The Reproduction of Patriarchal Hegemony: Women in Italy Between Paid and Unpaid Work

The Reproduction of Patriarchal Hegemony: Women in Italy Between Paid and Unpaid Work

As long as reproductive work is devalued, as long it is considered a private matter and women’s responsibility, women will always confront capital and the state with less power than men, and in conditions of extreme social and economic vulnerability. It is also important to recognize that there are serious limits to the extent to which reproductive work can be reduced or reorganized on a market basis… As for the commercialization of reproductive work through its redistribution on the shoulders of other women, as currently organized this “solution” only extends the housework crisis, now displaced to the families of the paid care providers, and creates new inequalities among women.

– Silvia Federici, “The reproduction of labor power in the global economy and the unfinished feminist revolution” (2008)1

In the system of gender relations, the role played by women in augmenting the productivity of the workforce has been and still remains absolutely functional to economic growth. In these terms, the role assigned to women is the outcome of the condition of subordination and dependence on the employment status of the partner or husband, and also the cause of the reproduction of this condition. This process was a structural feature of the Fordist regime, but it is also shaping the post-Fordist regime – because it is precisely through the denial of reproductive work that the patriarchal system allows capital accumulation, and state disengagement in public spending.

Our case study will be Italy, which like all other Mediterranean countries has very limited state intervention to reduce care burdens, and which maintains that the pathway to full economic citizenship necessarily follows a male model marked by the demands of the market based on the exchange value, full-time availability, and androcentric hierarchies that cannot be reconciled with the constraints of reproductive work. The lack of jobs allowing workers to combine life and professional prospects, requires Italian women to engage in a deep reorientation of their life. Along these lines, the greater investment in higher education by many young women, and the consequent desire by those women to direct their career path far from family traditions or prescriptions based on gender stereotypes, are leading to a radical transformation of family patterns both an outstanding reduction in births (one of the highest among European countries) and also the increase in the average age of women who marry and who have their first child, as shown by Eurostat data on fertility and marriage.2

The (hidden) role of women in the Italian economy

babboThe participation of Italian women in paid work is not a twentieth-century phenomenon, as testified by data from the census carried out in the post-Unification period. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian women worked in manufacturing industries, especially in the textile industry, which requires a large workforce with high availability, on the basis of peaks of production and seasonality. Women’s work then expanded during the war periods: up to 1920s women were employed in military clothing manufacturing, and more generally in all positions that, before the war, were filled by men. Perry Willson notes that with the advent of fascism, the relationship between the state and the private sphere radically changed.3 Fascist ideology characterized motherhood as a “useful service to the country,” embedded within militarism, to the point of establishing reproduction as a real political imperative.4 Female labor was strongly condemned, while the representation of women as prolific mothers was exalted, in line with the imagery of the Catholic Church.5 Victoria De Grazia highlights the role of ruralization and the policy of low wages in the dispersion of the workforce, and in maintaining a state of dependence of rural households on the state, and of women on the heads of households; both these conditions of dependence played a key role in the construction of the stereotype of the male breadwinner and the wife-mother-housewife. The fascist dictatorship invented the maternalistic tradition: in 1933 it announced the celebration of the “Day of the Mother and Child,” but it did not provide any equitable distribution of funds and resources among indigent families, while it introduced the “tax on celibacy” that required payments from all men aged 25 to 65.6

During the fascist regime, particularly in the educational sector, women were not allowed to gain access to senior positions and to some specific fields: in 1923 women were forbidden to operate as principals in state secondary schools, while in 1926 women could not teach Italian language, history, philosophy and Latin in high schools. Furthermore, women were prevented from obtaining top management roles at the Ministry of Postal Service, and limits on the recruitment of women were introduced in public administration. Willson emphasizes that the measures taken by the regime intended to maintain a gender balance in order to reintroduce male domination and gendered hierarchies in the workplace.7 These measures played a decisive role in the social control of women: they undermined the possibility of self-determination, restricting women to the role of wives and mothers, and increasing the economic dependence of women on the income of men. In this sense, what happened during the fascist regime was a crucial step in forming the mode of production that supported the “Italian road to Fordism” taken after World War II.

