The door to the garden: feminism and Operaismo - Mariarosa Dalla Costa

The door to the garden: feminism and Operaismo - Mariarosa Dalla Costa

A paper on the history of Italian Marxist feminism given at a seminar on Operaismo ('workerism') held in Rome, June 2002 (3,000 words).

In the 1970’s Italian feminism had two sides: one was self-awareness, the other was the operaista feminism of Lotta Femminista (Feminist struggle) that eventually turned into groups and committees for wages for housework campaigns. Lotta Femminista was militant at the national level and particularly strong in regions such as Veneto and Emilia, whilst weaker in big cities such as Milan – where self-awareness prevailed – and Rome – where both groups existed. We had even gone as far as Gela in Sicily where we had another group. Above all, since 1972, when we founded the International Feminist Collective to promote debate and actions in different countries, we had a large international network, particularly active in the US and Canada as well as some European countries, such as Great Britain and Germany, so we often held international conferences to organise our actions in concert. Afro-American women were part of this circuit. They used to say that the strong Italian presence in the circuit had made it conceivable for them to take part in it, because Italian women had little power (a kind of Third World women in their eyes). Had the network only included white American or English women, they would have not taken part. I remember that since the beginning of the ‘70s I travelled around the United States and some Canadian metropolises to carry our discourse on domestic labour from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast (and I was robbed of the little money I had in El Paso). The flights and coach travels were paid by American comrades who put $1 each towards getting me to speak to them. Simultaneously, some universities, where The power of women and the subversion of the community was adopted in the reading list as a feminist classic, invited me to conferences. So I got some money from this too for the travel. A New York University in ’73 offered me some teaching and in order to formalise the appointment got me to sustain an exam interview with some lecturer so that I could start the course as soon as the academic year began. But, once back in Italy, I wrote to them that I intended to give up the post. I could not conceive of abandoning political work (Lotta Femminista was a small group that I could not abandon to its own fate). They did not understand my reply and got very angry. But all life choices were always subordinated to this work and political research. In this sense too, Potere Operaio had marked me as a militant.

How did some women’s departure from Potere Operaio give birth to Lotta Femminista? As far as I’m concerned, I must say that when I joined Potere Operaio an older comrade, Teresa R., asked me: ‘Why did you join?’ and without even waiting for my answer she said: ‘A need for justice, wasn’t it?’ ‘Yes’ I said. She had guessed right and the reply seemed obvious to me too. If I got asked why I left Potere Operaio in June 1971 and gathered a group of women that was to become the first nucleus of Lotta Femminista, I would reply: 'As a matetr of dignity’. At the time, the relation between man and woman was, particularly in the environment of intellectual comrades, not sufficiently dignifying for me. Thus, I presented to these comrades a pamphlet that was to become Potere femminile e sovversione sociale: a small book that the international feminist movement adopted immediately and translated in six languages. I gave birth to the first act of autonomous organisation of women within the operaista trend, but others soon joined us from other groups and from no groups too because obviously things between men and women were not going well in general.

The second reason was the need for what was then called a process of self-identification. Women no longer defined themselves, the autonomous process of construction of their identity, through the eyes and expectation of a man. I remember an American document that circulated a lot, strangely entitled: ‘Woman identifies woman’, but many others were on that wavelength. After salvaging our dignity and identity (more psychically than temporally), the reasoning and reflection began on what the mischievous source of our discomfort was, the origin of women exploitation and oppression. We identified it in reproductive labour, free housework in so far as it is ascribed to women in the capitalist sexual division of labour. Some of us, however, driven by the need to go further back in the study of the origins of female misfortunes, also researched into prehistoric man-woman relations, matriarchy and patriarchy, and these studies are there, but the operaista urgent task was to have an analysis that could be useful to an intervention so we concentrated on capitalism. We revealed the arcane of reproduction by analysing how production and reproduction of the labour force constituted the hidden phase of capitalist accumulation. We revealed the arcane but not the secret.

