Ba Jin: In past conversations that we’ve had about Marxist feminism, you’ve expressed that you generally find Silvia Federici more interesting or useful than Selma James. Could you say a little bit about why this is the case, or what you like / dislike about either?
Zora: I enjoy Silvia Federici’s application of Marxist feminist analysis to the European context of primitive accumulation within feudalism, and how capitalism was born out of the witch hunt. I find that particularly interesting, because it definitely challenged my thoughts on the origins of capitalism in a way I didn’t previously think about. You had to destroy the people who were the bearers of knowledge within communities, like women who had positions as midwives, and had knowledge of women giving birth, how to cure ailments, and all those kind of things. You see with Silvia Federici’s application of Marxist feminism that capitalism was born out of this witch hunt because it sought to institutionalize these things, and make them “masculine.”
And I feel like Selma James’ application of the Marxist feminist lens to the Americas, and the United States in particular, leaves a lot of women out of the story. Selma James gives a glimpse into a small percentage of women who are doing [unwaged] reproductive work, but I feel like she looks at other kinds of women as an afterthought. She doesn’t talk about women who are forced to go into the labor market. She’s only telling one story of the Americas, and that’s a very small privileged class of people that have benefited from capitalism.
Ba Jin: You’re referring to the figure of the unwaged housewife?
Zora: Yes, the unwaged housewife: she’s able to be unwaged within capitalism because she’s benefiting through some transaction she made, like marriage, and is receiving resources through that.
Ba Jin: It sounds like Federici is more useful because she’s more historical, like in Caliban and the Witch, addressing the origin of capitalism. Is it also because Federici talks about things like the global division of labor and migration, or about the back-and-forth between the early exploration and colonization, and the disciplining of women in Europe? For example, how women were driven into the home, and how some of the very technologies that were used to discipline people in the colonies were used on women in Europe. Do you value that kind of international connection?
Zora: Yes I think the historical aspect of Federici was more appealing to me personally, and I think she does a good job capturing a broader story of how primitive accumulation was born and continues to operate within capitalism. In Caliban and the Witch she talks about how the witch hunt techniques are still playing out in different parts of Africa today, where people have been practicing midwifery and other practical knowledges, and now this is being met with force. You see the pervasiveness of capitalism today and how it has a ripple effect, not just in one setting, but many different parts of the globe where capitalism has spread.
Ba Jin: And you find this more applicable and malleable than, say, the housewife figure? Like, “housewives” don’t exist in the same way in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, but some of the same gendering primitive accumulation processes occur.
Zora: Yes, right.
Ba Jin: So another question: there are many different kinds of Marxist feminist politics, but important to all of them is the concept of “reproduction.” Different currents use it in different ways, and sometimes different strategies will come out of it—for example, demanding wages for housework versus collectivizing reproduction. What does this concept of “reproduction” mean to you? And how is it useful in a U.S. context, and specifically a women of color feminist context?
Zora: The whole wages for housework thing seems alienating for me, because it’s not applicable to that many people in the U.S. There is a history here of women of color being pushed into waged domestic work, in which you weren’t paid that much, and your worker’s rights weren’t protected. So it has already been capitalized on. You pushed multiple groups of people, who were not white women, into this domestic work to take care of white women’s children. And the wages for housework thing makes me think, “Well is that your end goal? To be co-opted by capitalism, and to make your work legitimate under capitalism?” It seems like a weird coexistence with capitalism instead of addressing how capitalism is reaching all the way down into reproduction, and developing a strategy to combat that, beyond just demanding wages.
Ba Jin: And what’s your sense of the world “reproduction”? What does it mean?
Zora: The term reproduction, for me, means the way that capitalism can reproduce itself, outside of the “masculine” arena. Male wage labor is a different form, whereas female reproduction reaches all the way down to how women are reproducing more workers, and keeping workers going back into the factory, and how one cares for those workers. Federici makes a good point, reproduction isn’t just about sexual copulation and actually producing offspring; it could be about how those workers can get up and work again every day under capitalism. I think that’s what reproduction is.
Ba Jin: How could that concept be applied within women of color feminism or black feminism in the U.S?
Zora: I think the history is of black women being forced into reproductive work during the Atlantic slave trade, when you had to birth X amount of slaves, and were bred like stock. Black women in the slave trade were capitalized upon for their reproductive labor, from the birthing of more slaves, to the tending of fellow slaves, to the tending of the master’s children, to the tending of the master himself and everybody that upheld the institution of slavery on the plantation.
