Leaving Home: Slavery and the Politics of Reproduction

In fact, from one point of view, we can­not unravel one female’s nar­ra­tive from the other’s, can­not deci­pher one with­out trip­ping over the other - Hort­ense Spillers1

We had dri­ven straight through from Bris­bane to Syd­ney, a nine-hour drive with your foot flat to the floor. We were on our way to a rad­i­cal stu­dent con­fer­ence, it was the very late 1990s and the WTO protests in Seat­tle had just hit the national papers. It was a time when some of us had started to get con­fi­dent in nam­ing the prob­lem, say­ing it out loud: cap­i­tal­ism. We arrived sweaty, tired and sort of tum­bled out of the car and into the front gar­den of a huge run-down stu­dent house in inner Syd­ney. A woman I had not met before, Natasha was at the front door. Not­ing my then boyfriend, she spat,

“So, you’re a breeder then.”

Stand­ing there in the harsh morn­ing sun­shine, the word breeder did the job it was intended to do: pro­duc­ing a con­nec­tion between my nine­teen year old body, its assumed capac­ity for bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion, patri­archy and nor­ma­tive het­ero­sex­ual sex. A lit­tle taken back, I mum­bled some­thing while look­ing at my feet and spent the rest of the week think­ing about what breeder sex would be like.

Con­ver­sa­tion Piece, before a house in Mon­u­ment Lane, Edg­bas­ton (William Williams, 1780)

This essay offers a crit­i­cal reflec­tion on the his­tory of repro­duc­tion at the inter­sec­tion of slav­ery and cap­i­tal­ism in the Anglo-Amer­i­can con­text.2 In sketch­ing this his­tory I explore the rela­tion­ship between cap­i­tal­ism, gen­der and slav­ery and how the inven­tion of the two sep­a­rate spheres of pro­duc­tion and social repro­duc­tion was pro­duced and main­tained. What emerges is the highly con­tra­dic­tory nature of the home and fam­ily under slav­ery and that in some instances the house­hold served as an impor­tant site of resis­tance for slave women. Explor­ing the com­plex­i­ties of the house­hold and fam­ily struc­tures under slav­ery chal­lenges ten­den­cies within fem­i­nist the­ory that assume a uni­ver­sal or “shared” expe­ri­ence of home, moth­er­hood and the domes­tic sphere.

The prob­lem of where to begin in unrav­el­ing the sto­ries of slav­ery, fem­i­nism and repro­duc­tion is an inter­est­ing one. Par­tic­u­larly if one is not seek­ing to locate ori­gins or found­ing moments, but is instead inter­ested in ask­ing how repro­duc­tion has come to be the prob­lem that it is today. In the first instance, it is nec­es­sary to ask what is at stake in the his­tory of repro­duc­tion, in part because the def­i­n­i­tions and mean­ing of repro­duc­tion not only vary but also are often expe­ri­enced in con­tra­dic­tory ways. The inequal­i­ties and dis­par­i­ties in how dif­fer­ent racial­ized and gen­dered sub­jects expe­ri­ence the labor of mak­ing and remak­ing peo­ple under cap­i­tal­ism can­not be ignored and these gaps, silences and spaces of dif­fer­ence have long and com­plex his­to­ries. Con­sid­er­ing the over­whelm­ing loca­tion of repro­duc­tion is in the realm of the nat­u­ral, the bio­log­i­cal and that murky, under-the­o­rized loca­tion of home, it is nec­es­sary to not only ges­ture towards what is at stake polit­i­cally but to do so with the aim of “weaponiz­ing repro­duc­tion.” The task is cer­tainly a fem­i­nist project, one that takes seri­ously what it means to denat­u­ral­ize repro­duc­tion, with the desire to grab hold of the prob­lem and trans­form it.

From the out­set it is clear that the story of fem­i­nism and repro­duc­tion is a com­plex and at times con­tra­dic­tory one. Of the many valid and nec­es­sary cri­tiques of sec­ond-wave fem­i­nism that have and con­tinue to be made, the notion that the women’s move­ment in the 1960s and 1970s was anti-mother is cer­tainly a per­sis­tent line of attack. It is also a crit­i­cism that has been con­sis­tently chal­lenged by those who were active in the move­ment, many of who were young moth­ers at the time. The idea that fem­i­nists were anti-child and anti-mother can in some ways be traced to how uncom­fort­able the orig­i­nal demand in Britain for “free 24-hour nurs­eries” made peo­ple feel. Crit­ics claimed that the demand sig­naled women’s desire for “baby dump­ing.” Peo­ple were hor­ri­fied by the sup­posed unnat­u­ral­ness of young chil­dren being looked after by peo­ple other than their moth­ers at irreg­u­lar times. That a demand for acces­si­ble and afford­able child­care could cause such panic tells us some­thing about the orga­ni­za­tion of gen­der in post-war indus­trial economies.

Whilst the charge that sec­ond-wave fem­i­nist were anti-mother unrav­els under scrutiny, the fam­ily and the post-war fam­ily in par­tic­u­lar was cer­tainly the object of much fem­i­nist crit­i­cism and analy­sis. She­lia Row­botham writes that the women’s move­ment erupted “in a lit­er­a­ture of com­plaint which focused on the expe­ri­ences of the fam­ily – both in the sense of life in the house­hold and with kin.”3 It was less moth­ers and more moth­er­hood that fem­i­nist saw as the prob­lem. In a pam­phlet enti­tled Women and the Fam­ily, writ­ten by three women, each with two kids, the authors write, “our win­dow on the world is looked through with our hands in the sink and we’ve begun to hate the sink and all it implies.”4 Row­botham con­tin­ues that it was not that “every woman sud­denly became unhappy, but that sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of women felt enti­tled to a des­tiny which was not sim­ply domes­tic.”5 Con­sid­er­ing that in the late 1960s, nearly 55 per­cent women in Britain did not work out­side of the home, it is unsur­pris­ing that for sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of women the fam­ily and women’s domes­tic des­tiny came to be seen as one of the cen­tral sites of female oppres­sion. For many in the move­ment, women’s lib­er­a­tion meant an escape from the home – “in the home the woman is in the fam­ily, and the two are dis­turbingly syn­ony­mous.”6

