Learning to Struggle: My Story Between Workerism and Feminism

The author standing in front of Potere Operaio graffiti, June 1972.
The author stand­ing in front of Potere Operaio graf­fi­ti, June 1972.

When I encoun­tered work­erism, I was 19 years old. I was a grass­roots mil­i­tant of the stu­dents’ move­ment from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pad­ua. I was young, and thus I was silent and I learned. I remem­ber that in many meet­ings I want­ed to say things, but I was shy and inse­cure and there­fore I pre­ferred to keep qui­et. The lead­ers of the move­ment were gen­er­al­ly stu­dents who had already learned to do pol­i­tics because they had some pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence of par­ty or polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions. In con­trast, I had only my beliefs about the need to change the world for the tri­umph of equal­i­ty, free­dom, and jus­tice.

My only pre­vi­ous polit­i­cal expe­ri­ence was my par­tic­i­pa­tion in strikes against the French nuclear tests in the Pacif­ic, when I was 14. I was then attend­ing the gym­na­si­um [junior high school] “Tito Liv­io” in Pad­ua, where there were very few stu­dents on strike. At a cer­tain point the prin­ci­pal arrived, and when he saw me, he tried to take me by the ear, say­ing, “Come inside.” I tore away from him, and I told him that he couldn’t address me like that. The stu­dents who went on strike were all pun­ished by being held back in their aca­d­e­m­ic progress because of their par­tic­i­pa­tion.

The sec­ond great expe­ri­ence that I had which pre­pared me for a life of polit­i­cal engage­ment was that of declar­ing myself to be an athe­ist when I was 16.  I was liv­ing with my par­ents in Dolo, a small town between Pad­ua and Venice, and my fam­i­ly was very reli­gious (Catholic). But I was see­ing so much pover­ty and injus­tice around me, against which the offi­cial Church was doing very lit­tle. My stance, which was against the role of the church hier­ar­chy, was a shock to my par­ents, but they endured it.

Final­ly, when I was 18 years old, I decid­ed to leave home in order to sup­port myself while I stud­ied at the uni­ver­si­ty, although my par­ents were afflu­ent and could pay for my stud­ies. I want­ed to be in con­trol of my life and live with­out social priv­i­leges. I did a lot of jobs, from being a shop assis­tant in a library to being a trade rep­re­sen­ta­tive deal­ing with works of art, and being a librar­i­an at the uni­ver­si­ty. This time my par­ents wept very much: from their view­point, their only daugh­ter (I had three broth­ers) was the most rebel­lious and looked at life in a way that they felt would result in hard­ship.

When I entered Pad­ua Uni­ver­si­ty, in the Fac­ul­ty of Human­i­ties, the stu­dent move­ment was begin­ning. It was a great and huge move­ment that want­ed to rein­vent our way of life and the orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety, start­ing from changes at the uni­ver­si­ty. I could not help but join it with great enthu­si­asm. As stu­dents, how­ev­er, we were iso­lat­ed from oth­er peo­ple, espe­cial­ly from the work­ers, who at that time were engaged in their own strug­gles.

For this rea­son I took part in the strug­gles of com­muters, and of work­ers in the depart­ment stores. Com­muters want­ed to have their com­mute time rec­og­nized by enter­pris­es as part of their work time, and not as their per­son­al prob­lem. Fur­ther­more, com­muters’ trains were the worst of all the state rail­ways: dirty and peren­ni­al­ly late, and with­out any respect for the commuters—for exam­ple, if there was a delay, no one informed peo­ple why, or when the train would arrive. The work­ers in the depart­ment stores want­ed a high­er wage and also bet­ter con­di­tions of work, includ­ing short­er hours. It was my par­tic­i­pa­tion in these strug­gles that forced me to bet­ter under­stand the role of work­ers in cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, and to think about how to under­stand those roles.