In the second postwar period, rural exodus and urbanization were driven by the “economic miracle,” and the inexorable decline of the patriarchal family redefined the family structure. However, these phenomena, at least until the 1970s, would not involve the greater participation of women in paid work or the redrawing of balance in the relationship between men and women. Unlike most European countries during the economic expansion of the second post-war period, in Italy female employment did not grow, but declined. In 1950 only 32% of Italian women were employed (a compared to 40.7% in United Kingdom, 44.3% in Germany, 35.1% in Sweden, and 49.5% in France), in part a consequence of the entry into force of the law of 1 October 1960, n. 1027,8 which recognized the principle of equal pay between men and women and generated an increase in labor costs. In order to defend the institution of the family against the “danger” of women’s emancipation, the Catholic Church opposed birth control practices and attributed responsibility for the declining birth rate to the “selfishness” of modern women.9 The growth of the real wages as a result of industrialization, and the increase of the share of income allocated to consumption, allowed many Italians to improve their standard of living. At the same time, the distribution of resources worsened, and population growth led to an increased demand for public services, such as healthcare, housing, education, and transport. The state’s response in public spending, however, was trivial compared to this demand. Laura Balbo points out that the worsening of the relationship between public resources and social needs caused the intensification of the exploitation of women, to the point that the role of full-time housewife became “a role structurally necessary to realize, in the new conditions, the balance between resources and need-satisfaction that is considered an essential standard.”10

In the late 1960s the Fordist mode of production, based on the large-scale manufacturing of standardized goods and the centrality of big firms, was in crisis. The Italian production system was reorganized, introducing elements of flexibility that could preserve and also increase the profits of big firms. In 1970, the introduction of an extensive system of formal protections for workers with the Workers’ Statute accelerated the collapse of the Fordist mode of production. The increased rigidity in the use of the work force became the main argument in support of policies of decentralization of production.11 Italian capitalism’s response to the economic crisis of the 1970s therefore consisted, on the one hand, in the dismantling of big firms through the extensive use of vertical disintegration of the production process, and on the other, in the spread of small and medium firms, where the limited number of workers and the close relationship between employers and employees precluded class struggles.12

In the 1970s the reorganization of the Italian manufacturing system passed through the expansion of the black market and illegal employment, homework (piecework done at home), second jobs, and a general proliferation of working activities with no contract. This labor market segmentation and the spread of new firms, in industrialized but also especially in rural areas, totally invisible for taxes and national insurance, grew to the point that the underground economy began to play a structural role within the Italian economy. It should be emphasized that in early 1970s Italy the segmentation of the labor market, as well as occupational segregation, were not related to migrant workers, as they were in other industrialized countries, because the migrant flows were still limited. Rather, these processes involved young people, adults over 40 with few job opportunities, and especially women.13 So the female workforce represented a crucial pool of labor, which could be used in the most flexible way, through the exploitation of the irregular workforce and homework, allowing the production system to cope with the instability resulting from extreme fluctuations of the economy without affecting reproductive labor.14 In these terms it is the female workforce that ultimately bore the burden of economic and industrial restructuring. Think, here, of the spread of the practice of “blank resignation letters” imposed on female candidates at the time of recruitment. In this practice, which still exists today, women are asked to sign their employment contract together with a blank resignation letter, which can be enforced at the employer’s will; these letters are usually brought out when an employee informs her employer that she is pregnant.15

