In her landmark Caliban and the Witch, Marxist scholar Silvia Federici argues that witch hunts were an organized campaign of mass murder of women–particularly low-class women, midwives, or “wise women”–who defied the increasing implementation of a patriarchal, authoritarian order under a rapidly developing capitalist state. Those familiar with it will perhaps not encounter anything too earth-shattering in her new essay collection, Witches, Witch Hunting and Women, but is an extremely timely and useful distillation of her most important texts, with great significance for working-class feminist movements today.
During the late Middle Ages, the development of market-oriented agriculture required a continually replenished, easily exploitable labor pool (a need compounded by the depopulation caused by the Black Death). In England, this took the form of land enclosures, which consolidated small farms and public land (the commons) into property of the rentier, who had sole rights to its produce. Thus, it was necessary that the vast majority of the population be dependent on a wage for survival; and similarly, it was necessary that a woman be dependent on her husband to perform the unwaged labor of social reproduction within the home.
The ensuing poverty and precarity was dealt in double measure upon women, who were increasingly excluded from the guilds and most professions, their ability to survive independently of men being severely curtailed by the privatization of the commons (In Caliban, Federici terms this the “patriarchy of the wage.”). This, along with rising prices of food and other necessities, led to the appearance of a largely female underclass. Older women who were either unmarried or widowed, without children willing or able to support them, bore the brunt of this deprivation. In turn, begging, itinerancy, and vagrancy were criminalized, giving rise to a forerunner of the modern prison, the poorhouse or debtor’s prison. The figure of the Witch, and the barbarity of the witch-hunts, emerged as a way to police women and their potentially subversive activities, from the refusal to pay rents and taxes, to exercising reproductive control, to simple theft. The Witches’ Sabbath, figuring prominently in art and literature from the period, held a particular horror. As Federici argues in Caliban: “Class revolt, together with sexual transgression, was a central element in the descriptions of the Sabbat, which was portrayed both as a monstrous sexual orgy and as a subversive political gathering...with the devil instructing the witches to rebel against their masters (177).”
Womanhood was essentialized as a capricious, demonic, destructive force visited upon society by Eve, and by women, her descendants; and it was incumbent on men to restrain it and channel it towards childbirth, child-rearing, and social reproduction generally. This involved a number of ideological, political, and religious interventions.
Federici richly describes a number of these interventions—taken together, they form the basis of “patriarchy” as we understand it today. In her essay “On the Meaning of Gossip,” Federci traces the history of the highly gendered concept of “gossip”, arguing that originally, the word was a neutral-leaning-positive term for a woman’s female companions: “In early modern England the word gossip referred to companions in childbirth not limited to the midwife. It also became a term for women friends, with no necessary derogatory connotations.”This was reflected in the ways women conducted their daily lives":
“...neither in rural nor urban areas were women dependent on men for their survival; they had their own activities and shared much of their lives and work with other women. Women cooperated with each other in every aspect of their life. They sewed, washed their clothes, and gave birth surrounded by other women, with men rigorously excluded. Their legal status reflected this greater autonomy.”
However, with the transition to capitalism, gossip—or solidarity among women—came under fire. From a benignly positive term denoting a woman’s female friends, gossip took on the meaning we know today—idle, wicked, bitchy women frittering away the hours in idle, wicked, bitchy talk. Women were discouraged from having female friends, for fear that this would undermine the husband’s authority in the family; and obedience to the husband was paramount. Indeed, this era saw the development of a number of peculiar and brutal punishments for women who disobeyed their husbands, most notably the infamous “scold’s bridle”—also called the “gossip’s bridle”, signifying the shift in the term’s connotations—a contraption made of metal and leather which enclosed a quarrelsome woman’s head and placed in her mouth a spiked bridle, which would tear her tongue if she attempted to speak or move her head.
These cruelties were most widely inflicted upon women who were perceived as defying the social order, but were in reality those were made most precarious by it—poor women, prostitutes, women who participated in riots against the enclosures. Such women were most often accused of witchcraft. Federici describes an instrument called the “cucking” or “ducking” stool, a sort of chair to which these wayward women were tied and repeatedly dunked underwater. This was one of the least brutal measures by far, women charged with witchcraft were often imprisoned, tortured, raped, and hung or beheaded or drowned.Subservience to the patriarchal order went hand in hand with subservience to the new capitalist state, and a transgression against one was tantamount to a transgression against to the other.
Neoliberalism, the New Enclosures
This history has a particular significance for today’s political and social climate, where an unprecedented public show of solidarity among women in the form of #MeToo has coincided with a wave of strikes and labor organizing, the likes of which have been since the 1970s. Led mostly by women in occupations rife with low-wages, exploitation, and sexual harassment–agricultural workers, hospitality workers, teachers, nurses, service workers–these strikes underlined the necessity of joint feminist and anti-capitalist action.