I decid­ed to attend a sem­i­nar that Fer­ruc­cio Gam­bi­no was hold­ing in the Fac­ul­ty of Polit­i­cal Sci­ences, in which they dis­cussed Das Kap­i­tal by Karl Marx. I began to under­stand the mean­ing of many con­cepts and cat­e­gories that were used in the move­ment, but which had for me at that time a vague mean­ing. The most impor­tant things I learned in Ferruccio’s class on Marx were the basic con­cepts of class, cap­i­tal, work­ing class, labor, pro­duc­tive and unpro­duc­tive labor, sur­plus val­ue, and so on, but reshaped in a way that could effec­tive­ly cap­ture all the changes pro­duced by cap­i­tal in the his­to­ry of soci­ety after Marx, and espe­cial­ly in the soci­ety in which we lived. The con­se­quent read­ing of soci­ety pro­posed by Fer­ruc­cio was very dif­fer­ent from the vision of ortho­dox Marx­ism that the Com­mu­nist Par­ty was elab­o­rat­ing and propos­ing.

I soon real­ized that in this con­text there was a great polit­i­cal intel­li­gence to be found in engag­ing with the present, but also in under­stand­ing the past, and that the group Potere Operaio (Work­ers’ Pow­er) and its dis­course pro­vid­ed a for­mi­da­ble tool­box for all mil­i­tants in their polit­i­cal strug­gles. And above all, this group was com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing an orga­ni­za­tion­al plat­form where stu­dents, in addi­tion to work­ers, could find space to unite. At that time, the big prob­lem was that of break­ing down the social bar­ri­ers that strong­ly sep­a­rat­ed the stu­dents from the work­ers in the fac­to­ries and the oth­er work­ers.

How­ev­er, this reex­am­ined Marx, although pow­er­ful in com­par­i­son to the ortho­dox ver­sion, con­tin­ued to remain blind towards the real­i­ty lived by women. So Potere Operaio’s dis­course was very advanced in con­sid­er­ing the new fac­to­ries, the new work­ers’ role in the con­tem­po­rary cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem, but it was very poor in con­sid­er­ing house­work, affects, emo­tions, sex­u­al­i­ty, edu­ca­tion, fam­i­ly, inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, socia­bil­i­ty, and so on.

The author speaking at a demonstration in Piazza Ferretto, Mestre, March 1974.
The author speak­ing at a demon­stra­tion in Piaz­za Fer­ret­to, Mestre, March 1974.

I do not like to talk about the lim­its of Potere Operaio; as fem­i­nists we crit­i­cized and con­test­ed them sev­er­al times for their lack of aware­ness of the social con­di­tion and roles of women. How­ev­er, I think that the mil­i­tants of that move­ment did all that was pos­si­ble to increase the pool of activists and attract oth­er class sec­tions, from fac­to­ry work­ers to employ­ees, from high school stu­dents to teach­ers in mid­dle and high schools, and so on. They also made enor­mous progress in expand­ing polit­i­cal dis­course out­side of Marx­ist ortho­doxy. They made the Marx­i­an lega­cy some­thing dynam­ic and use­ful for ana­lyz­ing and under­stand­ing soci­ety in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, as they taught to all grass­roots activists, includ­ing me, the abil­i­ty to use Marx with­out def­er­ence. My par­tic­i­pa­tion in Potere Operaio was lim­it­ed, though, because I began to par­tic­i­pate in the emerg­ing group Lot­ta Fem­min­ista (Fem­i­nist Strug­gle).

I began to par­tic­i­pate in Lot­ta Fem­min­ista when I was 22.  In the mean­time, I had grown up, learned a lot, had over­come my shy­ness for speak­ing in pub­lic, and knew that it was time to give a polit­i­cal mean­ing even to my per­son­al choic­es. The per­son­al strug­gles that many women had engaged in, for their own sake and in order to change soci­ety, were in need of a sound­ing board and a unit­ing force that would increase their pow­er. This force was the dis­cov­ery of class con­scious­ness on the part of women, which would serve as the engine of polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion for their social strug­gles. Lot­ta Fem­min­ista brought the work­erist expe­ri­ence to the fem­i­nist move­ment.

