within the entire feminist movement over unpaid domestic labour:

The recognition of women as unpaid house workers has […] become a common legacy. Even the sections of the feminist movement that don’t agree with the strategy of “wages for housework”, define the condition of women in substantially similar terms […] the comparison between the condition of the house worker and that of the slave can, within our analysis, be of particular importance in enabling us to better define this discourse; one needed more than ever due to the wave of political mobilization that the feminist movement has built in opposition to violence against women […] the rise of this violence is evidently linked to the ever growing rebellion of women today, and to the ever increasing willingness of the State and of those in power to impede it.29

Relations between feminism and Autonomia

While the activism of feminist militants was increasingly demanding on their health and private lives, the situation for those women who chose to keep one foot in the feminist movement and another in the New Left organizations and social movements through an exasperated “double militancy” made its own demands. Meanwhile, relations between the feminist movement (including the groups rooted in Potere Operaio and operaismo) and Autonomia were as tense as they had been with the NL groups. Autonomous women’s collectives were critical of Workers’ Autonomy’s continuance of some discredited forms of political practice inherited from the NL groups, particularly a macho predisposition for the use of (sometimes armed) violence, although feminism itself was by no means synonymous with pacifism.30 Moreover, operaista and autonomist women were accused of being old-style Marxist revolutionaries by “consciousness-raising” feminism and often found themselves isolated from the rest of the women’s movement.

These women contributed to the debates on violence and subjectivity both within feminism and Autonomia, from the position that “violence [understood as aggressive self-assertion as an antidote to patriarchal representations of female passivity and subordination] can be a basis for subjectivity”.31 The principal areas of intervention for Lotta Continua’s Women’s Collective were the factory and the practice of the refusal of work, along with the problems of discrimination in the workplace, deregulated labour (lavoro nero), prisons, sexual violence and machismo within the “Movement” in general, and struggles around the body and health. Action was taken in hospitals, over the unequal doctor-patient relationship and the denunciation of those medical centres that refused to carry out abortions, and of the health service in general which victimised women and did not meet their particular health needs. Another area of intervention was international “solidarism rather than solidarity”, based on the feminist practice of “starting from yourself”. They were also in touch with radical separatist feminists, who used psychoanalysis for “consciousness-raising” and were close to the Radical Party,32 although relations with the broader feminist movement with its emphasis on the private sphere, consciousness-raising and non-violence, were conflictual. A rare joint action to denounce the Catholic Church’s negative impact on women’s control over their own bodies and lives was the occupation in 1975 of the Duomo, the city’s main cathedral and symbol of its official identity. Other actions were taken to contest the stereotyping of women in patriarchal capitalist society as passive consumerist sex objects, including against wedding dress shops and dating agencies. They also participated in Lea Melandrí’s33 “Free University of Women”, where housewives and intellectuals carried out an interclassist work on the representation of women in capitalist society. The crossover between Rosso and radical feminism produced two magazines itself, Malafemmina and Noi Testarde, making the “politics of the personal” and the questioning of gender roles part of Autonomia’s collective identity, although conflict with Organized Workers Autonomy’s “workers’ centrality” position was permanent.34

Del Re, a feminist and former Potere Operaio member, whose theoretical and political practice led her to disagree with Mariarosa Dalla Costa and the Wages for Housework movement despite their common roots in operaismo, did not join Autonomia but accepts that her autonomous activism led her to a converging position. Here, she tackles the thorny question of “double militancy” by considering the strongly contradictory position of feminists within the PCI:

[It] is a difficult issue because it splits belonging: for instance, I met women active in extra-parliamentary political groups who were also feminist and faced with dramatic decisions, because feminism forced women to make dramatic personal choices. The enemy was often in the home: if a woman was to gain a kind of personal autonomy and have relationships with lovers, friends, husbands, fathers and men who were on the Left and thus shared many of the ideas of changing society, she would feel great discomfort. […] So it was a very complex issue linked to a very personal identity and to a life choice: one could not always let the husband off because some of their positions were right, even if some marriages failed. The decisions were so drastic and violent that I can understand why some were hidden feminists and public comrades. With the [PCI] things get more complicated because some women always thought of [it] as a kind of benevolent father who somehow would have accepted their little babies’ demands, yet there was not one party in Italy that took up the issues of the feminist groups, at least in the ‘70s. Militancy in the [PCI] was largely a question of family tradition; I met many families (mothers, grandmothers and daughters) who were members of the PCI, and this was lacerating, because it was an historical affection and one that was difficult to change. The UDI was ferociously hostile to the feminist movement and the movement for divorce. The UDI disassociated itself from the Communist Party when in 1976 the PCI refused to let its members protest in the streets in favour of abortion rights after the facts of Seveso (the case of dioxin and pregnant women who wanted an abortion for fear of giving birth to monsters). At the time of the separation of the UDI from the PCI, many militants left the party and joined the feminist movement.35

A different perspective on women’s activism is given by an informant from Milan who was a member of Lotta Continua before joining Autonomia in the late 1970s, only becoming a feminist in the 1980s. She recounts how she suffered violence first from her father, opposed to her political activism and later from her partner, also a member of LC, and felt pressurized into denial by the attitude of another woman militant:

I joined [LC] when I was 14 because they seemed to be the liveliest New Left group […] my father was violent and beat me regularly, to “protect” me from what he considered “dangerous political activity”, so I had to run away from home when I was 16. […] I was also beaten up several times by my boyfriend, who was also in [LC], in the “servizio d’ordine”,36 doing something dangerous. Later he beat up another woman and had to go into therapy […]

He was protected by the other women I knew, including my best friend, a woman who had been involved in armed struggle in Argentina and who told me when I asked for help after being beaten: “Well, you fell down the stairs didn’t you?”. All of us protected him from the police by saying I had had a car crash after the beatings to prevent him from getting into trouble […] Not all of the men in the armed struggle were heroes, some were very small people […] At that point [despite the attack on the women’s march in Rome in 1975] I didn’t want women to break the organization […] some of us sprayed on the wall “Uomo donna uniti nella lotta”37 […] Women in LC in general were saying that LC shouldn’t fall apart for feminist reasons.38

On the specific identity of the women who chose to be in Autonomia rather than militate in the feminist movement, the same informant spoke of the case of the autonomist women activists in Bergamo, northern Italy in the 1970s:

[T]he movement in every city was different and had its own peculiar identity […] in Bergamo they had a strong anti- State characterization […] they never accepted State funding for the self-managed clinics […] these still exist today thanks to the women of Autonomia […] they were self-financed […] the leadership is still the same people […] they were characterized by their concern for women’s health and a strong antagonism against the State […] in other cities they were more concerned in shutting down pornographic film theatres […] They came from the struggle against rape [and] organized self-defence courses against rape […] then they became an armed vanguard against pornography and pimping […] they didn’t practice armed struggle as such, but they used violent direct action against pornography cinemas, smashing windows etc. […] other groups used more violent methods of struggle, above all those who struggled against lavoro nero […] they burnt down the covi di lavoro nero,39 but they were not armed […] these actions were carried out exclusively by women alone, no men were present.40

On the question of relations between the women of Autonomia and the rest of the feminist movement, the same informant stated:

The moderate area [in the feminist movement] was prevalent […] it was composed of a lot of different groups […] they were not into the question of class […] the more radical Movimento per la Liberazione della Donna was not separatist and they didn’t take class into the picture at all […] and it was a huge movement […] they thought we [autonomist women] were very submissive and they were right, we were. We were very young. […] I discovered feminism much later […] I was going to the feminist demonstrations for contraception and against the exploitation of women in factories, but I didn’t have a feminist consciousness until much later […] I had a strong class consciousness at that time […] I thought that the feminists were dividing the movement […] this was why [LC] and Workers Autonomy attacked the women’s march in Rome in December 197541because it was seen as a divisive force.42


Italian feminism, workerism and autonomism combined briefly and problematically in the 1970s around the issues of unpaid reproductive labour and sexual and physical violence. Since 1990, ex-workerist and autonomist women have gone different ways: Mariarosa Dalla Costa continued her research in an ecofeminist perspective giving particular attention to the peasant and fishermen movements for food sovereignty, Giovanna F. Dalla Costa now researches on microcredit experiences in different countries, Leopoldina Fortunati has become a renowned expert in communication theory, Laura Corradi has become an academic and is involved in the ecofeminist global movement and Alisa del Re has been a local councillor for the Green Party in Padua. By placing the issue of unpaid domestic work at the heart of discussions within both the broader feminist movement and autonomous social movements since the 1970s, that current of Italian feminism that was strongly influenced by workerism, while always keeping its distance from notions such as “workers’ centrality”, identified and campaigned around an issue which remains unresolved today but which has led to important theoretical and political developments, such as the theory of affective labour43 and the international “basic income network”44 as a solution “from below” to the gradual disappearance of the Welfare State under neoliberal capitalism. An important recent advance for the WfH movement was the decision by the Veneto regional government in north-eastern Italy to pay care work done in the home, the first time such work has been formally recognized and paid for as a social service.45

Finally, to summarize the differences between workerist-influenced feminism and the other forms of feminism present in the Italian women’s movement of the 1970s, we can say that this differed from liberal feminism by rejecting demands for “equality” and “emancipation” as not only an obfuscation of women’s difference from men, but above all a mystification of the class relation between paid men workers and unpaid women house workers. The main disagreement between workerist feminism and socialist feminism has been over the question of “outside” (nondomestic) employment as a pathway to female emancipation and economic independence. For Lotta Feminista and Wages for Housework, the exploitation of generally low-paid labour outside the home is no solution to the unpaid exploitation of women within the home.

While the Italian network of WfH agreed with separatist feminism over the exclusion of men from feminist organizations and meetings (except as child carers), the English WfH network in which Selma James figured prominently, eventually permitted men to join as members of the Payday network, although by this time the two networks had split, the Italian network dissolved under the effects of the widespread repression of social movement activists between 1978 and 1983.46 As to doubts over the continuing relevance of workerist feminism and the WfH campaign, since 2001 they have been among the organisers of the Global Women’s Strike with its demand for “recognition and payment for all caring work, and the return of military spending to the community starting with women the main carers” as a response to male-dominated terrorism and war.47

Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, Mexico City
pcuninghame at
Acknowledgments: I wish to thank Laura Corradi, Alisa Del Re and the women of the Milanese autonomist movement who agreed to be interviewed.

  • 1.From Sputiamo su Hegel. Lonzi was an activist in Rivolta Femminile [Female Revolt], a separatist group. She was the main exponent of the feminism of difference in Italy. She died in Rome in 1982. [All translations from Italian or Spanish to English are mine unless otherwise indicated.]
  • 2.I prefer not to use the term “terrorism”, which is a highly subjective and politicized, not to say demonized one, particularly after the events of 11th September 2001 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the USA and its allies.
  • 3.Various authors, “Nuovo Movimento Femminista”, May 1973. Movimento Femminista: Documenti Autonomi [website]:; accessed January 9, 2009.
  • 4.“Wages for Housework was the name that that part of Lotta Feminista adopted that wanted to launch initiatives specifically for wages for housework, a part that grew continuously and its first big demonstration was the one in Mestre on the 8th, 9th and 10th March 1974, although already in 1973 the Triveneto Committee of WfH began to act autonomously while LF was still alive.(See Collettivo internazionale femminista (ed. by), 8 Marzo 1974, Marsilio, Venice-Padua, 1975” (Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, email message, 4 December 2008).
  • 5.May, Tim, Social Research, Issues, Methods and Process, Buckingham, Open University Press, 1997.
  • 6.Cuninghame, Patrick, “For an Analysis of Autonomia: An Interview with Sergio Bologna”, Left History, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall 2001, pp. 89-102; “Autonomia in the Seventies: The Refusal of Work, the Party and Politics”, Cultural Studies Review (Special Issue on Contemporary Italian Political Theory), Vol. 11, No. 2, September 2005, pp. 77-94.
  • 7.Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, “The Door to the Garden”, paper given at the “Operaismo a Convegno” Conference, June 1-2, 2002, Rome. Published in Spanish in Noesis, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Vol. 15, No. 28, 2005, pp. 79-100. [Available on line in English and Spanish].
  • 8.Union of Italian Women.
  • 9.Partito Comunista Italiana / Italian Communist Party.
  • 10.Della Porta, Donatella, Movimenti Collettivi e Sistema Politico in Italia 1960-1995, Rome, Editori Laterza, 1996, p. 71.
  • 11.Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community (with A Woman’s Place by Selma James), London, Falling Wall Press 1974 [1972].
  • 12.Semi-structured in-depth interview in Italian with Alisa Del Re, Padua, 2 June 1999, in Gun Cuninghame, Patrick, Autonomia, Movement of Refusals – Social Movements and Conflict in Italy in the 1970s, unpublished PhD thesis, London, Middlesex University, 2002.
  • 13.Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, email message, 22 September 2005.
  • 14.De Luca, Stefano. “Il Movimento Feminista: Dall’emancipazione all’enfasi per la “diversità”. Storia, No. 24 , May 2007:; accessed January 9, 2009.
  • 15.A newspaper linked to Autonomia Operaia Organizzata (Organized Workers Autonomy ) in Milan, a neo-Leninist tendency within Autonomia which sought leadership over the movement and clashed with the feminist movement in Rome in 1975.
  • 16.Various authors, “Lavoro domestico e salario”, Rosso, No. 11, (1st ed.), June, 1974, p. 34.
  • 17.Ibid.
  • 18.Ibid.
  • 19.Name of the largest and nationally most extensive New Left organisation and its national daily newspaper. Founded in 1969, it was particularly strong among FIAT car workers in Turin, and a rival organization to Potere Operaio and Autonomia Operaia [AO]. LC dissolved itself in 1976 at its annual conference in Rimini following the decision by its women members to leave en masse in protest at the leadership’s failure to condemn an attack on a women’s march in Rome by Lotta Continua and AO militants the previous year (see footnote 40).
  • 20.See also Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, “Di chi è il corpo di questa donna?”, Foedus, no. 19, 2007.
  • 21.First appeared in 1976, edited by the CWfH (Committee for Wages for Housework) of Padua. The editors defined it as a “newspaper-collage” formed by words, drawings and photographs. It spread news on struggles by women in their homes, factories and schools against the work and exploitation they were forced to assume. See Moroni, P. & Balestrini, N. La horda de oro 1968-1977. La gran ola revolucionaria y creativa, política y existencial. Madrid: traficantes de sueños, 2006 [1988]. Translated from Italian to Spanish by M.Bogazzi, H.Arbide, P.Iglesias, J.Bonet i Martí, D.Gámez, J.Gual, R.Sánchez Cedillo and A.Méndez. [Available online].
  • 22.Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, 2002, op.cit.
  • 23.Particularly in her classic text, The Arcane of Reproduction: Housework, Prostitution, Labour and Capital, New York, Autonomedia, 1995 [1978].
  • 24.The discourse on the home as a site of production and reproduction of labour power, on the family as the primary unit in which such work is performed, on housework as the specific form of the work of reproduction, and on woman as the subject of this work was first defined by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, op. cit. 1974.
  • 25.Dalla Costa, Giovanna F., Un Lavoro d’Amore, La Violenza Fisica Componente Essenziale del “Trattamento” Maschile nei confronti delle Donne, Rome, Edizioni delle donne, 1978. My translation. Subsequently translated by Enda Brophy, with a new introduction by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, and published in 2008 by Autonomedia, New York, as The Work of Love. Unpaid Housework, Poverty and Sexual Violence at the Dawn of the 21st Century.
  • 26.This definition appeared for the first time in Italy in Collettivo Internazionale Femminista (eds.) Le operaie della casa, Padova-Venezia, Marsilio, 1974. This has been the title of a bi-monthly new-journal of feminist autonomy since no.0 of 1 May, 1975 (Note by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, 2006).
  • 27.See also: di Paola, Furio, “Per un Dibattito su Militanza e Organizzazione Proletaria in Bisogni, Crisi della Militanza, Organizzazione Proletaria”, Quaderni di Ombre Rosse, No.1, Savelli, Rome 1977, p. 98. (Note by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, 2006).
  • 28.Dalla Costa, Giovanna F., op. cit., p. 9. We have recuperated this definition from the women activists of [LF] who first used it in 1972. See “L’Offensiva”, Quaderni di Lotta Femminista, No.1, Turin, Musolini, 1974 [1972], p. 21. (Note by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, 2006).
  • 29.Ibid.
  • 30.Among the approximately 200 armed groups which proliferated during the “second wave” of armed conflict in the late 1970s, there were also several feminist organisations which carried out acts of violence against sweatshops where mainly women workers were being exploited and against those doctors who, claiming to be “conscientious objectors”, refused to carry out abortions in the public sector while performing them in their own private clinics. See Ruggiero, Vincenzo, “Sentenced to Normality, The Italian Political Refugees in Paris”, Crime, Law and Social Change, No. 19, 1993, pp. 33-50.
  • 31.Semi-structured in-depth interview with Laura Corradi. Durban, South Africa, 27th July 2006.
  • 32.A libertarian split from the Italian Liberal Party and one of the few parliamentary parties opposed to the emergency laws, mass arrests and drastic increase in the abuse of human rights between 1979 and 1983. A woman member, Giogiana Masi, was shot dead in Rome in May 1977 by police disguised as Autonomia militants during a peaceful protest against the government’s decision to ban all marches for three months.
  • 33.One of the most important feminist intellectuals, co-founder in the 1960s of the counter-cultural magazine L’Erba Voglio [the grass I want] and author of L’ infamia originaria.
  • 34.The information in this paragraph is based on a semi-structured in-depth interview in Italian with three women informants involved in Autonomia, Milan, August 1998, and an article from Rosso (14 February 1976, p. 9).
  • 35.Interview with Alisa Del Re – 26th July 2000, Hwiki Political [web site]:
  • 36.Internal self-defence organization, responsible for protecting marches from police and neo-fascist attacks, but sometimes also from rival New Left groups.
  • 37.Man woman united in the struggle.
  • 38.Semi-structured interview with informant from Milan.
  • 39.The sweatshops characteristic of the postfordist decentralized network mode of production which became increasingly widespread in Italy from the mid Seventies onwards, employing mainly non-unionised young adults.
  • 40.Semi-structured interview with informant from Milan.
  • 41.“At a mass demonstration to demand the right to abortion, the first visible expression of a separatism that had already been a political practice for several years, on December 6, 1975, an exponent of the New Left received a slap for having attempted to force his way through the servizio d’ordine [see note 36] which prevented admission to men in the demonstration. This was the first symbolization in the media of an unresolved dispute within the New Left, and of the difficulties of the Left, old and new, to manage what could no longer be presented as just one more variable of the main contradiction between capital and labour” (Ballestrini & Moroni, op.cit., p.499).
  • 42.Semi-structured interview with informant from Milan.
  • 43.The most typical form of affective labour would be housework or any caring work within the community, although the category includes, extrapolating from Fortunati (op.cit), any form of labour involving an “exchange of immaterial use values”, such as sex work. For an analysis of immaterial and affective labour, see Lazzarato, Maurizio, “Immaterial Labour”, Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: a Potential Politics, trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emory, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 133-147.
  • 44.See
  • 45.Dalla Costa, Mariarosa, “Autonomia della donna e retribuzione del lavoro di cura delle nuove emergenze”, Foedus, No. 19, 2007.
  • 46.Payday is a network of men organising with the International Wages for Housework Campaign around the issues of domestic labour, welfare and childcare:
  • 47.See

An influential pamphlet by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in 1972 that used a feminist reading of Marx to challenge Left orthodoxy on the role of women, their labour and their struggles. (

An influential pamphlet by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James in 1972 that used a feminist reading of Marx to challenge Left orthodoxy on the role of women, their labour and their struggles.

The power of women and the subversion of the community

Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James


When this book was first published three years ago, it was already clear that the international movement of women had upset basic assumptions on which this society rested. In confronting what happens in the family and on the street, we have had to confront what happens in the factory, the office, the hospital, the school – in every institution of capitalist society.

This book offered the women’s movement a cohesive analysis, drawing on the descriptions by the movement of our diverse grievances. It offered a material foundation for ‘sisterhood’. That material foundation was the social activity, the work, which the female personality was shaped to submit to. That work was housework.

In singling out the work of the housewife as that for which women are trained and by which women are defined; in identifying its product as labour power – the working class -this book broke with all those previous analyses of capitalist society which began and ended in the factory, which began and ended with men. Our isolation in the family while doing our work had hidden its social nature. The fact that it brought no wage had hidden that it was work.

Serving men and children in wageless isolation had hidden that we were serving capital. Now we know that we are not only indispensable to capitalist production in those countries where we are 45% of their waged labour force. We are always their indispensable workforce, at home, cleaning, washing and ironing; making, disciplining and bringing up babies; servicing men physically, sexually and emotionally.

If our wageless work is the basis of our powerlessness in relation both to men and to capital, as this book, and our daily experience, confirm, then wages for that work, which alone will make it possible for us to reject that work, must be our lever of power. If our need for a wage and our need to break from our isolation have driven us to a second job outside the home, to more work at low pay, then our alternative to isolation and wagelessness must be a social/ struggle for the wage.

This perspective and practice derives directly from the theoretical analysis of this book. But even when the authors understood that Wages for Housework was the perspective which flowed logically from their analysis, they could not know all its implication. (See footnotes 16 and 1 7 on pp.54-55 below.) The book has been the starting point not for ‘a school of thought’ but for an international network of organisations which are campaigning for Wages for Housework.

