22: Silvia Federici
Marxist feminist scholar

photos by Elena Mudd

Silvia and I talk about Marxist feminism, "Sexuality as Work," post-war women, women in feudal societies, and, of course, witches. I also participate a bit more than normal at the end of the conversation, which turns into a huge, incredible inter-generational sex talk.

Silvia Federici is an Italian American scholar, teacher, and activist from the radical autonomist feminist Marxist tradition. She is a professor emerita and Teaching Fellow at Hofstra University, where she was a social science professor She worked as a teacher in Nigeria for many years, is also the co-founder of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, and is a member of the Midnight Notes Collective.

Elena Mudd is a Brooklyn-based photographer who explores the relationship between individual and social identity from a feminist (or humanistic) perspective. The intimate portrait, conceived as collaborative process with her subject, is her specialty. Her subjects range from family members to strangers she meets on the street. She works with film media, both  35mm and medium format, and with digital.

This interview was conducted by Sophia Richards on February 1, 2017, in Silvia's Brooklyn apartment. Elena Mudd photographed the conversation.

SOPHIA: Talk to me about your experience of girlhood. 


SILVIA: In many ways it's a very common experience for women of my generation, because when I was a young child, I grew up in a country that was quite restrictive about what was expected of women and girls. I grew up in Italy at the end of World War II —a country that had experienced many years of fascism and very authoritarian and patriarchal ideas about what women are supposed to be. So even though my family was fairly open-minded, I was nevertheless continuously reminded of the fact that there were restrictions on my life that were not applied to men. I was I guess what they called a tomboy, and revolted against it very early. 

I remember reading a poem —I must've been nine or ten years at most. It made a comparison between the strong wind and women's lamentations. And I think because it spoke about women's lamentations without much definition, I thought, "Why women's lamentation?" But then I realized, "Of course, it's women who cry all the time. They are the ones who cry at the funerals. They are the ones who are...yes, of course." And at that moment I think I had the realization that women are the ones who suffer. Women are the ones who suffer. And I think it was a moment of consciousness. It was an awakening to the fact that women suffer, but they are also stronger because they suffer. [laughs] 

This moment maybe encapsulates the story of my experience as a girl. I didn't easily accept it. But I also began to question: why women? What's happening with women? And this coupling of suffering —that because of it, perhaps women are stronger. 

And at that moment I think I had the realization that women are the ones who suffer.

SOPHIA: In an interview you did with Mute, you said that "Even in my own lifetime, what ‘woman’ means has changed immensely. What being a woman meant for my mother is very different to what it means for me." Can you talk more about what those changes were?


SILVIA: It was a sea of change. Because, in fact, it's the change that has allowed me to be reconciled to the fact that I am a woman. For many years in my childhood I was very attracted to the idea of being a man. If I had had a choice, I would have chosen to be a man, which puts all kinds of questions on the idea of gender-reassignment, because you don't know actually what life brings you. 

The matter [of how being a woman has changed] is less simple than it appears. Because already I think that during my mother's lifetime, changes were taking place. World War II brought about a big change in the position of women in society, because a lot of women realized that the family is not a security. This old idea of: “I'm going to be a good woman, I'm going to have a family, marry, raise children,” and so on. Then comes the war, then your husband is killed, then your house is destroyed, then your children become kind of fodder for the army. All of a sudden you have thousands and thousands of widows who had expected a completely different life, now having to struggle to support themselves and support their children. 

So that already really changed the relationship of women to the family and the state. Something similar happened in the United States, but I think it was far more dramatic in Europe. In the states, women experienced World War II in terms of going out, having a job, and having economic independence, but their lives were never as devastated as the way women's lives, certainly in countries such as Italy and Germany, were devastated. 

My mother, who identified with being a housewife and a mother, continually repeated, “You have to have a wage of your own. You have to have a job of your own. Because you never know.” Not because as a woman, you should do something aside from being a mother, but because you don't want to find yourself completely stranded as so many women have found themselves. 

I think that my generation, which was the first generation after the war, was a rebel generation. I think the war was a watershed. You lost whatever faith people had in the state. We grew up asking: how could you respect the traditional values when the traditional values had demonstrated to be so disastrous? Leading to the deaths of millions of people. And then fascism, nazism, and the war itself. How could you grow up, except with the desire to change society? 

