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.