Some of those who have disagreed with the analysis, and with the perspective of Wages for Housework that flows from it, have said that the perspective may apply to Italy but not to Britain or North America. The fact that an Italian woman, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, signed the main article, was proof for them of its geographic limitations. In fact, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James wrote ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ together, as Mariarosa Dalla Costa herself has said publicly many times. The proof of the international implications of the analysis, however, lies not in the national origins of its authors, but in the international campaign for Wages for Housework which has now begun.

Power of Women Collective, Comitato per il Salano Britainal Lavoro Domestico di Padova July 1975(Padua Wages for Housework Committee)

PUBLISHERS’ NOTE We have left the text of Selma James’s introduction unchanged, even though, as the above Foreword makes clear, in referring to ‘Women and the Subversion of the Community’ Selma James is in fact referring to an article of which she joint author.


The two articles which follow were written 19 years and 7,000 miles apart.

The first, “Women and the Subversion of the Community”, is a product of the new women’s movement in Italy. It is a major contribution to the question posed by the existence of a growing international movement of women: What is the relation of women to capital and what kind of struggle can we effectively wage to destroy it? We must hastily add that this is not the same as asking: What concessions can we wring from the enemy? – though this is related. To pose the first question is to assume we’ll win; to pose the second is to calculate what we can salvage from the wreck of defeat. But in struggling to win, plenty can be gained along the way.

Up to now, the women’s movement has had to define itself unaided by any serious heritage of Marxist critique of women’s relation to the capitalist plan of development and underdevelopment. Quite the opposite. We inherited a distorted and reformist concept of capital itself as a series of things which we struggle to plan, control or manage, rather than as a social relation which we struggle to destroy.1 Bypassing that heritage or lack of it, our movement explored the female experience, beginning with what we personally knew it to be. This is how we have been able for the first time on a mass scale to describe with profound insight and cutting precision the degradation of women and the shaping of our personality by forces which intended that we accept this degradation, accept to be quiet and powerless victims. On the basis of these discoveries, two distinct political tendencies have emerged, apparently opposite extremes of the political spectrum within the women’s movement.

Among those who have insisted that caste and not class was fundamental, some women have asserted that what they call an “economic analysis” could not encompass, nor could a political struggle end, the physical and psychological oppression of women. They reject revolutionary political struggle. Capital is immoral, needs reforms and should be left behind, they say (thereby implying that the reforms are a moral obligation which are themselves a negotiated and above all non-violent transition to “socialism”), but it is not the only enemy. We must change men and/or ourselves first. So that not only political struggle is rejected; so is liberation for the mass of women who are too busy working and seeing after others to look for a personal solution.

The possible future directions of these politics vary, mainly because this point of view takes a number of forms depending on the stratum of women who hold it. An elite club of this type can remain introverted and isolated – harmless except as it discredits the movement generally. Or it can be a source of those managerial types in every field which the class in charge is looking for to perform for. it ruling functions over rebellious women and, god bless equality, over rebellious men too.2 Integral to this participation in the marginal aspects of ruling, by the way, is an ambition and rivalry up to now primarily identified with men.

But history, past and future, is not simple. We have to note that some of the most incisive discoveries of the movement and in fact its autonomy have come from women who began by basing themselves on a repudiation of class and class struggle. The task of the movement now is to develop a political strategy on the foundations of these discoveries and on the basis of this autonomy.

Most of those who have insisted from the beginning that class and not caste was fundamental have been less able to translate our psychological insights into autonomous and revolutionary political action. Beginning with a male definition of class, the liberation of women is reduced to equal pay and a “fairer” and more efficient welfare State.3 For these women capital is the main enemy but because it is backward, not because it exists. They don’t aim to destroy the capitalist social relation but only to organize it more rationally. (The extra-parliamentary left in Italy would call this a “socialist” as distinct from a revolutionary position.) What a rationized capital-equal pay, more and better nurseries, more and better jobs, etc. can’t fix, they call “oppression” which, like Topsy, the orphaned slave child who never knew her parents, “just growed”. Oppression disconnected from material relations is a problem of “consciousness”-in this case, psychology masquerading in political jargon. And so the “class analysis” has been used to limit the breadth of the movement’s attack and even undermine the movement’s autonomy.

The essentially similar liberal nature of these two tendencies, wanting to rationally manage “society” to eliminate “oppression”, is not usually apparent until we see the “political” women and these “non-political” women join together on concrete demands or, more often, against revolutionary actions. Most of us in the movement belong to neither of these tendencies and have had a hard time charting a course between them. Both ask us: “Are you a feminist or are you political?”

The “political” women who talk of class are easy to identify. They are the women’s liberationists whose first allegiance is not to the women’s movement but to organizations of the male-dominated left. Once strategy and action originate from a source outside of women, women’s struggle is measured by how it is presumed to affect men, otherwise known as “the workers”, and women’s consciousness by whether the forms of struggle they adopt are the forms men have traditionally used.

The “political” women see the rest of us as non-political and this has tended to drive us together in self-protection, obscuring or playing down real political differences among us. These now are beginning to make themselves felt. Groups which call themselves Psychology Groups (I’m not talking here about consciousness raising groups) tend to express the politics of caste most coherently.4 But whichever quarter they come from, viewing women as a caste and only a caste is a distinct political line which is increasingly finding political and organizational expression in every discussion of what to do. In the coming period of intense working class activity, as we are forced to create our own political framework, casting away second-hand theories of male-dominated socialist movements, the pre-eminence of caste will be posed as the alternative and will have to be confronted and rejected as well. On this basis alone can the new politics inherent in autonomy find its tongue and its muscle.

This process of development is not unique to the women’s movement. The Black movement in the US (and elsewhere) also began by adopting what appeared to be only a caste position in Opposition to the racism of white male-dominated groups. Intellectuals in Harlem and Malcolm X, that great revolutionary, were both nationalists, both appeared to place color above class when the white left were still chanting variations of “Black and white unite and fight”, or “Negroes and Labour must join together”. The Black working class was able through this nationalism to redefine class: overwhelmingly Black and Labor were synonymous (with no other group was Labor as synonymous except perhaps with women), the demands of Blacks and the forms of struggle created by Blacks were the most comprehensive working class demands and the most advanced working class struggle. This struggle was able to attract to itself the best elements among the intellectuals who saw their own persecution as Blacks-as a caste-grounded in the exploitation of Black workers. These intellectuals who got caught in the moment of nationalism after the class had moved beyond it saw race in increasingly individual terms and made up that pool from which the State Department could hook the fish of tokenism appointing a Black as special presidential advisor on slum clearance, for example-and the personnel of a new, more integrated technocracy.

In the same way women for whom caste is the fundamental issue will make the transition to revolutionary feminism based on a redefinition of class or invite integration into the white male power structure.

But “‘Marxist’ women,” as a woman from the movement in New Orleans says, “are just ‘Marxist’ men in drag.” The struggle as they see it is not qualitatively different from the one the organized labor movement under masculine management has always commended to women, except that now, appended to the “general struggle”, is something called “women’s liberation” or women’s struggle” voiced by women themselves. This “general struggle” I take to mean the class struggle. But there is nothing in capitalism which is not capitalistic, that is, not part of the class struggle. The questions are (a) Are women except when they are wage workers auxiliary to capitalism (as has been assumed) and therefore auxiliary to a more basic, more general struggle against capitalism; and (b) Can anything ever have been “general” which has excluded so many women for so long? Rejecting on the one hand class subordinated to feminism and on the other feminism subordinated to class, Mariarosa Dalla Costa has confronted what (to our shame) has passed for Marxism with the female experience that we have been exploring and struggling to articulate. The result has been a translation of our psychological insights into a critique of the political economy of the exploitation of women, the theoretical basis for a revolutionary and autonomous women’s struggle. Based on what we know of how we are degraded, she moves into the question of why, in a depth as far as I know not reached before.

One great achievement of Marx was to show that the specific social relations between people in the production of the necessities of life, relations which spring up without their conscious planning, “behind the backs of individuals” (Menschen – previously translated as men), distinguish one society from another. That is, in class society, the form of the relation between people through which the ruling class robs the exploited of their labor is unique in each historic epoch, and all other social relations in the society, beginning with the family and including every other institution, reflect that form. For Marx history was a process of struggle of the exploited, who continually provoke over long periods and in sudden revolutionary leaps changes in the basic social relations of production and in all the institutions which are an expression of these relations. The family, then, was the basic biological unit differing in form from one society to another, directly related to the way people produce. According to him, the family, even before class society, had the subordinated woman as its pivot; class society itself was an extension of the relations between men on the one hand and women and children on the other, an extension, that is, of the man’s command over the labor of his woman and his children.

The women’s movement has gone into greater detail about the capitalist family. After describing how women are conditioned to be subordinated to men, it has described the family as that institution where the young are repressed from birth to accept the discipline of capitalist relations-which in Marxist terms begins with the discipline of capitalist work. Other women have identified the family as the center of consumption, and yet others have shown that housewives make up a hidden reserve work force: “unemployed” women work behind closed doors at home, to be called out again when capital needs them elsewhere.

The Dalla Costa article affirms all the above, but places them on another basis: the family under capitalism is a center of conditioning, of consumption and of reserve labor, but a center essentially of social production, When previously so-called Marxists said that the capitalist family did not produce for capitalism, was not part of social production, 5 it followed that they repudiated women’s potential social power. Or rather, presuming that women in the home could not have social power, they could not see that women in the home produced. If your production is vital for capitalism, refusing to produce, refusing to work, is a fundamental lever of social power.

Marx’s analysis of capitalist production was not a meditation on how the society “ticked”. It was a tool to find the way to overthrow it, to find the social forces who, exploited by capital, were subversive to it. Yet it was because he was looking for the forces that would inevitably overthrow capital that he could describe capital’s social relations which are pregnant with working class subversion. It is because Mariarosa Dalla Costa was looking for women’s lever of social power among those forces that she was able to uncover that even when women do not work out of their homes, they are vital producers.

The commodity they produce, unlike all other commodities, is unique to capitalism: the living human being – “the laborer himself”, Capital’s special way of robbing labor is by paying the worker a wage that is enough to live on (more or less) and to reproduce other workers. But the worker must produce more in the way of commodities than what his wage is worth. The unpaid surplus labor is what the capitalist is in business to accumulate and what gives him increasing power over more and more workers: he pays for some labor to get the rest free so he can command more labor and get even more free, ad infinitum-until we stop him. He buys with wages the right to use the only “thing” the worker has to sell, his or her ability to work. The specific social relation which is capital, then, is the wage relation. And this wage relation can exist only when the ability to work becomes a saleable commodity. Marx calls this commodity labor power.

This is a strange commodity for it is not a thing The ability to labor resides only in a human being, whose life is consumed in the process of producing First it must be nine months in the womb must be fed, clothed and trained” then when it works its bed must be made, its floor is swept its lunchbox prepared it’s sexuality not gratified but quietened its dinner ready when it gets home even if this is eight in the morning from the night shift This is how labor power is produced and reproduced when it is daily consumed in the factory or the office. To describe its basic’ production and reproduction is to describe women ‘s Work.

The community therefore is not an area of freedom and leisure auxiliary to the factory where by chance there happen to be women who are degraded as the personal servants of men The community is the other half of capitalist organization the other area of hidden capitalist exploitation the other hidden source of surplus labor.6 It becomes increasingly regimented like a factory what Mariarosa calls a social factory where the costs and nature of transport, housing, medical care, education, police, are all points of struggle! And this social factory has as its pivot the woman in the home producing labor power as a commodity, and her struggle not to.

The demands of the women’s movement, then, take on a new and more subversive significance, When we say, for example, that we want control of our own bodies, we are challenging the domination of capital which has transformed our reproductive organs as much as our arms and legs into instruments of accumulation of surplus labor; transformed our relations with men, with our children and our very creation of them, into work productive to this accumulation.

The second document, “A Woman’s Place”, originally published as a pamphlet, comes from the United States. It was written in 1952 at the height of the cold war, in Los Angeles, where the immigration of young working men and women had assumed Biblical dimensions 8. Though it bears my name, I was merely a vehicle for expressing what women, housewives and factory workers, felt and knew as immigrants to the Golden West from the South and Fast.

It was already clear even then that working outside the home did not make drudgery at home any more appealing, nor liberate us from the responsibility for housework when it was shared. It was equally clear that to think of spending our lives packing chocolates, or winding transformers, or wiring televisions was more than we could bear. We rejected both and fought against both. For example, in those days a man’s friends would still laugh if they saw him wearing an apron and washing up. We changed that.

There is no doubt that the courage to fight for these changes sprang directly from that pay check which we so hated to work for. But though we hated the work, for most of us it provided the first opportunity for an independent social experience outside the isolation of the home, and seemed the only alternative to that isolation. After the mass entry of women into industry during the second world war, and our brutal expulsion between 1945 and 1947, from 1947 when they wanted us again we came back and, with the Korean war (1949), in increasing numbers. For all the reasons out-lined in the pamphlet, we wanted money and saw no alternative to demanding jobs.

That we were immigrants from industrial, farming or coal-mining areas made us more dependent on that pay check, since we had only ourselves to on. But it gave us an advantage too. In the new aircraft and electronics industries of L.A., in addition to the standard jobs for women, for example in food and clothing, we – more white women than Black, who were in those days largely denied jobs with higher (subsistence) pay – we managed to achieve new freedom of action. We were unrestrained by fathers and mothers who stayed “back East” or “down South”. Trade unions, formed in the Last years before by bitter struggle, by the time they were imported West were negotiators for a 10-cents-a-year rise, and were part of the disciplinary apparatus which confronted us on the assembly line and which we paid for in high dues taken out before we ever saw our money. Other traditional forms of “political” organization were either non-existent or irrelevant and most of us ignored them. In short, we made a clean break with the past.

In the women’s movement of the late sixties, the energy of those who refused the old forms of protection or who never knew them, finally found massive articulation Yet 20 years before in the baldness of our confrontation with capital (directly and via men) we were making our way through what has become increasingly an international experience This experience taught us’ the second job outside of the home is another boss superimposed on the first ~ woman’s first job is to reproduce other peoples labor power and her second is to reproduce and sell her own. So that her struggle in the Family and in the factory, the joint organizers of her labor, of her husband’s labor and of the future labor of her children, is one whole. The very unity in one person of the two divided aspects of capitalist production presupposes not only a new scope of struggle but an entirely new evaluation of the weight and cruciality of women in that struggle.

These are the themes of the Dalla Costa article. What was posed by the struggle of so-called “reactionary” or “backward” or at best “non-political” housewives and factory wives in the United States 20 years ago is taken by a woman in Italy and used as a starting point for a restatement of Marxist theory and a reorientation of struggle. This theoretical development parallels and expresses and is needed for an entirely new level of struggle which women internationally are in the process of waging.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

It is no accident that the Dalla Costa article has come from Italy. First of all, because so few women in Italy have jobs outside the home, the housewife’s position seems frozen, and she derives little power from neighbors working out of the home. In this respect her situation is closer to the Los Angeles woman of “A Woman’s Place” than to that same woman today. So that it is impossible to have a feminist movement in Italy which does not base itself on women in the home.

At the same time, the fact that today millions of women elsewhere go out to work and are engaged there in a struggle with new objectives throws her situation into stark relief and poses possibilities which the Los Angeles woman 20 years ago could not envisage: the housewife in Italy anywhere can seek an alternative to the direct exploitation of the factory and office in order to get out of the home. By herself in the Catholic Italian ghetto, she seems trapped unless she demands that jobs be created for her. As part of an international struggle, she can begin to refuse, as other women are refusing, to pass from capitalist underdevelopment through capitalist development in order to make a struggle for her liberation. Women with pay packets in the industrial as well as the Third World, by refusing to be wives to the house or wives to the factory, are posing a new alternative for themselves and for her.

Mariarosa says: “Capital itself is seizing upon the same impetus which created a movement – the rejection by millions of women of women traditional place – to recompose the work force with increasing numbers of women. The movement can only develop in opposition to this…This ultimately is the dividing line between reformism and revolutionary politics within the women’s movement.”

Up to now a woman who needed to break her isolation and find autonomy could find these only in an alternative within capitalist planning. The struggle of women today is posing as the only alternative the struggle itself and through it the destruction of the capitalist plan. In England the motive force of this struggle is the Unsupported Mother’s fight for a guaranteed income; in the United States, the Welfare Mother’s demand for a living wage and her refusal of the jobs organized by the State. The response of the State in both countries shows how dangerous it considers this new basis of struggle to be, how dangerous it is for women to leave their homes, not for another job, but for a picket line, a meeting or to break the windows of the SS or Welfare Office.

Through an international movement “which is by its nature a struggle”, the power from the female pay packet is put at the disposal of the wageless woman, so that the wageless woman can recognise and utilize her own power, hidden up to now. The second reason that this orientation finds expression in Italy is that on another level the working class there has a unique history of struggle. It has behind it factory takeovers in the early ’20s, the defeat by capitalism in its fascist version, and then an armed underground resistance against it. (1 hope by now there is no need to add that this was a movement of men and women, though it is worth noting that we cannot imagine what the outcome would have been if women had played not only a bigger role but a different role in, for example, the factory takeovers.) In the postwar years were added to its ranks workers from Southern Italy who, emigrating from an area of underdevelopment, were new to and rebellious against the discipline of wage labor. By 1969, this working class by its struggle was able to orient to itself a massive student movement and create an extra-parliamentary left which, reflecting this history, is unique in Europe.

This extra-parliamentary left has not integrated women into its political perspective as an autonomous force, and is dominated by a male arrogance which Catholicism has promoted. But they concentrate on the class as they conceive of it, despite jargon they have broken from the dominant European leftist ideology which was eurocentric and intellectual, and above all, they advance and engage in direct offensive action.

One of the dominant premises of European ideology from which the Italian left has broken is that the working class in the United States-and not only the female of the species-is “backward”. In the eyes of the European left, the Black movement was an exotic historical accident external to the class, and the standard of living of the most powerful layers of the class was a gift of capital, not the fruit of bitter and violent struggle. What was not European, even when it was white, was not quite “civilised’. This racism predates the slave trade, and has fed off the conquests of imperial states since 1492.

It is against this background that Mariarosa Dalla Costa chose “A Woman’s Place” to be published in Italy along with her own essay, as an expression of the day-to-day revolutionary struggle 20 years ago of those who have been sneered at by European and American left intellectuals alike. Dalla Costa sees in the class struggle in the United States the most powerful expression of the class internationally; sees the class as international: it is clear that both the industrial and the Third worlds are integral to her view of the struggle. Here then we have the beginnings of a new analysis of who is the working class. It has been assumed to be only the waged worker. Dalla Costa disagrees. The social relation of the waged to the unwaged-thefatnily~i5 integral to the social relation which is capital itself – the wage relation. If these two are integral to the structure of capital, then the struggle against one is interdependent with the struggle against the other.

An analysis of class based on the structure of exploitation and the stage of the antagonism within this structure, c~ evaluate women’s day-to-day struggle as it continues to develop by its causes and its effects, rather than by somebody else’s idea of what our “political consciousness” should be.

In the UK and the US (and probably in other Western countries) the women’s movement has had to repudiate the refusal of the white left to see any other area of struggle than the factory in the metropolis.

In Italy, the women’s movement, while it works out its own autonomous mode of existence against the left and the student movement, is clashing on a ground which, apparently, these latter had covered: how to organize the struggle at the Community level.

What they proposed for the struggle in the community, it turns out, was just an extension, a mechanical projection of the factory struggle: the male worker continued to be the central protagonist, Mariarosa Dalla Costa considers the community as first and foremost the home, and considers therefore the woman as the central figure of subversion in the community. Seen in this way, women are the contradiction in all previous political frameworks, which had been based on the male worker in industry.10 Once we see the community as a productive center and thus a center of subversion, the whole perspective for fell generalized struggle and revolutionary organization is re-opened.

The kinds of action and organization which, with the heritage of working class struggle in Italy, can grow from a movement of class and caste, this time finally of women, in the heartland of the Catholic church, is bound to widen the possibilities of our own struggle in whatever country our international movement happens to be.

Power to the sisters and therefore to the class.

Selma James, Padova, 27 July, 1972


1 “…Wakefield discovered that in the Colonies property in money means of subsistence, machines and other means of production does not as yet stamp a man as a capitalist if there be wanting the correlative the wage worker the other man who is compelled to sell himself of his own freewill He discovered that capital is not a thing but a social relation between persons established by the instrumentality of things. Mr Peel he moans, took with him from England to Swan River West Australia means of subsistence and of production to the amount of £50,000. Mr. Peel had the foresight to bring with him, besides, 3,000 persons of the working class, men, women and children. Once arrived at his destination, ‘Mr. Peel was left without a servant to make his bed or fetch him water from the river.’ Unhappy Mr. Peel who provided for everything except the export of English modes of production to Swan River!” Capital, Vol.1, K. Marx, p.766, Moscow 1958. (Our emphasis.)

2 The Financial Times of Match 9, 1971, suggests that many capitalists are missing the opportunity to “use” women in positions of middle management; being “grateful outsiders”, women would not only lower the pay structure, “at least in the first instance”, but be a source of renewed energy and vitality” with which to manage the rest of us,

3 If this seems an extreme statement, look at the demands we in England marched for in 1971: equal pay, free 24-hour child care, equal educational opportunity and tree birth control and abortion on demand. Incorporated into a wider struggle, some of these are vital. As they stand, they accept that we not have the children we can’t afford; they demand of the State facilities to keep the children we can afford for as long as 24 hours a day; and they demand that these children have equal chance to be Conditioned and trained to sell themselves Competitively with each other on the labor market for equal pay. By themselves these are not just co-optable demands. They are capitalist planning. Most of us in the movement never felt these demands expressed where we wanted the movement to go, but in the absence of an independent feminist political framework, we lost by default. The prune architects of these demands were women with a “class analysis”.