The neoliberal project of the Reagan years displays marked parallels with the early capitalist period of European history that concerns Federici. Along with the dismantling of the social safety net, government-funded infrastructure, and labor’s organizing power, came a fierce backlash against feminism and the rights won by feminist and anti-racist movements. Through a masterpiece of social engineering, the concerns of “ordinary Americans” (read: white, middle-class, Christian, Americans) were repackaged as a return to Christianity and “family values,” to serve as ideological underpinnings for this prosperous new era. The attacks against hard-earned reproductive rights, and against women working outside the home or having financial independence generally, espoused by movements such as the Moral Majority, served to create a precarious, easily exploitable workforce. Sexual harassment was simply the price women would have to pay to work or attend university. The rise of mass incarceration under the War on Drugs, along with the funneling of crack cocaine into impoverished Black and Latino neighborhoods, meant that these austerity measures were suffered manifold by these populations, particularly Black women and Latinas, all the while the rhetoric of “welfare queens”, “bootstraps”, and “model minorities,” served to justify this persecution.
Women’s solidarity is worker solidarity
Taken together, these measures—austerity, a reactionary ideological backlash against feminism and racial equality, criminalization of poverty, and the crippling of labor power—served to create an easily exploited, feminised, racialised underclass on unprecedented scale. As during the time of Federici’s demonstration, the quest for profit and global hegemony (both periods saw imperialist campaigns of plunder and conquest, though with more sophisticated realpolitik during the latter) led to the modern-day war on women, particularly marginalized women. The resurgence of reactionary attitudes served as the ideological underpinnings of this new “erasure of the commons,” resulting in the further deprivation and persecution of impoverished women.
In 2017, the infamous “Shitty Media Men” list was made public, and women around the world publically shared stories of harassment and assault by supervisors, mentors, agents, bosses, managers, professors- men in positions of power. Lacking a visible, formal platform for rectifying these grievances, in a world where victims of sexual violence often face closer scrutiny than the perpetrators, women took to an underground whisper network to protect themselves. #MeToo sparked a transformative discussion about the dynamics of sexuality in a patriarchal society, where women are often dependent on men for their livelihood. Initially, the most visible examples were the cases of high-profile entertainment figures, like film producer Harvey Weinstein, comedian Louis C.K, talk show host Charlie Rose, and editor Lorin Stein, all of whom were accused of serial sexual abuse. The relatively privileged position of the complainants, along with the informal, unadjudicated ways in which they were made public, led to criticism that #MeToo is primarily about wealthy women airing their minor grievances, ruining men’s lives for no other reason than petty female capriciousness, attention-seeking or greed. Ironically, the movement has been compared to a witch-hunt, completely ignoring the fact that the actual witch hunts were used as violent social control to repress rebellious women.
But this new demonstration of solidarity among women, this open sharing of stories—this gossip—has had even more profound implications for labor. In a society where, in large part because of the developments outlined above, the working class has been made more precarious than ever, the charge against capitalist exploitation has been lead by working-class women of color fed up with low pay, atrocious working conditions, and the sexual exploitation that they are forced to endure for their survival. Alianza Nacional de Campesinas (the National Farmworkers Women’s Alliance) published an open letter in Time addressed to women in the entertainment industry, not only expressing solidarity but bringing to the fore the heinous conditions and harassment faced by some of our nation’s most vulnerable workers.
In a Broadly article, June Barrett, a home care worker, organizer, and leader with the We Dream in Black program of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Mily Treviño-Sauceda, vice president and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, attribute the growing membership and vigor of their organizations to the renewed solidarity among women gained by #MeToo. In 2018, Marriott housekeepers—mainly women of color, many of whom are undocumented—launched the greatest strike by hotel workers in American history, against low pay and sexual harassment by guests. They won pay raises, panic buttons for if they are made to feel uncomfortable by a guest, and in an unprecedented move, a policy change by Marriott to ban guests who have a history of sexually harassing employees. McDonald’s workers similarly went on strike against low pay and sexual harassment with franchises, an issue that the multi-billion dollar corporation has long turned a blind eye to. That year, in the largest strike wave since the 1970s, teachers – again, primarily a female occupation – in West Virginia, Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Arizona went on strike against low pay, crumbling classrooms, and expanding class sizes and were followed in January this year by massive strikes in Los Angeles. This week, nurses in California have followed suit, with nurses in New York poised to strike as well. The strikes had varying degrees of success, but brought to the fore the new precarity of American workers and the position of women within this precarity.
This worker solidarity is testimony to the ultimate political power of gossip. As Federici notes:
Gossip today designates informal talk, often damaging to those that are its object...that draws its satisfaction from an irresponsible disparaging of others...not intended for the public er but capable of ruining people’s reputations, and it is unequivocally ‘women’s talk. It is women who ‘gossip,’ presumably having nothing better to do and having less access to real knowledge and information and a structural inability to construct factually based, rational discourses. Thus gossip is an integral part of the devaluation of women’s personality and work….[it] is part of the degradation of women….the [stereotype of] woman as prone to malignity, envious of other people’s wealth and power, and ready to lend an ear to the Devil.
But this connotation of “gossip” is no more and no less than a maneuver to silence women, particularly in a world where it is primarily men who make decisions about women’s lives, whether it be in the home, the court, the school, or the workplace. The sharing of experience is, as we have seen, an invaluable part of solidarity among workers and women. Just as peasant women in the late Middle Ages braved the gossip’s bridle and the hangman’s noose for taking part in anti-enclosure riots, so did women outside the Sheraton Boston in October brave arrest and possible deportation for refusing to accept sexual harassment and poverty wages. Women are the backbone of the working class, and when the working class is silenced, capital wins, which is why we must never be silent. We must continue to gossip.
Emily Janakiram is a publicist at Verso Books.