Gender Shapes Class struggles: An analysis of "Caliban and the Witch"

by Mars

When analyzing the history of class struggles, people tend to focus on the exploitation of productive labor as the primary source of oppression. Silvia Federici advances this common analysis by explaining ways that the state enforced, exploited, and devalued reproductive labor in her book Caliban and the Witch. She claims that sexual divisions are a genre of class struggle, writing: “If it is true that in a capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations” (p. 14).  In this essay, I will analyze how she develops the understanding of class struggle and gendered oppression using examples from the history of land enclosures, witch hunts, and the criminalization of non-procreative sexual acts.

             Divisions between groups can seem natural when reinforced by policy and law that discourages certain activities. For example, when policies require women to perform reproductive labor and men to perform productive labor (as if they’re rigidly distinct), the gender binary of “men” and “women” can become deeply ingrained. It is harder to question the nature of these gender categories, because they are being naturalized. It is not always the policies themselves, but sometimes the conditions created by policies which cause deeper division. Federici explains, for example, how the transition out of a subsistence economy separated production from reproduction, and put greater value on production, which was expected of men alone. She details how the privatization of land limited women and made them more dependent on men, writing, “Women were also more negatively impacted by the enclosures because as soon as land was privatized and monetary relations began to dominate economic life, they found it more difficult than men to support themselves, being increasingly confined to reproductive labor at the very time when this work was being completely devalued” (p. 74). The land enclosures to which she refers are the physical manifestations of land becoming privatized and labor becoming commodified. Federici confirms that women were affected by the land enclosures by providing examples of revolt including or led by women. She reports, “During the reign of James I, about ten percent of enclosure riots included women among the rebels. Some were all female protests” (p. 73). Where people once shared land and worked on it together, there were now limits of who could work on what land. These physical enclosures, plus the policies and policing that followed to protect private land, bound women to reproductive labor.

            To further separate men and women in society and workforce, a massive number of witches were hunted, justified by the state as an execution of witchcraft, which it treated as similar to heresy but “considered a female crime” (p. 179). Federici admits there is insufficient documentation of witch hunts to have truly accurate statistics of how many were hunted, but that at least “hundreds of thousands of women were burned, hanged, and tortured in less than two centuries” (pg 164). She has compiled information to analyze the witch hunts as one significant factor in the disempowerment of women on the way to capitalism. She writes, “The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of reproduction” (p. 165). The witch hunts in Europe were a way to make women criminal, particularly women who did not act in ways the state-and-church-economy required in order to usher in capitalism, or who were accused of acting otherwise.

            The punishment of certain acts is an example of legislation enacted to “regulate family life, gender and property relations.” Federici expands on that legislation: “Across western Europe, as the witch-hunt was progressing, laws were passed that punished the adulteress with death... At the same time prostitution was outlawed and so was birth out of wedlock, while infanticide was made a capital crime” (p. 186). So while some women were accused of being witches and punished on a basis of having cursed or poisoned others, the accusations were also oftentimes connected to a refusal to participate in the patriarchal family structure demanded by the transition to capitalism.  As Federici details, “the witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman—the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside of the bonds of marriage and procreation. Thus, in the witchcraft trials, ‘ill repute’ was evidence of guilt” (p. 184). This is one way Federici demonstrates that the state disempowered women: regulating sexuality by criminalizing sex outside of state-sanctioned relationships.

             Another way the state criminalized non-procreative sexual acts was a method still familiar today: limiting access to birth control. Federici refers to information about herbal contraceptives documented in John Riddle’s Eve’s Herbs: A History of Contraception in the West. “The criminalization of contraception,” Federici maintains, “expropriated women from this knowledge that had been transmitted from generation to generation, giving them some autonomy with respect to child-birth…Here I only want to stress that by denying women control over their bodies, the state deprived them of the most fundamental condition for physical and psychological integrity and degraded maternity to the status of forced labor, in addition to confining women to reproductive work in a way unknown in previous societies” (p. 92). So the state makes a sort of prison out of a person’s own body; one cannot fulfill many potential sexual desires with their own body, because they’re aware consequences exist for such autonomous acts. This body-prison is a tool for the state not only to control reproduction, but also to reinforce the sexual and labor divisions of women and men.

                We must remain aware and alert of women’s experiences when we analyze the proletarian workers’ history and organize to resist the demands of capitalism. Reproductive labor was forced upon people considered women, and it was devalued. Access to money, land, and selling of one’s own labor became the means of survival, none of which were accessible for women. They were forced to direct their labor toward reproducing the masses, but a division was solidified that created sexual differentiation between types of labor. Let us not forget the ways the state has forced women into positions of inferiority, and the ways non-procreative sexuality was criminalized and remains demonized and taboo today. It is necessary that we recognize this history and continuity as it results in both state-controlled reproduction, as well as general oppression of women within the gender binary.

IDOC Watch