4 Psychology itself by its nature is a prime weapon of manipulation, i.e. social control, of men, women and children. It does not acquire another nature when wielded by women in a movement for liberation, quite the reverse. To the degree that we permit, it manipulates the movement and changes the nature of that to suit its needs. And not only psychology, “Women’s liberation needs: -to destroy sociology as the ideollogy of the social services which bases itself on the proposition that this society is ‘the norm’; if you are a person in rebellion, you are a deviant. -to destroy psychology and psychiaatry which spend their time convincing us that our ‘problems’ are personal hang-ups and that we must adjust to a lunatic world. These so-called ‘disciplines’ and ‘sciences’ will increasingly incorporate our demands in order more efficiently to redirect our forces into safe channels under their stewardship, Unless we deal ‘with them, they will deal with us. -to discredit once and for all soccial workers, progressive educators, marriage guidance counsellors, and the whole army of experts whose function is to keep men, women and children functioning within the social framework, each by their own special brand of social frontal lobotomy.” (“The American Family.’ Decay and Rebirth”, Selma James, reprinted in From Feminism to Liberation, collected by Edith Hoshino Altback, Schenkman, Cambridge, Mass., 1971, pp.197-8.)

5 Marx himself does not seem to have said anywhere that it was, Why this is so requires more space than is available here and more reading of the man at the expense of his interpreters, Suffice it to say that, first, he is singular in seeing consumption as a phase of production: “It is the production and reproduction of that means of production so indispensable to the capitalist; the laborer himself,” (Capital, Vol.1, Moscow, 1958, p.572.) Second, he alone has given us the tools to make our own analysis, And finally, he never was guilty of the nonsense with which Engels, despite his many contributions, has saddled us and which, from the Bolsheviks to Castro, has given a “Marxist” authority to backward and often reactionary policies towards women of revolutionary governments,

6 I said earlier that Dalla Costa moves into the question of why women are degraded “in a depth as far as I know not reached before”. Three previous attempts stand out (and can all be found in From Feminism to Liberation, previously cited.) “The Political Economy of Women’s Liberation” by Margaret Benston attempts to answer the same question It fails in my view because it bases itself not on Marx but on Ernest Mandel. Even the few paragraphs of Mandel which Benston quotes are enough to expose the theoretical basis of modern Trotskyist liberalism What we must restrict ourselves to here is what he says about women’s work in the home, which Benston accepts. “The second group of products in capitalist society which are not commodities but remain simple use value consists of all things produced in the home. Despite the fact that considerable human labour goes into this type of household production, it still remains a production of use values and not of commodities. Every time a soup is made or a button sewn on a garment it constitutes production, but it is not production for the market (Quoted from An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, Merit, N.Y., 1967, pp. 10-11. Even the title betrays the falsity of the content: there is no such thing as Marxist economic theory or Marxist political economy” or for that matter “Marxist sociology”. Marx negated political economy in theory and the working class negates it in practice For economics fragments the qualitative relations between people into a Compartmentalized and quantified relation between things When, as under capitalism our labor power becomes a commodity, we become factors in production, objects, sexual and in every way, which the economists, the sociologists and the rest of the vampires of capitalist science then examine plan for and try to control). Juliet Mitchell (Women The Longest Revolution ) also believes that although women “are fundamental to the human condition yet in their economic, social and politic ii roles they are marginal (P 93 ) The error of her method, in my view, is that once again an interpreter of Marx this time Althusser, is her guide Here separation of economic social and political roles is conscious policy Labor power is a commodity produced by women in the home It is this commodity which turns wealth into capital The buying and selling of this commodity turns the market into a capitalist market Women are not margin al in the home, in the factory in the hospital m the office We are fundamental to the reproduction of capital and fundamental to its destruction Peggy Morton of Toronto in a splendid article “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done”, points out that the family is the “unit whose function is the maintenance of and reproduction of labor power i e…the structure of the family is determined by the needs of the economic system at any given time, for a certain kind of labor power…”(P.214.) Benston calls, after Engels, for the capitalist industrialization of household jobs as “preconditions” for “true equality in job opportunity and the industrialization of housework is unlikely unless women are leaving the home for jobs ” (P 207 ) That is, if we get jobs capital will industrialize the areas where, according to her, we only produce use-values and not capital; this wins us the right to be exploited equally with men. With victories like that, we don’t need defeats. On the other hand, Morton is not looking for what concessions we can wring from the enemy but how to destroy him. “All too often we forget why we are Organizing women; the purpose of building a mass movement is not to build a mass movement, but to make revolution.” Benston, she says, “does not provide any basis on which strategy for a women’s movement can he based.” The absence of this motive for analysis in the movement generally encourages a real liberalism among us. ” (P.212.) Right on.

7 For those who believe the struggle in the social factory is not political, let them note that here, more than in the factory, is the State directly the Organizer of the life of the worker, especially if she is a woman, and so here the worker confronts the State more directly, without the intervention of individual capitalists and the mediation of trade unions.

8 Southern California had been invaded by a huge wave of immigration during the war. Between 1940-46, the population of San Diego had increased by 61%, that of L.A. by 29%. (Business Week, 20 Dec., 1947, p.72.)

9 It is literally clashing. As I write, the Italian women’s movement is replying to the attacks by some men of the left which began with a physical confrontation in Rome this month, when a section of the feminist movement, Lotta Femminista, held an international seminar at the university on women’s employment and naturally excluded men. The men said we were “racist” and “fascist” and broke up the seminar. We exchanged blow for blow and were not defeated. In fact our violent response to their violence drew us closer together.

10 Even when he is unemployed. At a recent Claimants Union conference members of one of the left groups were given the following instructions circulated in one of the group’s internal documents. “[Our] work in a C.U. should be to orientate the C.U. away from the unsupported mother, sick, old, etc., towards unemployed workers.” When some women in the Claimants Union discovered the document and reproduced it for the benefit of the conference, there was uproar. Such contempt for those sections of the class who are less powerful has terrifying implications. If the male worker is the only subject of a political framework, then once women assert their central role in the struggle, that traditional political framework must be shattered.

11 Not only for Claimants Unions is this an urgent and practical question (see footnote 10). The armed branch of the Irish movement has been male enough in its relations with women and children to be satisfied with containing their Participation in the struggle. If the fruit is bitter the women will be blamed.

Women and the Subversion of the Community

These observations are an attempt to define and analyze the “Woman Question”, and to locate this question in the entire “female role” as it has been created by the capitalist division of labor.

We place foremost in these pages the housewife as the central figure in this female role. We assume that all women are housewives and even those who work outside the home continue to be housewives. That is, on a world level, it is precisely what is particular to domestic work, not only measured as number of hours and nature of work, but as quality of life and quality of relationships which it generates, that determines a woman’s place wherever she is and to whichever class she belongs. We concentrate here on the position of the working class woman, but this is not to imply that only working class women are exploited. Rather it is to confirm that the role of the working class housewife, which we believe has been indispensable to capitalist production, is the determinant for the position of all other women. Every analysis of women as a caste, then, must proceed from the analysis of the position of working class housewives.

In order to see the housewife as central, it was first of all necessary to analyze briefly how capitalism has created the modern family and the housewife’s role in it, by destroying the types of family group or community which previously existed.

This process is by no means complete. While we are speaking of the Western world and Italy in particular, we wish to make clear that to the extent that the capitalist mode of production also brings the Third World under its command, the same process of destruction must and is taking place there. Nor should we take for granted that the family as we know it today in the most technically advanced Western countries is the final form the family can assume under capitalism. But the analysis of new tendencies can only be the product of an analysis of how capitalism created this family and what woman’s role is today, each as a moment in a process.

We propose to complete these observations on the female role by analyzing as well the position of the woman who works outside the home, but this is for a later date. We wish merely to indicate here the link between two apparently separate experiences: that of housewife and that of working woman.

The day-to-day struggles that women have developed since the second world war run directly against the organization of the factory and of the home. The “unreliability” of women in the home and out of it has grown rapidly since then, and runs directly against the factory as regimentation organized in time and space, and against the social factory as organization of the reproduction of labor power. This trend to more absenteeism, to less respect for timetables, to higher job mobility, is shared by young men and women workers. But where the man for crucial periods of his youth will be the sole support of a new family, women who on the whole are not restrained in this way and who must always consider the job at home, are bound to be even more disengaged from work discipline, forcing disruption of the productive flow and therefore higher costs to capital. (This is one excuse for the discriminatory wages which many times over make up for capital’s loss.) It is this same trend of disengagement that groups of housewives express when they leave their children with their husbands at work.1 This trend is and will increasingly be one of the decisive forms of the crisis in the systems of the factory and of the social factory.

In recent years, especially in the advanced capitalist countries, there have developed a number of women’s movements of different orientations and range, from those which believe the. Fundamental conflict in society is between men and women to those focusing on the position of women as a specific manifestation of class exploitation.

If at first sight the position and attitudes of the former are perplexing, especially to women who have had previous experience of militant participation in political struggles, it is, we think, worth pointing out that women for whom sexual exploitation is the basic social contradiction provide an extremely important index of the degree of our own frustration, experienced by millions of women both inside and outside the movement. There are those who define their own lesbianism in these terms (we refer to views expressed by a section of the movement in the US in particular): “Our associations with women began when, because we were together, we could acknowledge that we could no longer tolerate relationships with men, that we could not prevent these from becoming power relationships in which we were inevitably subjected. Our attentions and energies were diverted, our power was diffused and its objectives delimited.” From this rejection has developed a movement of gay women which asserts the possibilities of a relationship free of a sexual power struggle, free of the biological social unit, and asserts at the same time our need to open ourselves to a wider social and therefore sexual potential.

Now in order to understand the frustrations of women expressing themselves in ever-increasing forms, we must be clear what in the nature of the family under capitalism precipitates a crisis on this scale. The oppression of women, after all, did not begin with capitalism. What began with capitalism was the more intense exploitation of women as women and the possibility at last of their liberation.

The origins of the capitalist family

In pre-capitalist patriarchal society the home and the family were central to agricultural and artisan production. With the advent of capitalism the socialization of production was organized with the factory as its center. Those who worked in the new productive center, the factory, received a wage. Those who were excluded did not. Women, children and the aged lost the relative power that derived from the family’s dependence on their labor, which was seen to be social and necessary. Capital, destroying the family and the community and production as one whole, on the one hand has concentrated basic social production in the factory and the office, and on the other has in essence detached the man from the family and turned him into a wage laborer. It has put on the man’s shoulders the burden of financial responsibility for women, children, the old and the ill, in a word, all those who do not receive wages. From that moment began the expulsion from the home of all those who did not procreate and service those who worked for wages. The first to be excluded from the home, after men, were children; they sent children to school. The family ceased to be not only the productive, but also the educational center.2

To the extent that men had been the despotic heads of the patriarchal family, based on a strict division of labor, the experience of women, children and men was a contradictory experience which we inherit. But in pre-capitalist society the work of each member of the community of serfs was seen to be directed to a purpose: either to the prosperity of the feudal lord or to our survival. To this extent the whole community of serfs was compelled to be co-operative in a unity of unfreedom that involved to the same degree women, children and men, which capitalism had to break.3 In this sense the unfree individual, the democracy of unfreedom 4 entered into a crisis. The passage from serfdom to free labor power separated the male from the female proletarian and both of them from their children. The unfree patriarch was transformed into the “free” wage earner, and upon the contradictory experience of the sexes and the generations was built a more profound estrangement and therefore a more subversive relation.

We must stress that this separation of children from adults is essential to an understanding of the full significance of the separation of women from men, to grasp fully how the organization of the struggle on the part of the women’s movement, even when it takes the form of a violent rejection of any possibility of relations with men, can only aim to overcome the separation which is based on the “freedom” of wage labor.

The class struggle in education

The analysis of the school which has emerged during recent years -particularly with the advent of the students’ movement – has clearly identified the school as a center of ideological discipline and of the shaping of the labor force and its masters. What has perhaps never emerged, or at least not in its profundity, is precisely what precedes all this; and that is the usual desperation of children on their first day of nursery school, when they see themselves dumped into a class and their parents suddenly desert them. But it is precisely at this point that the whole story of School begins.5

Seen in this way, the elementary school children are not those appendages who, merely by the demands “free lunches, free fares, free books”, learnt from the older ones, can in some way be united with the students of the higher schools.6 In elementary school children, in those who are the sons and daughters of workers, there is always an awareness that school is in some way setting them against their parents and their peers, and consequently there is an instinctive resistance to studying and to being “educated”. This is the resistance for which Black children are confined to educationally subnormal schools in Britain.7 The European working class child, like the Black working class child, sees in the teacher somebody who is teaching him or her something against her mother and father, not as a defense of the child but as an attack on the class. Capitalism is the first productive system where the children of the exploited are disciplined and educated in institutions organized and controlled by the ruling class.8

The final proof that this alien indoctrination which begins in nursery school is based on the splitting of the family is that those working class children who arrive (those few who do arrive) at university are so brainwashed that they are unable any longer to talk to their community.

Working class children then are the first who instinctively rebel against schools and the education provided in schools. But their parents carry them to schools and confine them to schools because they are concerned that their children should “have an education”, that is, be equipped to escape the assembly line or the kitchen to which they, the parents, are confined. If a working class child shows particular aptitudes, the whole family immediately concentrates on this child, gives him the best conditions, often sacrificing the others, hoping and gambling that he will carry them all out of the working class. This in effect becomes the way capital moves through the aspirations of the parents to enlist their help in disciplining fresh labor power.

In Italy parents less and less succeed in sending their children to school. Children’s resistance to school is always increasing even when this resistance is not yet organized.

At the same time that the resistance of children grows to being educated in schools, so does their refusal to accept the definition that capital has given of their age. Children want everything they see; they do not yet understand that in order to have things one must pay for them, and in order to pay for them one must have a wage, and therefore one must also be an adult. No wonder it is not easy to explain to children why they cannot have what television has told them they cannot live without.

But something is happening among the new generation of children and youth which is making it steadily more difficult to explain to them the arbitrary point at which they reach adulthood. Rather the younger generation is demonstrating their age to us: in the sixties six-year-olds have already come up against police dogs in the South of the United States. Today we find the same phenomenon in Southern Italy and Northern Ireland, where children have been as active in the revolt as adults. When children (and women) are recognized as integral to history, no doubt other examples will come to light of very young people’s participation (and of women’s) in revolutionary struggles. What is new is the autonomy of their participation in spite of and because of their exclusion from direct production. In the factories youth refuse the leadership of older workers, and in the revolts in the cities they are the diamond point. In the metropolis generations of the nuclear family have produced youth and student movements that have initiated the process of shaking the framework of constituted power: in the Third World the unemployed youth are often in the streets before the working class organized in trade unions.

It is worth recording what The Times of London (1 June 1971) reported concerning a headteachers’ meeting called because one of them was admonished for hitting a pupil: “Disruptive and irresponsible elements lurk around every corner with the seemingly planned intention of eroding all forces of authority.” This “is a plot to destroy the values on which our civilization is built and on which our schools are some of the finest bastions.”

The exploitation of the wageless

We wanted to make these few comments on the attitude of revolt that is steadily spreading among children and youth, especially from the working class and particularly Black people, because we believe this to be intimately connected with the explosion of the women’s movement and something which the Women’s movement itself must take into account. We are dealing with the revolt of those who have been excluded, who have been separated by the system of production, and who express in action their need to destroy the forces that stand in tin’ way of their social existence, but who this time are coming together as individuals.

Women and children have been excluded. The revolt of the one against exploitation through exclusion is an index of the revolt of the other.

To the extent to which capital has recruited the man and turned him into a wage laborer, it has created a fracture between him and all the other proletarians without a wage who, not participating directly in social production, were thus presumed incapable of being the subjects of social revolt.

Since Marx, it has been clear that capital rules and develops through the wage, that is, that the foundation of capitalist society was the wage laborer and his or her direct exploitation. What has been neither clear nor assumed by the organizations of the working class movement is that precisely through the wage has the exploitation of the non-wage laborer been organized. This exploitation has been even more effective because the lack of a wage hid it. That is, the wage commanded a larger amount of labor than appeared in factory bargaining. Where women are concerned, their labor appears to be a personal service outside of capital. The woman seemed only to be suffering from male chauvinism, being pushed around because capitalism meant general “injustice” and “bad and unreasonable behavior”; the few (men) who noticed convinced us that this was “oppression” but not exploitation. But “oppression” hid another and more pervasive aspect of capitalist society. Capital excluded children from the home and sent them to school not only because they are in the way of others’ more “productive” labor or only to indoctrinate them. The rule of capital through the wage compels every able bodied person to function, under the law of division of labor, and to function in ways that are if not immediately, then ultimately profitable to the expansion and extension of the rule of capital. That, fundamentally, is the meaning of school. Where children are concerned, their labor appears to be learning for their own benefit.

Proletarian children have been forced to undergo the same education in the schools: this is capitalist levelling against the infinite possibilities of learning. Woman on the other hand has been isolated in the home, forced to carry out work that is considered unskilled, the work of giving birth to, raising, disciplining, and servicing the worker for production. Her role in the cycle of social production remained invisible because only the product of her labor, the laborer, was visible there. She herself was thereby trapped within pre-capitalist working conditions and never paid a wage.

And when we say “pre-capitalist working “conditions”, we do not refer only to women who have to use brooms to sweep. Even the best equipped American kitchens do not reflect the present level of technological development; at most they reflect the technology of the 19th century. If you are not paid by the hour, within certain limits, nobody cares how long it takes you to do your work.

This is not only a quantitative but a qualitative difference from other work, and it stems precisely from the kind of commodity that this work is destined to produce. Within the capitalist system generally, the productivity of labor doesn’t increase unless there is a confrontation between capital and class: technological innovations and co-operation are at the same time moments of attack for the working class and moments of capitalistic response. But if this is true for the production of commodities generally, this has not been true for the production of that special kind of commodity, labor power. If technological innovation can lower the limit of necessary work, and if the working class struggle in industry can use that innovation for gaining free hours, the same cannot be said of housework; to the extent that she must in isolation procreate, raise and be responsible for children, a high mechanization of domestic chores doesn’t free any time for the woman. She is always on duty, for the machine doesn’t exist that makes and minds children.9 A higher productivity of domestic work through mechanization, then, can be related only to specific services, for example, cooking, washing, cleaning. Her workday is unending not because she has no machines, but because she is isolated.10

Confirming the myth of female incapacity

With the advent of the capitalist mode of production, then, women were relegated to a condition of isolation, enclosed within the family cell, dependent in every aspect on men. The new autonomy of the free wage slave was denied her, and she remained in a pre-capitalist stage of personal dependence, but this time more brutalized because in contrast to the large-scale highly socialized production which now prevails. Woman’s apparent incapacity to do certain things, to understand certain things, originated in her history, which is a history very similar in certain respects to that of “backward” children in specialist classes. To the extent that women were cut off from direct socialized production and isolated in the home, all possibilities of social life outside the neighborhood were denied them, and hence they were deprived of social knowledge and social education. When women are deprived of wide experience of organizing and planning collectively industrial and other mass struggles, they are denied a basic source of education, the experience of social revolt. And this experience is primarily the experience of learning your own capacities, that is, your power, and the capacities, the power, of your class. Thus the isolation from which women have suffered has confirmed to society and to themselves the myth of female incapacity.

It is this myth which has hidden, firstly, that to the degree that the working class has been able to organize mass struggles in the community, rent strikes, struggles against inflation generally, the basis has always been the unceasing informal organization of women there; secondly, that in struggles in the cycle of direct production women’s support and organization, formal and informal, has been decisive. At critical moments this unceasing network of women surfaces and develops through the talents, energies and strength of the “incapable female”. But the myth does not die. Where women could together with men claim the victory-to survive (during unemployment) or to survive and win (during strikes)- the spoils of the victor belonged to the class “in general”. Women rarely if ever got anything specifically for themselves; rarely if ever did the struggle have as an objective in any way altering the power structure of the home and its relation to the factory. Strike or unemployment, a woman’s work is never done.

The capitalist function of the uterus

Never as with the advent of capitalism has the destruction of woman as a person meant also the immediate diminution of her physical integrity. Feminine and masculine sexuality had already before capitalism undergone a series of regimes and forms of conditioning. But they had also undergone efficient methods of birth control, which have unaccountably disappeared. Capital established the family as the nuclear family and subordinated within it the woman to the man, as the person who, not directly participating in social production, does not present herself independently on the labor market. As it cuts off all her possibilities of creativity and of the development of her working activity, so it cuts off the expression of her sexual, psychological lid emotional autonomy.

We repeat: never had such a stunting of the physical integrity woman taken place, affecting everything from the brain to the uterus. Participating with others in the production of a train, a mi or an airplane is not the same thing as using in isolation the same broom in the same few square feet of kitchen for centuries.

