Federici teaches how women's occupations have been ploughed under capitalism.
Silvia Federici, a feminist activist and political theorist, dedicated her life in educating different societies about feminism in our modern and past world. Her book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation delves into feminism and the politicising of women in Europe's 15th century, specially focusing on women in the world of work. It has inspired this piece on discussing how bodies have been exploited, due to capitalism, throughout centuries. It aims to explore women occupations that were dismissed, the policing of sexuality, the decriminalisation of rape as well as the controlling of childbirth. In countless countries and societies around the world, we have seen how women and their relationship to the world of work have been controlled by the state through our misogynistic patriarchy. As well as capitalism’s role in dividing social groups (whether that be racial or gendered) has largely expelled women in the world of work, where the patriarchy has been able to exploit and police women through their bodies, and control their means of income.
Reverting to the 15th century in England, women had gained access to several occupations such as smiths, butchers, bakers, and makers that would in time be deemed as male jobs. But due to the misogynistic patriarchy, women in all classes were denied a means to support themselves through a system that prioritises patriarchy and the superiority of men. Trying to return to our world post covid has been more than a challenge due to the increased cost of living. Those who are marginalised have been threatened by the thought of living in poverty and unable to support themselves and their family, in the same way as a few years ago. We have been forced to create new tactics, and unique ways of earning secondary and even third sources of income to maintain life. History is repeating itself as women were ruined by high prices of living, and land privatisation, where landlords had the power to not only choose who lived on their land, but who they employed. Undoubtedly it is not surprising that women were confined to a few roles in society, where despite their status or class, decided on prostitution to avoid codependency.
Prostitution in England during the Middle Ages had been widely accepted as women “benefited” from this favoured way of income that men specifically invested into. Yet, it's banning in the 16th century was only established when the control and demand for the occupation grew. The state making prostitution illegal, was a clear attack against women exercising their right over their bodies. Prostitution in some ways had replaced the function of a wife, yet its criminalisation only managed to punish the woman in these roles, and simultaneously removed any responsibility from their male customers, strengthening male power as well as misogynistic patriarchy. There is a clear transition from prostitution being a regarded job to an occupation of shame where the state denied them the right to own their bodies, politicising sex and forcing female body into a state of inferiority. This forced subordination and removal of the legality of prostitution was a consequence of women having too much access to members of the state where they had authority over the one thing men exploited them for. If we connect land privatisation pushing women out of the organised workforce, to the inability of prostitution we can conclude that women were excluded from roles that gave them independence and dominance over their bodies and work. But as we can see today, the politicising of sex and the body is widely used in pop culture. Our body and sex is no longer a private matter but can be seen as accessed anywhere, in videos, and websites such as OnlyFans where individuals are still able to make money off their bodies without criminalisation.
Within these multiple expulsions, it is not surprising that midwifery and domesticity was regarded as women's work. Whilst the Middle Ages brought a new era of control for women over their bodies, including that of childbirth, the role of the midwife in Europe transformed into one that only the state benefited from. Surveillance of spies in Scotland and England in the 17th century, was created within the roles of midwifery where the state perverted their power simultaneously forcing midwives to record the success of each childbirth to its power. In France, in 1556 required all women and midwives to register each pregnancy, and convicted women whose infants died after childbirth, and it is a clear example of how the French government had taken advantage of this role. When we look at the core root of this degradation in our social space we can trace it back to Europe’s 17th-century witch-hunt trials. The witch-hunt in Europe was fundamentally an attack on women resisting the incoming capitalist structures that we live in today. Their sexuality, the ability to control reproduction, and heal were all considered illegal. What used to be highly regarded transitioned into a weapon of complete control. Witches embodied community aid and knowledge, and were traditionally considered wise women. However, due to capitalism and relegation their role as a necessity to the community was diminished entirely.
Similarly, with the prosecution of prostitution, the state condemned sexuality within witch-craft, forcing them to conform to a new way of capitalistic life that imposes subordination and division within our social structures. Both occupations depict that what was once considered positive roles in society died with the capitalistic narrative that they would be a threat to the new orders. Division is still prominent in the workforce as patriarchal structures deem us subordinate. Imposing divisions within our social order and working life, capitalism has managed to discipline all aspects of our lives, including how much one can earn. The gap in earnings between men and women has remained over the years and progress remains slow, as women are expected to still earn about 13 percent less than men on average with countries in the European Union. The power difference between men and women in the workforce and the subordination of women's work has enabled capitalism to expand its regulations and deem men superior to their female counterparts. This is why there are only three countries in the world likely to have a woman boss instead of a man, Jamaica, St Lucia, and Columbia. We have seen time and again how women and their place in the workforce become sexualised and controlled as the logics of capitalism has created an embodiment of oppression, alienation and exploitation for women, diminishing their rights and role in independence. Society needs to get to a point where it is able to face the damages of capitalism and attempt to reinforce gender equality, especially within spaces of work.
Words by Serena Richards
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