The terrain of reproduction: Alisa Del Re’s “The sexualization of social relations”

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

In an era when the exploits of Sil­vio Berlusconi’s “pri­vate” life seem to have cat­e­gor­i­cally oblit­er­ated any progress towards sex­ual equal­ity achieved dur­ing the Ital­ian fem­i­nist move­ment of the 70s, it is essen­tial to remem­ber what was once accom­plished. Although second-wave fem­i­nism was already a well-established net­work of debates in the U.S. by 1970, Ital­ian women influ­enced by work­erist writ­ings of the fem­i­nist ilk, most notably Mari­arosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’s The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (1972), set out to ini­ti­ate bat­tles over issues such as abor­tion and divorce.1 Fem­i­nist cur­rents both from within and inde­pen­dent of work­erist move­ments then spread with a fierce momen­tum that would endure through the decade.

From the inad­e­quate patri­ar­chal rubric of the New Left, from the ashes of male-dominated work­erist orga­ni­za­tions such as Potere Operaio, and later Lotta Con­tinua, women through­out Italy orga­nized autonomously, on the basis of the inher­ent con­nec­tion of repro­duc­tion and gen­der roles to class strug­gle.2 It was the prob­lem of mar­gin­al­iza­tion of women within these move­ments, along with the larger ques­tion of unpaid domes­tic labor, that directed many fem­i­nist inquiries. Sil­via Fed­erici has said, reflect­ing on her dif­fi­culty rec­on­cil­ing her expe­ri­ence as a woman with the rhetoric of these orga­ni­za­tions, “I was unwill­ing to accept my iden­tity as a woman after hav­ing for years pinned all my hopes on my abil­ity to pass for a man.“3 An orga­nized col­lec­tiv­ity of women inde­pen­dent of the uni­form assim­i­la­tion to a male-driven class per­spec­tive became nec­es­sary, since women’s work was to this point largely con­fined to the domain of repro­duc­tion, but remained an equally essen­tial yet cat­e­gor­i­cally unique form of pro­duc­tion in the greater sense.

Mari­arosa Dalla Costa has described how, in the 1970s, Ital­ian fem­i­nism largely took one of two posi­tions: a kind of gen­er­al­ized, over­all “self-awareness” or a workerist-driven fem­i­nism. The lat­ter took shape as Lotta Fem­min­ista, which orga­nized into a more sub­stan­tial inter­na­tional move­ment. The focus of their attack, house­work, was described in Federici’s Wages Against House­work as “the most sub­tle and mys­ti­fied vio­lence that cap­i­tal­ism has ever per­pe­trated against any sec­tion of the work­ing class.”4 In 1972, Dalla Costa, Selma James, and oth­ers formed the Inter­na­tional Wages for House­work Cam­paign around the notion that women held a sig­nif­i­cant power as pro­duc­ers of the labor force itself – and that through the refusal of this pro­duc­tion, they engaged in a form of social sub­ver­sion that could lead to “a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety.”5

How­ever, Fed­erici has since acknowl­edged this kind of utopian think­ing as dam­ag­ing to the fem­i­nist movement:

One of the major short­com­ings of the women’s move­ment has been its ten­dency to overem­pha­size the role of con­scious­ness in the con­text of social change, as if enslave­ment were a men­tal con­di­tion and lib­er­a­tion could be achieved by an act of will. Pre­sum­ably, if we wanted, we could stop being exploited by men and employ­ers… rev­o­lu­tion­ize our day to day life. Undoubt­edly some women already have the power to take these steps… But for mil­lions these rec­om­men­da­tions could only turn into an impu­ta­tion of guilt, short of build­ing the mate­r­ial con­di­tions that would make them pos­si­ble.6

In an inter­view accom­pa­ny­ing the vol­ume Futuro Ante­ri­ore, Alisa Del Re describes how she began her own path towards the analy­sis of women and work, ini­tially as a polit­i­cal sci­ence stu­dent and research assis­tant to Anto­nio Negri in the late 1960s.7 Encoun­ters with the meth­ods of work­ers’ inquiry, and later the writ­ings of Tronti and Marx, became points of ref­er­ence that would inform Del Re’s involve­ment with Potere Operaio until its dis­so­lu­tion in 1973. With­out offi­cially cross­ing over to Autono­mia Operaia like many of her com­rades, Del Re remained in some­what close prox­im­ity to the group, while begin­ning to address issues from a fem­i­nist per­spec­tive that was unique for this period, par­tic­u­larly regard­ing social ser­vices and the rela­tion­ship between work and per­sonal time.

Del Re reveals a sub­jec­tiv­ity that informed her posi­tion on wel­fare pro­grams – a posi­tion that, stem­ming in large part from her own need for sub­si­dized child­care while nav­i­gat­ing the work­force, would unin­ten­tion­ally oppose the views of Dalla Costa and oth­ers dri­ving the Wages for House­work move­ment. While Wages for House­work sought com­pen­sa­tion for domes­tic labor, Del Re argued for sub­si­dized child­care and other such social pro­grams so that a woman could have a life out­side of work­ing, both in and out­side of the home – not because she dis­agreed with Wages for House­work, but because their demands did not apply to her own sit­u­a­tion as a woman choos­ing to sub­sist within the work­force rather than in the home. She describes how her very posi­tion as a work­ing woman assigned her to the mar­gins of the work­erist move­ment, while the women of Wages for House­work were demand­ing rights from within their imposed “ter­rain” – that of reproduction:

…the issue of wages was per­haps more “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” but from the polit­i­cal prac­tice that Rosa [Dalla Costa] endorsed it was dif­fi­cult to under­stand who was demand­ing these wages and when… maybe my issue was much more reformist even though it is true that we annoyed a few peo­ple when we occu­pied local gov­ern­ment meet­ings, demand­ing the con­struc­tion of nurs­ery schools and propos­ing con­crete forms of ‘lib­er­a­tion from house­work.8

It is worth not­ing, how­ever, that while the posi­tions of Wages for House­work and Del Re were seem­ingly in oppo­si­tion, they are per­haps bet­ter described as par­al­lel streams of strug­gle, progress in both are­nas con­sti­tut­ing a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for women’s auton­omy. In the first place, Wages for House­work rec­og­nized house­work as work, and thus, the strat­egy of “get­ting a job” as a means of lib­er­at­ing women from depen­dence on men’s wages, as Fed­erici would later reflect, alien­ated women who worked because their fam­i­lies need the added finan­cial sup­port “and not because they con­sider it a lib­er­at­ing expe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­larly since ‘hav­ing a job’ never frees you from house­work.“9 Fur­ther­more, Del Re’s view on the recla­ma­tion of per­sonal time sup­ported by state-funded child care pro­vi­sions offers the only pos­si­bil­ity of relief from what would oth­er­wise be a near-24/7 work week, waged or not, for working-class women. Years after Wages for House­work, Fed­erici rec­og­nizes the mutual depen­dence of these two conditions:

…as long as house­work goes unpaid, there will be no incen­tives to pro­vide the social ser­vices nec­es­sary to reduce our work, as proved by the fact that, despite a strong women’s move­ment, sub­si­dized day care has been steadily reduced through the 70s. I should add that wages for house­work never meant sim­ply a pay­check. It also meant more social ser­vices and free social ser­vices.10

In a later piece enti­tled “Women and Wel­fare: Where is Jocasta?”, Del Re describes the labor of repro­duc­tion as “a spe­cific rela­tion between women and the State” that is sep­a­rate from the labor mar­ket and that has been inad­e­quately sup­ported and stud­ied.11 The wel­fare sys­tem, despite “its lim­i­ta­tions on the qual­ity of life,” she pro­poses, “liberat[es] the labor of repro­duc­tion from its depen­dence on another person’s salary,” in other words, the labor of pro­duc­tion.12 Thus, Del Re pro­poses that since women con­trol the means of repro­duc­tion, we “must find a way to present [our] bill” – by mak­ing “vis­i­ble the labor of repro­duc­tion in its total­ity” and by under­lin­ing “its cen­tral­ity with respect to pro­duc­tion and the mar­ket.” As she has con­tin­ued to assert, this begins with a reor­ga­ni­za­tion of one’s time.13

Inter­est­ingly, sit­u­ated upon this same imposed ter­rain were both the sub­jects and objects of a year-long research study regard­ing work and fam­ily, cul­mi­nat­ing in the pub­li­ca­tion of Le sexe du tra­vail: struc­tures famil­iales et sys­tème pro­duc­tif (Greno­ble: Presses Uni­ver­si­taires de Greno­ble, 1984). In an arti­cle for the jour­nal Primo Mag­gio, Del Re exam­ines this work with a favor­able view on their inves­ti­ga­tions, as women researchers, into the sex­ual and social divi­sions of labor. Trans­lated here, Del Re’s piece rep­re­sents in itself an evolv­ing vision of these divi­sions that does not, as she writes, “sig­nal a marginality.”

In “Women and Wel­fare,” Del Re ele­gantly states the impor­tance of the woman’s role as both sub­ject and object:

It is cru­cial, there­fore, that women’s lives – their exis­tence, their nature, as well as their activ­i­ties - become an inte­gral part of philo­soph­i­cal and intel­lec­tual dis­course, so that the acknowl­edg­ment of female sub­jec­tiv­ity, con­structed as it is in mul­ti­ple sym­bolic and mate­r­ial loci, can reveal the par­tial­ity of a vision of the world that even today is con­sid­ered uni­ver­sal.14

Like other projects of the work­erist move­ment, Primo Mag­gio as a pub­li­ca­tion reveals con­cep­tual lay­ers rang­ing from his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal record to schol­arly peri­od­i­cal to polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion. As Primo Mag­gio’s Ser­gio Bologna writes in his review of Steve Wright’s Storm­ing Heaven, the jour­nal focused on main­tain­ing a sub­ject posi­tion “within a net­work of ini­tia­tives of self organ­i­sa­tion at the level of polit­i­cal cul­ture and for­ma­tion ‘at the ser­vice of the move­ment.’”15 In an inter­view with Patrick Cun­ing­hame, Bologna describes Primo Mag­gio’s search for new method­olo­gies, in con­trast to the efforts at party orga­ni­za­tion by Negri and Autono­mia Orga­niz­zata:

Primo Mag­gio was not even a polit­i­cal elite. Rather, we had refused our role as a polit­i­cal elite to put our­selves instead in the role of that techno-scientific intel­li­gentsia which exca­vated within the dis­ci­plines. So, we wanted to exca­vate within the his­tor­i­cal dis­ci­plines to make his­tory in another way. You read Primo Mag­gio and it is not a polit­i­cal jour­nal, in the sense that it is a jour­nal … for the trans­for­ma­tion of his­tor­i­cal method­ol­ogy. In the sense of trans­for­ma­tion also of his­to­ri­o­graph­i­cal lan­guage which has an enor­mous impor­tance in polit­i­cal lan­guage.16

The idea of a “woman-science,” women (and sex­ual divi­sions of labor) as a topic of research by women researchers, is the prod­uct of this strat­egy, recon­struct­ing a sub­ject through its methodologies.

Anna Culbertson is a special collections librarian at San Diego State University, where she has taught courses on using primary sources to research feminism and gender roles.