Of course not all women dreamed of escape and expe­ri­enced the fam­ily in the same way. For oth­ers, pre­dom­i­nately work­ing class women active in trade unions, women’s strug­gle was in the fight for equal pay and oppor­tu­ni­ties in the work­place. Whilst there were clear divi­sions and dif­fer­ence in per­spec­tives and pol­i­tics, there was also sig­nif­i­cant over­lap between those in the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment and women active in trade unions. The story of fem­i­nism and repro­duc­tion is how­ever far more com­pli­cated than sim­ply being either about the fam­ily or about waged work. The argu­ment devel­oped in this essay is that it is nec­es­sary to develop an ori­en­ta­tion towards the home, moth­er­hood and the domes­tic sphere that can accom­mo­date mul­ti­ple posi­tions - specif­i­cally that in some instances home and moth­er­hood oper­ates as a site of resis­tance and in other loca­tions they inter­sect with processes and prac­tices of oppres­sion and exploita­tion. By insist­ing that the home is nei­ther essen­tially repres­sive nor lib­er­a­tory, we are able to ques­tion why some homes can be sites of sig­nif­i­cant resis­tance, while oth­ers remain places of dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion. By return­ing to the orga­ni­za­tion of repro­duc­tion under slav­ery the speci­fic oper­a­tion of cer­tain rela­tions such as patri­archy and access to the means of repro­duc­tion out­side of the wage are also able to grasped.

In Cal­iban and the Witch, Sil­via Fed­erici explores the his­tor­i­cal processes that recon­fig­ured the female body “into an instru­ment for the repro­duc­tion of labor and the expan­sion of the work-force, treated as a nat­u­ral breed­ing-machine, func­tion­ing accord­ing to rhythms out­side of women’s con­trol.”7 This recon­fig­u­ra­tion of women into breed­ers is a story that, as Hort­ense Spillers reminds us, can­not be deci­phered with­out trip­ping over other female nar­ra­tives. It is a story that asks us to con­sider how the repro­duc­tion of labor-power is val­ued, what it costs and who pays the bill. It is not by acci­dent that the story here begins with the pro­foundly racist and sex­ist con­cept of breed­ing as a depar­ture point in which to unravel some of the inter­con­nec­tions between slav­ery, gen­der, and repro­duc­tion. It is an attempt to make vis­i­ble the tech­nolo­gies of repro­duc­tion and the con­struc­tion and orga­ni­za­tion of gen­der, race and class rela­tions inside and out­side of the wage.

In begin­ning with breed­ing, I want to explore how “in a sit­u­a­tion where labor was plen­ti­ful, it was con­sid­ered more prof­itable to work slaves to death than to provide the basic human require­ments which would have pro­longed our work­ing lives.”8 Which is to inves­ti­gate how it was more prof­itable to buy humans than it was for them, to use the lan­guage of the slave own­ers, to breed. Con­nected to the enslave­ment and exploita­tion of African slaves in the colonies, is the his­tory of how the mak­ing and remak­ing of labor-power in Britain was recon­fig­ured to be a white woman’s “nat­u­ral” role, stripped of value and con­fined to the domes­tic sphere. Framed another way is to think through how the con­struc­tion and mean­ing of moth­er­hood and women’s nat­u­ral­ized domes­tic role relied on the exclu­sion and dis­ci­plin­ing of cer­tain bod­ies, specif­i­cally women of color and work­ing moth­ers.

An inves­ti­ga­tion into these tech­nolo­gies of repro­duc­tion makes it painfully clear that it is nec­es­sary for a fem­i­nist pol­i­tics of repro­duc­tion to pay atten­tion to the con­struc­tions and expe­ri­ences of race and class alongside that of gen­der. In doing so, such a pol­i­tics demands that we aban­don the uni­ver­sal pre­sen­ta­tion of moth­er­hood and the domes­tic sphere as an always already degraded ter­rain of oppres­sion. The desires of some women, over­whelm­ingly white mid­dle-class edu­cated women to escape the home and strive for equal­ity in the world of employ­ment has cer­tainly dom­i­nated the story of repro­duc­tion in the last forty years. How­ever, this desire of escape from domes­tic­ity and for a cer­tain notion of free­dom has obscured other nar­ra­tives of the domes­tic sphere and moth­er­hood, as well as con­ceal­ing on both a local and global scale the lay­ers of depen­dency that are involved in the mak­ing and remak­ing of peo­ple under cap­i­tal­ism.

To be able to chal­lenge notions of wom­an­hood and man­hood as inher­ent “nat­u­ral” qual­i­ties it is use­ful to develop a def­i­n­i­tion of moth­er­hood and the processes of moth­er­ing as a his­tor­i­cally vari­able rela­tion­ship in which an indi­vid­ual nur­tures and cares for another. At the same time it is use­ful to dis­rupt the binary of the good / bad mother and include the processes of dis­ci­pline, repres­sion and harm that oper­ate inside the matrix of care. The bat­tles that have been fought in the name of moth­er­hood, for abor­tion rights and against forced ster­il­iza­tion to access to repro­duc­tive tech­nolo­gies, child­care and mater­nity leave or the require­ment that sin­gle moth­ers par­tic­i­pate in work­fare pro­grams reveals moth­er­hood to be a highly con­tested ter­rain. Fur­ther­more, as Eve­lyn Nakano Glenn argues moth­er­ing occurs within speci­fic social con­texts that vary in terms of mate­rial and cul­tural resources and con­straints.9 How­ever, how moth­er­ing is con­ceived, orga­nized and per­formed is not deter­mined solely by these con­di­tions, moth­er­ing is also pro­duced through women’s and men’s actions within speci­fic his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances. Impor­tantly, “agency is cen­tral to an under­stand­ing of moth­er­ing as a social, rather than bio­log­i­cal, con­struct.”10


