Women and Work: An Interview with Sue Ferguson

Women and Work: An Interview with Sue Ferguson

Toronto New Socialist member Daniel Sarah Karasik conducted the following interview with sister-member (now living in Houston, Texas) Sue Ferguson — a wide-ranging discussion of gendered work, anti-capitalist struggle, and social reproduction theory (SRT), centred on Sue’s new book Women And Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction (Pluto, 2020).

Daniel Sarah: Hi Sue! Thanks so much for chatting with me about your book, and for writing it. I found it very helpful. In particular, I appreciate the way your genealogy carefully distinguishes social reproduction feminisms from other socialist feminisms that may tend to subordinate gender oppression to class struggle, what you call the “critical equality” tradition. I also love how you trace today’s “equality” or liberal feminism back to tendencies in Mary Wollstonecraft and her peers, identifying as a common thread a certain moralized over-investment in the power of work itself to provide deliverance from oppression.

So let’s start where your book ends. Some of the most dramatic recent workplace struggles in North America have been in professions dedicated to social reproduction, i.e. work that produces and reproduces human life rather than (or, sometimes, in addition to) producing surplus value for capital. The #RedForEd wave of teachers’ strikes in the US is maybe the most striking example, and we’re now seeing a surge of teachers’ job action in Ontario. As you explain, the work at the centre of these struggles is feminized, often but not always performed by women. Can you talk a bit about why you see this kind of struggle as central to a “feminism for the 99%” (Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser’s phrase)?

Sue: Education workers are indeed workers who produce human life. In creating and delivering lessons, and more generally supporting the emotional, physical and intellectual needs of students, they contribute to human growth and development. They do so, of course, as part of an education system that is oriented to also ensuring that capital has a present and future workforce available for exploitation. As a result, education workers make life and waged workers.

Some teachers—those employed in for-profit private schoolsdo produce surplus value as well. But those who struck in the US throughout 2018 and again in Chicago in 2019, and those who are now striking in Ontario, are public sector workers. That is, they are not directly employed by a capitalist nor do they create value through sales of their lessons and care work on the open market. Their work, therefore, is not directly governed by capitalist laws of competition. This is an important distinction that I discuss at greater length in the book. It’s important because their relative distance from capital’s value-producing mandate provides greater momentum and opportunity for public sector teachers (as well as teaching assistants, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and others involved in educating students) to negotiate the contradiction that is at the heart of social reproductive work: the contradiction between making life and making (present and future) waged workers.

And that negotiation is, fundamentally, what the recent education strikes are about. When teachers strike, they often do so as much for their students’ health and welfare as for their own. Think, for example, of the Ontario strikers who aim to protect full-day kindergarten, resources for special education, smaller class sizes and in-class (as opposed to online) instruction, as well as to secure a cost-of-living wage increase for themselves. Such demands tend to resonate well beyond the union halls, connecting with all those who think schools could and should do more than turn out disciplined, literate workers. They also, crucially, cut against social inequality. For the kids who stand to gain most from a successful strike are not those from white, upper-middle or ruling class families (who increasingly go to private schools). They are the kids of the 99%—from multi-racial working class families living in neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of decades of disinvestment in schooling, as well as other social services. For a straight line can be drawn from poorly resourced classrooms to streets that are unsafe for racialized and queer people, to neighbourhood library closings, to shuttered women’s shelters.

Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto argues for an inclusive, activist movement that puts fighting social oppressions of all kinds at the centre of the fight against capital. An education strike is not that. But it can be an important step in that direction. That’s because it connects with people’s everyday efforts to survive and live well in an unequal and oppressive world. While striking workers at Toyota or Amazon usually struggle over their working conditions and wages, ultimately they are contesting who should get the greater share of the profits. The welfare of the cars produced or the goods sold are not at issue. But when teachers or other social reproductive workers strike, they almost always call into question the way the capitalist system values and reproduces human life. These strikes, therefore, can become spaces and times for disparate groups who share a commitment to making life better for the poor and the oppressed to learn about each others’ lives and struggles, and to build a solidaristic fight-back.  

