This polarized opposition between housework and prostitution—the division Ambedkar reinforced—is still underexplored in Marxist feminist thinking on reproduction. Prabha Kotiswaran argues that the debates on domestic work in the 1970s “lacked a theory of sex” — they established prostitution as part of gendered circuits of reproduction, but had little to say on its relationship to (or difference from) housework. Prostitution, at best, was vaguely folded into other forms of housework—all marriages were also relationships of prostitution, or else prostitution filled the sexual deficits within marriage — but not analyzed as a form of labor with analytically distinct features.
In the last decade, especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the urban centers of the Midwest such as Chicago and Detroit, but also in the Northeast, such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, have developed a new dynamic: the use of the state (in the form of local or regional governments) to transfer infrastructural resources and their control out of or away from marginalized urban populations, which are predominantly black, brown, and immigrant.
While the idea of social reproduction is most often associated with Marxist feminist literature from the 1970s, considerable work was done around that concept in a wide range of rather disparate bodies of work throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to Marxist feminism, social reproduction became a main focus for Italian autonomists, anti-Stalinist socialist humanists in post-Stalinist Eastern Europe, “anti-humanist” critics of orthodox Marxism such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, in studies on slavery, race, and urban development, and by postcolonial and Third-World feminists.
Even some feminist discourses have fallen into this contradiction and reproduced the work ethic and family values discourse, neglecting the fact that both domestic and waged work dominate our life and that both must be fought. However, although it is more or less clear what is meant by the refusal of wage labor, what it means to refuse housework is considerably more difficult to understand. Would it mean abandoning people and our obligations to care? I believe it is rather a question of understanding how to reorganize care and to redistribute it in a way that does not completely occupy our lives.
In the 1970s, a powerful movement for domestic workers’ rights emerged on the national political stage. Through their organizing, African American household workers argued for the inclusion of housework and social reproduction in the larger politics of wage labor and made a case for the centrality of this occupation to capitalism.
The ideological split between home and work in the industrialized West has obscured the ways that each realm shapes the other. It also shaped social policy toward “women in developing countries.” Contemporary political debate maintains an opposition between “mother” and “worker” as well as “work” and “care.” This division reflects a pervasive intellectual and political impasse pervading the organization of knowledge – our scholarship – as well as legal rules, government regulations, and union organizing.
The labor of a woman, who cooks for her husband, who is making tires in the Firestone plant in Southgate, California, is essentially as much a part of the production of automobile tires as the cooks and waitresses in the cafes where Firestone workers eat. And all the wives of all the Firestone workers, by the necessary social labor they perform in the home, have a part in the production of Firestone Tires, and their labor is as inseparably knit into those tires as is the labor of their husbands.
I was part of the “paper bag brigade,” waiting patiently in front of Woolworth’s on 170th St., between Jerome and Walton Aves., for someone to “buy” me for an hour or two, or, if I were lucky, for a day. That is the Bronx Slave Market, where Negro women wait, in rain or shine, in bitter cold or under broiling sun, to be hired by local housewives looking for bargains in human labor.
That the state is the boss of women and the controller-guarantor of the reproduction of labor-power can be seen directly in the fact that: a) it is the state that controls the family, the birth rate, immigration, emigration etc. through the promulgation of pertinent laws; b) it is always the state that intervenes to stand in for women every time the refusal of housework deepens. Indeed, the struggle of women against housework is the fundamental factor behind certain transformations in the state.
Today, amidst a changed political and class landscape, strategy should take precedence over fidelity to the received canon. The activities of social reproduction remain the field of powerful class antagonisms.