When we artic­u­late repro­duc­tion as a prob­lem, a polit­i­cal ques­tion con­nected to the his­to­ries of the Transat­lantic Slave Trade, colo­nial­ism and the devel­op­ment of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism in Europe and par­tic­u­larly Britain, we are able to grasp how cer­tain activ­i­ties and bod­ies became sex­u­ally and racially dif­fer­en­ti­ated. In the case of repro­duc­tive activ­i­ties, not only dif­fer­en­ti­ated but also deval­ued and in many instances made invis­i­ble through an evo­ca­tion of the nat­u­ral. These struc­tures of dif­fer­ence, of vio­lent sep­a­ra­tion, can use­fully be located alongside the processes of the enclo­sure of the com­mons and mech­a­nisms of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion that con­nects the emer­gence of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism in Britain with the colo­nial project that relied on the enslave­ment of African work­ers. The fram­ing of his­tory in such a way reveals how essen­tial and cen­tral slav­ery has been for cap­i­tal­ism. Mas­simo De Ange­lis argues that trac­ing such con­nec­tions reveals char­ac­ter­is­tics and dynam­ics quite dif­fer­ent from the stereo­typ­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion por­tray­ing the pas­sage from “feu­dal­ism” to “cap­i­tal­ism” in Europe and posits that an analy­sis of “prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion is con­sis­tent with an under­stand­ing of the cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy as a world econ­omy.”11

The vast con­cen­tra­tions of wealth, resources and cap­i­tal that flowed into Europe and specif­i­cally Eng­land in the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies has led many to con­clude that the plan­ta­tion pro­duc­tion sys­tem and trade in African labor played a fun­da­men­tal role, in the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism, indus­trial pro­duc­tion and the expan­sion of colo­nial­ism and set­tle­ment. Tak­ing this argu­ment fur­ther in Black Marx­ism, Cedric Robin­son presents the his­to­ries of race and racial­ism as exist­ing prior to the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism and demon­strates the nec­es­sar­ily racist char­ac­ter of cap­i­tal­ism as an expres­sion of Euro­pean civ­i­liza­tion.12 He cau­tions against a nar­ra­tion of the his­tory of cap­i­tal­ism that defines slav­ery and slave labor as processes of prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion rel­e­gates to a his­tor­i­cal stage some­where between feu­dal­ism and cap­i­tal­ism. He stresses that “slave labor, the slave trade and their asso­ci­ated phe­nom­ena … pro­foundly altered the economies of those states directly or indi­rectly involved in col­o­niza­tion and pro­duc­tion by slave labor.”13

Inso­far as ter­mi­nolo­gies like sep­a­ra­tion and dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion are effec­tive as ana­lyt­i­cal cat­e­gories to bet­ter under­stand the dynam­ics and rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, they do not nec­es­sar­ily encap­su­late the vio­lence, bru­tal­ity or the strug­gles, co-option and resis­tance embed­ded in the processes that sep­a­rated pro­duc­ers from the social means of sub­sis­tence and of pro­duc­tion. In Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume One, Marx reminds us “this his­tory, the his­tory of their expro­pri­a­tion, is writ­ten in the annals of mankind in let­ters of blood and fire.”14 Just in case one was to miss it the first time, he repeats the imagery fifty pages later, stat­ing that cap­i­tal comes into the world, is born so to speak “drip­ping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”15 Fed­erici makes the point that the term tran­si­tions “sug­gests a grad­ual, lin­ear his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment, whereas the period it names was among the blood­i­est and most dis­con­tin­u­ous in world his­tory – one that saw apoc­a­lyp­tic trans­for­ma­tions.”16

Not only is the extreme vio­lence and bru­tal­ity often washed away in the tales of capitalism’s birth, but the scale and level of con­nec­tion between the geo­gra­phies of Empire is rarely acknowl­edged; to do so would give voice to uncom­fort­able ques­tions of how some peo­ple came to pos­sess the wealth that they have and why oth­ers remain dis­pos­sessed and trapped in so-called cycles of poverty and under­de­vel­op­ment. Eric Williams explains that the speci­fic role that Eng­land played in the “tri­an­gu­lar trade” between Europe, the New World and Africa as one in which “by 1750 there was hardly a trad­ing or a man­u­fac­tur­ing town in Eng­land which was not in some way con­nected with the tri­an­gu­lar or direct colo­nial trade. The prof­its obtained pro­vided one of the main streams of that accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal in Eng­land which financed the Indus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion.”17

The cen­tral­ity of slav­ery to the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism was one that trans­formed not only the land­scape of the colonies but also Britain. The immense accu­mu­la­tion of labor and cap­i­tal that was made pos­si­ble through the enslave­ment, forced labor and death of mil­lions of African work­ers on the slave ships, plan­ta­tions and colonies pro­duced some of the eco­nomic and social con­di­tions that enabled the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion from repro­duc­tion in the tran­si­tion from feu­dal­ism to cap­i­tal­ism in Britain. In this instance to speak of the sep­a­ra­tion of pro­duc­tion from repro­duc­tion is to artic­u­late the processes that ensured work­ers’ depen­dence on the wage and their inabil­ity to repro­duce them­selves inde­pen­dently of cap­i­tal­ism. The sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tion in the costs asso­ci­ated in repro­duc­ing work­ers in Britain that was made pos­si­ble through the pro­duc­tion of cheap com­modi­ties using slave labor in the colonies, pre­fig­ured capitalism’s con­tem­po­rary use of “cheap” migrant labor and pro­duc­tion of con­sumer com­modi­ties in the so-called Third World.18