Since the 1970s the strategic role progressively gained by small-firm manufacturing has been mostly due to high productivity, the intense pace of work, and the peculiar role of exports. The economic sectors that, in fact, derived greater benefit from smaller firm size were clothing, footwear, furniture, and small metallic manufacturing. These sectors are characterized by low technological investment and intensive exploitation of human labor, while the manufacturing process can be easily segmented and some of its stages outsourced to other firms, self-employed workers, and homeworkers. In small-firm areas manufacturing socialization has affected entire local communities, defining a labor market, on a territorial basis, consisting of men employed in agriculture and in the factories, women and workers with low educational levels employed in discontinuous working positions, in which the unions and the traditional means of aggregating interests are unlikely to take root. In these feminized contexts, the onset of conflict is less likely.16 The dynamic economy of new manufacturing areas which expanded during the 1970s and the 1980s, especially in rural areas, were mainly supported by families that informally managed workforce placement, through the activation of local networks; contributed to the reduction of labor costs, because of the closeness between households and workplaces; and also organized the reproduction of the workforce through the informalization of social services.17

Nevertheless, this explanation does not consider some important macroeconomic elements related to the global division of labor, and its effects on the Italian economy. It must be observed that in the 1970s the restructuring of the Italian manufacturing system was closely associated with external pressures arising from fluctuations in global demand and internal rigidities produced by the new relations between capital and labor. Therefore, the extensive use of the decentralization of production, while establishing a new form of development, was in continuity with the existing economic relations, deeply rooted in the social structure.18

The economic dynamism of the system of production emerging in the second half of the 1970s was based on the family structure and a peculiar socialization due to the legacy of rural culture. For a long time the main economic actor in Italy has been the family as a “place of composition, examination, income distribution, agent consumption, scope definition in labor supply, and actor of the informal economy.”19 In these manufacturing areas the culture of the “self-made man” was the result of a socialization process that occurred within the family. In fact, the economy of these areas associated formal production for the market with informal production, related to the ties arising between the employed workforce and the local community.20

In small-firm areas the marginalization of women’s role, totally subordinated to the expectations of social promotion of male family members, has been fully functional for economic development, as showed by the spread of the homework. During the 1960s and 1980s, the expansion of homework in many manufacturing areas became crucial for the national economy, testifying that women working at home have played a pivotal position, fully functional to the needs of economic growth.21 Domestic and care work and working activity for the market have coexisted in the same subject, even if dependent on the needs of the family, often resulting in physically detrimental labor conditions. It is sufficient here to recall, for example, the frequent cases of neuropathies found among women working at home due to the use of risky solvents usually employed in the shoe manufacturing industry.

During the economic miracle, the paid and unpaid work of Italian women led to a decisive reduction of the social costs of production. In the long run, however, this large amount of unpaid domestic and care work, and low-paid work for the market, has reinforced the gendered division of labor, affecting not only the participation of women in paid work but the position of women in the broader social sphere and within the structures of political and labor representation. The invisibility of the work done at home has played a key role in the reproduction of patriarchy, with the effect of reinforcing gender stereotypes and the dependence of women on the economic and social position of the husband or partner.

Reproductive work without public spending

In Italy, women’s participation in paid work continues to suffer, more than in other European countries, from the steep imbalance in the gender division of family and care work and the retrenchment of the welfare state, to the point that Italian women work more hours per day, in domestic and care work, than anywhere else in Europe. The unavoidability of family and care work and the current division of labor between men and women still force women, rather than both members of the working couple, to structure their career paths around the “work-life balance.”22 There are, however, significant social factors that can enhance or reduce the degree of balance: the availability of the partner to share the burden of family work (including purely domestic work) more equally; the number and ages of children; the education level of both members of the couple; job and professional status and the capacity to find care services and/or familial networks. Nevertheless, it should be also be recalled that the participation of women in paid work, along with the work-life balance, are closely related to the structure of labor demand. Viewing the employment dynamic on a long-term scale, on the basis of economic sector, it can be observed that in Italy, unlike many other European countries, public administration (the Italian state as employer) had no particular role in increasing the participation of women in paid work. National statistics data shows that female labor is more concentrated in sectors typically associated with service and care, highly marked by income discontinuity, low wages, and rigid working times.23 By contrast, the very limited presence of women in Italian public administration testifies that the gendered division of labor and the occupational segregation have been nourished and reproduced by the Italian state in order to support the male workforce, along with discrimination supporting the male breadwinner model.