I feel that history is still continuing today, when you have women who do not have the privilege of being unwaged laborers, who have to work, but also tend to children—and it could be generations of children! It could be black grandmothers tending to their children’s children, while also working themselves and having to tend to themselves. It’s a kind of intergenerational reproductive labor that’s going on, which you have to learn as means of survival as a black woman. And it makes me think about how prisons are run today, how much of the black population is going to prisons, and it seems like the black community is reproducing more bodies for these prisons to be built. So there’s a constant turnover into this system. For black feminism, it helps us to see the propagation and tending of black bodies, which are then funneled into different institutions within the U.S. capitalist order.
Ba Jin: I’ve been thinking, if we accept [Loic] Wacquant’s thing about the U.S. state being gendered, with the prisons attacking largely men and the welfare state being a tool to get at women—
Zora: Yeah but it’s not as gendered anymore: it’s starting to be women that are targeted in prison, so that you’re robbing communities of reproductive learning skills. You have generations of mothers being put into prisons, while you have their children growing up in this dysfunctional capitalist setting where their lives are completely in flux, and they don’t have as many learned skills of how to reproduce themselves.
Ba Jin: I guess I’m trying to suggest that we could look at the welfare/workfare system, especially after Clinton’s reforms, as a way to target and control black women’s reproductive labor. Like with the regulations on what you have to do in order to get welfare money, or the WIC system’s limitations on the foods you have to buy, with the money going to specific corporations. It’s also a way to control the type of food that’s made in the home and whatnot. As the system pays people less than their ability to survive, it puts more pressure on the home to find a way to cut corners and keep people alive. It’s as if the welfare system is one way that you discipline black women, and get them to do that under increasingly difficult conditions.
Zora: To the larger question of how this is relevant to black feminism in the U.S, I think it’s that black women and black feminists need to strategize as to how their reproductive labor is being capitalized upon, whether it’s the reproduction of workers or students going back into institutions, or the calculated way that communities are being robbed of their reproductive power, and being funneled into the capitalist system to keep it running.
Ba Jin: One last question: there has been a huge range of debates within feminist struggles on the relation between white feminists and women of color feminists, both internationally and in the U.S. Some positions reject the word “feminist” because they feel it’s a “white woman’s thing,” while other positions say there are different kinds of feminism for different experiences. What are your thoughts on issues of race within the feminist movement? And also, what about issues of patriarchy within people of color movements or black movement, and what’s needed to address it?
Zora: I think feminism is a lens that you can use to look through, just like Marxism, which was developed by a white man. Feminism, at least the term, was developed by largely white movements, and it’s known for being a largely white-women-led movement. But I think that it can still be a lens to look through. I’m not sure I completely reject the term feminism, because I think that it’s a useful lens. But I think even the controversial history of white women excluding women of color shows how there is no such thing as universal sisterhood, just as conflicts between men within different Marxist offshoots show there’s no universal Marxism. So I don’t feel feminism needs to adhere to some kind of universal sisterhood at all, and I think that’s largely false, and is going to be unfounded.
With white women being largely seen as the leaders of feminism and feminist movements, I think it shows how historically they have been complicit with white patriarchy, and how they will still uphold patriarchy by saying “we can accept our femininity, but other people can’t partake in this experience, because it will compromise our femininity if we allow them into this movement.”
Ba Jin: Are you thinking there of, say, the suffragist movement, in which a certain notion of white womanhood was a sort of touchstone?
Zora: Yes, but I think it also exists today. It existed in the 1970s when women said “we want be equal to men,” which meant “we want to be equal to white men.” There was this kind of false universalist view: they weren’t speaking to all women, they were just speaking to white women that shared that same experience. And you see that today with marches like SlutWalk, which I don’t think directly speaks to a whole history of women of color, in which your body is already used against you, and historically women of color’s bodies have been compromised against their will. SlutWalk immediately means that you had some kind of protection of your femininity and your body and your will, and you’re seeking to regain it, because you’re not supposed to be compromised. But with so many women of color you have this history of violence already being natural.
Ba Jin: What is the importance or potential of women of color feminism, or black feminism, for movements in the U.S?
Zora: The significance of black-feminist-led movements is that the movements won’t build the same way that they did, when they were more black-male-led. You still have men leading movements, of course, but you also see a vacuum with men disappearing from communities, and you see women at the head of homes having more weight.
That doesn’t mean patriarchy is gone or misogyny isn’t there: I do think lots of people are afraid of black feminism, because it has been painted as this thing that breaks up homes, it’s “oh, black women are pledging allegiance to white women more than to the Black Man.” So people have capitalized on that, and it’s still effective today. You still have the language of misogyny going on, and I think that’s because of the absence of black feminism, and black women not knowing how to speak against that. Like wanting to say “I think there’s something going on, men are telling me that I should close my legs,” but not really having the language to verbalize it, even if you are in a room full of women and there are five men who are telling you about your experience.
Ba Jin: Well this has been a great interview, thanks so much!