This is not a call for equality of men and women in the construction of airplanes, but it is merely to assume that the difference between the two histories not only determines the differences in the actual forms of struggle but brings also finally to light what has been invisible for so long: the different forms women’s struggles have assumed in the past. In the same way as women are robbed of the possibility of developing their creative capacity, they are robbed of their sexual life which has been transformed into a function for reproducing labor power: the same observations which we made on the technological level of domestic services apply to birth control (and, by the way, to the whole field of gynaecology), research into which until recently has been continually neglected, while women have been forced to have children and were forbidden the right to have abortions when, as was to be expected, the most primitive techniques of birth control failed. From this complete diminution of woman, capital constructed the female role, and has made the man in the family the instrument of this reduction. The man as wage worker and head of the family was the specific instrument of this specific exploitation which is the exploitation of women.

The homosexuality of the division of labour

In this sense we can explain to what extent the degraded relationships between men and women are determined by the fracturing that society has imposed between man and woman, subordinating woman as object, the “complement” to man. And in this sense we can see the validity of the explosion of tendencies within the women’s movement in which women want to conduct their struggle against men as such11 and no longer wish to use their strength to sustain even sexual relationships with them, since each of these relationships is always frustrating. A power relation precludes any possibility of affection and intimacy. Yet between men and women power as its right commands sexual affection and intimacy. In this sense, the gay movement is the most massive attempt to disengage sexuality and power.

But homosexuality generally is at the same time rooted in the framework of capitalist society itself: women at home and men in factories and offices, separated one from the other for the whole day; or a typical factory of 1,000 women with 10 foremen; or a typing pool (of women, of course) which works for 50 professional men. All these situations are already a homosexual framework of living.

Capital, while it elevates heterosexuality to a religion, at the same time in practice makes it impossible for men and women to be in touch with each other, physically or emotionally-it undermines heterosexuality except as a sexual, economic and social discipline. We believe that this is a reality from which we must begin. The explosion of the gay tendencies have been and are important for the movement precisely because they pose the urgency to claim for itself the specificity of women’s struggle and above all to clarify in all their depths all facets and connections of the exploitation of women.

Surplus value and the social factory

At this point then we would like to begin to clear the ground of a certain point of view which orthodox Marxism, especially in the ideology and practice of so-called Marxist parties, has always taken for granted. And this is: when women remain outside social production, that is, outside the socially organized productive cycle, they are also outside social productivity. The role of women, in other words, has always been seen as that of a psychologically subordinated person who, except where she is marginally employed outside the home, is outside production; essentially a supplier of a series of use values in the home. This basically was the viewpoint of Marx who, observing what happened to women working in the factories, concluded that it might have been better for them to be at home, where resided a morally higher form of life. But the true nature of the role of housewife never emerges clearly in Marx. Yet observers have noted that Lancashire women, cotton workers for over a century, are more sexually free and helped by men in domestic chores. On the other hand, in the Yorkshire coal mining districts where s low percentage of women worked outside the home, women are more dominated by the figure of the husband. Even those who have been able to define the exploitation of women in socialised production could not then go on to understand the exploited position of women in the home; men are too compromised in their relationship with women. For that reason only women can define themselves and move on the woman question.

We have to make clear that, within the wage, domestic work produces not merely use values, but is essential to the production of surplus value. This is true of the entire female role as a personality which is subordinated at all levels, physical, psychical and occupational, which has had and continues to have a precise and vital place in the capitalist division of labor, in pursuit of productivity at the social level. Let us examine more specifically the role of women as a source of social productivity, that is, of surplus value making. Firstly within the family.


It is often asserted that, within the definition of wage labor, women in domestic labor are not productive. In fact precisely the opposite is true if one thinks of the enormous quantity of social services which capitalist organization transforms into privatized activity, putting them on the backs of housewives. Domestic labor In not essentially “feminine work”; a woman doesn’t fulfill herself more or get less exhausted than a man from washing and cleaning. These are social services inasmuch as they serve the reproduction (if labor power. And capital, precisely by instituting its family structure, has “liberated” the man from these functions so that he is completely “free” for direct exploitation; so that he is free to “earn” enough for a woman to reproduce him as labor power.13 It has made men wage slaves, then, to the degree that it has succeeded in allocating these services to women in the family, and by the same process controlled the flow of women onto the labor market. In Italy women are still necessary in the home and capital still needs this form of the family. At the present level of development in Europe generally, in Italy in particular, capital still prefers to import its labor power-in the form of millions of men from underdeveloped areas-while at the same time consigning women to the home.14

And 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 always ready to help and protect in time of need, has been in fact the best guarantee that the unemployed do not immediately become a horde of disruptive outsiders.

The organized parties of the working class movement have been careful not to raise the question of domestic work. Aside from the fact that they have always treated women as a lower form of life, even in factories, to raise this question would be to challenge the whole basis of the trade unions as organizations that deal (a) only with the factory; (b) only with a measured and “paid” work day; (c) only with that side of wages which is given to us and not with the side of wages which is taken back, that is, inflation. Women have always been forced by the working class parties to put off their liberation to some hypothetical future, making it dependent on the gains that men, limited in the scope of their struggles by these parties, win for “themselves”.

In reality, every phase of working class struggle has fixed the subordination and exploitation of women at a higher level. The proposal of pensions for housewives and this makes us wonder why not a wage) serves only to show the complete willingness of these parties further to institutionalize women as housewives and men (and women) as wage slaves.

Now it is clear that not one of us believes that emancipation, liberation, can be achieved through work. Work is still work, whether inside or outside the home. The independence of the Wage earner means only being a “free individual” for capital, no less for women than for men. Those who advocate that the (liberation of the-working class woman lies in her getting a job outside the home are part of the problem, not the solution. Slavery to an assembly line is not a liberation from slavery to a kitchen sink. To deny this is also to deny the slavery of the assembly line itself, proving again that if you don’t know how women are exploited, you can never really know how men are. But this question is so crucial that we deal with it separately. What we wish to make clear here is that by the non-payment of a wage when we are producing in a world capitalistically organized, llu- figure of the boss is concealed behind that of the husband. He appears to be the sole recipient of domestic services, and this gives an ambiguous and slavelike character to housework. The husband and children, through their loving involvement, their loving blackmail, become the first foremen, the immediate controllers of this labor.

The husband tends to read the paper and wait for his dinner to be cooked and served, even when his wife goes out to work as he does and comes home with him. Clearly, the specific form of exploitation represented by domestic work demands a correspondingly specific form of struggle, namely the women’s struggle, within the family. II we fail to grasp completely that precisely this family is the very pillar of the capitalist organization of work, if we make the mistake of regarding it only as a superstructure, dependent for fli.mge only on the stages of the struggle in the factories, then we will be moving in a limping revolution that will always perpetuate and aggravate a basic contradiction in the class struggle, and a Contradiction which is functional to capitalist development. We would, in other words, be perpetuating the error of considering ourselves as producers of use values only, of considering housewives external to the working class. As long as housewives are considered external to the class, the class struggle at every moment and any point is impeded, frustrated, and unable to find full scope for its action. To elaborate this further is not our task here. To expose and condemn domestic work as a masked form of productive labor, however, raises a series of questions concerning both the aims and the forms of struggle of women.

Socializing the struggle of the isolated laborer

In fact, the demand that would follow, namely “pay us wages for housework”, would run the risk of looking, in the light of the present relationship of forces in Italy, as though we wanted further to entrench the condition of institutionalized slavery which is produced with the condition of housework – therefore such a demand could scarcely operate in practice as a mobilizing goal.16

The question is, therefore, to develop forms of struggle which do not leave the housewife peacefully at home, at most ready to take part in occasional demonstrations through the streets, waiting for a wage that would never pay for anything; rather we must discover forms of struggle which immediately break the whole structure of domestic work, rejecting it absolutely, rejecting our role as housewives and the home as the ghetto of our existence, since the problem is not only to stop doing this work, but to smash the entire role of housewife. The starting point is not how to do housework more efficiently, but how to find a place as protagonist in the struggle, that is, not a higher productivity of domestic labor but a higher subversiveness in the struggle.

To immediately overthrow the relation between time-given-to-housework and time-not-given-to-housework: it is not necessary to spend time each day ironing sheets and curtains, cleaning the floor until it sparkles nor to dust every day. And yet many women still do that. Obviously it is not because they are stupid: once again we are reminded of the parallel we made earlier with the ESN school. In reality, it is only in this work that they can realize an identity precisely because, as we said before, capital has cut them off from the process of socially organized production.

But it does not automatically follow that to be cut off from socialized production is to be cut off from socialized struggle: struggle, however, demands time away from housework, and at the same time it offers an alternative identity to the woman who before found it only at the level of the domestic ghetto. In the sociality of struggle women discover and exercise a power that effectively gives them a new identity. The new identity is and can only be a new degree of social power.

The possibility of social struggle arises out of the socially productive character of women’s work in the home. It is not only or mainly the social services provided in the home that make women’s role socially productive, even though in fact at this moment these services are identified with women’s role. But capital can technologically improve the conditions of this work. Whilst capital does not want to do for the time being, in Italy at least, is to destroy the position of the housewife as the pivot of the nuclear family. For this reason there is no point in our waiting for the automation of domestic work, because this will never happen: the maintenance of the nuclear family is in compatible with the automation of these services. To really automate them, capital would have to destroy the family as we know it; that is, it would be driven to socialize in order to automate fully.

But we know all too well what their socialization means: it is always at the very least the opposite of the Paris Commune!

The new leap that capitalist reorganization could make and that we can already smell in the U.S. and in the more advanced capitalist countries generally is to destroy the pre-capitalist relation of production in the home by constructing a family winch more nearly reflects capitalist equality and its domination through co-operative labor; to transcend “the incompleteness of capitalist development” in the home, with the pre-capitalist, Unfree woman as its pivot, and make the family more nearly reflect in its form its capitalist productive function, the reproduction of labor power.

To return then to what we said above: women, housewives, identifying themselves with the home, tend to a compulsive perfection in their work. We all know the saying too well: you can always find work to do in a house.

They don’t see beyond their own four walls. The housewife’s situation as a pre-capitalist mode of labor and consequently this “femininity” imposed upon her, makes her see the world, the others and the entire organization of work as a something which is obscure, essentially unknown and unknowable; not lived; perceived only as a shadow behind the shoulders of the husband who goes out each day and meets this something.

So when we say that women must overthrow the relation of domestic-work-time to non-domestic-time and must begin to move out of the home, we mean their point of departure must be precisely this willingness to destroy the role of housewife, in order to begin to come together with other women, not only as neighbors and friends but as workmates and anti-workmates; thus breaking the tradition of privatized female, with all its rivalry, and reconstructing a real solidarity among women: not solidarity for defense but solidarity for attack, for the organization of the struggle.

A common solidarity against a common form of labor. In the same way, women must stop meeting their husbands and children only as wife and mother, that is, at mealtime after they have come home from the outside world.

Every place of struggle outside the home, precisely because every sphere of capitalist organization presupposes the home, offers a chance for attack by women; factory meetings, neighborhood meetings, student assemblies, each of them are legitimate places for women’s struggle, where women can encounter and confront men””women versus men, if you like, but as individuals, rather than mother-father, son-daughter, with all the possibilities this offers to explode outside of the house the contradictions, the frustrations, that capital has wanted to implode within the family.

A new compass for class struggle

If women demand in workers’ assemblies that the night-shift be abolished because at night, besides sleeping, one wants to make love-and it’s not the same as making love during the day if the women work during the day – that would be advancing their own independent interests as women against the social organization of work, refusing to be unsatisfied mothers for their husbands and children.

But in this new intervention and confrontation women are also expressing that their interests as women are not, as they have been told, separate and alien from the interests of the class. F or too long political parties, especially of the left, and trade unions have determined and confined the areas of working class struggle. To make love and to refuse night work to make love, is in the interest of the class. To explore why it is women and not men who raise the question is to shed new light on the whole history of the class.

To meet your sons and daughters at a student assembly is to discover them as individuals who speak among other individuals; it is too present yourself to them as an individual. Many women have had abortions and very many have given birth. We can’t see why they should not express their point of view as women first, whether or not they are students, in an assembly of medical students. (We do not give the medical faculty as an example by accident. In the lecture hall and in the clinic, we can see once more the exploitation of the working class not only when third class patients exclusively are made the guinea pigs for research. Women especially are the prime objects of experimentation and also of the sexual contempt, sadism, and professional arrogance of doctors.)

To sum up: the most important thing becomes precisely this explosion of the women’s movement as an expression of the specificity of female interests hitherto castrated from all its connections by the capitalist organization of the family. This has to be waged in every quarter of this society, each of which is founded precisely on the suppression of such interests, since the entire class exploitation has been built upon the specific mediation of women’s exploitation.

And so as a women’s movement we must pinpoint every single area in which this exploitation is located, that is, we must regain the whole specificity of the female interest in the course of waging the struggle.

Every opportunity is a good one: housewives of families threatened with eviction can object that their housework has more than covered the rent of the months they didn’t pay. On the out-skirts of Milan, many families have already taken up this form of struggle.

Electric appliances in the home are lovely things to have, but for the workers who make them, to make many is to spend time and to exhaust yourself. That every wage has to buy all of them is tough, and presumes that every wife must run all these appliances alone; and this only means that she is frozen in the home, but now on a more mechanized level. Lucky worker, lucky wife!

The question is not to have communal canteens. We must remember that capital makes Fiat for the workers first, then their canteen.

For this reason to demand a communal canteen in the neighborhood without integrating this demand into a practice of struggle against the organization of labor, against labor time, risks giving the impetus for a new leap that, on the community level, would regiment none other than women in some alluring work so that we will then have the possibility at lunchtime of eating shit collectively in the canteen.

We want them to know that this is not the canteen we want, nor do we want play centers or nurseries of the same order. We want canteens too, and nurseries and washing machines and dishwashers, but we also want choices: to eat in privacy with few people when we want, to have time to be with children, to be with old people, with the sick, when and where we choose. To “have time” means to work less. To have time to be with children, the old and the sick does not mean running to pay a quick visit to the garages where you park children or old people or invalids. It means that we, the first to be excluded, are taking the initiative in this struggle so that all those other excluded people, the children, the old and the ill, can re-appropriate the social wealth; to be re-integrated with us and all of us with men, not as dependents but autonomously, as we women want for ourselves; since their exclusion, like ours, from the directly productive social process, from social existence, has been created by capitalist organization.

The refusal of work

Hence we must refuse housework as women’s work, as work imposed upon us, which we never invented, which has never been paid for, in which they have forced us to cope with absurd hours, 12 and 13 a day, in order to force us to stay at home.

We must get out of the house; we must reject the home, because we want to unite with other women, to struggle against all situations which presume that women will stay at home, to link ourselves to the struggles of all those who are in ghettos, whether the ghetto is a nursery, a school, a hospital, an old-age home, or asylum. To abandon the home is already a form of struggle, since the social services we perform there would then cease to be carried out in those conditions, and so all those who work out of the home would then demand that the burden carried by us until now be thrown squarely where it belongs-onto the shoulders of capital. This alteration in the terms of struggle will be all the more violent the more the refusal of domestic labor on the part of women will be violent, determined and on a mass scale.

The working class family is the more difficult point to break because it is the support of the worker, but as worker, and for that reason the support of capital. On this family depends the support of the class, the survival of the class – but at the woman’s expense against the class itself. The woman is the slave of a wage-slave, and her slavery ensures the slavery of her man. Like the trade union, the family protects the worker, but also ensures that he and she will never be anything but workers. And that is why the struggle of the woman of the working class against the family is crucial.

To meet other women who work inside and outside their homes allows us to possess other chances of struggle. To the extent that our struggle is a struggle against work, it is inscribed in the struggle which the working class wages against capitalist work. But to the extent that the exploitation of women through domestic work has had its own specific history, tied to the survival of the nuclear family, the specific course of this struggle which must pass through the destruction of the nuclear family as established by the capitalist social order, adds a new dimension to the class struggle.


However, the woman’s role in the family is not only that of hidden supplier of social services who does not receive a wage. As we said at the beginning, to imprison women in purely complementary functions and subordinate them to men within the nuclear family has as its premise the stunting of their physical integrity. In Italy, with the successful help of the Catholic Church which has always defined her as an inferior being, a woman is compelled before marriage into sexual abstinence and after marriage into a repressed sexuality destined only to bear children, obliging her to bear children. It has created a female image of “heroic mother and happy wife” whose sexual identity is pure sublimation, whose function is essentially that of receptacle for other people’s emotional expression, who is the cushion of the familial antagonism. What has been defined, then, as female frigidity has to be redefined as an imposed passive receptivity in the sexual function as well.

Now this passivity of the woman in the family is itself “productive”. Firstly it makes her the outlet for all the oppressions that men suffer in the world outside the home and at the same time the object on whom the man can exercise a hunger for power that the domination of the capitalist organization of work implants. In this sense, the woman becomes productive for capitalist organization; she acts as a safety valve for the social tensions caused by it. Secondly, the woman becomes productive inasmuch as the complete denial of her personal autonomy forces her to sublimate her frustration in a series of continuous needs that are always centered in the home, a kind of consumption which is the exact parallel of her compulsive perfectionism in her housework. Clearly, it is not our job to tell women what they should have in their homes. Nobody can define the needs of others. Our interest is to organize the struggle through which this sublimation will be unnecessary.

Dead labor and the agony of sexuality

We use the word “sublimation” advisedly. The frustrations of monotonous and trivial chores and of sexual passivity are only separable in words. Sexual creativity and creativity in labor are both areas where human need demands we give free scope to our ‘interplaying natural and acquired activities’18. For women (and therefore for men) natural and acquired powers are repressed simultaneously. The passive sexual receptivity of women creates compulsively tidy housewife and can make a monotonous assembly line therapeutic. The trivia of most of housework and discipline which is required to perform the same work over every day, every week, every year, double on holidays, destroys the possibilities of uninhibited sexuality. Our childhood is a preparation for martyrdom: we are taught to derive happiness from clean sex on whiter than white sheets; to sacrifice sexuality and other creative activity at one and the same time.

So far the women’s movement, most notably by destroying the myth of the vaginal orgasm, has exposed the physical mechanism which allowed women’s sexual potential to be strictly defined and limited by men. Now we can begin to reintegrate sexuality with other aspects of creativity, to see how sexuality will always be constrained unless the work we do does not mutilate us and our individual capacities, and unless the persons with whom we have sexual relations are not our masters and are not also mutilated by their work. To explode the vaginal myth is to demand female autonomy as opposed to subordination and sublimation. But it is not only the clitoris versus the vagina. It is both versus the uterus. Either the vagina is primarily the passage to the reproduction of labor power sold as a commodity, the capitalist function of the uterus, or it is part of our natural powers, our social equipment. Sexuality after all is the most social of expressions, the deepest human communication. It is in that sense the dissolution of autonomy. The working class organizes as a class to transcend itself as a class; within that class we organize autonomously to create the basis to transcend autonomy.

The “political” attack against women

But while we are finding our way of being and of organizing ourselvs in struggle, we discover we are confronted by those who are only too eager to attack women, even as we form a movement. In defending herself against obliteration, through work and through consumption, they say, the woman is responsible for the lack of unity of the class. Let us make a partial list of the sins of which she stands accused. They say:

1. She wants more of her husband’s wage to buy for example clothes for herself and her children, not based on what he thinks she needs but on what she thinks she and her children should have. He works hard for the money. She only demands another kind of distribution of their lack of wealth, rather than assisting his struggle for more wealth, more wages.

2. She is in rivalry with other women to be more attractive than they, to have more things than they do, and to have a cleaner and tidier house than her neighbors’. She doesn’t ally with them as she should on a class basis.

3. She buries herself in her home and refuses to understand the struggle other husband on the production line. She may even complain when he goes out on strike rather than backing him up. She votes Conservative.

These are some of the reasons given by those who consider her reactionary or at best backward, even by men who take leading roles in factory struggles and who seem most able to understand the nature of the social boss because of their militant action. It comes easy to them to condemn women for what they consider to be backwardness because that is the prevailing ideology of the society. They do not add that they have benefitted from women’s subordinate position by being waited on hand and foot from the moment of their birth. Some do not even know that they have been waited on, so natural is it to them for mothers and sisters and daughters to serve “their” men. It is very difficult for us, on the other hand, to separate inbred male supremacy from men’s attack, which appears to be strictly “political”, launched only for the benefit of the class.

Let us look at the matter more closely.

1. Women as consumers

Women do not make the home the center of consumption. The process of consumption is integral to the production of labor and if women refused to do the shopping (that is, to spend) this would be strike action. Having said that, however, we must add that those social relationships which women are denied because they are cut off from socially organized labor, they often try to compensate for by buying things. Whether it is adjudged trivial depends on the viewpoint and sex of the judge. Intellectuals buy books, but no one calls this consumption trivial. Independent of the validity of the contents, the book in this society still represents, through a tradition older than capitalism, a male value.

We have already said that women buy things for their home because that home is the only proof that they exist. But the idea that frugal consumption is in any way a liberation is as old as capitalism, and comes from the capitalists who always blame the worker’s situation on the worker. For years Harlem was told by head-shaking liberals that if Black men would only stop driving Cadillac’s (until the finance company took them back), the problem of color would be solved. Until the violence of the struggle – the only fitting reply – provided a measure of social power, that Cadillac was one of the few ways to display the potential for power. This and not “practical economics” caused the liberals pain.

In .my case, nothing any of us buys would we need if we were free. Not the food they poison for us, nor the clothes that identify us by class, sex and generation, nor the houses in which they imprison us. In any case, too, our problem is that we never have enough, not that we have too much. And that pressure which women place on men is a defense of the wage, not an attack. Precisely because women are the slaves of wage slaves, men divide the wage between themselves and the general family expense. If women did not make demands, the general family standard of living would drop to absorb the inflation””the woman of course is the first to do without. Thus unless the woman makes demands, the family is functional to capital in an additional sense to the ones we have listed: it can absorb the fall in the price of labor power.19 This, therefore, is the most ongoing material way in which women can defend the living standards of the class. And when they go out to political meetings, they will need even more money!