The pro­duc­tion of com­modi­ties such as sugar, rum, tea, tobacco and cot­ton – the most impor­tant com­modi­ties (apart from bread) in the mak­ing and remak­ing of work­ers in Europe did not reach large-scale pro­duc­tion in the colonies until slav­ery has been insti­tu­tion­al­ized after the 1650s. Before pro­duc­tion was trans­formed with African slave labor, the “lux­ury” items stolen, looted or traded from the colonies were con­sumed by the priv­i­leged Euro­pean elite who could afford them.19 How­ever, once pro­duc­tion was expanded through the use of slave labor, one direct con­se­quence was the reduc­tion in the costs of com­mod­ity bas­ket nec­es­sary to repro­duce labor-power on a daily and inter­gen­er­a­tional basis dur­ing the emer­gence of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism in Britain. As Fed­erici argues, the expan­sion of colo­nial com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion and the use of slave labor restruc­tured the repro­duc­tion of indus­trial work­ers and con­versely the costs asso­ci­ated with repro­duc­ing labor-power on an inter­na­tional scale and “the met­ro­pol­i­tan wage became the vehi­cle by which the goods pro­duced by enslaved work­ers went to mar­ket, and the value of the prod­ucts of enslaved-labor were real­ized.”20

The emer­gence of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism was an uneven, con­tested and vio­lent series of inter­lock­ing events, and at the same time that the wage rela­tion pro­duces a rela­tion of depen­dency that dis­ci­plines and trans­forms those who receive a wage, it also orga­nizes and dis­ci­plines those who do not directly receive wages.21 The accu­mu­la­tion of labor and cap­i­tal that slav­ery made pos­si­ble assisted in forg­ing the “free” labor­ers of Britain – work­ers who were and often remain free to starve with­out the wage. The “free­dom” of capital’s indus­trial work­ers was, fol­low­ing Marx’s analy­sis, a dou­ble free­dom. A free­dom that enabled speci­fic class and gen­der rela­tions, that whilst being uneven and con­tin­u­ally con­tested, sep­a­rated men and women into dis­tinct spheres of work and influ­ence, specif­i­cally (male) waged pro­duc­tive work in the factory/public sphere and (female) unwaged repro­duc­tive work in the home/domestic realm.


The cen­tral­ity of slav­ery to the devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism in Britain can­not how­ever be posed as only exist­ing within the realm of the eco­nomic. In addi­tion to the immense mon­e­tary wealth that slav­ery pro­duced for Britain it is also use­ful to add the tech­niques of dis­ci­pline, polic­ing and con­trol of labor exported from the colonies back to Eng­land and into the fac­tory sys­tem.22 Equally, power does not flow in only one direc­tion, and there were sig­nif­i­cant lessons and expe­ri­ences that the colo­nial­ists and slave­hold­ers learnt from the sus­tained slave revolts and resis­tance against con­di­tions of cap­tiv­ity.23 In rela­tion to the argu­ment being explored here con­cern­ing the con­nec­tions between slav­ery and repro­duc­tion, it is use­ful to con­sider the cen­tral­ity of slav­ery to con­struc­tions of gen­der rela­tions. bell hooks con­tends that “the shift away from the image of white women as sin­ful and sex­ual to that of white women as vir­tu­ous lady occurred at the same time as mass sex­ual exploita­tion of enslaved black women.”24

The Transat­lantic Slave Trade and slave econ­omy was one in which slaves were defined as chat­tel and this def­i­n­i­tion of peo­ple as “prof­itable labor-units” or as prop­erty to be bought and sold applied to women as much as it did to men and as Angela Y. Davis argues slaves “might as well have been gen­der­less as far as the slave­hold­ers were con­cerned.”25 Hort­ense Spillers makes the point that “under these con­di­tions, we lose at least gen­der dif­fer­ence in the out­come, and the female body and male body become a ter­ri­tory of cul­tural and polit­i­cal maneu­ver, not at all gen­der-related, gen­der speci­fic.”26 This loss of gen­der dif­fer­ence is evi­dent in the con­di­tions of labor of field­work­ers that (the major­ity of) slaves expe­ri­enced, in that girls and women were “assigned to work the soil, pick the cot­ton, cut the cane, har­vest the tobacco… [and] …that judged by the evolv­ing nine­teenth-cen­tury ide­ol­ogy of fem­i­nin­ity, which empha­sized women’s roles as nur­tur­ing moth­ers and gen­tle com­pan­ions and house­keep­ers for their hus­bands, Black women were prac­ti­cally anom­alies.”27

Despite the equal­ity of exploita­tion that slave women expe­ri­enced in the con­di­tions of their work, they also suf­fered in dif­fer­ent ways in so far as they were vic­tims of sex­ual abuse and other vio­lence that is pre­served for and inflicted upon women. Fur­ther­more, by ana­lyz­ing the labor con­di­tions of (female) slaves involved in pro­duc­tion and the dif­fer­en­ti­ated ways that (white) women in Britain came to be seen as inhab­i­tants of a sphere sep­a­rated from the realm of pro­duc­tive work and syn­ony­mous with “mother” and “house­wife,” it is impor­tant to note that “among Black slaves, this vocab­u­lary was nowhere to be found.”28 Davis argues that the gen­dered role assigned to female slaves was one in which they were con­ceived of “as ‘breed­ers’ – ani­mals, whose mon­e­tary value could be pre­cisely cal­cu­lated in terms of their abil­ity to mul­ti­ply their num­bers ..[and] since slave women were clas­si­fied as “breed­ers” as opposed to “moth­ers,” their infant chil­dren could be sold.”29

In sharp con­trast to the emerg­ing Vic­to­rian ide­ol­ogy that attempted to nat­u­ral­ize, fem­i­nize and cru­cially pri­va­tize the processes of repro­duc­tion of “indus­trial” work­ers in Britain, the explicit under­stand­ing of the costs and work of repro­duc­ing the slave pop­u­la­tion is revealed by the cal­cu­la­tions that the slave traders and planters under­took. The cost of repro­duc­tion was so con­sid­er­able that a slave born on the plan­ta­tion cost sub­stan­tially more, con­firm­ing that dur­ing the oper­a­tion of the inter­na­tional slave trade it was “cheaper” to pur­chase than to breed.30 Con­sid­er­a­tion of the time dur­ing and after preg­nancy, the need for bet­ter and more food and impor­tantly the loss of work hours which would have been nec­es­sary so as to be able to care for the child all informed plan­ta­tion own­ers cal­cu­la­tions. The con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ences in how repro­duc­tion was con­structed and val­ued are stark. In the colonies with regard to slaves there was vis­i­ble and mea­sur­able mon­e­tary value asso­ci­ated with the activ­i­ties of repro­duc­tion, in com­par­ison to the nat­u­ral­ized processes of repro­duc­tion that were emerg­ing in indus­trial Britain.

