Envisioning a centuries long oppressed power of the feminine
as our collective weapon for a better future
By: Margherita Massarenti
Edited by: Simren Sekhon
In 2016, the feminist critical theorist Nancy Fraser spoke of capitalism’s “crisis of care”.
She contended that, because of all the bad ways in which capitalism had treated care, our economic system was now coming to an irreducible contradiction with it, which would lead to a critical breaking point.
The COVID-19 pandemic has come to prove she was terribly right.
The lack of capacity and resources to deal with a global health emergency can actually be read as the material consequence of a longer, deeper pathway: one that has to do with society, politics and culture and that, particularly throughout Western history, has contributed to erode the role of care and social reproduction.
These come in many shapes: childbearing and rearing, domestic work, sexual and emotional labour, care for the elderly, care, both in general and for the Other i.e. the other than human: the natural world, the environment. As essential as they are, these tasks are normally taken for granted. So much that the world seems to have realised their importance only in March 2020.
Historically, these acts have been relegated to the private sphere, devalued, exploited and criminalised. You shouldn’t cry in public, you shouldn’t breastfeed in public, you are just being emotional, oh my god, he was crying like a girl. Remember the motto “sharing is caring”? We would unlikely say that this is a sentiment that dominates our world: because if sharing is caring, caring is girly, and being girly is lame, who would want to do it? Here lies the key to our devaluation problem: both concepts of Emotionality and Care have historically been feminised.
You may find it surprising to observe the extent to which women have internalised this narrative, in a way that splits them at the level of the self. Telling women that care is their defining 'duty', which at the same time puts them close to the bottom of the social pyramid, is a contradiction. This can become a source of identity chaos between what a woman is, may desire to be and is socially expected to be.
However, this isn’t only a tale of personal identity, growth and self-acceptance. The fact that femininity, together with its traditionally associated features, has been labelled as “the weaker sex”, speaks to what all this is actually about. It reveals that the point is indeed the opposite of weakness: Power.
From power to chaos: the policing of women’s bodies and emotions
From the witch hunts of Medieval Europe to the criminalisation of abortion or sex work, the history of health and care workers has seen a myriad of female figures being targeted by male authorities. These male authorities tended to fear the power behind a type of knowledge these women were versed in within their work - a knowledge that exceeded masculinised capacities of understanding. For its resistance to definition and control, the female sexed body became synonyms of chaos, difference, deviance, even devil.
The Second Wave feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray has written about how the policing of the female body has been an ever present element in the process of establishment of male-dominated hierarchical structures, both conceptual and political. The placement of femininity in a position of weakness exists within a geometrically set up male world. By emphasising bodily sexual differences (themselves socially constructed) and linking them to specific gender roles, the formal and informal policing of such roles guarantees the maintenance of a specific status quo: Patriarchy.
Irigaray traces the origins of Western patriarchy to Greek classical philosophy. This laid the foundations of Western thought, particularly on the concepts of rational discourse and truth. She claims that these concepts shape a male paradigm that follows a vertical and binary logic which values sameness over difference in order to rule over what is true and valuable and what isn’t. The female paradigm, in contrast, includes such differences and cares to acknowledge diversity.
This acted as the foundation to the cultural revolution of European Illuminism, which then sacralised the role of reason and science in its Western definition, limiting knowledge to men’s conceptualisation of the existent and the truth - a truth they believed they could control, just as they believed they could control female bodies, sexual identities, diversity, power, and nature. The same period saw the rise and celebration of some of the most arrogant colonialist and supremacist initiatives.
When Capitalism entered the picture, it found a good environment already set up by patriarchy, to develop its system of exploitation of productive and reproductive labour. There is validity to argue that, on one hand, capitalism contributed to enabling women to leave the house, at least for some time, to work and have a job. Except that this didn’t work as the equaliser it was (never) supposed to be. It didn’t bring an equal share of both domestic unpaid and paid labour. It instead doubled the burden on women’s shoulders or, if a high-income allowed it, had it outsourced to other women from lower classes: nannies or “cleaning ladies”.
In the last 40 years of Western democracy, the crisis of care then took the form of neoliberal and austerity policies, having the disastrous effects on welfare states, including health systems, that we now see so clearly in the pandemic.
The Politics of Care and Interdependence
In order to fix the damages of this legacy, it won’t be enough to reform policy. As Irigaray puts it, we will need to re-found ontology and epistemology along the lines of a politics of sexual difference: a revolution of core concepts and values, inclusive of the female paradigm.
Assuming that all women are in the same way caring, emotional beings, vowed to maternity and service, is quite an unrealistic claim. At the same time, we can still maintain that femininity is associated with emotionality. However it is not associated with it in a normative way. Rather, it favours the acknowledgment of themselves and others in their identity, diversity, and value. By doing so, it clears the way for the liberation from emotional and social oppression.
Bringing about values of fluidity, non-unity, and complexity , the feminine, in Rosi Braidotti’s view, is defined by the ability to “acknowledge and respect life without operating an oppressive reduction of all differences to the male sameness”.
With this idea in mind, four scholars from the Care Collective wrote The Care Manifesto: a call for a politics of interdependence that, against corporate attempts of care-washing and neoliberal capitalism in general, radically recenter our system around the notion of essential work, essential economy, essential care. Fostering a different conception of economy and work "as if people mattered", they propose a vision of the social subject as a caring interdependent individual, against the self-sufficient entrepreneurial individual of capitalist culture. They also introduce the concept of “promiscuous care", reappropriating the term used to negatively label a woman that gives herself easily and with abundance. In this way, they affirm abundance of care against abundance of property.
For economy and society, this translates into a disentanglement from capitalist sexist structures, that expands the traditional understanding of kinship to a new communal model of social life. This new context is oriented to the sharing of burdens and resources, together with the fulfilment of the diversity of existing needs. In practical terms, this could mean "teaching boys caring responsibilities and emotional literacy” as much as shortening the working week - with consequences that positively affect family and overall social conceptions of work.
The politics of interdependence needs to work towards breaking the public-private separation: it can do so by reclaiming spaces for public life, making room for schools, parks and libraries. Within the economic system, it proposes to “reorganise work through co-operatives, localism and nationalisation”. These possibilities act to move the focus from productivity to respect of personal, social, environmental boundaries and needs. At the level of the individual, acknowledging vulnerability, anxiety, valuing mental health and emotionality by freeing it from the negatively feminised connotation.
Ultimately, enhancing a politics of interdependence means tracing back the negatively feminised notions of care. Instead, we need to understand them as a source of power, channeling such towards the construction of the future.