Learning to struggle: my story between workerism and feminism - Leopoldina Fortunati

The author stand­ing in front of Potere Operaio graf­fiti, June 1972.

An interesting account of an Italian Marxist feminist of her experiences and development in the autonomist and feminist movements in Italy in the 1970s.

Submitted by Steven. on September 30, 2013

When I encoun­tered work­erism, I was 19 years old. I was a grass­roots mil­i­tant of the stu­dents’ move­ment from the Uni­ver­sity of Padua. I was young, and thus I was silent and I learned. I remem­ber that in many meet­ings I wanted to say things, but I was shy and inse­cure and there­fore I pre­ferred to keep quiet. The lead­ers of the move­ment were gen­er­ally stu­dents who had already learned to do pol­i­tics because they had some pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence of party or polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. In con­trast, I had only my beliefs about the need to change the world for the tri­umph of equal­ity, free­dom, and justice.

My only pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence was my par­tic­i­pa­tion in strikes against the French nuclear tests in the Pacific, when I was 14. I was then attend­ing the gym­na­sium [junior high school] “Tito Livio” in Padua, where there were very few stu­dents on strike. At a cer­tain point the prin­ci­pal arrived, and when he saw me, he tried to take me by the ear, say­ing, “Come inside.” I tore away from him, and I told him that he couldn’t address me like that. The stu­dents who went on strike were all pun­ished by being held back in their aca­d­e­mic progress because of their participation.

The sec­ond great expe­ri­ence that I had which pre­pared me for a life of polit­i­cal engage­ment was that of declar­ing myself to be an athe­ist when I was 16. I was liv­ing with my par­ents in Dolo, a small town between Padua and Venice, and my fam­ily was very reli­gious (Catholic). But I was see­ing so much poverty and injus­tice around me, against which the offi­cial Church was doing very lit­tle. My stance, which was against the role of the church hier­ar­chy, was a shock to my par­ents, but they endured it.

Finally, when I was 18 years old, I decided to leave home in order to sup­port myself while I stud­ied at the uni­ver­sity, although my par­ents were afflu­ent and could pay for my stud­ies. I wanted to be in con­trol of my life and live with­out social priv­i­leges. I did a lot of jobs, from being a shop assis­tant in a library to being a trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive deal­ing with works of art, and being a librar­ian at the uni­ver­sity. This time my par­ents wept very much: from their view­point, their only daugh­ter (I had three broth­ers) was the most rebel­lious and looked at life in a way that they felt would result in hardship.

When I entered Padua Uni­ver­sity, in the Fac­ulty of Human­i­ties, the stu­dent move­ment was begin­ning. It was a great and huge move­ment that wanted to rein­vent our way of life and the orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety, start­ing from changes at the uni­ver­sity. I could not help but join it with great enthu­si­asm. As stu­dents, how­ever, we were iso­lated from other peo­ple, espe­cially from the work­ers, who at that time were engaged in their own struggles.

For this rea­son I took part in the strug­gles of com­muters, and of work­ers in the depart­ment stores. Com­muters wanted to have their com­mute time rec­og­nized by enter­prises as part of their work time, and not as their per­sonal prob­lem. Fur­ther­more, com­muters’ trains were the worst of all the state rail­ways: dirty and peren­ni­ally late, and with­out any respect for the commuters—for exam­ple, if there was a delay, no one informed peo­ple why, or when the train would arrive. The work­ers in the depart­ment stores wanted a higher wage and also bet­ter con­di­tions of work, includ­ing shorter hours. It was my par­tic­i­pa­tion in these strug­gles that forced me to bet­ter under­stand the role of work­ers in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, and to think about how to under­stand those roles.

I decided to attend a sem­i­nar that Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bino was hold­ing in the Fac­ulty of Polit­i­cal Sci­ences, in which they dis­cussed Das Kap­i­tal by Karl Marx. I began to under­stand the mean­ing of many con­cepts and cat­e­gories that were used in the move­ment, but which had for me at that time a vague mean­ing. The most impor­tant things I learned in Ferruccio’s class on Marx were the basic con­cepts of class, cap­i­tal, work­ing class, labor, pro­duc­tive and unpro­duc­tive labor, sur­plus value, and so on, but reshaped in a way that could effec­tively cap­ture all the changes pro­duced by cap­i­tal in the his­tory of soci­ety after Marx, and espe­cially in the soci­ety in which we lived. The con­se­quent read­ing of soci­ety pro­posed by Fer­ruc­cio was very dif­fer­ent from the vision of ortho­dox Marx­ism that the Com­mu­nist Party was elab­o­rat­ing and proposing.

I soon real­ized that in this con­text there was a great polit­i­cal intel­li­gence to be found in engag­ing with the present, but also in under­stand­ing the past, and that the group Potere Operaio (Work­ers’ Power) and its dis­course pro­vided a for­mi­da­ble tool­box for all mil­i­tants in their polit­i­cal strug­gles. And above all, this group was com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an orga­ni­za­tional plat­form where stu­dents, in addi­tion to work­ers, could find space to unite. At that time, the big prob­lem was that of break­ing down the social bar­ri­ers that strongly sep­a­rated the stu­dents from the work­ers in the fac­to­ries and the other workers.

How­ever, this reex­am­ined Marx, although pow­er­ful in com­par­i­son to the ortho­dox ver­sion, con­tin­ued to remain blind towards the real­ity lived by women. So Potere Operaio’s dis­course was very advanced in con­sid­er­ing the new fac­to­ries, the new work­ers’ role in the con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, but it was very poor in con­sid­er­ing house­work, affects, emo­tions, sex­u­al­ity, edu­ca­tion, fam­ily, inter­per­sonal rela­tion­ships, socia­bil­ity, and so on.