Here is one statistic that can give a sense of the change: for many years after World War II, almost until now, Italy has had one of the lowest birthrates in the world. For many years Italy was below replacement. It has sustained itself only because of immigration. For years and years they had to close the first-year elementary schools because there were no children. Not only that, but the number of marriages has dropped dramatically. So much so, that I remember some years ago, there was a priest that was giving vouchers to couples to incentivize them to marry, because the idea of marriage and long-term relationships has been very much in crisis. In fact, there has been a huge increase in violence against women in recent years. I think it has been inspired by women’s refusal to put up with more traditional forms of male-behavior, and also their willingness to break up a family, to leave their husbands if they are not happy. This was probably inconceivable or at least very difficult to do in my mother's time. Basically, women’s need and desire for economic independence from men is all very taken for granted. I want to make clear that I'm not devaluing [more traditional domestic] choices. But those who are making those choices today are making them in conditions in which they have more autonomy and independence. 


SOPHIA: Can you talk about your experience of founding the International Wages for Housework Campaign?


SILVIA: I went to the meeting where the international campaign for wages for housework was founded, without knowing that that was what we would be doing. This was the summer of 1972, so there was the feminist movement. I was already in a feminist group in New York, and had a background in the leftist Marxist tradition, so I was interested in understanding the relationship between feminism and Marxism. Then I read Mariarosa Dalla Costa's The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, and I found it really really important. So as soon as I went to Italy that year where my family was, I went to see her. 

It was a large meeting, mostly with Italian women, but there were also women from England and France. We shared a certain Marxist background where we were interested in feminism, but also with a class perspective. So naturally, the whole issue of housework, [which we termed] reproductive work, arose, and we were trying to understand its place within the larger capitalist organization of labor. 

We kind of turned the tables around. Many socialists would say that housework is backward and leftover from a pre-capitalist world, it's a personal service, it's not productive in the Marxist sense, etc. Therefore women, as long as they are houseworkers and housewives, do not have power to struggle against capitalism because they are not really producing capital. They are just making cakes, they are just cleaning floors. And we said, "No, it's the other way around." We shouldn't only look at the cooking and the shopping; we should look at the whole totality of the work. When you see the whole totality, you see that there is a product, the product is not the cake, the product is the worker.


[both laugh]

Women...do not have power to struggle against capitalism because they are not really producing capital. They are just making cakes, they are just cleaning floors.


SILVIA: That was a very revolutionary change in the way we analyze the way society works, and it allowed us to then move in all kinds of directions. For example, rethinking: what is the wage? Why is this work not waged? And being able to see how much money the capitalist class has saved by not having to create the infrastructure to support this work. And it allowed us to re-envision the women who were commonly accepted to be poor, dependent, charity cases, as a class that produces an immense amount of wealth. We also realized that wage is a particular tool that not only looks like it's paying the labor that people do, but also hides exploitation when labor is not paid. So you begin to see the connection between racism and sexism, because a lot of the exploitation of people of color, slaves, the colonized, etc. is also based on their wagelessness —which serves to justify their exploitation. In the case of women, our exploitation is based on the idea that that there's something wrong with us, or that domestic work is given to us because these are the kinds of jobs that are fitting in accordance with what we are capable of. It does not recognize that [these jobs] are imposed. This really shaped the way I see the world. It has influenced very much the way I understand the global economy, liberalism, and the position of women.


SOPHIA: Jumping forward to your work with Caliban and the Witch, I know that some women feel that associating women with magic is defaulting to an archaic kind of gender-essentialism that interprets women as too complicated to understand, or that which is associated with the pagan and deserves to be oppressed. But also, for witches or those who were persecuted as witches, being associated with magic was a source of power. How do you negotiate this?


SILVIA: It's very complicated because of the whole issue of magic. Magic globally and historically is a very diffuse phenomenon that has consisted in many cases of particular techniques, particular rituals. Effective or not effective, I'm not going to go into that.


SOPHIA: [laughs]

The witch was many times a normal woman, but usually low-class, poor, very often peasant, living alone, and very often old.

