How Capitalism Turned Women Into Witches

Sylvia Federici’s new book explains how violence against women was a necessary precondition for capitalism.

Sady Doyle January 31, 2019

Illustration by Johnny Miller

The Ital­ian social­ist fem­i­nist Sil­via Fed­eri­ci is manda­to­ry read­ing to under­stand gen­der pol­i­tics in 2019. The open­ing sen­tences of her 1975 pam­phlet Wages Against House­work” — They say it is love. We say it is unwaged work” — will stick in your head and change your whole con­cept of fam­i­ly. Cal­iban and the Witch, her titan­ic 1998 work on witch tri­als as a tool of ear­ly cap­i­tal­ism, will take your head apart and put it back together.

Federici traces how capitalism affects and infects the “private,” feminine sphere of unwaged domestic and reproductive work.

Fed­eri­ci is not just rel­e­vant but get­ting more so every sec­ond. Through­out her work, she traces how cap­i­tal­ism affects and infects the pri­vate,” fem­i­nine sphere of unwaged domes­tic and repro­duc­tive work; she exca­vates inti­ma­cy, uncov­er­ing all its tox­ic lay­ers of lead paint and asbestos, until its exploita­tive foun­da­tions are clear. Her work is essen­tial to decod­ing the present moment, as cap­i­tal­ism and patri­archy entwine to pro­duce increas­ing­ly grotesque off­spring: preda­to­ry adop­tion agen­cies coerc­ing women into giv­ing up their babies; the exor­bi­tant cost of child­care caus­ing sin­gle work­ing moth­ers to go bank­rupt; entire indus­tries where the oppor­tu­ni­ty to abuse women with impuni­ty is a perk for the pow­er­ful men up top. And, thank good­ness, we seem to know it; half the young left­ist women writ­ing today are riff­ing on Federici’s work.

Federici’s lat­est, Witch­es, Witch-Hunt­ing and Women, updates and expands the core the­sis of Cal­iban, in which she argued that witch hunts” were a way to alien­ate women from the means of repro­duc­tion. In the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism, Fed­eri­ci argues, there was an inter­ven­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary push toward com­mu­nal­ism. Com­mu­nal­ist groups often embraced free love” and sex­u­al egal­i­tar­i­an­ism — unmar­ried men and women lived togeth­er, and some com­munes were all-women — and even the Catholic church only pun­ished abor­tion with a few years’ penance.

For serfs, who tilled the land in exchange for a share of its crops, home was work, and vice ver­sa; men and women grew the pota­toes togeth­er. But in cap­i­tal­ism, waged labor­ers have to work out­side the home all the time, which means some­one else needs to be at home all the time, doing the domes­tic work. Gen­der roles, and the sub­ju­ga­tion of women, became new­ly necessary.

Ear­ly feu­dal elites in rur­al Europe enclosed pub­lic land, ren­der­ing it pri­vate and con­trol­lable, and patri­archy enclosed women in pri­vate” mar­riages, impos­ing on them the repro­duc­tive servi­tude of bear­ing men’s chil­dren and the emo­tion­al labor of car­ing for men’s every need. Preg­nan­cy and child­birth, once a nat­ur­al func­tion, became a job that women did for their male hus­band-boss­es — that is to say, child­birth became alien­at­ed labor. Witch­es,” accord­ing to witch-hunt­ing texts like the Malleus Malefi­carum, were women who kept child­birth and preg­nan­cy in female hands: mid­wives, abor­tion­ists, herbal­ists who pro­vid­ed con­tra­cep­tion. They were killed to cement patri­ar­chal pow­er and cre­ate the sub­ju­gat­ed, domes­tic labor class nec­es­sary for capitalism. 

The body has been for women in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety what the fac­to­ry has been for male waged work­ers,” Fed­eri­ci writes in Cal­iban, the pri­ma­ry ground of their exploita­tion and resistance.” 

The ele­gance of this argu­ment, the neat way it knots togeth­er pub­lic and pri­vate, is thrilling. There are moments when Fed­eri­ci makes sense like no one else. In this pas­sage, she explains how sex­u­al­i­ty — once demo­nized to pro­tect the cohe­sive­ness of the Church as a patri­ar­chal, mas­cu­line clan” — became sub­ju­gat­ed with­in cap­i­tal­ism: Once exor­cised, denied its sub­ver­sive poten­tial through the witch hunt, female sex­u­al­i­ty could be recu­per­at­ed in a mat­ri­mo­ni­al con­text and for pro­cre­ative ends. …In cap­i­tal­ism, sex can exist but only as a pro­duc­tive force at the ser­vice of pro­cre­ation and the regen­er­a­tion of the waged/​male work­er and as a means of social appease­ment and com­pen­sa­tion for the mis­ery of every­day existence.” 