The author speaking at a demonstration in Piazza Ferretto, Mestre, March 1974.The author speak­ing at a demon­stra­tion in Piazza Fer­retto, Mestre, March 1974.

I do not like to talk about the lim­its of Potere Operaio; as fem­i­nists we crit­i­cized and con­tested them sev­eral times for their lack of aware­ness of the social con­di­tion and roles of women. How­ever, I think that the mil­i­tants of that move­ment did all that was pos­si­ble to increase the pool of activists and attract other class sec­tions, from fac­tory work­ers to employ­ees, from high school stu­dents to teach­ers in mid­dle and high schools, and so on. They also made enor­mous progress in expand­ing polit­i­cal dis­course out­side of Marx­ist ortho­doxy. They made the Marx­ian legacy some­thing dynamic and use­ful for ana­lyz­ing and under­stand­ing soci­ety in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tury, as they taught to all grass­roots activists, includ­ing me, the abil­ity to use Marx with­out def­er­ence. My par­tic­i­pa­tion in Potere Operaio was lim­ited, though, because I began to par­tic­i­pate in the emerg­ing group Lotta Fem­min­ista (Fem­i­nist Struggle).

I began to par­tic­i­pate in Lotta Fem­min­ista when I was 22. In the mean­time, I had grown up, learned a lot, had over­come my shy­ness for speak­ing in pub­lic, and knew that it was time to give a polit­i­cal mean­ing even to my per­sonal choices. The per­sonal strug­gles that many women had engaged in, for their own sake and in order to change soci­ety, were in need of a sound­ing board and a unit­ing force that would increase their power. This force was the dis­cov­ery of class con­scious­ness on the part of women, which would serve as the engine of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion for their social strug­gles. Lotta Fem­min­ista brought the work­erist expe­ri­ence to the fem­i­nist movement.

On the basis of these polit­i­cal expe­ri­ences, I decided to ded­i­cate my main effort to ana­lyz­ing women’s con­di­tions of life from the per­spec­tive of polit­i­cal econ­omy, recon­sid­ered in Marx­ian terms. Of course, I had to bend the Marx­ian cat­e­gories in light of the fem­i­nist expe­ri­ence and polit­i­cal tra­di­tion. I was pushed to write The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion by the prac­ti­cal needs of the fem­i­nist strug­gle. In this effort, I had major sup­port from Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and San­dro Ser­afini (of Potere Operaio), who reviewed the book chap­ter by chapter.

This book, in fact, dis­cusses the main polit­i­cal issues debated at that time within the entire polit­i­cal move­ment. We had to man­age the pub­lic, polit­i­cal debate within our groups, within the fem­i­nist move­ment and the wider move­ment, made up of stu­dents and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions like Potere Operaio and Lotta Con­tinua (Con­tin­u­ous Strug­gle). We needed to clar­ify and explain, first of all to our­selves, and then to the entire move­ment, why mil­i­tants needed to go beyond the Marx­ian cat­e­gories and in which sense. For exam­ple, in which terms could women be con­sid­ered work­ing class? Which women?

Lotta Fem­min­ista had always been a minor­ity ten­dency within the broader fem­i­nist move­ment, because women in the fem­i­nist move­ment were at first rightly wary of any polit­i­cal the­ory devel­oped in mas­cu­line polit­i­cal tra­di­tions. The irony is that the broader fem­i­nist move­ment would have become much stronger and more robust if it had taken up our polit­i­cal pro­posal of “wages for house­work” (i.e., “domes­tic labor,” includ­ing par­ent­ing, care­tak­ing, etc.), rather than assum­ing, with­out know­ing it, the Lenin­ist strat­egy of fight­ing for work out­side of house­work as the means of assur­ing a wage for women. But it was very dif­fi­cult for the Com­mit­tees for Wages for House­work to find con­sen­sus on their pro­posal, because fem­i­nist women in gen­eral thought it was bet­ter to reject domes­tic labor in toto and leave their homes.

In this period, we work­erist fem­i­nists were not able to con­vince the whole fem­i­nist move­ment that the refusal of work must be man­aged within a process of wage bar­gain­ing, or oth­er­wise domes­tic work would return in another man­ner along­side work out­side the home, which we were also strug­gling over. In other words, the fem­i­nist move­ment never included, in its gen­eral polit­i­cal pro­gram, our objec­tive of first obtain­ing social recog­ni­tion for the value of house­work by claim­ing money for it. The strat­egy that fem­i­nists applied to house­work was sim­ply to invite women to refuse it. But after a while it became clear that this strat­egy was inef­fi­cient, because it was not able to make house­work dis­ap­pear on a mass scale.

A May Day demonstration in Naples. From left: Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati.A May Day demon­stra­tion in Naples. From left: Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, Leopold­ina Fortunati.

The fem­i­nist move­ment had the great merit of giv­ing women an over­all bar­gain­ing power at the social level. How­ever, as we had antic­i­pated, the prob­lem of “house­work” or domes­tic labor did not dis­ap­pear from the polit­i­cal agenda of women. Unfortunately, a reflec­tion on the fail­ure of this strat­egy has not yet been made. New gen­er­a­tions of women need to learn from this polit­i­cal error and under­stand that house­work, in its mate­r­ial and imma­te­r­ial aspects, must be socially rec­og­nized as pro­duc­tive labor.

From http://viewpointmag.com/2013/09/15/learningtostrugglemystorybetweenworkerismandfeminism/