SILVIA: But it's all kinds of techniques that particular individuals have used with the idea of producing certain effects. For example, in Europe, in the Middle Ages until the fifteenth or sixteenth-century, you have people who defined themselves as magicians. And in many societies, there are sorcerers. In Caliban and the Witch, I tried to discourage the idea that the women who were persecuted were the women who were practicing sorcery. For many years after the witch hunt, there were women in Europe who worked as...what in Spanish would be called a curandera. Healers. And as healers, they mixed a set of notions, curative powers of plants and herbs, with all kinds of magic chants. They often were among those who were persecuted. As were the many people who tried to predict the future, which also continued even after the end of the witch hunt. 

Even though you can show that there were those kinds of women and they were also persecuted, the witch hunt was not necessarily primarily against these [“superstitious activities” themselves]. The witch hunt was against a whole set of attitudes, behavior, and practices, that were in contrast with the kind of social discipline that is necessary for the kind of society that was developing at the time. I've been trying to show that the witch was many times a normal woman, but usually low-class, poor, very often peasant, living alone, and very often old. The crimes that they were accused of did not necessarily have to do with magic, but had to do with all kinds of social practices and forms of existence that capitalism had to destroy. 

Many of the women who were accused of witchcraft were beggars. They would go from house to house, they often lived alone, they were old. The environment in which they lived was one in which many people had already lost land, and families had already broken down —which is what produced this population of old women living alone with no means to support themselves. This was not the case in the Middle Ages, where people were poor, but you still had communities that tied people together and supported the elderly. 

So you already see that a new historical era is arising. You have these women who have to go around and beg, and then they are told "No," and then they curse. Curses were still considered strong enough that they would scare you, and I think that they scare us [today.] If somebody cursed you, you would probably go to bed at night and ask, "What is the person going to do to me?"


SOPHIA: [laughs]


SILVIA: And then afterwards, they are recused. So what I'm trying to show is that the witch was not necessarily an expert in the magical arts, but she was part of a whole world of ways of being that had to be erased and transformed. A world where maybe you expect a certain solidarity from your neighbor, or you have a certain conception of your relationship to nature. So you have "witch" as the prostitute. "Witch" is the beggar. “Witch" is the woman who maybe steals from a well-to-do neighbor, or enters into disputes with a neighbor because she has some animals that run over their fields or vice versa.

Women washed collectively until the nineteenth century. You didn’t wash with your little machine in your house alone.

SOPHIA: To proceed in the discussion of the economic history of women, one of the most famous selections from Caliban and the Witch reads: "The witch-hunt, then, was a war against women: it was a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power. At the same time, it was in the torture chambers and on the stakes on which the witches perished that the bourgeois ideals of womanhood and domesticity were forged." 

The way that that's written suggests a kind of degradation of the form of women's social power in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. And I wanted to ask if you see that degradation as linear, and if you believe that there are other, better possibilities of female social power under late capitalism.


SILVIA: Under the organization of feudalism in the Middle Ages, whether it was rural or urban, work was very collective. That's what we call "the commons." Because of this collectivity, you have a lot of cooperation. For example, you find that women did a lot of the work that we now call “housework” —speaking of domesticity and the home. But actually, they did it together. So whether they were cultivating the fields or they were washing…in Europe, for instance, women washed collectively until the nineteenth century. You didn't wash with your little machine in your house alone. So because that collectivity, that cooperation…what results from that is what I call social power. If you know the people you're with. If you grow with them. If you love them. If you share their problems. If you share the work together. This is the social power that I'm referring to. 

One example that I mention in Caliban and the Witch, is the word "gossip" in Medieval English, which meant "my best friend, my closest friend." In the course of the century, it became very derogatory, meaning "idle talk" or "malign talk." In this piece I'm writing [about the subject], I quote a morality play involving [the Biblical] Noah. The water is rising and he's building an ark, he's getting people and the animals in, and then he's looking for his wife. And his wife is nowhere to be found. He goes to the tavern, and she's there with all her gossips. And he says, "Come, the waters are rising, they're closing the door of the ark." And she asks, "Can my gossips come?" And he says "No no no no." And she says, "Well, then you go and find yourself another wife. If they cannot be safe, I will not go with you." 

So there's a whole story about women and their gossip. And [I hope this helps me illustrate] that the witch hunt was a very strong attack. You arrest one woman and you torture her to death until you make her list, "this woman, this woman, this woman” [as guilty], until you get the whole group of them. So it's a very direct attack against female solidarity and women's friendships. 