On the basis of these polit­i­cal expe­ri­ences, I decid­ed to ded­i­cate my main effort to ana­lyz­ing women’s con­di­tions of life from the per­spec­tive of polit­i­cal econ­o­my, recon­sid­ered in Marx­i­an terms. Of course, I had to bend the Marx­i­an cat­e­gories in light of the fem­i­nist expe­ri­ence and polit­i­cal tra­di­tion. I was pushed to write The Arcane of Repro­duc­tion by the prac­ti­cal needs of the fem­i­nist strug­gle. In this effort, I had major sup­port from Mari­arosa Dal­la Cos­ta and San­dro Ser­afi­ni (of Potere Operaio), who reviewed the book chap­ter by chap­ter.

This book, in fact, dis­cuss­es the main polit­i­cal issues debat­ed at that time with­in the entire polit­i­cal move­ment. We had to man­age the pub­lic, polit­i­cal debate with­in our groups, with­in the fem­i­nist move­ment and the wider move­ment, made up of stu­dents and polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions like Potere Operaio and Lot­ta Con­tin­ua (Con­tin­u­ous Strug­gle). We need­ed to clar­i­fy and explain, first of all to our­selves, and then to the entire move­ment, why mil­i­tants need­ed to go beyond the Marx­i­an cat­e­gories and in which sense. For exam­ple, in which terms could women be con­sid­ered work­ing class? Which women?

Lot­ta Fem­min­ista had always been a minor­i­ty ten­den­cy with­in the broad­er fem­i­nist move­ment, because women in the fem­i­nist move­ment were at first right­ly wary of any polit­i­cal the­o­ry devel­oped in mas­cu­line polit­i­cal tra­di­tions. The irony is that the broad­er fem­i­nist move­ment would have become much stronger and more robust if it had tak­en up our polit­i­cal pro­pos­al of “wages for house­work” (i.e., “domes­tic labor,” includ­ing par­ent­ing, care­tak­ing, etc.), rather than assum­ing, with­out know­ing it, the Lenin­ist strat­e­gy of fight­ing for work out­side of house­work as the means of assur­ing a wage for women. But it was very dif­fi­cult for the Com­mit­tees for Wages for House­work to find con­sen­sus on their pro­pos­al, because fem­i­nist women in gen­er­al thought it was bet­ter to reject domes­tic labor in toto and leave their homes.

In this peri­od, we work­erist fem­i­nists were not able to con­vince the whole fem­i­nist move­ment that the refusal of work must be man­aged with­in a process of wage bar­gain­ing, or oth­er­wise domes­tic work would return in anoth­er man­ner along­side work out­side the home, which we were also strug­gling over. In oth­er words, the fem­i­nist move­ment nev­er includ­ed, in its gen­er­al polit­i­cal pro­gram, our objec­tive of first obtain­ing social recog­ni­tion for the val­ue of house­work by claim­ing mon­ey for it. The strat­e­gy that fem­i­nists applied to house­work was sim­ply to invite women to refuse it.  But after a while it became clear that this strat­e­gy was inef­fi­cient, because it was not able to make house­work dis­ap­pear on a mass scale.

A May Day demonstration in Naples. From left: Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Leopoldina Fortunati.
A May Day demon­stra­tion in Naples. From left: Mari­arosa Dal­la Cos­ta, Leopold­ina For­tu­nati.

The fem­i­nist move­ment had the great mer­it of giv­ing women an over­all bar­gain­ing pow­er at the social lev­el. How­ev­er, as we had antic­i­pat­ed, the prob­lem of “house­work” or domes­tic labor did not dis­ap­pear from the polit­i­cal agen­da of women. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, a reflec­tion on the fail­ure of this strat­e­gy has not yet been made. New gen­er­a­tions of women need to learn from this polit­i­cal error and under­stand that house­work, in its mate­r­i­al and imma­te­r­i­al aspects, must be social­ly rec­og­nized as pro­duc­tive labor.

Author of the article

is Professor of Sociology of Communication and Sociology of Cultural Processes at the Faculty of Education of the University of Udine, Italy.