All the work that goes into work
The Political is Personal: Thinking about Feminism and Work with Selma James and Silvia Federici When feminism asserted that “the personal is political” it usually conveyed that women’s personal grievances were also political. I wanted to … show that the reverse was also true; that the political was profoundly personal, shaping our lives, and that applying Marx’s analysis of capitalism to the relations between women and men illuminates them. – Selma James, ‘Marx and Feminism’ (1983)1
What is the contemporary relation between men and women on the question of work? How can Marx’s analysis of capitalism help us to understand the two sides of the statement that the personal is political but that the political is also personal? We live in an age in which, paradoxically, it seems, the first part of this formulation – radical at a time when violence against women was hidden, private – has come to dominate our thinking about politics in general. We all now understand that the personal is political, that the everyday lives of everyone contain asymmetrical experiences of exploitation and oppression that point to larger structural features – sexism, racism, homophobia, and so on. The original feminist slogan contained a revolutionary and analytical force that forced those who believed themselves already exempt from self-critique because they had ‘good politics’ to turn inwards and question the divisions of labor central to the organisations of which they were a part, and to reflect on everyday forms of exclusions and dominance that would otherwise be obscured and even dismissed. There is no question that this work is vital and unending.
But what about the other side? How is it that the political is personal, and what does it mean for us today? The various regimes of life that we cross between on a daily basis – work or unemployment, unwaged labor in the form of care and emotional work, our relationships with ourselves and with others – are, even in their most neutral-seeming form, clearly both personal and political: felt in the first place as chunks of time, emotionally-shaded, or as necessities or escapes from necessity. Yet there are larger ways in which these elements of existence, although felt to be ‘chosen’, can also be seen as trends, tendencies, as things that affect us all by affecting us differently, and often across large strata, such as sex, such that it is less a question of how we feel about sex and more a question of how we are treated by virtue of being understood to belong to a particular category (whether we like it or not).
Take a recent news story from The New York Times ‘As Women Take Over a Male Dominated Field, the Pay Drops’.2 Here the author asks why it is that women’s median earnings ‘stubbornly’ remain about 20% below men’s. Earlier explanations have focussed on the role of children and employment or the different types of jobs where women and men might be found (i.e. the idea that women tend to be found in lower-paying jobs such as teaching and care work), but here the author, on the basis of a long-term study by Paula England, Asaf Levanon and Paul Allison, that looked at the United States census data from 1950-2000, suggests that something else is going on, namely that ‘work done by women simply isn’t valued as highly’, despite the fact that women are better educated than men and increasingly opt for the same types of jobs.3 In other words ‘Men and women are paid differently not just when they do different jobs but also when they do the same work’.4
The argument in the New York Times article is that once women start en masse doing a particular kind of work then gender bias begins to ‘sneak in’ and those types of jobs are then devalued so that, as Cain Miller puts it, ‘when women move into occupations in large numbers, those jobs began paying less even after controlling for education, work experience, skills, race and geography.’5 Employers simply place a lower value on work because it is work done by women, even if the actual work done is exactly the same as the work done by men. ‘It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,’ Paula England says, ‘It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.’6 When women enter various employment fields in greater numbers, pay decreases for the same jobs that more men were previously doing. Not only this, but the reverse finding is also true: ‘Computer programming, for instance, used to be a relatively menial role done by women. But when male programmers began to outnumber female ones, the job began paying more and gained prestige.’7
But should we be surprised at this kind of finding? It certainly might make us feel gloomy, knowing that no matter how much women work, or study, they will always be paid less even for the same work. But as Selma James reminds us, many years ago, ‘[t]he struggle over the depression of one’s sector’s wage is always the struggle over other sectors’ wages. Thus low – unequal – pay for women is what keeps men’s wages down.’8 This is, then, an old story, except that the sectors are no longer even held apart by sex, but are held apart within the sector by sex. Part of what it means to be a ‘woman’ or a ‘man’ today, despite how we might desire to feel differently about our relation to sex and gender, is to be treated as a woman or a man – to be paid more if you are a man, and less if you are a woman, even for the same work. ‘Biological divisions become social divisions’ as James astutely put it more than thirty years ago.9
All the work that James and others did in excavating the sheer quantity of ‘unwaged’ labor – that is to say, work, housework, ‘women’s work’, that was not waged but not entirely unpaid either ‘for some are paid in the form of food, clothing and shelter’10 – did much to reformulate the relationship between Marxism and feminism, specifically by pointing out the unwaged labor power that goes into producing the labor power of others – everything it takes to create and care for workers, all the work that goes into work, if you like. This was a revelation. As James remembers:
In 1969 and 1970, reading in Volume I of Capital all about this uniquely capitalist commodity labor power, I realized that this was the special commodity which housework produced. Being ignorant, I thought everybody knew and I was angry that they had neglected to tell us. It was a surprise to find that the obvious view – that women were the producers of everyone’s labor power, everyone’s ability to work and to be exploited – was new.11
How far can we say that things have changed now that large numbers of women have entered the workforce?12 It might be tempting to say that surely things are different now, that women are no longer expected to be solely tied to men in the same way, or to perform unwaged domestic labor out of some enforced assumption about how work and payment ‘should’ be sexed. But others are cautious about suggesting that things have changed so drastically. In a 2013 interview with Marina Vishmidt, Silvia Federici, another key figure in thinking about unwaged labor from a feminist perspective, makes the following claim:
[W]e should resist the assumption that work conditions have become more uniform and the particular relation that women as houseworkers have to capital has been generalised or that work in general has become ‘feminised’ because of the precarisation of labor. It is still women who do most of the unpaid labor in the home and this has never been precarious. On the contrary, it is always there, holidays included. Access to the wage has not relieved women from unpaid labor nor has it changed the conditions of the ‘workplace’ to enable us to care for our families and enable men to share the housework. Those who are employed today work more than ever. So instead of the feminisation of waged work we could speak of the ‘masculinisation’ of ‘women’s labor,’ as employment has forced us to adapt to an organisation of work that is still premised on the assumption that workers are men and they have wives at home taking care of the housework.13
This ‘masculinisation’ of women’s labor has generated a double-expectation: not only must women sell their labor power, but they also must do the work that they used to be expected to do because they were women. Only now we don’t talk about it anymore! Or in Federici’s words ‘most women live in a state of constant crisis, going from work at home to work on the job without any time of their own and with domestic work expanding because of the constant cuts in social services. This is partly because the feminist movement has fought to ensure that women would have access to male dominated forms of employment, but has since abandoned reproductive work as a terrain of struggle.’14 It seems difficult to imagine that there is any time for a life outside of work (in the expanded sense) now, a life that includes and is even based upon non-coerced activity, either emotional or intellectual or physical. As James puts it in the 1983 essay, given the hostile environment in which everyone is compelled to survive on work that everyone carries out against their will, ‘what’s astonishing is that men and women even talk to each other, let alone live together and even love each other’.15 Astonishing indeed! And yet men and women of all sexualities continue to spend time together as romantic or non-romantic friends, partners, lovers. Such is the resilience of our social drive, particularly when particular kinds of relationships are no longer seen as normative.
But do we even know what it might mean to learn to live together and love each other, in the free sense, when all the time and space we might have to find out has been taken from us? As James put it in the 1980s, and which claim remains as true now as it was then:
When capital buys the use of our labor power, it is in charge of our working, of our activity for most of our waking hours. It is not only what we produce which capital takes, from which we are “alienated.” It takes our possibilities. We are alienated from our own capacities, our ability to be creative, our ability to shape and reshape ourselves. Capital takes who we could be and limits us to who we are. It takes our time, which happens to be our life. It takes us.16
Our time, which happens to be our life … to understand what work is, the way it constructs us as beings treated a certain way because of our use to capital – women are cheaper and they produce more workers! – is to begin understand what it might mean to take time itself back. The political is personal but it has not disappeared. If the way it hides itself has become more cunning then we will only have to try harder to outwit it.
"The text was originally published in /A Solid Injury to the Knees/, ed. Maya Tounta (Vilnius: Rupert), 2016."
1 Selma James, Sex, Race, and Class: The Perspective of Winning (Oakland: PM Press, 2012), p. 143.
2 Claire Cain Miller, ‘As Women Take Over a Male Dominated Field, the Pay Drops’, The New York Times, March 18th 2016 < http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/upshot/as-women-take-over-a-male-dominated-field-the-pay-drops.html>, accessed 23rd March 2016.
8 Ibid., p. 154, fn. 19.
9 James, op. cit., p. 155.
10 Ibid., p. 151.
11 Ibid., p. 151.
12 It is obvious here that my discussion is primarily restricted to a Western context. The questions that Maria Mies in Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labor (London: Zed Books, 2014 [orig. 1986]) further necessarily complicate the picture: ‘we cannot close our eyes to the stark fact that women of all classes in the West, and middle-class women in the Third World, are also among those whose standard of living is based on the ongoing exploitation of poor women and men in the underdeveloped regions and classes’, p. 1.
13 Marina Vishmidt, ‘Permanent Reproductive Crisis: An interview with Silvia Federici’, Mute Magazine, 7th March 2013 http://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/permanent-reproductive-crisis-interview-silvia-federici, accessed 23rd March 2016.
15 James, op. cit., p. 153.
16 Ibid., p. 149.