More than that, they can be spaces where new, collective ways of life-making are forged. Teachers interviewed by Eric Blanc in his book Red State Revolt emphasize the deeply humanizing effects of struggling with people who they had previously known only as co-workers, and of the connections they made on the streets with perfect strangers simply because they were wearing their signature red strike T-shirts. And in cases where education workers organized to deliver lunches to kids who might otherwise go without because school was cancelled, striking education workers showed that social reproductive strikes can be not only about withdrawing labour, but also about redrawing labour—finding ways to meet social need that nurture human connection (with other workers, students and communities) and affirm the value of life-making. It takes the conscious political work of those involved to first see the links I’m suggesting here, and then to build the trust between groups capable of carrying the strike forward. But there is something organic about those possibilities emerging, even if they are not automatic, and this makes public sector social reproduction strikes vitally important in a struggle against capitalism and for socialism.

Daniel Sarah: Those anecdotes from the 2018 US teachers’ strikes are such vivid, moving examples of social reproduction struggle in motion! What are the most important ways that a social reproduction feminism, as manifested in educators’ labour militancy, offers analytic and practical resources that a liberal, capitalist feminism—what you describe in your book as “equality feminism”—can’t?

Sue: Most importantly, the social reproduction feminist analysis helps us understand oppression as something that is systemic to capitalism. Oppression is not, as equality feminism sees it, primarily a result of ignorance, or of unfair treatment in an otherwise fair world. Rather, it is endemic to capitalism, a corollary of the fact that capitalism cannot exist unless it can cheapen and degrade processes of life-making. As a result, whatever gains an individual might make in terms of being more fairly treated, or changing their boss’s or partner’s sexist or racist thoughts and actions, their efforts will never be generalizable under capitalism. And, worse, their individual gain may well come at the expense of another person’s or social group’s welfare. The most significant example of this has a long history: since the early 1900s, access to better jobs for women, though an important gain of the feminist movement, has meant that other people, overwhelmingly poorer, racialized, migrant women, have been channeled into lower paid and poorly regulated domestic service work.

As I argue in Women and Work, social reproduction feminism provides a strategic focus and direction that avoids the contradictions of equality feminism. Because, in this view, oppression is built into the very ways we reproduce ourselves, overcoming oppression requires reorganizing the processes and institutions of life-making. This cannot happen in boardrooms or by electing more women into state office. It can happen only when people are encouraged to mobilize with others to resist the priorities of the current social reproduction regime, and learn together how to reorganize and take collective, responsible control of the resources of life-making. And in a small way, this is what education worker strikes do: they assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs.

Daniel Sarah: That social reproduction struggle in Ontario (educators’ strikes) is happening simultaneously with a crisis in Wet’suwet’en territory out west, where the state is using its police power to ram a pipeline project through unceded Indigenous land. So we have a social reproduction crisis and a crisis concerning capital’s direct drives to extraction and accumulation, happening in tandem. How might we think about these struggles as related, beyond their simultaneity? Are there ways that SRT might guide our strategy when we consider how to forge solidarities between these struggles?

Sue: I would call both these examples struggles about or over the conditions of social reproduction. All the Earth’s resources constitute the stuff out of which life is made. Not just physical life, but our spiritual and creative lives as well—which is why it is not just or even primarily the Wet’suwet’en land that is being defended, but also that people’s physical and spiritual relation to the land. So, although that struggle differs in important ways from the education strikes in Ontario, the two are absolutely connected. Indigenous land defenders may be resisting capitalism’s direct incursion on resources for social reproduction while teachers are resisting its indirect incursion (through fiscal restraints imposed by a capitalist state). But both groups are pushing back against the same systemic tendency to deplete and undermine the conditions of life-making.