In oth­er words: A man can fuck his wife to pro­duce a son and heir, and he can fuck a sex work­er to blow off steam, but it serves him well to keep the sex work­er crim­i­nal­ized and the wife depen­dent; both are work­ers, and he, as the boss, does not want them to start mak­ing demands. See: the Stormy Daniels-Don­ald Trump saga, or men’s pan­icked reac­tion to #MeToo when the women they’ve treat­ed as lux­u­ry goods start talk­ing back. 

The plea­sures of Witch­es occur in quick lit­tle bursts of illu­mi­na­tion. Fed­eri­ci dips in and out of her famous argu­ment, expand­ing it, updat­ing it and find­ing new angles on it. Some essays work bet­ter than oth­ers. Her explo­ration of gos­sip and its crim­i­nal­iza­tion is a stand-out; she traces a con­cise and damn­ing his­to­ry of how a term com­mon­ly indi­cat­ing a close female friend turned into one sig­ni­fy­ing idle, back­bit­ing talk,” and how that act of women speak­ing to each oth­er — often about men, and in a way those men might not like — became pun­ish­able by tor­ture and pub­lic humil­i­a­tion, as in the case of the scold’s bri­dle.” This tor­ture device, which was used until the ear­ly 1800s, was a mask with a bit (some­times lined with spikes) that kept a woman from mov­ing her tongue. Gos­sips, like witch­es, were crim­i­nal­ized for being women. Fed­eri­ci is always time­ly: Today’s whis­per net­works,” in which women share the iden­ti­ties of abusers and harassers to keep each oth­er safe, are gos­sip too. And, as accused rapist Stephen Elliott’s law­suit against Moira Done­gan and the Shit­ty Media Men list proves, plen­ty of men still want gos­sips hauled into court. 

In oth­er spots, I’m less con­vinced. Fed­eri­ci spends lots of time ana­lyz­ing con­tem­po­rary African witch-hunt­ing in the con­text of glob­al­ism. Though she is deeply invest­ed in African pol­i­tics, I wished she had spent more time explor­ing the dif­fer­ences between Medieval Europe and present-day Africa. 

The con­cept of witch,” or evil mag­ic user, varies by cul­ture. A Ghana­ian man, a Nava­jo woman and a white Evan­gel­i­cal preach­er in Louisiana will all define witch­craft” dif­fer­ent­ly. Fed­eri­ci often seems to be export­ing to Africa the Euro­pean medieval tem­plate — where­in witch­es are women who sup­pos­ed­ly gained their pow­ers by hav­ing sex with Satan and eat­ing babies, and whose threat was inher­ent­ly tied to deviant,” inde­pen­dent female sex­u­al­i­ty — to a cul­tur­al con­text that does not quite fit it. 

I don’t doubt Fed­eri­ci when she says that African witch-killings come from the same sources as medieval pan­ics: cap­i­tal­ism, an influx of fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tian­i­ty, the need to seize land by elim­i­nat­ing its own­ers. But the dif­fer­ences do mat­ter. In parts of Cen­tral and West Africa, the pro­to­typ­i­cal accused witch is not an old woman (as in Europe) but a child, often the child of a recent­ly divorced or wid­owed par­ent. There is some­thing vital to be said about how cap­i­tal­ism cru­el­ly elim­i­nates chil­dren who strain their community’s resources, and by treat­ing witch hunts” as one uni­fied cross-cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non, the chance is lost. 

These are quib­bles about a book that I sus­pect read­ers will love regard­less. The point of read­ing Fed­eri­ci is not to agree with her at all times — it’s to let her knock the dust and cob­webs out of your mind, to open up new roads of thought and spark new curiosi­ties. Open­ing this book at ran­dom will always bring you to a sen­tence that does that, as when Fed­eri­ci explains why witch­es are com­mon­ly old: Old­er women [can] no longer pro­vide chil­dren or sex­u­al ser­vices and, there­fore, appear to be a drain on the cre­ation of wealth”; or ties witch­es to oth­er his­tor­i­cal insur­rec­tions: the por­tray­al of women’s earth­ly chal­lenges to the pow­er struc­tures as a demon­ic con­spir­a­cy is a phe­nom­e­non that has played out over and over in his­to­ry down to our times” (Witch­es was pub­lished a few weeks before a Catholic exor­cist held a spe­cial mass to pro­tect accused sex­u­al preda­tor Brett Kavanaugh from … witch­es). Each sen­tence will also open doors into her oth­er work. This is not the Fed­eri­ci book to end with, but it may be the one to pick up when you’re ready to start.

Read a chap­ter, On the Mean­ing of Gos­sip,’” from Sil­via Fed­eri­ci’s book, Witch­es, Witch-Hunt­ing, and Women.

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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