In fact, as the century goes on and you begin to see the building of the nuclear family, you find that generally, in the sermon of the priest, or the social thinker, they recommend that women put all their loyalty to the husband, rather than the friends. Often it is recommended that women don't even go off to visit their parents [without their husbands.] So you really see a change at many levels that devalues women, that breaks their solidarity, and constructs this kind of hierarchical structure which is the nuclear family, where the important figures are the husband and the child, because the child is the future worker. 

I am talking about this kind of social power. And also [the social power gained via] the struggle that women made in the feudal period against the power of the lords and the power of the church, so that by the fifteenth century, you can speak of a woman's power [as a publicly recognized threat to these institutions —not just an idea.] In the demonology, you see continuous attacks on women and their powers. A lot of the wording that we have now originates from that war. For example, "fascination" meant "an evil-powered woman." What we call "fascination" was not as bad as the evil eye —the evil eye is the way that women can kill you by just looking at you.


[both laugh]


SILVIA: But "fascination" is still a way in which women can seduce men and get them under their control. So "fascination" was a very very bad word. And today obviously we have a different conception of social power, because it also has to do with work and mobility and so on. But in some ways, I think social power still comes from solidarity —from cooperating in the reproduction of our everyday life. Solidarity is not something that comes from nothing. It comes from something really material. It comes from our everyday lives, doing things together.


Solidarity is not something that comes from nothing. It comes from something really material. It comes from our everyday lives, doing things together.

SOPHIA: This is a question that refers to Revolution at Point Zero. In [your essay] “Sexuality as Work," you wrote that "The more we know that this is a parenthesis which the rest of the day or the week will deny, the more difficult it becomes for us to try to turn into ‘savages’ and ‘forget’ everything.” Yet, you also write about the woman who was persecuted as a witch as a "woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation." 

So I wanted to ask you about what you think happens to a woman's sexuality outside of marital and reproductive bonds. What is it? Does it belong to her? If not, who does it belong to?


SILVIA: Many of us involved in Wages for Housework would say that in a way, [although we are] demanding the power to control our bodies and to define our sexualities, [we are demanding] that which we never knew, really, and perhaps will never know. Because from the time you're born, you're so indoctrinated into what sexuality is about that it is very difficult for a woman to know what she really wants. And I imagine for your generation it's different. Or at least I hope it's different. I hope it's a more positive experience. 

In Caliban and the Witch, when I say that women experience their sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and family…for example, there were women who were prostitutes. Or women who were low-class, farmers and so on, who had children outside of marriage. Or poor women who had love affairs with people of a higher class, which was really taboo. In that case, the relatives of the man would often accuse her of being a witch —that she has seduced him, he can't understand anything now.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


SILVIA: He's gone, she has evil powers. It's this kind of thing. I think what I was trying to say in "Sexuality as Work" is that the way that capitalism has organized sexuality within the day of a housewife or worker in general is so compartmentalized. When can you make love? In what spaces? In what forms? It becomes almost impossible to really experiment, experience, understand, [and instead is] this moment in which all of a sudden, you have to shift. You've been working all day, and then you have to shift. 

And then you have these power-relations. It's very difficult when there are power-relations, to genuinely open into the body of another person. To make yourself really completely open, and be able to overcome all the vulnerabilities. This is a relationship that, in theory, should be so satisfying and bring so much happiness, in reality, to many women, brings so much pain. And it's not an accident. Because...it becomes a little trap.


[both laugh]


SILVIA: It becomes a trap. It is not organized for your happiness and fulfillment. It is organized so that you will do certain things.


SOPHIA: I've seen a lot of columnists recommend things like scheduling when to have sex, because otherwise you won't get around to it, or you’ll avoid it because you’re tired. Which…I don't know what even to make of that.


[both laugh]


SILVIA: You are young! I have some questions for you. Because our generation spoke a lot about sex. We didn't have much of it...


SOPHIA: [laughs]


SILVIA: We had very little of it. I mean at least on average. But we spoke a lot about it. Because part of the feminist awakening was realizing...Oh my god…how unhappy these relationships are. You are unhappy when you are doing politics with men. You are unhappy in marriage. And you are unhappy in bed. In bed you are woefully unhappy!


SOPHIA: [laughs]

It’s very difficult when there are power-relations, to genuinely open into the body of another person.