In recognizing that connection, SRT identifies the grounds upon which solidarities can be forged. It provides, therefore, an explanation for why teachers and those struggling for Indigenous sovereignty can make common cause, and why they must do so if they are to succeed in truly challenging capital’s domination of their lives. And in arguing that all social reproduction under capitalism is organized in and through the hierarchies imposed by various social oppressions, SRT also suggests that any broad-based movement to collectively reclaim and reorganize life-making labours and land must take account of the racism, colonialism, (cishetero)sexism and other social oppressions that shape the current regime of social reproduction. That means finding ways not only of expressing solidarity, but also of materially supporting each other’s struggles—sending money, educating protestors about each others’ issues, holding coordinated rallies featuring speakers, chants and placards from each struggle, and so on. And just as crucially, it means actively integrating a robust and expansive anti-oppression politics into resistance strategies. One can imagine, for instance, teachers including demands to end school policing or holding picket line teach-ins on the colonial legacy of the province’s public schooling system.   

Daniel Sarah: Let’s move backwards in history a bit, and in your book’s chronology. Reading your discussion of the Wages for Housework (WfH) campaign in the 1970s, which comes right after you look at Black feminist insights into so-called women’s work, I was struck by how WfH didn’t seem to account fully for how much social reproductive work already is waged, especially where the workers are racialized. Later you identify that same point as a theoretical shortcoming of early social reproduction feminism in general. More recent reformulations of social reproduction theory (what you call the Marxian school) seem broadly to have a reply to it: capitalism works less by extracting as much openly unpaid work as possible, more by leveraging the complex relationships between what Marx called productive (surplus value-creating) vs. “unproductive” (not surplus value-creating) work, much of which is ostensibly paid and some of which is not. I’m wondering if you could explain a bit further how you see the unpaid interacting with the paid work of social reproduction. What’s the relationship between, on the one hand, under-valued but waged domestic service work, or under-compensated but waged teaching and nursing, and, on the other, the entirely unpaid care work that women and other feminized people are still expected to perform in the household and in other relationships, and even in the workplace (e.g. the teacher who spends extra hours serving as informal therapist to her students, far more than her male counterparts may do)?

Sue: I think the short answer to that question is oppression. That is, it is because women, and racialized women in particular, are socially degraded that they have been funneled into doing the work that capitalism needs to have done as cheaply as possible. And so often it is work that involves dirt and bodies—which I think is fascinating for what that says about how alienated capitalism makes us from our bodies and, literally, the earth; how it hides and devalues what is, in many ways, the most intimate, human sort of work. Were it possible to have a relatively healthy and educated, disciplined workforce without state intervention, women would likely still be doing that work for free at home. But insofar as that work has been partially socialized (through public services) and commodified (in private industry), it must be done as cheaply as possible. And so, it tends to be done by those whose bodies have already been socially degraded, and therefore whose labour power is available at a lower price. To be clear, I’m not saying there is anything inherently degrading about the work that is being done or the workers who do it. Such degradation is socially organized.   

Daniel Sarah: I appreciate social reproduction theory for its development of a feminist framework able to incorporate people who might be excluded from (or just not found in) the conventional family or domestic sphere, especially (some) queer and trans folks. It lets us think about capital’s complicated extraction of labour from feminized people who may never show up as housewives or in workplaces where gender-based pay equity, say, is a coherent demand; sex work in particular seems not straightforwardly matched with it. What do you see as the role of such marginalized people in social reproduction struggle? How might a sex-working trans woman, say, who is likely to be performing a whole range of important unpaid social reproductive functions in her community in addition to the paid social reproductive labour of sex work, be understood as a central subject of these politics?

Sue: The recent explosion of queer and trans social reproduction theory and politics is wonderful—a highly instructive and often provocative discussion that I could not do justice to in my book. Your question prompts a couple thoughts. First, precisely because they are marginalized from mainstream political, economic and cultural relations and institutions, queer and trans folks have long been creating their own communities of care and survival—notwithstanding the contradictions that arise from operating within capitalism. While these vary across time and space, and are not always or necessarily free from oppressive relations, they affirm that it is possible to challenge the privatization and individualization of personal life, sexualities and care work. And insofar as they create oppression-conscious, democratically organized communities of care and survival, such spaces can also help people gain the insight and confidence needed to politicize around the conditions of the paid and unpaid social reproductive work they do in their communities. (And insofar as they reproduce certain oppressions, they should of course be critiqued and transformed.)