Draw­ing together the twin processes of the emer­gence of the trade in slaves and the sub­ju­ga­tion of women, Fed­erici argues “start­ing in the mid-16th cen­tury, while Por­tuguese ships were return­ing from Africa with their first human car­goes, all the Euro­pean gov­ern­ments began to impose the sever­est penalties against con­tra­cep­tion, abor­tion and infan­ti­cide.”31 In her analy­sis of the his­tor­i­cal dynam­ics and processes that led to the deval­u­a­tion of women’s repro­duc­tive labor, Fed­erici stresses the impor­tance of the witch tri­als, the crim­i­nal­iza­tion of women’s con­trol over pro­cre­ation and the degrad­ing of mater­nity to a rel­a­tive and lit­eral posi­tion of forced labor. How­ever, like many other fem­i­nist schol­ars she also char­ac­ter­izes the dynamic that was gain­ing momen­tum in eigh­teenth-cen­tury as one that assigned men and women to sep­a­rate spheres of influ­ence and work and one that par­tic­u­larly des­ig­nated women to the domes­tic sphere and pri­va­tized fam­ily struc­ture. Fed­erici argues that the his­toric changes in the social loca­tion and power of women “that peaked in the 19th cen­tury with the cre­ation of the full-time house­wife – rede­fined women’s posi­tion in soci­ety and in rela­tion to men.”32

It was within the bour­geois class that the fam­ily and the house­hold were first defined as sep­a­rate from the sphere of pro­duc­tion. Leonore David­off and Cather­ine Hall argue that the con­struc­tion of women’s nat­u­ral­ized domes­tic role within the fam­ily was key to the bour­geois asser­tion of cul­tural author­ity and polit­i­cal power, enabling the mid­dling classes to relo­cate the idea of virtue, honor and moral­ity away from the inherited form of aris­to­cratic noblesse oblige, into the domes­tic sphere.33 As guardians of moral­ity, mid­dle-class women were also the bear­ers of bour­geois cul­tural hege­mony and David­off and Hall demon­strate that mid­dle-class women them­selves played an active role in the pro­duc­tion of domes­tic ide­ol­ogy, just as their domes­tic labor made a vital con­tri­bu­tion to mid­dle-class eco­nomic pro­duc­tion. Not only did mid­dle-class women, along with the enor­mous amounts of work of their female ser­vants, per­form the repro­duc­tive labor upon which all the now dif­fer­en­ti­ated “pro­duc­tive” labor of men depended, but as con­sumers of an ever-increas­ing range of house­hold com­modi­ties – soft fur­nish­ings, orna­ments, clean­ing prod­ucts – they were also cen­tral in shap­ing new forms of com­mod­ity cap­i­tal­ism and colo­nial economies, while actively cre­at­ing a new mid­dle-class iden­tity.34

The domes­ti­cated fam­ily struc­ture that came to dom­i­nate mid­dle-class homes medi­ated between the pub­lic and pri­vate spheres and impor­tantly con­nected the emerg­ing mar­ket with the domes­tic sphere. David­off and Hall’s analy­sis of mid­dle-class men and women high­lights the class and gen­der for­ma­tions that both con­structed and were con­structed by the cre­ation of the domes­tic sphere. In par­tic­u­lar, their work draws our atten­tion to the role of the mid­dle-class home; a space that can be said to have been built on the expro­pri­a­tion of work­ing-class men and women’s labor, whether in the pub­lic world of the work­place (fac­to­ries) or the pri­vate work­place of the home, which employed the major­ity of the female work­force as ser­vants; expro­pri­a­tion that was also made pos­si­ble by the immense amount of wealth pro­duced by slave labor on the plan­ta­tions.

Here the tri­an­gu­lar trade con­nects the cre­ation of the Vic­to­rian domes­tic sphere as home to mil­lions of work­ing-class ser­vants, mid­dle-class wives and con­sump­tion of house­hold com­modi­ties, the indus­trial fac­to­ries in which value was pro­duced and labor-power con­sumed, and the slave plan­ta­tions that pro­duced the mate­ri­als that pro­vided cheap­ened mate­ri­als to repro­duce work­ers in both the pub­lic and pri­vate spheres.  This inter­con­nected and com­plex pic­ture of the bound­aries that demar­cated pri­vate from pub­lic empha­sizes the fact that the pub­lic was not really pub­lic, nor the pri­vate really pri­vate. Fur­ther­more, despite the pow­er­ful imagery and dis­course of the sep­a­rate spheres of work and home, both the pri­vate and pub­lic are ide­o­log­i­cal con­structs with speci­fic mean­ings that are the pro­duct of a par­tic­u­lar his­tor­i­cal time, con­stantly being con­tested and under revi­sion.35

The idea of men and women occu­py­ing dif­fer­ent spheres of work and influ­ence was both a response to, and a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in, the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of repro­duc­tion that occurred with the emer­gence of cap­i­tal­ism. Sep­a­rate spheres reflected, jus­ti­fied and made sense of the reor­ga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety brought about by the devel­op­ment of indus­trial cap­i­tal­ism. Within mid­dle-class dis­courses of work, gen­der and the fam­ily, the potent com­bi­na­tion and inter­sec­tion of the con­structs of labors of leisure (the house­wife) and labors of invis­i­bil­ity (ser­vants) served to fur­ther con­ceal and deny the eco­nomic value of women’s domes­tic work.36 The dehu­man­iza­tion of slaves and mea­sur­able cost of repro­duc­tion under slav­ery effec­tively excluded female slaves not only from con­struc­tions of moth­er­hood but also more gen­er­ally from being imag­ined as women.