Because I have to say that any reproduction worth this name has its own secret. We expanded the concept of class to include women as producers and reproducers of labour force. We fundamentally looked at proletarian and working class women. Behind the closed doors of the home, women provided a labour that had no retribution nor labour time nor holidays, whilst actually almost occupying the entire time of their lives. This labour consisted of material and immaterial tasks and conditioned all their choices. We defined the family as the place of production in so far as it daily produced and reproduced the labour-force; until then the others had claimed and still claimed that the family was a place of mere consumption or production of use values or mere realm of reserve labour force. We said that external labour neither eliminated nor substantially modified domestic labour, it rather added a second master to the first represented by the very work of the husband. Therefore, emancipation through external work was never our objective. Nor was it equality with men. To whom should we have been equal, when we were burdened by a labour that man would not do? Moreover, at a time when the discourse on refusal of work was so strong, why should we try and fight for something men were attempting to refute?

In the postfordist society of those years, we had revealed that production roughly revolved around two poles: the factory and the house; and that woman, in so far as she produced, through her labour, the necessary commodity for capitalism, i.e. labour force itself, she had in her hands a fundamental lever of social power: she could refuse to produce. In this sense, she constitutes the central figure of ‘social subversion’ as we used to call it at the time, i.e. of a struggle that could lead to a radical transformation of society. I have to say that despite the deep transformations that later occurred in the mode of production, this cornerstone of feminine responsibility in the mode of production and the importance of the labour of reproduction remain unresolved problems, thus reproducing the persistency of a fundamental binarism.

But binarism, above the entire masculine and the feminine, is in my view inscribed in the universe. Maybe we ought to better observe it to avoid regarding it so easily as on the path of extinction whilst we attempt to make it less unequal. As I said above, for our interventionist activity we referred to proletarian and working class women. But reproductive labour represented at a generalised level the founding element of the feminine condition. Moving against this condition entailed first of all the setting off of an attitude of refusal of such labour in so far as it was free and primarily ascribed to women. It entailed opening up negotiations with the state so that a quote of produced wealth could be destined to this labour, both in the form of money and services, so that time could be dedicated to it, rather than pretending that it was an optional task easily combinable with external work. The refusal obviously concerned both material and immaterial reproduction. Women were coming to substitute to a femininity made of labour for others, of enormous availability to live as a function of someone else, a femininity where all this was reduced to give room to a reproduction for themselves. The theme of domestic labour was tightly intertwined with that of sexuality that had been made into pro-creation-reproductive function. Thus the struggles on labour, sexuality, health and violence were extremely intertwined. Some comrades carried out very insightful studies on this. At stake in reproductive labour were bodies and with them also relations and emotions. We fought in the quartieri (good struggles for housing, which was our first struggle and the only one for which we have no records), and in hospitals and schools and factories. In Padua on the 5th of June ’73 we set off the struggle for abortion by turning a trial against a woman who had aborted into a political mobilisation. After years of activism with the whole of the Feminist Movement we obtained in 1978 the 194 law that recognised the right to voluntarily interrupt pregnancy with medical assistance. In 1974 in Padua we organised the ‘centre for women’s health’, a women’s self organised counselling centre, the first in Italy. The experience of the self managed centres, which opened up in the rest of the country, aimed to be an exemplary propulsive moment in the reframing of the relation between women and medicine, in particular in the realm of gynaecology, given the imminence of the law that instituted family planning centres in 1975, law 405. In the hospitals, in the obstetric wards known at the time as ‘maternity lagers’ we carried out great struggles (I recall the ones in Padua, Ferrara and Milan). In the factory, the Solari struggle was exemplary and used as a model for others, where the workers demanded that the master provided them with paid time and medical services for gynaecological routine checks without having to lose days of work nor give up looking after themselves. Of particular importance was a struggle in a village in Veneto against a factory that polluted the airs and waters of the area.

As I was saying above, we had national and international organisational 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 house workers). Such an exasperated and totalising militancy, that left no room for anything else in our lives, was surely derived from the experience of Potere Operaio, 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 is 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.