But the potential role of queer and trans people to transform society goes well beyond this. They have a central role in shaping and politicizing community organizations that are working for better health care, an end to job discrimination and sexual harassment, safer streets and more—showing how such goals put them on common ground with those fighting for better schools or to preserve traditional Indigenous lands. And, as Kate Doyle Griffiths reminds us in a talk she gave at Historical Materialism London in 2018, queer and trans people are workers too, who, like women, are overrepresented in the paid social reproduction sector. There is a potential for them to be a conscious “militant minority” or an “affinity group” working across communities and workplaces to foreground trans- and queer-inclusive life-making demands. And, I would add, because queer and trans workers are also overrepresented in precarious jobs and among the unemployed, their struggles to survive have much in common with other unemployed and precarious workers.

Daniel Sarah: You describe social reproduction struggles as struggles to organize work in the interest of life, rather than in the interest of capital. These are therefore struggles over the form of life — attempts to reproduce life differently from how capitalism would have us live it. You offer a critique of a branch of social reproduction theory descended from Italian Autonomist Marxism, which seeks to reproduce life differently by seeking “spaces apart” from capitalism, communes and occupations where prefigurative alternatives can be staged. Against this approach, you suggest that the attempt to reproduce life differently is more fruitfully, and is always anyway, unfolding within struggles immanent to capitalism itself, like teachers’ strikes, that new forms of life are worked out within such struggles. If that’s the case, how do we make sure that the form of life we’re reproducing within those struggles is adequately disentangled from old oppressions? How do we guarantee such disentangling doesn’t get subordinated to the main named concerns of the struggle? (I’m thinking about, to take just one example, the danger of disability justice considerations vanishing abruptly when a crisis calls for striking workers to show up with their bodies in strenuous ways.) How do we ensure that those with more social power within such a struggle—the “old guard,” white men, white people generally, etc.—don’t dominate it, and shape it in their own interest?

Sue: Great question. And I don’t think there is any magic organizing formula that can prevent the sorts of things you mention. There are, however, a couple essential conditions or principles that can at least help ward against them. The first is a commitment to building inclusive, democratic organizations, movements, unions, coalitions, assemblies and so on that are open to learning from everyone’s struggles. This means ensuring that members or participants have space and time to debate priorities and actions, that the central organizers actively solicit the expertise and opinions of others, and that there’s a collective commitment to building political knowledge and consciousness around various social oppressions. I think it is also really important to be mindful of the division of labour within any organizing group, most especially the mental/manual division of labour. We know from many years of left organizing how common it is for the more mundane tasks (minute-taking, supplying snacks, childcare, etc.) to fall on the shoulders of women and feminized people, for instance, while the more intellectual or political decision-making work is taken up by men. And how participation in groups is often ableist (meeting in buildings without elevators or adequate washroom facilities) or can exclude parents who can’t afford a sitter or people who do not live on the subway line. While not every contingency can be known and warded off in advance, the key is to foster an internal culture in which such concerns can be voiced and attended to.

But in the case of a strike, where people come together for relatively short bursts of time, around a fairly focused agenda, I think we have to count on the acts of solidarity themselves. Striking Ontario teachers foregrounding the Wet’suwet’en people’s struggle, or the Wet’suwet’en people standing up for Hamilton queer folks after the latter were attacked by far-right thugs last year—these sorts of scenarios have the power to transform relationships between communities, and our understandings of each other. Working together to prioritize meeting people’s crucial life needs can be a powerful education.


Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction by Susan Ferguson is available now in Canada from Between the Lines. Find it here: https://btlbooks.com/book/women-and-work