How­ever in the British Empire, the rel­a­tive “cheap­ness” of slave labor declined when the trade in slaves was abol­ished in 1807, prompt­ing planters to adopt a “slave breed­ing” pol­icy. Although the trade in slaves was ille­gal­ized in 1807, it took another 26 years for The British Slav­ery Abo­li­tion Act (1833) to come into force, which for­mally abol­ished slav­ery through­out most of the British Empire. Writ­ing specif­i­cally about the his­to­ries of slav­ery in the US, Davis argues that when the abo­li­tion of the inter­na­tional slave trade began to threaten the expan­sion of the young cot­ton-indus­try, “the slave­hold­ing class was forced to rely on nat­u­ral reproduction…[and that]…during the decades pre­ced­ing the Civil War, black women came to be increas­ingly appraised for their fer­til­ity (or for the lack of it).”37

The “turn” to a reliance on bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion as com­pared to the trade and pur­chase of labor–power for colo­nial economies has been debated and ana­lyzed by numer­ous schol­ars and “much has been made of the slave­hold­ers’ def­i­n­i­tion of the black fam­ily as a matrilo­cal struc­ture.”38 In The Black Fam­ily in Slav­ery and Free­dom, Her­bert Gut­man presents evi­dence of devel­oped and com­plex fam­ily struc­tures that existed dur­ing slav­ery which were not the infa­mous matri­ar­chal fam­ily but rather fam­i­lies involv­ing wife, hus­band, chil­dren and fre­quently other rel­a­tives, as well as adop­tive kin.39 Gut­man con­firms that unde­ni­ably slave fam­i­lies were sep­a­rated and dis­rupted, how­ever he also argues that slaves adhered to strict norms reg­u­lat­ing their famil­ial arrange­ments. Patri­cia Hill Collins devel­ops Gutman’s argu­ment around slave fam­i­lies fur­ther and posits that “enslaved Africans were prop­erty, and one way that many resisted the dehu­man­iz­ing effects of slav­ery was by re-cre­at­ing African notions of fam­ily as extended kin units.”40 Con­nected to acts of resis­tance against dehu­man­iza­tion was the rel­a­tive secu­rity that often accom­pa­nied moth­er­hood for slave women, in that “child­bear­ing was a way for enslaved black women to anchor them­selves in a place for an extended period and main­tain endur­ing rela­tion­ships with hus­bands, fam­ily, and friends.”41

Collins out­li­nes the var­i­ous mech­a­nisms involved in not only cal­cu­lat­ing the costs of repro­duc­tion but also encour­ag­ing it “as assign­ing preg­nant women lighter work­loads, giv­ing preg­nant women more atten­tion and rations, and reward­ing pro­lific women with bonuses were all used to increase Black women’s repro­duc­tion.”42 Her­bert Gut­man also notes that espe­cially after the abo­li­tion of the over­seas slave trade a high pre­mium was placed on females who began early to bear chil­dren.43 Of course, slaves and own­ers mea­sured the birth of a child was dif­fer­ently, “the owner viewed the birth of a slave child pri­mar­ily as an eco­nomic fact but the slave viewed the same event pri­mar­ily as a social and famil­ial fact.”44

It is within a com­plex con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion of equal­ity in exploita­tion and enslave­ment and the val­oriza­tion of a lim­ited yet present domes­tic life, that Davis adds another dimen­sion to the story of slav­ery and gen­der, in that Black women “also asserted their equal­ity aggres­sively in chal­leng­ing the inhu­man insti­tu­tion of slav­ery.”45 Davis sketches the var­i­ous prac­tices and acts of resis­tance that female slaves engaged in and writes that slave women “poi­soned their mas­ters, com­mit­ted other acts of sab­o­tage and like their men, joined maroon com­mu­ni­ties.”46 How­ever, she also notes that resis­tance was also often more sub­tle and involved, such as in the exam­ple of the clan­des­tine acqui­si­tion of read­ing and writ­ing skills and the impart­ing of this knowl­edge to oth­ers.

An analy­sis of slave fam­i­lies, their social and domes­tic lives and sup­port struc­tures helps to fore­ground a cru­cial and antag­o­nis­tic space within slav­ery, a space where slaves per­formed, accord­ing to Davis “the only labor of the slave com­mu­nity which could not be directly and imme­di­ately claimed by the oppres­sor… Domes­tic labor was the only mean­ing­ful labor for the slave com­mu­nity as a whole.”47 She argues that the domes­tic life of slaves took on an over-deter­mined impor­tance as it pro­vided them with the only space “where they could truly expe­ri­ence them­selves as human beings” and “Black women, for this rea­son – and also because they were work­ers just like men – were not debased by their domes­tic func­tions in the way that white women came to be.”48


Coun­ter to much of sec­ond-wave (white) fem­i­nism that expressed the fam­ily is the source of women’s oppres­sion, Hazel Carby argues that “we need to rec­og­nize that dur­ing slav­ery, period of colo­nial­ism and under the present author­i­tar­ian state, the black fam­ily has been a site of polit­i­cal and cul­tural resis­tance to racism.”49 This is to argue that for some women, (and also men and chil­dren) the home was his­tor­i­cally and con­tin­ues to be an impor­tant site of resis­tance to insti­tu­tional and struc­tural racism and white supremacy. To be sure, the ques­tion of home, as well as that of fam­ily and repro­duc­tion have remained con­tested con­cepts and val­ues within var­i­ous ten­den­cies of fem­i­nist thought and cer­tainly dis­agree­ment exists among Black and post-colo­nial fem­i­nists as to how we can and should ori­en­tate towards home. Iris Mar­ion Young posits that “house and home are deeply ambiva­lent val­ues”50 and draws atten­tion the var­i­ous fem­i­nist ambiva­lences con­cern­ing the val­ues accorded to notions of home and the domes­tic. In her work she re-cen­ters preser­va­tion within an analy­sis of home, argu­ing that “preser­va­tion makes and remakes home as sup­port for per­sonal iden­tity with­out accu­mu­la­tion, cer­tainty or fix­ity.”51 Fur­ther­more, she posits the val­ues of home­mak­ing that under­lie the affir­ma­tion of per­sonal and cul­tural iden­tity as coun­ter to the var­i­ous post-colo­nial fem­i­nist inter­ven­tions by Biddy Mar­tin and Chan­dra Mohanty,52 Teresa de Lau­retis,53 and Bon­nie Honig54 that reject home as inap­pro­pri­ately total­iz­ing and impe­ri­al­ist.