Public Spending on Families (Cash Benefits and Benefits in Kind) as % of Gross Domestic Product

1980

1985

1990

1995

2000

2009

Austria

3.1

2.8

2.6

3.1

2.8

2.9

Belgium

3

2.6

2.3

2.3

2.6

2.8

Denmark

2.8

2.6

3.2

3.8

3.5

3.9

Finland

1.9

2.6

3.2

4

3

3.3

France

2.4

2.7

2.5

2.7

3

3.2

Germany

2

1.5

1.6

2.1

2.1

2.1

Greece

0.3

0.3

0.7

1

1

1.4

Ireland

1.1

1.4

2

2.1

2

4.1

Italy

1.1

0.9

0.8

0.6

1.1

1.6

Netherlands

2.5

2.1

1.7

1.3

1.5

1.7

Norway

1.8

1.9

2.7

3.5

3

3.2

Portugal

0.6

0.6

0.7

0.7

1

1.5

Spain

0.5

0.3

0.3

0.4

1

1.5

Sweden

3.9

4.1

4.4

3.8

3

3.7

United Kingdom

2.3

2.3

1.9

2.3

2.7

3.8

Source: OECD Statistics on Social Expenditure

From the early twentieth century to the present, average family size has reduced by half, while one-person households (with or without children) have strongly increased. In spite of the fact that reproductive work is unavoidable, regardless of household composition, there are many variables to consider: the presence, number, and age of children and/or dependent adults make a significant difference in its intensity, and explain the degree and continuity of women’s participation in paid work. The employment rate of mothers varies widely, in fact, based on household composition. Eurostat data shows that for all employed women in Europe between the ages of 25 and 49, the crucial difference in participation in paid work is between women who have no children and those who have one or more.

The analysis of the employment rate of women aged between 15 and 64 years in the last decade shows a high continuity among countries in some specific areas: the Mediterranean countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, and Portugal), Western and Central European countries (France and Germany), and the Scandinavian countries. These areas are very different in several respects: welfare regimes, economic structures, and systems of gender relations. Even if in all countries women carry out the main burden of family and care work the analysis of data on the distribution of this work within the couple draws attention to some peculiar differences in women’s commitment. According to 2008-9 OECD data, while in Italy women do family and care work for 315 minutes on average each day (men 104 minutes), in France women do unpaid work for 233 minutes (men 143), in Germany 269 minutes (men 164), and in Spain 258 minutes (men 154).24 The data shows that despite the increased number of dual-earner households, the burden resulting from increased reproductive work still affects women far more heavily than men. In Mediterranean countries the male partners’ commitment to family work is very limited, especially compared to male partners in the countries of Central and Northern Europe. The persistence of these differences testifies that patriarchal culture and its crucial contribution to the gendered division of labor are still deeply entrenched. This imbalance in the distribution of domestic and care work within the couple, and the scarcity both of public services, such as kindergartens or care services for dependent adults, and transfers to families, has a significant effect on the participation of women in paid work, and at the same time must be understood as cause and effect of the strategy of the capitalist state.

The analysis of participation in paid work also shows that the increased burden of family care often translates, for women, into precarious employment. From 2000 to 2013, in the Mediterranean area—composed of Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal—female part-time employment has grown by 7 percentage points compared to the average of 4.6 percentage points in the European Union (EU 15).25 However, in Italy more than half of women employed as part-timers did not choose this type of employment: 58.6% of women employed in part-time jobs said they had no alternative employment opportunities.26 The survey results show the presence of a high rigidity in the work organization, particularly in the service sector, which drives companies to prefer hiring part-time workers to ensure the continuous turnover of staff in peak workload over the adoption of measures for increasing flexibility of working time.27