2. Women as rivals

As for women’s “rivalry”, Frantz Fanon has clarified for the Third World what only racism prevents from being generally applied to the class. The colonized, he says, when they do not organize against their oppressors, attack each other. The woman’s pressure for greater consumption may at times express itself in the form of rivalry, but nevertheless as we have said protects the living standards of the class. Which is unlike women’s sexual rivalry; that rivalry is rooted in their economic and social dependence on men. To the degree that they live for men, dress for men, work for men, they are manipulated by men through this rivalry.20

As for rivalry about their homes, women are trained from birth to be obsessive and possessive about clean and tidy homes. But men cannot have it both ways; they cannot continue to enjoy the privilege of having a private servant and then complain about the effects of privatization. If they continue to complain, we must conclude that their attack on us for rivalry is really an apology for our servitude. If Fanon was not right, that the strife among the colonized is an expression of their low level of organization, then the antagonism is a sign of natural incapacity. When we call a home a ghetto, we could call it a colony governed by indirect rule and be as accurate. The resolution of the antagonism of the colonized to each other lies in autonomous struggle. Women have overcome greater obstacles than rivalry to unite in supporting men in struggles. Where women have been less successful is in transforming and deepening moments of struggle by making of them opportunities to raise their own demands. Autonomous struggle turns the question on its head: not “will women unite to support men”, but “will men unite to support women”.

3. Women as divisive

What has prevented previous political intervention by women? Why can they be used in certain circumstances against strikes? Why, in other words, is the class not united? From the beginning of this document we have made central the exclusion of women from socialized production. That is an objective character of capitalist organization: co-operative labor in the factory and isolated labor in the home. This is mirrored subjectively by way workers in industry organize separately from the community. What is the community to do? What are women to do? Support, be appendages to men in the home and in the struggle?, even form a women’s auxiliary to unions. This division, and this kind of division is the history of the class. At every stage of the struggle the most peripheral to the productive cycle are used against those at the center, so long as the latter ignore the former. This is the history of trade unions, for example, in the United States, when Black workers were used as strikebreakers”” never by the way, as often as white workers were led to believe. Blacks like women are immediately identifiable and reports of strikebreaking reinforce prejudices which arise from objective divisions: the white on the assembly line, the Black sweeping round his feet; or the man on the assembly line, the woman sweeping round his feet when he gets home.

Men when they reject work consider themselves militant, and when we reject our work, these same men consider us nagging wives. When some of us vote Conservative because we have been excluded from political struggle, they think we are backward, while they have voted for parties which didn’t even consider that we existed as anything but ballast, and in the process sold them (and us all) down the river.


The third aspect of women’s role in the family is that, because of the special brand of stunting of the personality already discussed, the woman becomes a repressive figure, disciplinarian of all the members of the family, ideologically and psychologically. She may live under the tyranny of her husband, of her home, the tyranny of striving to be “heroic mother and happy wife” when her whole existence repudiates this ideal. Those who are tyrannized and lack power are with the new generation for the first years of their lives producing docile workers and little tyrants, in the same way the teacher does at school. (In this the Woman is joined by her husband: not by chance do parent-teacher associations exist.) Women, responsible for the reproduction of labor power, on the one hand discipline the children who will be workers tomorrow and on the other hand discipline the husband to work today, for only his wage can pay for labor power to be reproduced.

Here we have only attempted to consider female domestic productivity without going into detail about the psychological implications. At least we have located and essentially outlined this female domestic productivity as it passes through the complexities of the role that the woman plays (in addition, that is, to the actual domestic work the burden of which she assumes without pay). We pose, then, as foremost the need to break this role that wants women divided from each other, from men and from children, each locked in her family as the chrysalis in the cocoon that imprisons itself by its own work, to die and leave silk for capital. To reject all this, as we have already said, means for housewives to recognize themselves also as a section of the class, the most degraded because they are not paid a wage.

The housewife’s position in the overall struggle of women is crucial, since it undermines the very pillar supporting the capitalist organization of work, namely the family.

So every goal that tends to affirm the individuality of women against this figure complementary to everything and everybody, that is, the housewife, is worth posing as a goal subversive to the continuation, the productivity of this role.

In this same sense all the demands that can serve to restore to the woman the integrity of her basic physical functions, starting with the sexual one which was the first to be robbed along with productive creativity, have to be posed with the greatest urgency.

It is not by chance that research in birth control has developed so slowly, that abortion is forbidden almost the world over or conceded finally only for “therapeutic” reasons.

To move first on these demands is not facile reformism. Capitalist management of these matters poses over and over discrimination of class and discrimination of women specifically.

Why were proletarian women, Third World women, used as guinea pigs in this research? Why does the question of birth control continue to be posed as women’s problem? To begin to struggle to overthrow the capitalist management over these matters is to move on a class basis, and on a specifically female basis .To link these struggles with the struggle against motherhood conceived as the responsibility of women exclusively, against domestic work conceived as women’s work, ultimately against the models that capitalism offers us as examples of women’s emancipation which are nothing more than ugly copies of the male role, is to struggle against the division and organization of labor.

Women and the struggle not to work

Let us sum up. The role of housewife, behind whose isolation is hidden social labor, must be destroyed. But our alternatives are strictly defined. Up to now, the myth of female incapacity, rooted in this isolated woman dependent on someone else’s wage and therefore shaped by someone else’s consciousness, has been broken by only one action: the woman getting her own wage, breaking the back of personal economic dependence, making her own independent experience with the world outside the home, performing social labor in a socialized structure, whether the factory or the office, and initiating there her own forms of social rebellion along with the traditional forms of the class. The advent of the women’s movement is a rejection of this alternative.

Capital itself is seizing upon the same impetus which created a movement – the rejection by millions of women of women’s traditional place – to recompose the work force with increasing numbers of women. The movement can only develop in opposition to this. It poses by its very existence and must pose with increasing articulation in action that women refuse the myth of liberation through work.

For we have worked enough. We have chopped billions of tons of cotton, washed billions of dishes, scrubbed billions of floors, typed billions of words, wired billions of radio sets, washed billions of nappies, by hand and in machines. Every time they have “let us in” to some traditionally male enclave, it was to find for us a new level of exploitation. Here again we must make a parallel, different as they are, between underdevelopment in the Third World and underdevelopment in the metropolis””to be more precise, in the kitchens of the metropolis. Capitalist planning proposes to the Third World that it “develop”; that in addition to its present agonies, it too suffer the agony of an industrial counter revolution. Women in the metropolis have been offered the same “aid”. But those of us who have gone out of our homes to work because we had to or for extras or for economic independence have warned the rest: inflation has riveted us to this bloody typing pool or to this assembly line, and in that there is no salvation. We must refuse the development they are offering us. But the struggle of the working woman is not to return to the isolation of the home, appealing as this sometimes may be on Monday morning; any more than the housewife’s struggle is to exchange being imprisoned in a house for being clinched to desks or machines, appealing as this sometimes may be compared to the loneliness of the 12th story flat.

Women must completely discover their own possibilities – which are neither mending socks nor becoming captains of ocean-going ships. Better still, we may wish to do these things, but these now cannot be located anywhere but in the history of capital.

The challenge to the women’s movement is to find modes of struggle which, while they liberate women from the home, at the same time avoid on the one hand a double slavery and on the other prevent another degree of capitalistic control and regimentation. This ultimately is the dividing line between reformism and revolutionary politics within the women’s movement.

It seems that there have been few women of genius. There could not be since, cut off from the social process, we cannot see on what matters they could exercise their genius. Now there is a matter, the struggle itself.

Freud said also that every woman from birth suffers from penis envy. He forgot to add that this feeling of envy begins from the moment when she perceives that in some way to have a penis means to have power. Even less did he realize that the traditional power of the penis commenced upon a whole new history at the very moment when the separation of man from woman became a capitalistic division.

And this is where our struggle begins. Mariarosa Dalla Costa & Selma James 29 December 1971


1 This happened as part of the massive demonstration of women celebrating International Women’s Day in the US, August 1970.

2 This is to assume a whole new meaning for “education”, and the work now being done on the history of compulsory education – forced learning – proves this. In England teachers were conceived of as “moral police” who could 1) condition children against “crime” curb working class reappropriation in the community; 2) destroy “the mob”, working class organization based on family which was still either a productive unit or at least a viable organizational unit; 3) make habitual regular attendance and good timekeeping so necessary to children’s later employment; and 4) stratify the class by grading and selection. As with the family itself, the transition to this new form of  control was not smooth and direct, and was the result of contradictory forces both within the class and within capital, as with every phase of the history of capitalism.

3 Wage labor is based on the subordination of all relationships to the wage relation. The worker must enter as an “individual” into a contract with capital stripped of the protection of kinships.

4 Karl Marx, “Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of the State”, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, ed. and trans. Lloyd D. Easton and Kurt H. Guddat, N.Y., 1967, p.176.

5 We are not dealing here with the narrowness of the nuclear family that prevents children from having an easy transition to forming relations with other people; nor with what follows from this, the argument of psychologists that proper conditioning would have avoided such a crisis. We are dealing with the entire organization of the society, of which family, school and factory are each one ghettoized compartment. So every kind of passage from one to another of these compartments is a painful passage. The pain cannot be eliminated by tinkering with the relations between one ghetto and another but only by the destruction of every ghetto.

6 “Free fares, free lunches, free books” was one of the slogans of a section of the Italian students’ movement which aimed to connect the struggle of younger students with workers and university students.

7 In Britain and the US the psychologists Eysenck and Jensen, who are convinced “scientifically” that Blacks have a lower “intelligence” than whites, and the progressive educators like Ivan Illyich seem diametrically opposed. What they aim to achieve links them. They are divided by method. In any case the psychologists are not more racist than the rest, only more direct. “Intelligence” is the ability to assume your enemy’s case as wisdom and to shape your own logic on the basis of this. Where the whole society operates institutionally on the assumption of white racial superiority, these psychologists propose more conscious and thorough “conditioning” so that children who do not learn to read do not learn instead to make molotov cocktails. A sensible view with which Illyich, who is concerned with the “underachievement” of children (that is, rejection by them of “intelligence”), can agree.

8 In spite of the fact that capital manages the schools, control is never given once and for all. The working class continually and increasingly challenges the contents and refuses the costs of capitalist schooling. The response of the capitalist system is to re-establish its own control, and this control tends to be more and more regimented on factory-like lines. The new policies on education which are being hammered out even as we write, however, are more complex than this. We can only indicate here the impetus for these new policies: (a) Working class youth reject that education prepares them for anything but a factory, even if they will wear white collars there and use typewriters and drawing boards instead of riveting machines. (b) Middle class youth reject the role of mediator between the classes and the repressed personality this mediating role demands. (c) A new labor power more wage and status differentiated is called for. The present egalitarian trend must be reversed. (d) A new type of labor process may be created which will attempt to interest the worker in “participating” instead of refusing the monotony and fragmentation of the present assembly line. If the traditional “road to success” and even “success” itself are rejected by the young, new goals will have to be found to which they can aspire, that is, for which they will go to school and go to work. New “experiments” in “free” education, where the children are encouraged to participate in planning their own education and there is greater democracy between teacher and taught are springing up daily. It is an illusion to believe that this is a defeat for capital any more than regimentation will be a victory. For in the creation of a labor power more creatively manipulated, capital will not in the process lose 0.1% of profit. “As a matter of fact,” they are in effect saying, “you can be far more efficient for us if you take your own road, so long as it is through our territory.” In some parts of the factory and in the social factory, capital’s slogan will increasingly be “Liberty and fraternity to guarantee and even extend equality.”

9 We are not at all ignoring the attempts at this moment to make test-tube babies. But today such mechanisms belong completely to capitalist science and control. The use would be completely against us and against the class. It is not in our interest to abdicate procreation, to consign it to the hands of the enemy. It is in our interest to conquer the freedom to procreate for which we will pay neither the price of the wage nor the price of social exclusion.

10 To the extent that not technological innovation but only “human care” can raise children, the effective liberation from domestic work time, the qualitative change of domestic work, can derive only from a movement of women, from a struggle of women: the more the movement grows, the less men””and first of all political militants-can count on female baby minding. And at the same time the new social ambiance that the movement constructs offers to children social space, with both men and women, that has nothing to do with the day care centers organized by the State. These are already victories of struggle. Precisely because they are the results of a movement that is by its nature a struggle, they do not aim to substitute any kind of co-operation for the struggle itself.

11 It is impossible to say for how long these tendencies will continue to drive ill® movement forward and when they will turn into their opposite.

12 Some first readers in English have found that this definition of women’s work should be more precise. What we meant precisely is that housework as work is productive in the Marxian sense, that is, is producing surplus value. We speak immediately after about the productivity of the entire female i)lc. To make clearer the productivity of the woman both as related to her work and as related to her entire role must wait for a later text on which we are now at work. In this the woman’s place is explained in a more articulated by from the point of view of the entire capitalist circuit.

13 See Introduction. Labor power “is a strange commodity for this is not a thing. The ability to labor resides only in a human being whose life is consumed in the process of producing…To describe its basic production and reproduction is to describe women’s work.”

14 This, however, is being countered by an opposite tendency, to bring women into industry in certain particular sectors. Differing needs of capital within the line geographical sector have produced differing and even opposing propaganda and policies. Where in the past family stability has been based on a relative-standardized mythology (policy and propaganda being uniform and official-uncontested), today various sectors of capital contradict each other and undermine the very definition of family as a stable, unchanging, “natural” unit. The classic example of this is the variety of views and financial policies on birth control. The British government has recently doubled its allocation of funds for this purpose. We must examine to what extent this policy is connected with a racist immigration policy, that is, manipulation of the sources of mature labor power; and with the increasing erosion of the work ethic which results in movements of the unemployed and unsupported mothers, that is, controlling births which pollute the purity of capital with revolutionary children.

15 Which is the policy, among others, of the Communist Party in Italy who for some years proposed a bill to the Italian parliament which would have give a pension to women at home, both housewives and single women, when they reached 55 years of age. The bill was never passed.

16 Today the demand of wages for housework is put forward increasingly and with less opposition in the women’s movement in Italy and elsewhere. Since this document was first drafted (June ’71), the debate has become more profound and many uncertainties that were due to the relative newness of the discussion have been dispelled. But above all, the weight of the needs of proletarian women has not only radicalized the demands of the movement. It has also given us greater strength and confidence to advance them. A year ago at the beginning of the movement in Italy, there were those who still thought that the State could easily suffocate the female rebellion against housework by “paying” it with a monthly allowance of£7-£8 as they had already done especially with those “wretched of the earth” who were dependent on pensions. Now these uncertainties are largely dissipated. And it is clear in any case that the demand for a wage for housework is only a basis, a perspective, from which to start, whose merit is essentially to link immediately female oppression, subordination and isolation to their material foundation: female exploitation. At this moment this is perhaps the major function of the demand of wages for housework. This gives at once an indication for struggle, a direction in organizational terms in which oppression and exploitation, situation of caste and class, find themselves insolubly linked. The practical, continuous translation of this perspective is the task the movement is facing in Italy and elsewhere.

17 There has been some confusion over what we have said about canteens. A similar confusion expressed itself in the discussions in other countries as well as Italy about wages for housework. As we explained earlier, housework is as institutionalized as factory work and our ultimate goal is to destroy both institutions. But aside from which demand we are speaking about, there is a misunderstanding of what a demand is. It is a goal which is not only a thing but, like capita) at any moment, essentially a stage of antagonism of a social relation. Whether the canteen or the wages we win will be a victory or a defeat depends on the force of our struggle. On that force depends whether the goal is an occasion for capital to more rationally command our labor or an occasion for us to weaken their hold on that command. What form the goal hikes when we achieve it, whether it is wages or canteens or free birth control, emerges and is in fact created in the struggle, and registers the degree of power that we reached in that struggle.

18 Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Kritik der politischen Okonomie, Band 1, Berlin, Dietz, Verlag, 1962, p.5 12. “Large-scale industry makes it a question of life mid death to replace that monstrosity which is a miserable available working population, kept in reserve for the changing needs of exploitation by capital, In replace this with the absolute availability of the individual for changing requisites of work; to replace the partial individual, a mere bearer of a social detail function, with the fully developed individual for whom varied social functions are modes of interplaying natural and acquired activities.”

19 “But the other, more fundamental, objection, which we shall develop in the ensuing chapters, flows from our disputing the assumption that the general level of real wages is directly determined by the character of the wage bargain . ..We shall endeavor to show that primarily it is certain other forces which determine the general level of real wages … We shall argue that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding of bow in this respect the economy in which we live actually works.” (Emphasis added.) The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes, N.Y., Harcourt, Brace and World, 1964, p. 13. “Certain other forces”, in our view, are first of all. women.

20 It has been noticed that many of the Bolsheviks after 1917 found female partners among the dispossessed aristocracy. When power continues to it-side in men both at the level of the State and in individual relations, women continue to be “the spoil and handmaid of communal lust” (Karl Max, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1959, p.94). The breed of “the new tsars” goes back a long way. Already in 1921 from “Decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International”, one can read in Part I of “Work Among Women”: “The Third Congress of the Comintern confirms the basic proposition of revolutionary Marxism, that is, that there is no ‘specific woman question’ and no ‘specific women’s movement’, and that every sort of alliance of working women with bourgeois feminism, as well as any support by the women workers of the treacherous tactics of the social compromisers and opportunists, leads to the undermining of the forces of the proletariat … In order to put an end to women’s slavery it is necessary to inaugurate the new Communist organization of society.” The theory being male, the practice was to “neutralize”. Let us quote from one of the founding fathers. At the first National Conference of Communist Women of the Communist Party of Italy on March 26, 1922, “Comrade Gramsci pointed out that special action must be organized among housewives, who constitute the large majority of the proletarian women. He aid that they should be related in some way to our movement by our setting up special organizations. Housewives, as far as the quality of their work IN concerned, can be considered similar to the artisans and therefore they will hardly be communists; however, because they are the workers’ mates, and because they share in some way the workers’ life, they are attracted toward communism. Our propaganda can therefore have an influence over [sic j these housewives; it can be instrumental, if not to officer them into our organization, to neutralize them; so that they do not stand in the way of the possible struggles by the workers.” (From Compagna, the Italian Communist Party organ for work among women, Year I, No.3 [April 2. 1922],p.2.)

A Woman’s Place

Today, more than ever before, magazines and newspapers are full of articles about women. Some just discuss what the society women are doing and who of the upper class is getting married. Others discuss the fact that there is a high divorce rate and try to give some answer to all this. Or they discuss millions of women going into industry or the restlessness of housewives. These articles don’t show what this restlessness means and can only try to make women feel that they are better off than they have ever been. They plead with women to be happy.

None of these articles, none, points out that if women are in any way hotter off than ever before, that it is women who have made this change themselves. They don’t point out that women want a change now and it is they who will make this change.

The method that these writers have in avoiding woman’s role in making history is to avoid the daily lives of millions of women, what they do and what they think.

It is the day-to-day lives of women that show what women want and what they do not want. Many of the writers of these articles are women, but career women who are not a part of the working women and house-wives of this country. These writers realize that if they stated the facts, it would be a weapon for women in their struggle for a new life for themselves and their families.

So they don’t take up the daily pressures that women face. They don’t take up the fact that women, dealing with these pressures in their own way, realize the strength of themselves and of other women. They avoid saying that women, feeling their own strength and doing away with the old relations, are preparing themselves and their husbands for a new and better relationship.

The co-authors of this booklet have seen this in their own lives and in the lives of the women they know. They have written this down as a beginning of the expression of what the average woman feels, thinks and lives.

The Single Woman

A lot of women work before they get married and find that they are well able to take care of themselves. They are very independent as compared to single girls twenty years ago. They want to get married but they say their marriages will be different. They say they will not let themselves be the household drudges their mothers were. A friend of or inc says that she is different from her mother because she wants more from marriage. “She didn’t expect it. I’m different. I expect it.”

Women want a part in the decisions that have to be made and very often they don’t want to struggle along on one pay check. They prefer to continue work even if just for a while after they are married so that they can at least begin to have some of the things that they want and need.

One of the greatest problems a young, single woman has to face aside from how to support herself, is what her attitude to morals she has been taught is going to be. In the process of working this out, single girls have started a whole new set of morals. Even though many girls have not thought about their actions in this way, they have gone against the whole code of morals that they were taught to live by. Many women have affairs before they are married and are not looked upon as fallen women or bad women. It is not the same as one woman years ago, going with a man and keeping it within herself. One girl told me that all of her friends had had sex relations with their boyfriends and that they discussed it openly. They feel that they are entitled to this and are willing to go against the school authorities, their parents, and even those men who will not accept them. Whether or not society approves, they do what their friends are doing and insist upon approval by the force of the number who feel and act the same way.

“Hey, You’re Scaring Me”

A single woman thinks twice about getting married and giving tip the freedom that she has had before marriage. Before, she went out as she pleased and bought clothes as she needed them. She never had the freedom that men have but she was on her own. One young woman of twenty that I work with says that she a almost got married twice and she is certainly glad that she didn’t. She told me, ”I know how well off I am when I hear the married women talk about their husbands, I do what I want to do now.” When she hears the married women talk, she says, “Hey, you’re scaring me. You’ll make me an old maid.”