 Whilst agree­ing with much of the cri­tique of home as depoliti­ciz­ing, essen­tial­ist and exploita­tive and the sug­ges­tion that we should fear the nos­tal­gic seduc­tions of home as a fan­tasy of whole­ness and cer­tainty, Young draws on the pos­i­tive read­ing given by bell hooks of “home” as a crit­i­cal value for fem­i­nism. Draw­ing sim­i­lar con­clu­sions as Carby, hooks high­lights the his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ences of African Amer­i­can women and argues that “home­place”55 is a site of resis­tance to the dom­i­nat­ing and exploita­tive social struc­tures and “the abil­ity to resist dom­i­nant social struc­tures requires a space beyond the full reach of those struc­tures, where dif­fer­ent, more humane social rela­tions can be lived and imag­ined.”56 The posit­ing of the home and domes­tic sphere as offer­ing a poten­tial space for resis­tance and renewal is not, how­ever, about draw­ing a neat line from “the past,” in this case slav­ery and to the present. On the con­trary the inten­tion is to rec­og­nize that the con­flicts and con­tested expe­ri­ences of home reveal it be a loca­tion in which the real­i­ties of race and class inter­sect with gen­der. As a loca­tion of inter­sec­tion it resists sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and desta­bi­lizes claims to uni­ver­sal expe­ri­ences of wom­an­hood and moth­er­hood.

In so far as it is use­ful to assert that there are many dif­fer­ent expe­ri­ences and con­tra­dic­tory mean­ings of home, it is also cru­cial to not be seduced by notions of the home as a space that is inher­ently good, sta­ble or nat­u­ral. In locat­ing and mak­ing vis­i­ble home as a poten­tial and lived place of resis­tance, it is also nec­es­sary to remain open to a read­ing of the home as a place of exploita­tive waged and unwaged work and sen­si­tive to the expe­ri­ences of many peo­ple, many of them women for whom the home is a space marked by vio­lence, iso­la­tion and unhap­pi­ness. The chal­lenge in con­fronting the home and repro­duc­tion as polit­i­cal prob­lems is to make sense of the var­i­ous struc­tures, his­to­ries and processes that have pro­duced the tra­di­tional nuclear fam­ily as the nor­ma­tive fam­ily struc­ture, while at the same time remain­ing atten­tive to the actu­ally exist­ing mul­ti­ple forms of kin­ship and house­hold struc­tures. The posit­ing of a mul­ti­plic­ity of expe­ri­ences and mean­ing of fam­ily and repro­duc­tion is not to gloss over what nor­ma­tive struc­tures do, in effect what they repro­duce. The fem­i­nist task is to make sense of the depen­den­cies, sep­a­ra­tions and labors of mul­ti­ple and at time con­flict­ing his­to­ries: of work­ing class women who were often both work­ers and moth­ers, with that of mid­dle class women many of who were his­tor­i­cally “just house­wives” but are now over­whelm­ingly work­ers and moth­ers and the sto­ries of women of color who have been excluded from dis­courses of moth­er­hood and have tra­di­tion­ally always worked, over­whelm­ingly in badly paid and low sta­tus job. The ongo­ing chal­lenge then is to bring home and repro­duc­tion to the cen­ter of pol­i­tics in such a way that plays close atten­tion to dif­fer­ent female nar­ra­tives of repro­duc­tion.

My nine­teen year-old-self never dreamt of hav­ing chil­dren. I had dis­cov­ered fem­i­nism and it enabled me to dream of being a woman that did not include breed­ing. I swapped babies for a wage of ones own. At the time, I wanted to be ster­il­ized. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have chil­dren; it was so I could be set free from the poten­tial, that very gen­dered assump­tion that one-day I would of course want to have kids. I even went to see a doc­tor about it. He sug­gested I see a shrink. I laughed in his face and car­ried on work­ing hard and earn­ing noth­ing.

 But it turns out that Natasha was right, I was a breeder. Around a year and half after my first child was born, I had what can only be described as a cri­sis of moth­er­hood. I was not suf­fer­ing from post-natal depres­sion nor was I exclu­sively at home with the baby. I was one of the so-called “lucky” moth­ers whose part­ner did more than just “help”; he washed, cared, cleaned, cooked and wor­ried with me about that high tem­per­a­ture or strange look­ing vomit. The prob­lem wasn’t the baby, or breast­feed­ing, or not get­ting enough sleep­ing. As I lay sob­bing, panic rip­ping through my body, it was moth­er­hood, my newly acquired iden­tity that came spilling out as the prob­lem. Good mother, bad mother, good-enough mother, work­ing mother, stay at home mother, all and none of them made me want to scream. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find a cat­e­gory of moth­er­hood to fit my lifestyle or a bundle of com­modi­ties to con­sume to affirm my sta­tus. It was more pro­found than that, it was an unnerv­ing real­iza­tion of hav­ing birthed cap­i­tal: all that blood and dirt. And that the work of wip­ing the snotty noses, clean­ing up the shit and teach­ing them to be on time, it all still pretty much fell to women, and yet more women, no mat­ter how you rolled the dice. Added to that enor­mity was the fact that whilst my nice rad­i­cal recon­fig­u­ra­tion of fam­ily was a much needed lit­tle refuge within the hor­ror show, it was not a way out. 

  1. Hort­ense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An Amer­i­can Gram­mar Book,” Dia­crit­ics 17, No. 2 (1987), 64-81. 