However, as noted above, the transformation of the Italian labor market cannot be understood as a result of the attenuating of the asymmetry within the household. The weakening of parental support networks and the greater participation of women in paid work is associated, in fact, with the assignment of domestic and care work to migrant women. INPS data (2013) indicates the presence of 748,777 domestic workers and caregivers (formally hired and paid on the basis of the National Collective Bargaining Agreements) of foreign nationality, mostly coming from Eastern Europe. According to ILO estimates, Italy, along with Spain and France, has one of largest numbers of domestic workers and caregivers in Europe. This dynamic shows that increasing participation of Italian women in paid work has not affected the redistribution of workload within the household; neither has it compelled the intervention of the state through welfare provisions. The greater participation of Italian women in paid work has, rather, resulted the assignment of part of reproductive work to other women outside the family, who in turn are affected by lack of social recognition, segregation, and often abuse.

Nevertheless, the defamilization of care work through the use of private assistance both for children and for dependent adults can be chosen only in particular conditions; it depends on the income and working hours of the household, which are tied up with the the professional status of both partners. It also depends on the proximity of these services. Currently many working-class women, after dismissals due to the economic crisis and the restructuring processes in many workplaces, often give up looking for a job, even if they need to work, to devote themselves full-time to domestic and care work, in order to manage the reduction of the household budget produced by the job loss. Such measures for work-life balance clearly have a close tie with class conditions, especially in those countries where public spending in social and family policies is and will be more and more marginal as a consequence of austerity measures.

Conclusions

In Italy, women’s participation in paid work has been affected by several factors: the relatively late development of the tertiary sector; the assignment of the full load of care work by the state to families and familial networks; and a very peculiar, and mainly fragmented, economic structure. All of these factors are the result of the deep-rooted patriarchal culture, and in the long run they have strongly contributed to the reproduction of this culture. Gender inequalities pose questions about the role that the Italian state – through the enduring disengagement in family and social policies, both in terms of transfers and services – has had in the structuring of the system of gender relations and in disciplining the workforce as a whole.

Along these lines the partnership between patriarchy and capitalism can be thought as a relationship of mutual reinforcement: the former gains in the subjugation of women and in the reproduction of the masculine domination, as the latter expands control over the workforce. This peculiar partnership has been supported by the state, because of the need to exercise control and gain political consent while preventing the emergence of social conflict. It is also because of the saving that comes from the disengagement in expenditure for family and social policies. It must be observed that the model of the male breadwinner played a crucial role in postwar capitalist accumulation, both because it made possible an extraordinary reduction in the costs of social reproduction, and because it allowed for the exploitation of women’s invisible domestic and care work in the household. The results of the partnership between capitalism and the state are marked in many countries, but especially in Italy, where the process of state-building encountered geopolitical dilemmas it never overcame, and where, at least until the end of the 1960s, the Catholic Church has preserved a strong hegemony in moral and political issues. In Italy, patriarchal ideology has undoubtedly been reproduced by the interests of the state, perfectly compatible with those of the Catholic Church, both converging in the feminization of domestic and care work and in the rigid division between public and private sphere.

The contribution of patriarchal ideology to the reproduction of capitalist accumulation and state legimation has played a central role in the exercise of control and command over the population without a formal concentration of power. This hegemony has seen an extraordinary expansion in the neoliberal period: the standardized rigidity of working time in the Fordist period has been completely substituted by a diversified rigidity in neoliberal time. Today, even if the worsening of working and living conditions affects all workers, women, especially those who are unskilled and/or alone with children, suffer the most. Austerity measures and the structural conditions of the Italian economy portend that the cuts in social spending and the expanding casualization of working conditions will increase the risk of social exclusion of women, leading us back to the past, when the institutionalization of the unwaged labor of women and their wageless dependence on men were the dominant attributes of the family.28

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vicent
Feb 17 2016 07:28

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