But all women want a home and family. This same girl is always talking about having children and about her boyfriends. Young women nowadays feel that their good times and the closeness that they have with their boyfriends should not end with marriage but should make their marriage into a real experience. It is clear that these girls don’t reject men or marriage, but they reject what marriage is today.

The Married Woman

As soon as a woman gets married she finds that she must settle down and accept responsibility, something women have always been trained to do. She realizes that she has the job of making the house that she and her husband live in a place where they can invite their friends and where they can relax after a hard day’s work. And even though a woman works, iris assumed from the very beginning that the main responsibility of the house is the woman’s and the main job of support is the man’s. The husband is to go out and support you and the children. You are to make sure that the house is clean, the children are eared for, meals are cooked, laundry is done, etc. This seems to be the fair way of doing things. But soon you find that the job of staying home and taking care of the house is not as it is painted in the movies. Housework is a never-ending job that is monotonous and repetitious. After a while doing things in the house such as ironing or getting up early to make lunches or breakfast is not something that you want to do. It becomes something that you have to do.

The Children

Some couples try to get away from this division of the work at the beginning. For instance, when a woman works, the man will share the work when they get home. The husband of one woman did more of the housework than she did, before they had children.

But any idea of sharing the work disappears when children come. When there are children the whole set-up of a man working outside and a woman working inside is shown for what it Is – an inhuman setup. The whole load of children, house, everything, becomes the woman’s. As soon as a woman quits work to have children, a man doesn’t feel he has to help her with anything. What was a division in their marriage when they first got married is now a split. Instead of the children uniting them, children divide a marriage and stick the woman in the house and glue the man to his job. But very often for a woman who works and looks forward to quitting when she has children, the coming of children makes working out of the home a life sentence. After a month or two, she is hack working again.

Few men take an interest in the details of taking care of the baby. They feel it is not their job to diaper and bathe the children. Some men even feel that, though their wives have to stay home with the children, there is no reason for them to stay home with her. So they go out and do as they please, if their wives let them, knowing that their wives are stuck at home constantly taking care of their children. If a man goes out with his friends, a woman usually fights for the right to go out with hers. One woman told me that she was pregnant and that she was sorry since she had a four-month-old baby. She said her husband was glad. She said that he knew that if she was stuck with a child he could go out as lie pleased. Fewer and fewer women take this nonsense from their husbands. Women fight tooth and nail against being shouldered with the whole responsibility of the houe and the children. They refuse to stay home and be tied to the house while their husbands continue life as though nothing had happened. If women are going to stay home their husbands are going to stay home with them.

The Family is Divided

Women are trying to break down the division that has been made between the father and the children and between the mother and the father. The privilege that society has given the man, women are not allowing him. It is a privilege that he suffers by as well as she. Men know little about their children, are not close to them, and don’t know what giving time and work to a child gives hack to you. It is this giving that a woman does that makes her so much closer to her children than a father ever can be. Men feel that supporting a child is all they have to do to get the love of their child and the respect of their wife. They feel that nothing else should be asked of them-but the less that is asked of them the less they get in return.

It is not an easy thing for a woman to get used to being a mother. For one thing you know that you are responsible for this child completely. If your husband stops supporting him then you have to. You have to raise him. No one else will. Whatever kind of person he grows up to he will be mainly your doing. As soon as you have a child you have to make your marriage work. Now it is not only you but another person who didn’t ask to be born who will suffer if your marriage goes on the rocks. A lot of marriages that would ordinarily break up are held together by the woman in order to save her child from a broken home.

A woman’s whole life revolves around her children. She thinks of them first. She finds that these are the only people in her life who really need her. If she has nothing more, she lives for them. She organizes her work so she can give them the best care. The schedule that she lives on shows that her time is not her own but belongs to her children. She must often go without things so that they will have what they need. She must try to live in a house that is safe enough and roomy enough for them. Sometimes she even has to fight with her husband for something that she feels they need and he is not willing for them to have. She plans her life according to their age.

It is easy for a man to say it is his child but for the real worry when they are sick or misbehave, how they are eating and how much they sleep. These things are on the women’s shoulders. How a child’s shoes fit him, where his clothes are’ kept, even things like this most fathers don’t know anything about. This doesn’t mean that fathers like it this way. It’s just that even if they didn’t there is very little that they can do about it. When they go away in the morning, the kids are usually asleep and when they get home at night they are near their bed time. Their whole lives are concerned with making a living, and the problems involved in that. Because they are not around their children enough, they have very little idea about what children need, not only in the way of physical needs, but in terms of discipline and love and security. The division that is made between home and factory creates a division between the father and his children. It is obvious that when the father and mother lead separate lives, the children as well are going to suffer. They are often used by each parent as weapons against the other. The children seldom know where they stand and try as soon as possible to get away from it all. They refuse to be a part of this constant family war and just disassociate themselves from it as soon as they are old enough.

Then the Kids Come Home

The work that is part of having a child destroys much of the pleasure of having them for the one that has to do the work. To be with the children day in and day out, week in and week out, to clean up after them, and to keep them clean, to worry about whether they are going in the street or are catching a cold is not only a terrible strain, hut it becomes the only thing that you see in your child – the work and the worry involved. You begin to see in the child only the work and none of the pleasure. You feel that every stage of his growing up means, not just a developing child but more work for you to do. You see a child as a hindrance to your getting your other work done and to your having free time. He seems to be “in your way” rather than part of your life. Just about the time that you think you’re finished cleaning the house, the kids come home and the whole routine starts all over again, finger marks on the wall, muddy shoes and scattered toys. You don’t ever realize how much of a barrier the work of raising a child creates until he finally gets into his teens. He is less work to you and you crave more time and more of a chance to appreciate him as a person. But then it is too late. He has grown away from you and you can’t really see him and know him and appreciate him.

If a woman can’t make her husband understand this (and since a man doesn’t go through it, it is very hard for him to understand), she must literally force out of him some free time away from the children for herself. This doesn’t solve anything hut it relieves the tension for a while. Sometimes men don’t want their wives to have any freedom at all. They don’t trust them or have some old-fashioned idea that they don’t need it or shouldn’t have it. The only people you can turn to in those situations are your neighbors. Very often, they are the only people who understand since they are women too and have the same problems. For a small amount of money or for an exchange of care they may be willing to take care of your child for an afternoon. Even then you are not really free. When you are away you may worry about whether the children are being taken good care of. Sometimes you even feel guilty about having left them at all. No one ever lets you forget that you should be home with your children. You can never really be free of them if you are a mother. Nor can you be free when you are with them. A woman finds out early that what she wanted from having children she cannot have. Her situation, her husband’s and the children’s, put the children in immediate conflict with her.

When a woman has children, she is tied down to the house and to these same children that are so important to her. You never know what it is to be a housewife until you have children.

The House

Everything a housewife does, she does alone. All the work in the house is for you to do by yourself. The only time you are with other people is when you have visitors or go visiting yourself. People think sometimes that when women go visiting they are just wasting time. But if they didn’t go visiting occasionally, they would go mad from boredom and the feeling of not having anyone to talk to. It’s so good to get out among people. The work is the same, day in and day out. ”Even if you died the house would still be there in the morning.” Sometimes you get so bored that you have to do something. One woman used to change the furniture around about every two weeks. Other women buy something new for the house or for themselves. There are a million schemes to break the monotony. The daytime radio serials help to pass the time away but nothing changes the isolation and the boredom.

The terrible thing that is always there when you are doing housework is the feeling that you’re never finished. When a man works in a factory, he may work hard and long hours. But at a certain time, he punches out and for that day at least, he is finished. Come Friday or Saturday night he is through for one or two days. In the house you are never finished. Not only is there always something to be done, but there is always someone to mess up almost before you are finished. After four or six hours of a thorough housecleaning, the kids will come home and in five minutes the house will be a shambles. Or your husband will dirty all the ashtrays there are in the house. Or it will rain right after you wash the windows. You may be able to control your children or get your husband to be more careful, but that doesn’t solve much. The way that the house is set up, neither the husband nor the children have any idea how much effort and real hard work and time have gone into cleaning the house. The way that the house is set up you have no control over the hours of work, the kind of work that you will have to do, and how much work you do. These are what women want to control.

The rest of the family is no part of the house. They just live there. You make the home what it is-a place where they can relax. You make it livable. You make it attractive. You make it comfortable. You keep it clean. And you are the only one who can never completely enjoy it. You always have your eye out for what has to be done. And picking up after people seems to be a never-ending job. You can never relax where you spend most of your time, energy and ability.

Most women don’t even make the real decisions where the house is concerned. Even though they can use their own judgment on many small things. The really big things are either decided outright by the husband or he makes sure that his pressure is felt. Women feel that they must have a say in the house. They participate in the decisions of the house more than ever today. But they have had to put rip a long fight to get this recognition.

“Your own boss”

They say a woman is her own boss. That is, no one tells her how fast to work. No one tells her how much to do. And nobody stands over her all day. She can sit down when she wants to and smoke a cigarette or eat when she gets hungry. A housewife has an entirely different kind of a boss. Her first boss is her husband’s work. Everything a woman has to do is dependent on the job her husband has. Whatever her husband makes, that is what the family has to live on. How much clothes she buys, or whether she has to make them, whether clothes go to the laundromat or are washed by hand, whether they live in a crowded apartment or in a house with enough room for the family. Whether she has a washing machine or does clothes by hand, all of these things are decided by the kind of job her husband has.

The hours that her husband works determines her whole schedule and how she will live, and when she will do her work. One big problem for a woman is having a husband who works nights. Then there is no schedule. By the time that the housework is done, her husband gets up and the house is messed again. If there are children then there are two schedules to be met. The children have to be kept quiet during the day, which is almost impossible with children.

Whether her husband has a comparatively easy job or a hard one affects her life, too. A man who works very hard is not going to help her with any of the work around the house. He is going to come home a lot grouchier and harder to live with. The woman has to learn to keep her temper a lot more if there is to be any peace. And the children have to be kept in line more too.

Even where she lives is decided by her husband’s work. The part of town that makes going to work the easiest is the part of town that you live in. And if there are no jobs in the town that are in your husband’s line of work then you have to forget all your friends and all the ties of Family and you go to where he can find work.

The children and the demands of taking care of them is the next decider of how a woman is to spend her life. There is, nothing more demanding than an infant. When they want something, they want it at that moment and not a moment later.

But the most ruthless boss and the one that really keeps a woman going is the work itself. The work does not look on you as being a human being. It is there no matter how you feel or what you want to do. It dominates every spare moment that you have, either in the house or away from it. You are constantly trying to finish work that has no end. You want to do all that you have to do in the least possible time and have free time for yourself. And after you think you are finished you find that there is something else. Sometimes women will give up and let the house go for a few days or a few hours. But they are the ones who are bothered by it. And then they will work twice as hard trying to make up for lost time. You are always doing what you have to do. What you want to do doesn’t count for much.

Most women are very responsible. They feel that, as mothers and wives, they want to do the best possible jobs. They want to be proud of their homes and children. There is no other place where they can show what they can do. If a woman is a good manager she has the respect of other women and that is important to any woman.

So there is really no need of a foreman or lead girl at home. It is the way a woman lives and the work that she must do that keeps her toeing the mark. It is this way of life also that teaches her discipline. She learns when to say something and when to keep quiet. She learns to do things on her own. if there is something that has to be done and her husband won’t do it, she does it herself. One woman with four children painted the whole outside of her house. She said that she didn’t want to wait another five years for her husband to do it.

It Takes Experience

Every time a woman’s husband gets a raise she says to herself, now I will catch up. That extra few dollars will change things. But by the time the time he gets that raise, prices have jumped to make up for it, or he has been sick and lost a day’s pay, or thee has been an ”extra”. And even if things have gone along fairly smoothly, you go and buy the things that you have needed all along but just weren’t able to afford before So you are right back where you started from. Almost all workers families live from day to day. There is very little chance to put something away for an emergency. If a family missed just one paycheck it may set them back for weeks. In all that time the housewife must manage somehow. The same thing happens when the workingman goes out on strike. For weeks and sometimes months she must manage on practically nothing. The miners’ wives have a system of storing food and clothes away when their husbands are working steady. In that way, when there is a strike they can live for a while at least on what they have saved up in the way of food and clothes. It takes a lot of experience and training to learn all the tricks and the woman is the only one in a position to learn these ‘tricks”. Corners can be cut in an emergency that you never thought could be cut and you somehow manage.

A woman has to get along on what her husband makes. It doesn’t matter how much or how little he brings home. She must decide when to make clothes and when she can afford to buy them. She finds recipes for making economical meals that at the same time look and taste good. The way the family lives, whether there are bill collectors at the door, or food on the table, is dependent on how much money her husband gives her and how she manages it. Although most husbands realize that prices are high, they don’t really know how much it takes to keep a family going. It is only the woman who has to live on impossibly little who knows about how to manage finances.

All of this experience prepares a woman to manage when she is on her own. The woman whose husband runs out on her has a pretty tough job on her hands, especially if she has children. If she has relatives who will help her at the beginning then she is considered lucky. But on the whole she has to be both mother and a father to the children. She has no choice about working. She assumes the responsibility of both a man and woman. She supports her family on what she makes, which is usually much less than a man makes. She has less time with her children and sometimes has to be separated from them in order to be able to work. Yet these women manage to bring up their children and start new lives for themselves. They don’t sit home and weep. My friend has a neighbor whose husband ran out on her and left her with a child and all the bills. This woman sold all the furniture and with the money took a trip to Puerto Rico to see her mother. It was something to meet hot. If she cried, you didn’t know about it. She just said that she wasn’t going to wait around like a damn fool. She had never done anything like that before but when the time came, she knew just what to do.

They Just Lead Separate Lives

A woman stays at home alone all day. She waits for her husband to come home to tell him of the things that have happened during the day, something that the kids have done or said that shows what wonderful kids they are, or what a hard day she had. She wants to hear what he has gone through and what he thinks about buying this or that for the house. But his life is not in the house. When a man comes home from work, he wants to do nothing. Sometimes he doesn’t even want to do any talking. You wait all day for someone to talk to, and then when your husband comes home he picks up the paper and acts as if he doesn’t even know you exist. When a woman is home all day, she wants to go out to a show or for a drive on Sunday afternoon. But during the week your husband comes home exhausted and even on weekends he sometimes wants to stay home and relax. He has been away from the house most of his waking hours. Now is his chance to sit around. Women have needs of companionship and understanding that men know nothing about. If there is not that understanding between men and women about their work and human needs. It is not surprising that many marriages can’t make a go of their sex lives, the most delicate phase of their relationship. Their husbands, the people they should be closest to, often are furthest away from. They just lead separate lives.

Women Know Each Other

If women can’t turn to their husbands, then they turn to other women. Because of the fact that women lead such similar lives, they know and understand each other. In the neighborhood some women will get very close to others. These women in a court or a street will help each other out if they need help and make the time of day go faster. They talk of things they would not dream of talking to their husbands about even if their husbands would listen. Who can tell a man how they want to fix up a house or what they want to buy for the children. Things like problems with your husband or financial problems are common property”. The women discuss all the things that at feet their lives–whether or not to have children and how many to have, how to save money on clothes, housewares and food, which stores have lower prices, the best method of birth control, sex problems, going to work. In the discussions many things are resolved. Women get new attitudes as a result of hearing other women talk. The women will exclude someone from their group because she is not doing what is expected of her. A mother who neglects her child or does not take care of the house and has no excuse for it will not have the time or confidence of the other women.

Some people call this gossiping but it’s much more than that. Women are breaking down the isolation of the home by creating strong ties with other women. It is the only group life a housewife can have and she makes the most of it. The very existence of these ties with other housewives is condemnation of the relations a woman has with her husband, with her work, and with the rest of society. The women come together, talk together, and, in a way, live together. There is no one else they can turn to but themselves. There is one place where they can decide whom they will be with, where they will be, and what they will do. There is no one who will stand in the way.

The best time of the week in my court is Friday. Everybody cleans house on Friday so they will have less to do on the weekend. After they are finished, in the afternoon, someone will run out for beer and we will sit around and talk and relax and compare notes. The sociability is at its highest and we all feel most relaxed when the work is done. There is a feeling of closeness and kidding around that you can’t get anywhere else except with these people that know you and accept you on your own terms.

This is how women are organized. With the experience they have in managing things and with the aid of the other women in their group. They know what to do when they want to take action. The women in a housing project in San Francisco got together to halt the rise in prices. They saw the government wasn’t doing anything so they took matters into their own hands. They held meetings and demonstrations and distributed leaflets. No one person organized it. After living with their neighbors in a housing project for so long they knew each other intimately; each other’s weaknesses and strengths, The women made price lists up of every store in town and bought at only those stores that had the lowest prices. The whole city knew about “Mama’s OPA” and the papers had many articles on it.1

There are many times that the housewives take actions that never reach the papers. Women will barricade streets so that their children will have a place to play. The police with tear gas bombs cannot drive them away. Women will pass the word along to other women that on a certain day no woman is to buy meat. They would just walk up to strange women and say “Don’t buy meat on such a day”. Women know each other so well that they can talk to a perfect stranger and be sure of being understood. The miners’ wives went out on strike to protest the Company selling their homes and again to protest the dust in the air of the mining towns. They got the support of their husbands in both cases. Their husbands refused to cross their picket lines.

Women act as a group because they are treated like one. They live the same way on the whole, no matter how different the individual situation may be.

A New Relationship

The most universal organization of women is the action that women take in their own homes. Each woman in her own home is making a revolution. There are some women who don’t say much to their husbands or to other women. Yet when it comes to a showdowns, they just go ahead and do what they know is right. Other women argue with their husbands for the things they feel they should have. These arguments mean something to a woman. She is not just arguing with her husband. She is showing him and even more important, herself, that she has ideas and desires of her own. Women are constantly telling men, however they can, that they can’t go on in the old way. It is this spirit of independence and self-respect that men admire in women, even when it is directed against themselves. They admire a woman who can stand on her own two feet and doesn’t let her husband walk all over her. A woman who doesn’t take it from her husband has the respect of other women and she has the respect of her husband as well. Women are more and more refusing to be just machines for raising children and getting their husbands off to work. They demand more of their husbands in the way of a relationship. If a man cannot change, they will break up the marriage rather than go on living with a stranger. Divorce nowadays is accepted because women have made it acceptable. It is clear that it is not the individual man who is involved. There are too many divorces for that. When a woman gets divorced, although it takes the form of a struggle with an individual man, it is an act opposing the whole way of life men and women must lead in our day. Women fight the role that men play in the home. This has nothing to do with how much a husband helps his wife or how good he is to the children. No matter how much a husband tries to understand the woman’s problems, no matter how well they get along, women fight the way they are forced to live and want to establish a new way of life.

The Working Woman

One of the ways that women show their rejection of their role in society is by going out to work. Many women work today who have never worked before. By going out to work, women have changed their relations with their husbands and children. Along with this they have given themselves new problems to solve and have found new ways to solve them.

Women have expanded their experiences so that they know what large groups of people are thinking and doing. Fewer and fewer women today are housewives only. Most women at one time or another go to work. Some women go out to work only a few months a year. Some work steady. In any case, they have a picture of the world that they never had before.

Some women that I have worked with say that they work because they can’t get along on what their husbands make. This is true especially in the family where the man has no trade and his wages are small. But it is more and more true of everyone. Besides the high cost of living, there is another reason why it is hard to get along on one paycheck today. Women demand much more than they used to. They don’t want to go through the awful feeling of being broke that they went through during the depression. They don’t want to wash clothes by hand when, with a little extra, they can have the most modern equipment in their homes. Everything now is modern and women want the most modern appliances to work with. About the only thing you can do on one paycheck is exist.

When you are living on a small budget, it is the woman who must bear the brunt of it. She must go long distances to shop. When it becomes necessary to do without, she is usually the first person to forget her own needs.

One of the biggest financial needs that a woman has is some financial independence. They don’t want to ask their husbands before they spend any money. They want to have money of their own. To be able to afford new drapes when the old ones are still good but you are tired of looking at them, is a luxury that most women can’t afford but all women want. The paycheck that your husband gives you, although you work as hard for it as he does, is never really your own, even though it may be handed to you for the needs of the family. Those needs that women have can never be satisfied on the money the working man alone brings home.

A woman who goes to work in a factory has a feeling of independence not only about the money that is spent but about the decisions that are made in the house If you are helping to support the family, you have more right to decide not only what is to be done with the family money but you now want to have more of a part in other questions that come up in the family which your husband has always decided before. One particular man was surprised with the rights his wife took since she started to work that he told her to stay home. They got along better that way he said.

It is not only decisions that a woman feels more independent about. When a woman works she knows that she doesn’t have to put up with a lot of things from her husband If he steps out of line by drinking or going out with other women then she will up and leave him faster than before She figures that now, if she has to, she can always support herself

One of the things that drives women to get jobs is the boredom and loneliness that they would have to live with it they stayed home. Women want to be with other people As compared to her husband, a woman leads an isolated life in the house by herself. The only company that she has while she is home is the radio and the telephone. In the factory you at least work with other people and get away from the boredom and loneliness that is home life.

The thing that a woman regrets most when she goes out to work is leaving her children. It is true that you want to get away from them for a while, but you don’t like to leave them with just anybody. Most of the time you don’t know much about how they are being taken care of If they are older, you don’t know who they go around with and what they do with their tune. If your child is in a nursery school, you can ask the teacher how the child is doing. Most of the time she will say, “Fine”. But that’s all. You really don’t know how they are being treated or what kind of care they are getting. You always hope the child is doing the right thing but when you work, you are never sure.

