This piece originally appeared in Jacobin.
There’s been a lot of handwringing lately over what is or is not feminist. Notable bones of contention include: ladyblogs, working in finance, doulas, “having it all,” housewifing, rioting, protesting, protesting in lingerie, getting married, watching “Girls.” Essays in publications ranging from mass-circulation glossies like the Atlantic to small literary magazines like n+1 have appealed to a widespread fascination with the confused meaning of the term. The narcissism underlying the debate is parodied by the blog “Is This Feminist?” featuring stock photos of people shaking hands, walking the dog, and doing laundry. The pictures are rated as either “representing feminism” or “problematic.”
With no sense of what feminism is, these writers turn to personal experience. With each step and gesture, they wonder what they’re contributing to feminism. Is navel-gazing feminist?
Let us borrow a definition from bell hooks: Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression.
It cannot be about this or that group of women’s ability to have careers or about individual moments of empowerment while doing laundry. Feminist movements have long suffered from the disconnect between white middle-class feminism, often focused myopically on certain careers and lifestyle choices, and the goals of working-class women. The “Wages for Housework” demands of 1970s Marxist feminists sought to make women’s uncompensated labor under capitalism visible whether the woman was a bourgeois housewife, a factory worker, or a poor mother. Since capital requires the housewife to reproduce the worker, they argued, this need dictates the role of women up and down the class system.
Those who demanded state wages for housework sought two things: First, to make wifely love visible as productive work. Second, to uncover for women the leverage that workers have in their potential to strike. “To say that we want money for housework is the first step towards refusing to do it,” wrote Italian feminist Silvia Federici, “because the demand for a wage makes our work visible … both in its immediate aspect as housework and its more insidious character as femininity.” This was feminism designed not to increase individual compensation, but to reveal and create power while undoing sex roles in all realms of life.
Looking for expressions of these objectives helps sort out what, today, is usefully “feminist.” If feminism is in fact the struggle against sexist oppression, and not merely a thousand little paths toward women’s personal fulfillment, we can orient ourselves toward struggles that not only benefit large numbers of women, but highlight the ways in which uncompensated labor shapes the meaning of what it is to be female.
Consider a movement rarely discussed in terms of feminism, certainly not in the Atlantic. Domestic Workers United (DWU) is “an organization of Caribbean, Latina, and African nannies, housekeepers, and elderly caregivers in New York, organizing for power, respect, fair labor standards and to help build a movement to end exploitation and oppression for all.” They recently pushed a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights through the New York State Legislature against all expectations.
DWU members know that their labor is brutally exploited because of the sexist assumption that care work done in the home is an act of love and shouldn’t be subject to such crass impositions as labor standards. Employers of domestic workers frequently refer to these workers as “part of the family” – meaning, as always, that women in the kitchen don’t need to be compensated. The DWU is fighting to gain recognition for labor that has been historically pushed from public view again and again.
The plights of the housewife and the domestic worker are not the same, but they are linked. It is an ideological sleight of hand that renders care workers “part of the family” instead of properly paid employees. Marxist feminists described housewives as arbitrarily uncompensated for their contributions to the economy. The domestic workers’ movement, located in the most rapidly growing sector of the US labor market, has the power to address the way un(der)compensated work underwrites the global economy by caring for the sick, young, and old.
The DWU’s struggle serves a similar revelatory function to the Wages for Housework campaign. Once care work across social strata is considered real work, radical compensatory mechanisms become imaginable, whether an unconditional basic income or Nancy Fraser's "universal caregiver model" with its many redistributive mechanisms designed to sever the link between gender and work.
Wages for Housework insisted that labor did not mystically become love by virtue of occurring within the household. And members of the DWU are converting what has been a tactical weakness – the invisibility of female labor – into a demand for power and recognition. If the feminism of the future is about more than bloggers watching “Girls,” it will have to directly address how sexism enables the exploitation of women today, and draw on the rich Marxist and socialist tradition of fighting for the recognition of women’s work.
Adapted from Jacobin magazine, Issue 7-8: “Emancipation.” Sarah Leonard is an editor at Dissent magazine and a member of DSA. She is also an editor at The New Inquiry. Follow her at @sarahrlnrd.