After about ten years, the body of women - even militants have a body, much as it is often denied - felt that the biological clock was marking other deadlines. For instance those women who wanted to have a child, and it was already late, had to decide with whom and in which life environment to raise him [sic]. As social transformation was not at the same level of the new feminine individuality, the process of surrendering began. Many had to give up. How much and how depended on the money these women had at their disposal, the free time they had and the kind of job they had to do to get that money. The old problem of women's lack of money, on which we had fought so hard, revealed to us once again, especially in that phase, all of its dramatic dimensions.

Close to that moment of crisis, repression arrived and with it - especially by left female sociologists and historians - total cancellation of our feminist current, its struggles and its actions. Polda and I, however, had taken care to document - usually sacrificing Saturday, Sunday and the other bank holidays - all the moments of struggle and mobilisation, as well as the issues that had been raised in the debate, in organising pamphlets, collections of papers and in the newspaper. And that material is still there. In the 80s, years of repression and normalisation, a fundamentally cultural brand of feminism would replace those great struggles and those demands, and this had the function of controlling and selecting women's demands and voices. We were indicted. In a very tiresome way, given the circumstances, some historical and theoretical works were completed by some comrades; works that had originally been conceived in the 70s as part of a comprehensive projects which could no longer be realised. To say that those works' circulation was obstructed would be to use an euphemism. They basically disappeared (except from the moment of existence consituted by my university teaching). They were submerged by
an adverse political will and by a profusion of studies on the feminine condition from a different perspective. Our production was also largely expropriated from us and domesticated. On the study of the feminine condition, institutions used all their power, funding was redirected, networks and research were carefully channelled. Fictitious institutions and initiatives were set up. The problem of reproductive work was not addressed. The discourse about the retribution of domestic work was also indicted. That question would have found a very partial and false resolution with immigrant labour power, which in turn leaves behind tragedies of reproduction (for instance young children who, having stayed behind with their grandparents, no longer want to join their unknown parents, and the grandparents who go mad if, having remained alone with the grandchildren, then see their sons coming back to take them away from them for good).

At some point in the dark 80s, when I had to face some life problems - militants also have a life, much as it is repressed - I felt the need to reflect, from other points of view, on the previous period, and subject that period to the unfailing test of emotions. I had to admit that neither in my militancy in Potere operaio, nor in that in the Feminist movement, I ever had a moment, I mean even a single moment, of joy. I only remembered an enormous, immense fatigue. [...]

Why? As regards the feminist movement I have tried to take everything into account, evry the melancholy caused by the break with my prior belonging. After all, as I said before, I was born and grew up in Potere operaio, so I was weary of the total separation from that debate. As a result of which male comrades, who knew nothing about the development of our discourse on the themes that were central to us, were left behind, and when they met us they could only give us answers at the level of barbarians. At the same time, we were left in the dark about their debate while, as I was saying, we would have needed to confront our discussions on some of the questions that were becoming increasingly important. I, at least, felt this need. So, it would have been necessary, even in our autonomy, to have moments of exchange. I don't know if and how much this would have been possible in those years in Italy, but I have never had any problem in discussing with my American comrades of the group Midnight Notes, for instance. Though that was a group that had been formed as a result of the emergence, in the US, of WfH (Wages for Housework) groups, and that had reoriented its debate about, and approach to, the reading of capitalist development on the basis of the centrality given to reproduction work. So they were scholars who, in their formation, had digested our feminist analysis, which they mastered very well. These are comrades who have continued until today to produce very insteresting studies and significant political initiatives.

The fact is that as I was trying to find the cause of my lack of joy, I had to admit that the context within which I had struggled in the 70s, in front of the factories or in the houses - basically the coupling time-money [...] constituted a ground which had failed to move my deep currents in order to produce fluxes of energy. This is the reason why I had felt no joy [...]. What I missed was something which could positively generate emotions, a strong imaginary, which could open different scenarios. I needed to encounter other questions and new subjects, who desired and were able to effectively think a different world. Therefore for part of the 80s I continued to wander around, from room to room, in the house of reproduction. Until, at a certain point, I saw the door to the garden, I saw the issue of the earth.

[enter Vandana Shiva and eco-feminism]