There is also the problem of where to leave the child when you work. Many women who are separated from their husbands and have young children, have to board them out. They miss their children who seem to grow up without them. They don’t have much say in the way their children are brought up. Other women prefer to depend on neighbors whom they know rather than a nursery school that they know little or nothing about. The reason that a lot of women don’t go to work at all is because they have no one reliable to take care of their children.

Wherever She Wants to Be

Women want to be able to decide whether or not to work. If a man tells a woman to work she usually won’t. For one thing she feels that if she works when he tells her to then he gets used to it, and sometimes stops working regularly himself. He thinks that she should support him. One woman I know had to stop working because her husband thought that he could go out gambling with the money that she was making. On the other hand, if her husband tells her not to work, that doesn’t mean that she will stay home. When a woman goes out to work it is not always with the approval of her husband. Many men resent their wives working. They use as an excuse the fact that the children should stay with their mother. They also say that they are not able to help their wives with the children and with the house and shopping. Others will make it so unbearable by putting the entire burden on their wives that finally the wives will be forced to quit.

Women have to fight those men who believe that a woman’s place is in the home, and that is where they should stay. These are the men who don’t want their wives to have any independence at all, and who want to be the only ones who bring in a check so they are the only ones with a say in their homes. When a woman goes out to work, they know that she becomes much more of a person in her own right. Women have shown these men that a woman’s place is wherever she wants to be.

Those women who want to go on working and whose husbands don’t want them to, don’t tell their husbands about how hard it is to work. They keep all of that to themselves. One woman on our line at work has to fight to keep working. She has a fourteen year-old daughter and she says there is nothing to keep her home. Yet her husband, a professional who makes good money is constantly asking her to quit. She never shows how tired she is when she gets home and she can’t afford to ask him for help or lie will make her quit. There is quite a difference in the feeling toward women working between those women who have to work and those who work because they want to. If a woman works because she wants to, she doesn’t have to take as much from the company and she can tell the boss to go to hell with his job as my neighbor puts it. When she gets tired of working she knows she can quit, and even if she doesn’t quit the very fact that she can makes her more independent of the company.

Those women who have to work, the single women who are supporting themselves and sometimes their parents or the divorced women who are supporting their children, must stick to their jobs no matter how they feel or what they feel like doing. When these women get tired of working, they just go right on working. They have no choice. The company usually takes full advantage of this and knows it can depend on these women for Saturday work and overtime. When you are paying ten or fifteen dollars a week for nursery school alone, every penny counts.

Factory work for women is sometimes easy work-that is, it is not hard physically. But, like all factory work, it is dull and monotonous. In certain industries, it is hard physically. You feel in every muscle that you have put in a day’s work. The important thing, no matter what kind of work you do, is the people you work with. If the work is easy but dull, then it is the other women who make the day pass at all. If it is hard work, the only thing that keeps you going is the other women who are doing the same thing you are and going through it with you. It is not the work that is so important to you and that makes factory life bearable. It is the people with whom you work that you care about.

There is always something going on in the plant. Either someone is cracking a joke or clowning or you are having a fight with the foreman or lead girl. There is always a discussion going on about something, and everything is talked about. Sex problems or their current affairs, housework and how to manage the children, new dance steps and the latest styles, price control and housing, ways of gaining and losing weight. No matter what you want to talk about, there is someone to talk to. The girls consider each other’s feelings and interests.

Unlike the company, the girls care about each other. When one person is out, she is missed and someone usually calls to find out what is the matter. If something is seriously wrong with a particular girl. Though her immediate group of friends start a collection to buy her something or to give her money to pay the extra bills. The girls give freely of their time and their money. If a girl is not feeling well a certain day, then the other girls or some special friends will work twice as fast to make up for her work so that she doesn’t have to miss time from work. The company never worries about the individual person. They expect, come hell or high water, the same amount of work every day. The girls are the only ones who care about each other and will help you out when you need it.

We – From Now On

When a woman comes home from work at night, there is quite a difference from when a man comes home from work. As soon as she comes home she starts working all over again. A married woman, especially if she has children, can never have the luxury of sitting down and doing nothing. There is dinner to get on the table. The dishes to be washed, the children to be bathed and gotten to bed. She has two jobs. She is a part-time mother and housewife and a full-time wage earner. The weekend which a man takes to relax, for her belongs to the house. And all the things that have been left undone during the week have to be done then. It’s a hard grind. Working and having a family. No matter how much your husband helps you or how considerate he is, the main burden of the house is still on the woman’s shoulders. Just because a woman goes out to work, it doesn’t mean she stops being a housewife.

A woman has a lot more in common with her husband when she works than when she stays home. There is more to talk to him about than there was before. The main barrier is still there however, and it is still easier to talk to other women than it is to talk to your husband. Yet, things are definitely changed for a couple. For the first time, a woman says you are not supporting this house. We are. And things will have to be so from now on.

Union and Company Women

The union and the company try to appear ‘air by putting tip women for supervisory jobs. The shop stewards and the union officials are often women. The lead girls of the company and the foreladies are often taken from the line in plants. But as soon as these girls are taken off the line they forget the rest of the girls and become agents of the union or the company, very often against the girls. The lead girls usually eat together and go out together and consider themselves better than the rest. They act just like the men supervisors. But they use the fact that they are women to try to win the confidence of the other girls in order to get more production and to keep the girls in line.

One of the lead girls in my plant was asked by the supervisor to get out double production. She said she would never do that to the girls and cried like a baby for days. It never dawned on her that the only way she could get the supervisor to stop pressing her was to get the girls to protest. She handled it herself and in a few days was demanding that the girls produce, using the excuse that she had been pressured into it. Most women feel that when a woman gets to be boss, she is worse than a man. The women who get in as bosses constantly use the fact that they are women to whip the girls into line. The women union officials are the same way. Men workers talk about how the union is separated from the men. If this is true of the men’s unions, it is doubly true of the women’s. To many women it seems that the only thing that they do is collect dues and try to keep the girls in line for the company. The initiation fees are way out of proportion to the amounts that the women make and the dues are just as high. In some shops nobody knows who the shop steward is and very few of the girls care. Yet the girls will defend the union if the company attacks it. They know, however, that if anything is to be done, they will have to do it themselves.

Most women look at work as six of one and half a dozen of the other. If iris a choice of staying home in the monotony of the house, then they feel that it is worthwhile working. Some women look forward to the day when they can afford to stay home. When that day comes, they leave the plant only to come right back most of the time. After you have worked out, even for a little while, it is hard to go back into the home. This is what happened to a lot of women during the war, who worked in defense plants. After the war, many were laid off, but some stayed. Those who were laid off and many, many more women who have never worked before are becoming working women. A woman’s place is becoming wherever she wants to be.

It is not that women enjoy work. They like the work in neither the home nor the factory. But as compared to being “just a housewife” most women feel that even factory work is preferable. My neighbor went out to work for Christmas money, and because she wanted to get away from the house for a while, but Christmas money was her excuse to her husband. Her three-year-old boy stays with his godparents so her husband has no complaint about her working. Every once in a while, she says she is quitting but she just can’t get herself to do it.

Every Woman Knows

More and more today, women are showing by their every action that they can’t go on in the old way. They have no confidence any more that what is supposed to work really will, or what is supposed to be their lives should be. Their husbands, their children, their work, all are in conflict with them. Everything they do, every decision they make, they feel may work. Marriage, children, home, none of these things are women sure of any more.

Housewives who have never worked before are waiting until their children are old enough so they can get a job. Women who have always worked are looking forward to the day when they can finally quit. Marriages that have lasted for twenty years are breaking up. Young couples after six months of marriage decide that they’d better end it now before they have children who will suffer. Young women getting out of high school instead of running to get married, get a job and an apartment of their own and live independently.

It is not that women don’t want to be wives and mothers. They want and need men to share their lives with and every woman wants children. But they feel that if they can’t have a human relationship they will have no relationship at all. Women go from being married to being divorced, from being housewives to working out, but nowhere do women see the kind of life that they want for themselves and their families.

Women are finding more and more that there is no way out but a complete change. But one thing is already clear. Things can’t go on the way they are. Every woman knows that.

Selma James

“A Woman’s Place” was first published in the United States, February 1953, by Correspondence, a group organized around the publication of a workers’ newspaper. Pseudonyms (Marie Brant and Ellen Santori) were used because of the particular form of political repression by the American State during the McCarthy era.


1 This name came from the government department which was supposed to control prices during the second world war, the Office of Price Administration-OPA.

Published by the Falling Wall Press and a group of individuals from the Women’s Movement in England and Italy
Printed and bound by Butler and Tanner Ltd., Frome and London, England First edition, October 1972 Second edition, February 1973 Third edition, September 1975 Copyright ©1972 Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James
This book has also been published in Italian, German, French and Spanish. ISBN 0 9502702 4 5
Falling Wall Press Ltd. 79 Richmond Rd., Montpelier, Bristol BS6 SEP,

How capitalism and the Left have mystified the real relationships between these categories. (

Sex, race and class

Selma James (1975)

There has been enough confusion generated when sex, race and class have confronted each other as separate and even conflicting entities. That they are separate entities is self-evident. That they have proven themselves to be not separate, inseparable, is harder to discern. Yet if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left. I hope to show in barest outline, first, that the working class movement is something other than that Left have ever envisioned it to be. Second, locked within the contradiction between the discrete entity of sex or race and the totality of class is the greatest deterrent to working class power and at the same time the creative energy to achieve that power.

In our pamphlet which Avis Brown so generously referred to,1 we tackled “. . . the relation of women to capital and [the] kind of struggle we [can] effectively wage to destroy it” (p.5), and draw throughout on the experience of the struggle against capital by Black people. Beginning with the female (caste) experience, we redefined class to include women. That redefinition was based on the unwaged labour of the housewife. We put it this way:

Since Marx, it has been clear that capital rules and develops through the wage, that is, that the foundation of capitalist society was the wage labourer and his or her direct exploitation. What has been neither clear nor assumed by the organizations of the working class movement is that precisely through the wage has the exploitation of the non-wage labourer been organized. This exploitation has been even more effective because the lack of a wage hid it . . . Where women are concerned their labour appears to be a personal service outside of capital. (p. 28)

Since Marx, it has been clear that capital rules and develops through the wage, that is, that the foundation of capitalist society was the wage labourer and his or her direct exploitation. What has been neither clear nor assumed by the organizations of the working class movement is that precisely through the wage has the exploitation of the non-wage labourer been organized. This exploitation has been even more effective because the lack of a wage hid it . . . Where women are concerned their labour appears to be a personal service outside of capital. (p. 28)

But if the relation of caste to class where women are concerned presents itself in a hidden, mystified form, this mystification is not unique to women. Before we confront race, let us take an apparent diversion.

The least powerful in the society are our children, also unwaged in a wage labour society. They were once (and in tribal society for example still are) accepted as an integral part of the productive activity of the community. The work they did was part of the total social labour and was acknowledged as such. Where capital is extending or has extended its rule, children are taken away from others in the community and forced to go to schools, against which the number of rebels is growing daily. Is their powerlessness a class question? Is their struggle against school the class struggle? We believe it is. Schools are institutions organized by capital to achieve its purpose through and against the child.

Capital . . . sent them to school not only because they are in the way of others’ more “productive” labour or only to indoctrinate them. The rule of capital through the wage compels every able-bodied person to function, under the law of division of labour, and to function in ways that are if not immediately, then ultimately profitable to the expansion and extension of the rule of capital. That, fundamentally, is the meaning of school. Where children are concerned, their labour appears to be learning for their own benefit. (p. 28)

So here are two sections of the working class whose activities, one in the home, the other in the school, appear to be outside of the capitalist wage labour relation because the workers themselves are wageless. In reality, their activities are facets of capitalist production and its division of labour.

One, housewives, are involved in the production and (what is the same thing) reproduction of workers, what Marx calls labour power. They service those who are daily destroyed by working for wages and who need to be daily renewed; and they care for and discipline those who are being prepared to work when they grow up.

The other, children, are those who from birth are the objects of this care and discipline, who are trained in homes, in schools and in front of the telly to be future workers. But this has two aspects.

In the first place, for labour power to be reproduced in the form of children, these children must be coerced into accepting discipline and especially the discipline of working, of being exploited in order to be able to eat. In addition, however, they must be disciplined and trained to perform a certain kind of work. The labour that capital wants done is divided and each category parceled out internationally as the life work, the destiny, the identity of specific sets of workers. The phrase often used to describe this is the international division of labour. We will say more of this later, but for now let the West Indian mother of a seven-year-old sum up her son’s education with precision: “They’re choosing the street sweepers now.”

Those of us in the feminist movement who have torn the final veil away from this international capitalist division of labour to expose women’s and children’s class position, which was hidden by the particularity of their caste position, learnt a good deal of this from the Black movement. It is not that it is written down anywhere (though we discovered later it was, in what would seem to some a strange place). A mass movement teaches less by words than by the power it exercises which, clearing away the debris of appearances, tells it like it is.

Just as the women’s movement being “for” women and the rebellion of children being “for” children, appears at first not to be about class,

The Black movement in the U.S. (and elsewhere) also began by adopting what appeared to be only a caste position in opposition to the racism of white male-dominated groups. Intellectuals in Harlem and Malcolm X, that great revolutionary, were both nationalists, both appeared to place colour above class when the white Left were still chanting variations of “Black and white unite and fight,” or “Negroes and Labour must join together.” The Black working class were able through this nationalism to redefine class: overwhelmingly Black and Labour were synonymous (with no other group was Labour as synonymous-except perhaps with women), the demands of Blacks and the forms of struggle created by Blacks were the most comprehensive working class struggle . . . (p. 8)

It is not then that the Black movement “wandered off into the class struggle,” as Avis says. It was the class struggle and this took a while to sink into our consciousness. Why?

One reason is because some of us wore the blinkers of the white male Left, whether we knew it or not. According to them, if the struggle’s not in the factory, it’s not the class struggle. The real bind was that this Left assured us they spoke in the name of Marxism. They threatened that if we broke from them, organizationally or politically, we were breaking with Marx and scientific socialism. What gave us the boldness to break, fearless of the consequences, was the power of the Black movement. We found that redefining class went hand-in-hand with rediscovering a Marx the Left would never understand.

There were deeper reasons too why caste and class seemed contradictory. It appears often that the interests of Blacks are contradicted by the interests of whites, and it is similar with men and women. To grasp the class interest when there seems not one but two, three, four, each contradicting the other, is one of the most difficult revolutionary tasks, in theory and practice, that confront us.

Another source of confusion is that not all women, children or Black men are working class. This is only to say that within the movements which these form are layers whose struggle tends to be aimed at moving up in the capitalist hierarchy rather than at destroying it. And so within each movement there is a struggle about which class interest the movement will serve. But this is the history also of white male workers’ movements. There is no class “purity,” not even in shop floor organizations. The struggle by workers against organizations they formed there and in the society generally-trade unions, Labour parties, etc.-is the class struggle.2

Let’s put the relation of caste to class another way. The word “culture” is often used to show that class concepts are narrow, philistine, inhuman. Exactly the opposite is the case. A national culture which has evolved over decades or centuries may appear to deny that society’s relation to international capitalism. It is a subject too wide to go into deeply here but one basic point can be quickly clarified.

The life-style unique to themselves which a people develop once they are enmeshed by capitalism, in response to and in rebellion against it, cannot be understood at all except as the totality of their capitalist lives. To delimit culture is to reduce it to a decoration of daily life.3 Culture is plays and poetry about the exploited; ceasing to wear mini-skirts and taking to trousers instead; the clash between the soul of Black Baptism and the guilt and sin of white Protestantism. Culture is also the shrill of the alarm clock that rings at 6a.m. when a Black woman in London wakes her children to get them ready for the baby minder. Culture is how cold she feels at the bus stop and then how hot in the crowded bus. Culture is how you feel on Monday morning at eight when you clock in, wishing it was Friday, wishing your life away. Culture is the speed of the line or the weight and smell of dirty hospital sheets, and you meanwhile thinking what to make for tea that night. Culture is making the tea while your man watches the news on the telly.

And culture is an “irrational woman” walking out of the kitchen into the sitting room and without a word turning off the telly “for no reason at all.”

From where does this culture spring which is so different from a man’s if you are a woman and different too from a white woman’s if you are a Black woman? Is it auxiliary to the class struggle (as the white Left has it) or is it more fundamental to the class struggle (as Black nationalists and radical feminists have it) because it is special to your sex, your race, your age, your nationality and the moment in time when you are these things?

Our identity, our social roles, the way we are seen, appears to be disconnected from our capitalist functions. To be liberated from them (or through them) appears to be independent from our liberation from capitalist wage slavery. In my view, identity-caste-is the very substance of class.

Here is the “strange place” where we found the key to the relation of class to caste written down most succinctly. Here is where the international division of labour is posed as power relationships within the working class. It is Volume I of Marx’s Capital.

Manufacture . . . develops a hierarchy of labour powers, to which there corresponds a scale of wages. If, on the one hand, the individual labourers are appropriated and annexed for life by a limited function; on the other hand, the various operations of the hierarchy are parceled out among the labourers according to both their natural and their acquired capabilities. (Moscow 1958, p. 349)

In two sentences is laid out the deep material connection between racism, sexism, national chauvinism and the chauvinism of the generations who are working for wages against children and old age pensioners who are wageless, who are dependents.

A hierarchy of labour powers and scale of wages to correspond. Racism and sexism training us to develop and acquire certain capabilities at the expense of all others. Then these acquired capabilities are taken to be our nature and fix our functions for life, and fix also the quality of our mutual relations. So planting cane or tea is not a job for white people and changing nappies is not a job for men and beating children is not violence. Race, sex, age, nation, each an indispensable element of the international division of labour. Our feminism bases itself on a hitherto invisible stratum of the hierarchy of labour powers-the housewife-to which there corresponds no wage at all.

To proceed on the basis of a hierarchical structure among waged and unwaged slavery is not, as Avis accuses the working class of doing, “concentrating . . . exclusively on the economic determinants of the class struggle.” The work you do and the wages you receive are not merely “economic” but social determinants, determinants of social power. It is not the working class but organizations which claim to be of and for that class which reduce the continual struggle for social power by that class into “economic determinants”-greater capitalist control for a pittance more a week. Wage rises that unions negotiate often turn out to be standstills or even cuts, either through inflation or through more intense exploitation (often in the form of productivity deals) which more than pay the capitalist back for the rise. And so people assume that this was the intention of workers in demanding, for example, more wages, more money, more “universal social power,” in the words of Marx.

The social power relations of the sexes, races, nations and generations are precisely, then, particularized forms of class relations. These power relations within the working class weaken us in the power struggle between the classes. They are the particularized forms of indirect rule, one section of the class colonizing another and through this capital imposing its own will on us all. One of the reasons why these so-called working class organizations have been able so to mediate the struggle is that we have, internationally, allowed them to isolate “the working class,” which they identify as white, male and over 21, from the rest of us. The unskilled white male worker, an exploited human being who is increasingly disconnected from capital’s perspective for him to work, to vote, to participate in its society, he also, racist and sexist though he is, recognizes himself as the victim of these organizations. But housewives, Blacks, young people, workers from the Third World, excluded from the definition of class, have been told that their confrontation with the white male power structure in the metropolis is an “exotic historical accident.” Divided by the capitalist organization of society into factory, office, school, plantation, home and street, we are divided too by the very institutions which claim to represent our struggle collectively as a class.

In the metropolis, the Black movement was the first section of the class massively to take its autonomy from these organizations, and to break away from the containment of the struggle only in the factory. When Black workers burn the centre of a city, however, white Left eyes, especially if they are trade union eyes, see race, not class.

The women’s movement was the next major movement of the class in the metropolis to find for itself a power base outside the factory as well as in it. Like the Black movement before it, to be organizationally autonomous of capital and its institutions, women and their movement had also to be autonomous of that part of the “hierarchy of labour powers” which capital used specifically against them. For Blacks it was whites. For women it was men. For Black women it is both.

Strange to think that even today, when confronted with the autonomy of the Black movement or the autonomy of the women’s movement, there are those who talk about this “dividing the working class.” Strange indeed when our experience has told us that in order for the working class to unite in spite of the divisions which are inherent in its very structure-factory versus plantation versus home versus schools-those at the lowest levels of the hierarchy must themselves find the key to their weakness, must themselves find the strategy which will attack that point and shatter it, must themselves find their own modes of struggle.

The Black movement has not in our view “integrated into capitalism’s plural society” (though many of its “leaders” have), it has not “been subsumed to white working class strategy.” (Here I think Avis is confusing white working class struggle with trade union/Labour party strategy. They are mortal enemies, yet they are often taken as identical.) The Black movement has, on the contrary, in the United States challenged and continues to challenge the most powerful capitalist State in the world. The most powerful at home and abroad. When it burnt down the centres of that metropolis and challenged all constituted authority, it made a way for the rest of the working class everywhere to move in its own specific interests. We women moved. This is neither an accident nor the first time events have moved in this sequence.