SILVIA: There are so many different reasons! So there was a lot of consciousness-raising. You take the books, the collection of materials from the early feminists, and you'll find that it's a lot about the issue of sex. The whole debate about clitoris and vagina…which was amazing. Could you imagine the courage, to introduce into politics...You can't imagine what it meant to introduce into political discourse, completely dominated by the heavy macho-man, the politics of vagina versus the clitoris.


[both laugh]


SILVIA: But I've noticed that that kind of discussion of sexuality in the last fifteen years has really gone down and almost disappeared. The only way now that there is talk about sexuality is in relation to trans and queer individuals. Otherwise….I wonder if I am not reading the proper material —that there is actually a whole literature on this and I don't have access to it, or that my suspicion is right, and the new generation of feminists is not talking much about sex.


SOPHIA: From what I understand, which of course is limited to my own experience, is…when I've spoken to older women, they tend to express similar concerns, in that women of my generation take [the former generation's] struggles for granted. For example, that we are unaware of what it took to introduce the clitoris and the vagina into political conversation. 

And I think the legitimization of that concern may also be observable in conversations about sexuality, because I’ve found that the tendency is to speak about queer sexuality and gender politics as though it were the last frontier, and that when people try to speak, at least in academic spaces, about straight or cis- sexualities or gender-identities, they do so with the attitude that they are essentially extra-political, and that being sexually “liberated” is this very laissez faire experience.


SILVIA: There's not prominent analysis of the sexual relationships between women and men, for example?


SOPHIA: No —or at least it's much less trendy, and arguably for good reason, because it’s not like the queer community was getting anywhere close to the visibility and respect it deserves until recently. But it's something that I think about all the time, what gender-power means in sexual relationships. And how to talk about and understand gender-power in a time when most people are trying to dissolve ideas of gender-essentialism in the first place.


SILVIA: Say more.


SOPHIA: Because we've done so much to dismantle the gender binary, using the terms "man" and "woman" as though they mean something stable doesn't seem quite possible —and this disrupts even my private thought processes.

You can’t imagine what it meant to introduce into political discourse, completely dominated by the heavy macho-man, the politics of vagina versus the clitoris.

SILVIA: For us, analyzing sexuality in our relationships with men had to do with understanding how, for example, capitalism had distorted this relation. We realized that when you are in bed, there are all kinds of political things that are happening. And it was a very important source of knowledge about how capitalism captures your everyday life —not only maternity, but also in your relationships with men. So the bedroom also becomes the theater for understanding. So I'm asking if there is currently an equivalent to that kind of analysis. Or if straight people do not talk about that, are others talking about it?


SOPHIA: Again, I believe that conversation is now happening more in queer spaces, but I’ve also seen a version of that discussion figured in terms of racial/sexual power circulated quite a bit —much more frequently than I hear it framed around men and women. Again, for good reason. But I also think this is done in part because the general attitude with cis- and/or straight people is that you find yourself a partner who consents to do what you’re into, and then it’s “fun.” 

This, of course, is a bigger conversation for another time, but I find that approach really lacking. As you said, all kinds of political things are happening when you’re in bed. So I don’t think that sex is ever just “fun,” —no matter who’s involved. I think its significance is always more severe than that —and that’s for better or for worse.

Unfortunately we already have to wrap up. What do you believe that women in the world need or can do for each other presently?


SILVIA: Women certainly have to restructure this whole question of reproductive work, family, home relations, relations with children…Because I think, throughout history, they have paid the biggest price for this relation. I have been writing a lot about reproductive commons. I've been writing a lot about breaking down the walls, breaking down the forms of isolation in which we have reproduced our lives, and creating women's movements that construct [new] social relations, not only work against [existing ones]. 

In fact, one of the things that now worries me about the politics of Anti-Trump is that I don't believe that we are really going to have any long-term transformation unless our struggle also has a positive component —[energy that is] against, but also for. The process of struggle has to be a struggle of creating new forms of cooperation, in which people come together and begin to reclaim, in our hands, the way in which our life is organized. And re-ask all the most important questions! What is health? What is education? How do you want to reproduce? What kinds of communities do we want? What kinds of homes? What kinds of relations? What kinds of sexuality? And I think that has to be a collective process. 

So I tell women: come together. Because alone, you are defeated. So for me, the future really lies in broad, collective experience. To me, the feminist movement has to have an anti-capitalist dimension. But it has has many different throngs and levels. The movement in which you confront the state, but also the movement in which you build urban gardens.

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