Capitalism also depends on domestic labour

Power to the Sisters and Therefore to the Class

The role of the housewife, behind whose isolation is hidden social labour, must be destroyed.

Last week Edinburgh Anarchist Federation launched our new collective self-education project Don’t Skip Class, a monthly reading and discussion group which aims to improve our grasp of radical theory. The discussions are public and open to anyone who wants to attend, you don’t have to be an anarchist, but the project is aimed at people who are already involved in some sort of grassroots organising, whether that’s in your union, anti-fascism, queer, disability, environmental activism or elsewhere.

For our first meeting we read the classic autonomist feminist text The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James. First published in 1972, the collection spans two essays Women and the Subversion of the Community, by Dalla Costa and James, and A Women’s Place, by James, plus a substantial introduction by James. The first was written in Italy in 1971, at the height of the Autonomist movement, that also gave us Negri, Tronti and Virno, amongst others, while the second text was originally published in the US in 1953.

Collectively the two texts have formed one of the key foundations for Marxist feminism as it exists today and the more modern Social Reproduction Theory (which we’ll look at more specifically in a future session). Starting from the role of the housewife in Italy and America, the essays aim to extend the traditional Marxist analysis of the workplace outside of the factory floor, to cover what they call the “Social Factory”. In doing so the authors aim to show that reproductive labour – that is labour which reproduces the worker: raising children, cooking, cleaning, caring, education – is essential for the production of value and for capitalism to be profitable. Housework, primarily performed by women, is necessary for capitalism, and if capital had to pay the full costs of that labour it would find itself in crisis. From this analysis the campaign for Wages For Housework (and Wages Against Housework) arose. Dalla Costa and James argue that women are workers and have power as workers, they can demand better conditions and better pay! and moreover they can refuse their work and demand an end to their exploitation!

As they state in the foreword: “we are not only indispensable to capitalist production in those countries where we make up 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.”

Class vs Caste

In her introduction, James, makes a comparison of two tendencies within the feminist movement of the time, between those who see caste as fundamental and those who give primacy to class. Here she describes the caste feminism as one which rejects economic analysis in favour of a moral argument that “we must change men and/or ourselves first”. This women as caste feminism can remain harmless, and “introverted and isolate” elite club, or it can be integrated to become a managerial strata for capitalism, disciplining other women, and “god bless equality, .. rebellious men too”.

Class first feminism, on the other hand, “beginning with a male definition of class… is reduced to equal pay and a “fairer” more efficient welfare state”. James rejects both these approaches, neither liberal “identity politics” (as it might be called today) or social democracy, but a “revolutionary and autonomous women’s struggle” which neither subordinates feminism to class, nor class to feminism.

James goes on to compare the approaches to the black movement in the US, where radicals adopted “what appeared to be only a caste position in opposition to the racism of white-dominated groups.” This black nationalism, however, allowed them to redefine class and come to understand their persecution as a caste as “grounded in the exploitation of black workers”, leading to the most advanced working class struggle. As Stuart Hall put it “race is the modality in which class is lived” – race and class are internally related and mutually co-constitutive. Similarly, women for whom caste is fundamental will need to “make the transition to revolutionary feminism based on a redefinition of class or invite integration into the white male power structure”.

In our discussion of the text, we also raised the consideration that a class based understanding of women, might be more amenable to a trans inclusive position. Where women as a caste is liable to essentialism, women as a class can be based on shared experience of oppression. Rather than focusing on the identity of woman, a struggle can be organised on the basis of the experience of relations of exploitation and oppression.

The Class Struggle in Education

Dalla Costa and James open the main essay (Women and the Subversion of the Community) with a brief description of the origins of the capitalist family, the separation, as feudalism was replaced with capitalism, of the public and private realms and the move from the household to the factory as the locus of production. In this process the man becomes a worker and the women a housewife (and also often a worker, though of lesser status). They then move on to discuss the further separation of children from their families through the implementation of regimented education.

Amongst familiar arguments about the disciplinary role of the school, and children’s subversion and resistance to that, we discussion picked up on a more unusual point in one of the footnotes. Here the authors note that “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”. One might expect support for these types of “free” education, like Montessori, from anarchists and radicals, Dalla Costa and James, however, reject these experiments outright: “it is an illusion to believe this is a defeat for capital any more than regimentation will be a victory”.

Echoing the general autonomist argument that self-management of the workplace is insufficient, they argue pupil self-management is not a solution to the problems of schooling. Just as work must be refused and abolished, so must the separation of children’s lives between home and school. “Free” education only allows freedom to find your own way to the same conclusion – “you take your own road, so long as it is through our territory”. On the other hand, we thought, even under communism children will need to become literate, numerate, able to think critically, and pedagogy is a skill which itself requires training. Some form of schooling will be required, though the nature of it may look different. Here I think it is important to remember Dalla Costa and James are concerned in this book with subversion of the community, they are looking for sites of struggle under present conditions, and not aiming to describe the future free society. Just as there will always be work to be done, there will be things to be learned, but simply democratising the existing processes is not sufficient to escape capitalism.


The two essays cover much more ground in a short space of time, the capitalism function of the uterus, the homosexuality of the division of labour, automation, the production of passivity and discipline, but we ran out of time to cover them all in depth. In all, while there are certainly critiques to be made of the texts – they remain within a productivist analysis, even as they extend the geographical scope of production – and Women and the Subversion of the Community can be dry in parts – A Women’s Place was much better written we all agreed – the influence has been substantial and much of the analysis, of the feminist movement, of reproductive labour and of opportunities for subversion and struggle remain true today.

Next month we will read Ambalavaner Sivanandan, From resistance to rebellion: Asian and Afro-Caribbean struggles in Britain. We invite you all to join us.