It is not an accident because when constituted power was confronted, a new possibility opened for all women. For example, the daughters of men to whom was delegated some of this power saw through the noble mask of education, medicine and the law for which their mothers had sacrificed their lives. Oh yes, marriage to a man with a good salary would be rewarded by a fine house to be imprisoned in, and even a Black servant; they would have privilege for as long as they were attached to that salary which was not their own. But power would remain in the hands of the white male power structure. They had to renounce the privilege even to strike out for power. Many did. On the tide of working class power which the Black movement had expressed in the streets, and all women expressed in the day-to-day rebellion in the home, the women’s movement came into being.

It is not the first time either that a women’s movement received its impetus from the exercise of power by Black people. The Black slave who formed the Abolitionist Movement and organized the Underground Railroad for the escape to the North also gave white women-and again the more privileged of them-a chance, an occasion to transcend the limitations in which the female personality was imprisoned. Women, trained always to do for others, left their homes not to free themselves-that would have been outrageous-but to free “the slave.” They were encouraged by Black women, ex-slaves like Sojourner Truth, who suffered because, being women, they had been the breeders of labour power on the plantation. But once those white women had taken their first decisive step out of the feminine mould, they confronted more sharply their own situation. They had to defend their right, as women, to speak in public against slavery. They were refused, for example, seating at the Abolitionist conference of 1840 in London because they were women. By 1848 at Seneca Falls, New York, they called their own conference, for women’s rights. There was a male speaker. He was a leading Abolitionist. He had been a slave. His name was Frederick Douglass.

And when young white women headed South on the Freedom Ride buses in the early 60s of this century and discovered that their male (white and Black) comrades had a special place for them in the hierarchy of struggle, as capital had in the hierarchy of labour power, history repeated itself-almost. This time it was not for the vote but for a very different goal that they formed a movement. It was a movement for liberation.

The parallels that are drawn between the Black and women’s movements can always turn into an 11-plus: who is more exploited? Our purpose here is not parallels. We are seeking to describe that complex interweaving of forces which is the working class; we are seeking to break down the power relations among us on which is based the hierarchical rule of international capital. For no man can represent us as women any more than whites can speak about and themselves end the Black experience. Nor do we seek to convince men of our feminism. Ultimately they will be “convinced” by our power. We offer them what we offer the most privileged women: power over their enemies. The price is an end to their privilege over us.

The strategy of feminist class struggle is, as we have said, based on the wageless woman in the home. Whether she also works for wages outside the home, her labour of producing and reproducing the working class weighs her down, weakens her capacity to struggle-she doesn’t even have time. Her position in the wage structure is low especially but not only if she is Black. And even if she is relatively well placed in the hierarchy of labour powers (rare enough!), she remains defined as a sexual object of men. Why? Because as long as most women are housewives part of whose function in reproducing labour power is to be the sexual object of men, no woman can escape that identity. We demand wages for the work we do in the home. And that demand for a wage from the State is, first, a demand to be autonomous of men on whom we are now dependent. Secondly, we demand money without working out of the home, and open for the first time the possibility of refusing forced labour in the factories and in the home itself.

It is here in this strategy that the lines between the revolutionary Black and the revolutionary feminist movements begin to blur. This perspective is founded on the least powerful-the wageless. Reinforcing capital’s international division of labour is a standing army of unemployed who can be shunted from industry to industry, from country to country. The Third World is the most massive repository of this industrial reserve army. (The second most massive is the kitchen in the metropolis.) Port of Spain, Calcutta, Algiers, the Mexican towns south of the US border are the labour power for shitwork in Paris, London, Frankfurt and the farms of California and Florida. What is their role in the revolution? How can the wageless struggle without the lever of the wage and the factory? We do not pose the answers-we can’t. But we pose the questions in a way which assumes that the unemployed have not to go to work in order to subvert capitalist society.

Housewives working without a pay packet in the home may also have a job outside of their homes. The subordination of the wage of the man in the home and the subordinating nature of that labour weaken the woman wherever else she is working, and regardless of race. Here is the basis for Black and white women to act together, “supported” or “unsupported,” not because the antagonism of race is overcome, but because we both need the autonomy that the wage and the struggle for the wage can bring. Black women will know in what organizations (with Black men, with white women, with neither) to make that struggle. No one else can know.

We don’t agree with Avis that “the Black American struggle failed to fulfill its potential as a revolutionary vanguard . . .”, if by “vanguard” is meant the basic propellant of class struggle in a particular historical situation. It has used the “specificity of its experience”-as a nation and as a class both at once-to redefine class and the class struggle itself. Perhaps the theoreticians have not, but then they must never be confused with the movement. Only as a vanguard could that struggle have begun to clarify the central problem of our age, the organizational unity of the working class internationally as we now perceive and define it.

It is widely presumed that the Vanguard Party on the Leninist model embodies that organizational unity. Since the Leninist model assumes a vanguard expressing the total class interest, it bears no relation to the reality we have been describing, where no one section of the class can express the experience and interest of, and pursue the struggle for, any other section. The formal organizational expression of a general class strategy does not yet anywhere exist.

Let me quote finally from a letter written against one of the organizations of the Italian extra-parliamentary Left who, when we had a feminist symposium in Rome last year and excluded men, called us fascists and attacked us physically.

. . . The traditional attack on the immigrant worker, especially but not exclusively if he or she is Black (or Southern Italian), is that her presence threatens the gains of the native working class. Exactly the same is said about women in relation to men. The anti-racist (i.e., anti-nationalist and anti-sexist) point of view-the point of view, that is, of struggle-is to discover the organizational weakness which permits the most powerful sections of the class to be divided from the less powerful, thereby allowing capital to play on this division, defeating us. The question is, in fact, one of the basic questions which the class faces today. Where Lenin divided the class between the advanced and the backward, a subjective division, we see the division along the lines of capitalist organization, the more powerful and the less powerful. It is the experience of the less powerful that when workers in a stronger position (that is, men with a wage in relation to women without one, or whites with a higher wage than Blacks) gain a “victory,” it may not be a victory for the weaker and even may represent a defeat for both. For in the disparity of power within the class is precisely the strength of capital.4

How the working class will ultimately unite organizationally, we don’t know. We do know that up to now many of us have been told to forget our own needs in some wider interest which was never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.

Power to the sisters and therefore to the class.

This article was first written in 1973. It was published as a Falling Wall Press pamphlet in 1975, and as a Housewives in Dialogue pamphlet in 1986, as part of the ‘centerpiece’ series. The pamphlet bears the dedication: To Beverley Jones, born 26 September, 1955, murdered 13 September, 1973, by the bullets of the Trinidad government; sister of Jennifer and Althea and of us all.

  • 1.“The Colony of the Colonized: notes on race, class and sex,” Avis Brown, Race Today, June 1973. The writer refers to The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James (Falling Wall Press, Bristol 1972), as “brilliant.” The third edition was published as a book in 1975. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from Power of Women, 1975. (We were later to learn that Avis Brown was a pseudonym for A. Sivanandan, a man who is now head of the Institute of Race Relations, London.) Sex, Race and Class, the replay to “Avis Brown,” was first published in Race Today, January 1974.
  • 2.For an analysis of the antagonistic relationship between workers and trade unions see S. James, Women, The Unions and Work, or what is not to be done, first published in 1972, republished with a new Postscript, Falling Wall Press, Bristol, 1976.
  • 3.For the best demystification of culture I know which shows, for example, how West Indian cricket has carried in its heart racial and class conflicts, see C.L.R. James, Beyond a Boundary, Hutchinson, London 1963. 4. From a letter by Lotta Feminista and the International Feminist Collective, reprinted in L’Offensiva, Musolini, Turin, 1972 (pp. 18-19). I wrote the paragraph quoted here.

Italian autonomist Marxist Silvia Federici on wages and housework. (

Wages against housework (1974)

Silvia Federici

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.

Homosexuality and heterosexuality are both working conditions…but homosexuality is workers’ control of production, not the end of work.

More smiles? More money. Nothing will be so powerful in destroying the healing virtues of a smile.

Neuroses, suicides, desexualization: occupational diseases of the housewife.

Many times the difficulties and ambiguities which women express in discussing wages for housework stem from the reduction of wages for housework to a thing, a lump of money, instead of viewing it as a political perspective. The difference between these two standpoints is enormous. To view wages for housework as a thing rather than a perspective is to detach the end result of our struggle from the struggle itself and to miss its significance in demystifying and subverting the role to which women have been confined in capitalist society.

When we view wages for housework in this reductive way we start asking ourselves: what difference could some more money make to our lives? We might even agree that for a lot of women who do not have any choice except for housework and marriage, it would indeed make a lot of difference. But for those of us who seem to have other choices-professional work, enlightened husband, communal way of life, gay relations or a combination of these-it would not make much of a difference at all. For us there are supposedly other ways of achieving economic independence, and the last thing we want is to get it by identifying ourselves as housewives, a fate which we all agree is, so to speak, worse than death. The problem with this position is that in our imagination we usually add a bit of money to the shitty lives we have now and then ask, so what? on the false premise that we could ever get that money without at the same time revolutionising – in the process of struggling for it – all our family and social relations. But if we take wages for housework as a political perspective, we can see that struggling for it is going to produce a revolution in our lives and in our social power as women. It is also clear that if we think we do not ‘need’ that money, it is because we have accepted the particular forms of prostitution of body and mind by which we get the money to hide that need. As I will try to show, not only is wages for housework a revolutionary perspective, but it is the only revolutionary perspective from a feminist viewpoint and ultimately for the entire working class.

A Labour of Love

It is important to recognise that when we speak of housework we are not speaking of a job as other jobs, but we are speaking of the most pervasive manipulation, the most subtle and mystified violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated against any section of the working class. True, under capitalism every worker is manipulated and exploited and his/her relation to capital is totally mystified. The wage gives the impression of a fair deal: you work and you get paid, hence you and your boss are equal; while in reality the wage, rather than paying for the work you do, hides all the unpaid work that goes into profit. But the wage at least recognizes that you are a worker, and you can bargain and struggle around and against the terms and the quantity of that wage, the terms and the quantity of that work. To have a wage means to be part of a social contract, and there is no doubt concerning its meaning: you work, not because you like it, or because it comes naturally to you, but because it is the only condition under which you are allowed to live. But exploited as you might be, you are not that work. Today you are a postman, tomorrow a cabdriver. All that matters is how much of that work you have to do and how much of that money you can get.

But in the case of housework the situation is qualitatively different. The difference lies in the fact that not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character. Housework had to be transformed into a natural attribute rather than be recognised as a social contract because from the beginning of capital’s scheme for women this work was destined to be unwaged. Capital had to convince us that it is a natural, unavoidable and even fulfilling activity to make us accept our unwaged work. In its turn, the unwaged condition of housework has been the most powerful weapon in reinforcing the common assumption that housework is not work, thus preventing women from struggling against it, except in the privatized kitchen-bedroom quarrel that all society agrees to ridicule, thereby further reducing the protagonist of a struggle. We are seen as nagging bitches, not workers in struggle.

Yet just how natural it is to be a housewife is shown by the fact that it takes at least twenty years of socialization – day-to-day training, performed by an unwaged mother – to prepare a woman for this role, to convince her that children and husband are the best she can expect from life. Even so, it hardly succeeds. No matter how well-trained we are, few are the women who do not feel cheated when the bride’s day is over and they find themselves in front of a dirty sink. Many of us still have the illusion that we marry for love. A lot of us recognise that we marry for money and security; but it is time to make it clear that while the love or money involved is very little, the work which awaits us is enormous. This is why older women always tell us ‘Enjoy your freedom while you can, buy whatever you want now…’ But unfortunately it is almost impossible to enjoy any freedom if from the earliest days of life you are trained to be docile, subservient, dependent and most important to sacrifice yourself and even to get pleasure from it. If you don’t like it, it is your problem, your failure, your guilt, your abnormality.

We must admit that capital has been very successful in hiding our work. It has created a true masterpiece at the expense of women. By denying housework a wage and transforming it into an act of love, capital has killed many birds with one stone. First of all, it has got a hell of a lot of work almost for free, and it has made sure that women, far from struggling against it, would seek that work as the best thing in life (the magic words: “Yes, darling, you are a real woman”). At the same time, it has disciplined the male worker also, by making his woman dependent on his work and his wage, and trapped him in this discipline by giving him a servant after he himself has done so much serving at the factory or the office. In fact, our role as women is to be the unwaged but happy, and most of all loving, servants of the ‘working class’, i.e. those strata of the proletariat to which capital was forced to grant more social power. In the same way as god created Eve to give pleasure to Adam, so did capital create the housewife to service the male worker physically, emotionally and sexually – to raise his children, mend his socks, patch up his ego when it is crushed by the work and the social relations (which are relations of loneliness) that capital has reserved for him. It is precisely this peculiar combination of physical, emotional and sexual services that are involved in the role women must perform for capital that creates the specific character of that servant which is the housewife, that makes her work so burdensome and at the same time invisible. It is not an accident that most men start thinking of getting married as soon as they get their first job. This is not only because now they can afford it, but because having somebody at home who takes care of you is the only condition not to go crazy after a day spent on an assembly line or at a desk. Every woman knows that this is what she should be doing to be a true woman and have a ‘successful’ marriage. And in this case too, the poorer the family the higher the enslavement of the woman, and not simply because of the monetary situation. In fact capital has a dual policy, one for the middle class and one for the proletarian family. It is no accident that we find the most unsophisticated machismo in the working class family: the more blows the man gets at work the more his wife must be trained to absorb them, the more he is allowed to recover his ego at her expense. You beat your wife and vent your rage against her when you are frustrated or overtired by your work or when you are defeated in a struggle (to go into a factory is itself a defeat). 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. (Women have always found ways of fighting back, or getting back at them, but always in an isolated and privatised way. The problem, then, becomes how to bring this struggle out of the kitchen and bedroom and into the streets.)

This fraud that goes under the name of love and marriage affects all of us, even if we are not married, because once housework was totally naturalised and sexualised, once it became a feminine attribute, all of us as females are characterised by it. If it is natural to do certain things, then all women are expected to do them and even like doing them-even those women who, due to their social position, could escape some of that work or most of it (their husbands can afford maids and shrinks and other forms of relaxation and amusement). We might not serve one man, but we are all in a servant relation with respect to the whole male world. This is why to be called a female is such a putdown, such a degrading thing. (“Smile, honey, what’s the matter with you?” is something every man feels entitled to ask you, whether he is your husband, or the man who takes your ticket, or your boss at work.)

The revolutionary perspective

If we start from this analysis we can see the revolutionary implications of the demand for wages for housework. It is the demand by which our nature ends and our struggle begins because just to want wages for housework means to refuse that work as the expression of our nature, and therefore to refuse precisely the female role that capital has invented for us.

To ask for wages for housework will by itself undermine the expectations society has of us, since these expectations – the essence of our socialisation – are all functional to our wageless condition in the home.

In this sense, it is absurd to compare the struggle of women for wages to the struggle of male workers in the factory for more wages. The waged worker in struggling for more wages challenges his social role but remains within it. When we struggle for wages we struggle unambiguously and directly against our social role. In the same way there is a qualitative difference between the struggles of the waged worker and the struggles of the slave for a wage against that slavery. It should be clear, however, that when we struggle for a wage we do not struggle to enter capitalist relations, because we have never been out of them. We struggle to break capital’s plan for women, which is an essential moment of that planned division of labour and social power within the working class, through which capital has been able to maintain its power. Wages for housework, then, is a revolutionary demand not because by itself it destroys capital, but because it attacks capital and forces it to restructure social relations in terms more favourable to us and consequently more favourable to the unity of the class. In fact, to demand wages for housework does not mean to say that if we are paid we will continue to do it. It means precisely the’ opposite. To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it, because the demand for a wage makes our work visible, which is the most indispensable condition to begin to struggle against it, both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity.

Against any accusation of ‘economism’ we should remember that money is capital, i.e. it is the power to command labour. Therefore to reappropriate that money which is the fruit of our labour – of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ labour – means at the same time to undermine capital’s power to command forced labour from us. And we should not distrust the power of the wage in demystifying our femaleness and making visible our work – our femaleness as work – since the lack of a. wage has been so powerful in shaping this role and hiding our work. To demand wages for housework is to make it visible that our minds, bodies and emotions have all been distorted for a specific function, in a specific function, and then have been thrown back at us as a model to which we should all conform if we want to be accepted as women in this society.

To say that we want wages for housework is to expose the fact that housework is already money for capital, that capital has made and makes money out of our cooking, smiling, fucking. At the same time, it shows that we have cooked, smiled, fucked throughout the years not because it was easier for us than for anybody else, but because we did not have any other choice. Our faces have become distorted from so much smiling, our feelings have got lost from so much loving, our oversexualisation has left us completely desexualised.

Wages for housework is only the beginning, but its message is clear: from now on they have to pay us because as females we do not guarantee anything any longer. We want to call work what is work so that eventu· ally we might rediscover what is love and create what will be our sexuality which we have never known. And from the viewpoint of work we can ask not one wage but many wages, because we have been forced into many jobs at once. We are housemaids, prostitutes, nurses, shrinks; this is the essence of the ‘heroic’ spouse who is celebrated on ‘Mother’s Day’. We say: stop celebrating our exploitation, our supposed heroism. From now on we want money for each moment of it, so that we can refuse some of it and eventually all of it. In this respect nothing can be more effective than to show that our female virtues have a calculable money value, until today only for capital, increased in the measure that we were defeated; from now on against capital for us in the measure we organise our power.

The struggle for social services

This is the most radical perspective we can adopt because although we can ask for everything, day care, equal pay, free laundromats, we will never achieve any real change unless we attack our female role at its roots. Our struggle for social services, i.e. for better working conditions, will always be frustrated if we do not first establish that our work is work. Unless we struggle against the totality of it we will never achieve victories with respect to any of its moments. We will fail in the struggle for the free laundromats unless we first struggle against the fact that we cannot love except at the price of endless work, which day after day cripples our bodies, our sexuality, our social relations, unless we first escape the blackmail whereby our need to give and receive affection is turned against us as a work duty for which we constantly feel resentful against our husbands, children and friends, and guilty for that resentment. Getting a second job does not change that role, as years and years of female work outside the house still witness. The second job not only increases our exploitation, but simply reproduces our role in different forms. Wherever we tum we can see that the jobs women perform are mere extensions of the housewife condition in all its implications. That is, not only do we become nurses, maids, teachers, secretaries-all functions for which we are well-trained in the home-but we are in the same bind that hinders our struggles in the home: isolation, the fact that other people’s lives depend on us, or the impossibility to see where our work begins and ends, where our work ends and our desires begin. Is bringing coffee to your boss and chatting with him about his marital problems secretarial work or is it a personal favour? Is the fact that we have to worry about our looks on the job a condition of work or is it the result of female vanity? (Until recently airline stewardesses in the United States were periodically weighed and had to be constantly on a diet-a torture that all women know-for fear of being laid off.) As is often said – when the needs of the waged labour market require her presence there – A woman can do any job without losing her femininity,’ which simply means that no matter what you do you are still a cunt.

As for the proposal of socialisation and collectivisation of housework, a couple of examples will be sufficient to draw a line between these alternatives and our perspective. It is one thing to set up a day care centre the way we want it, and demand that the State pay for it. It is quite another thing to deliver our children to the State and ask the State to control them, discipline them, teach them to honour the American flag not for five hours, but for fifteen or twenty-four hours. It is one thing to organise communally the way we want to eat (by ourselves, in groups, etc.) and then ask the State to pay for it, and it is the opposite thing to ask the State to organise our meals. In one case we regain some control over our lives, in the other we extend the State’s control over us.

The struggle against housework

Some women say: how is wages for housework going to change the attitudes of our husbands towards us? Won’t our husbands still expect the same duties as before and even more than before once we are paid for them? But these women do not see that they can expect so much from us precisely because we are not paid for our work, because they assume that it is ‘a woman’s thing’ which does not cost us much effort. Men are able to accept our services and take pleasure in them because they presume that housework is easy for us, that we enjoy it because we do it for their love. They actually expect us to be grateful because by marrying us or living with us they have given us the opportunity to express ourselves as women (i.e. to serve them), ‘You are lucky you have found a man like me’. Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.

But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation. In this sense wages for housework will be much more educational than trying to prove that we can work as well as them, that we can do the same jobs. We leave this worthwhile effort to the ‘career woman’, the woman who escapes from her oppression not through the power of unity and struggle, but through the power of the master, the power to oppress-usually other women. And we don’t have to prove that we can “break the blue collar barrier”. A lot of us broke that barrier a long time ago and have discovered that the overalls did not give us more power than the apron; if possible even less, because now we had to wear both and had less time and energy to struggle against them. The things we have to prove are our capacity to expose what we are already doing, what capital is doing to us and our power in the struggle against it.

Unfortunately, many women-particularly single women-are afraid of th~ perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and so they do not want to realise that they are housewives too. This is precisely their weakness, a weakness which is maintained and perpetuated through the lack of self-identification.

We want and have to say that we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes and we are all gay, because until we recognise our slavery we cannot recognise our struggle against it, because as long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division, and for us the logic of slavery. We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us”.

And we also delude ourselves that we can escape housework. But how many of us, in spite of working outside the house, have escaped it? And can we really so easily disregard the idea of living with a man? What if we lose our jobs? What about ageing and losing even the minimal amount of power that youth (productivity) and attractiveness (female productivity) afford us today? And what about children? Will we ever regret having chosen not to have them, not even having been able to realistically ask that question? And can we afford gay relations? Are we willing to pay the possible price of isolation and exclusion? But can we really afford relations with men?

The question is: why are these our only alternatives and what kind of struggle will move us beyond them?

New York, Spring 1974

An interview with Selma James and a talk by Silvia Federici …

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