  2. A fem­i­nist pol­i­tics of repro­duc­tion demands that we make vis­i­ble the labor that has his­tor­i­cally been con­cealed. It urges us to reveal our depen­den­cies and be gen­er­ous in our acknowl­edge­ment of the immense amounts of the time and labor that oth­ers and our­selves per­form in mak­ing and remak­ing peo­ple. As a mother of two young chil­dren, this requires con­fronting the fact that writ­ing this text has only been made pos­si­ble by the work of oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly but of course not lim­ited to those who have looked after the kids both at home, at the nurs­ery and at school. 

  3. Sheila Row­botham, The Past Is before Us: Fem­i­nism in Action since the 1960s (Boston: Bea­con Press, 1989), 3. 

  4. Ellen Malos, The Pol­i­tics of House­work (Lon­don: Allison & Busby, 1980), 113. 

  5. Row­botham, 7. 

  6. Malos, 114. 

  7. Sil­via Fed­erici Cal­iban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion (New York: Autono­me­dia, 2004), 91. 

  8. Bev­er­ley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (Lon­don: Virago Press, 1985), 18. 

  9. Eve­lyn Nakano Glenn, “Social Con­struc­tions of Moth­er­ing: A The­matic Overview,” in Moth­er­ing: Ide­ol­ogy, Expe­ri­ence, and Agency, edited by Eve­lyn Nakano Glenn, Grace Chang and Linda Ren­nie Forcey (New York and Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1994). 

  10. Ibid., 3. 

  11. Mas­simo De Ange­lis, “Marx and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion: The Con­tin­u­ous Char­ac­ter of Capital’s ‘Enclo­sures,’” The Com­moner 2 ( 2001), 11. 

  12. Cedric Robin­son, Black Marx­ism: The Mak­ing of the Black Rad­i­cal Tra­di­tion (Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press, 1983). 

  13. Ibid., 81. 

  14. Karl Marx, Cap­i­tal, Vol­ume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Lon­don: Pen­guin Clas­sics, 1976. [1867]), 875. 

  15. Ibid., 926. 

  16. Fed­erici, 62. 

  17. Eric Williams, Cap­i­tal­ism and Slav­ery (Lon­don: Andre Puetsch, 1966 [1944]), 52. 

  18. Fed­erici, ibid.  

  19. Maria Mies, Patri­archy and Accu­mu­la­tion on a World Scale (Lon­don: Zed Books, 1998 [1986]). 

  20. Fed­erici, 104. 

  21. Mari­arosa Dalla Costa, and Selma James, The Power of Women and the Sub­ver­sion of the Com­mu­nity (Bris­tol: Falling Down Press, 1975). 

  22. Fed­erici, 104. 

  23. C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Vin­tage Books, 1989). 

  24. bell hooks, Ain’t I a Woman (Boston: South End Press, 1981), 32. 

  25. Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Ran­dom House, 1983. [1981]), 5. 

  26. Spiller, 67 – empha­sis in the orig­i­nal. 

  27. Davis, 5-6. 

  28. Ibid., 12. 

  29. Ibid., 7. 

  30. Mies, 91. 

  31. Fed­erici, 88. 

  32. Ibid., 75. 

  33. Leonore David­off and Cather­ine Hall. Fam­ily For­tunes: Men and Women of the Eng­lish Mid­dle Class, 1978-1850 (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1992 [1987]). 

  34. Ibid., 33-34. 

  35. Ibid. 

  36. Anne McClin­tock, Impe­rial Leather: Race, Gen­der and Sex­u­al­ity in the Colo­nial Con­test (New York and Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1995). 

  37. Davis, 6. 

  38. Ibid., 12. 

  39. Her­bert Gut­man, The Black Fam­ily in Slav­ery and Free­dom, 1750-1925  (New York: Pan­theon Books, 1976). 

  40. Patri­cia Hill Collins, Black Fem­i­nist Thought: Knowl­edge, Con­scious­ness, and the Pol­i­tics of Empow­er­ment (2nd edi­tion, New York and Lon­don: Rout­ledge 2000 [1990]), 50. 

  41. Ibid., 51. 

  42. Ibid. 

  43. Gut­man, ibid. 

  44. Ibid., 75. 

  45. Davis, 19. 

  46. Ibid. 

  47. Angela Davis, “Reflec­tions on the Black Woman’s Role in the Com­mu­nity of Slaves,” The Mass­a­chu­setts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972), 81-100, 89. 

  48. Davis, 1983, 16-17. 

  49. Hazel V. Carby “White Woman Lis­ten! Black Fem­i­nism and the Bound­aries of Sis­ter­hood.” (in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Sex­ism in 70’s Britain, ed. Cen­tre for Con­tem­po­rary Cul­tural Stud­ies (Lon­don: Rout­ledge, 1982). 

  50. Iris Mar­ion Young, Inter­sect­ing Voices: Dilem­mas of Gen­der, Polit­i­cal Phi­los­o­phy and Pol­icy (Prince­ton, New Jer­sey: Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity Press, 1997), 134. 

  51. Ibid., 135. 

  52. Biddy Mar­tin and Chan­dra Mohanty, “Fem­i­nist Pol­i­tics: What’s Home Got to Do with It?,” in Fem­i­nist Studies/Cultural Stud­ies, ed. Teresa de Lau­retis (Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­sity Press, 1986). 

  53. Teresa de Lau­retis, “Eccen­tric Sub­jects: Fem­i­nist The­ory and His­tor­i­cal Con­scious­ness,” Fem­i­nist Stud­ies 16, no. 1 (1990), 115-50. 

  54. Bon­nie Honig, “Dif­fer­ence, Dilem­mas and the Pol­i­tics of Home,” Social Research 61, no. 3 (1994), 563-97. 

  55. bell hooks, Yearn­ing: Race, Gen­der and Cul­tural Pol­i­tics (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990), 41-51. 

  56. Young, 159. 

Author of the article

Camille Barbagallo is a feminist, mother, radical activist, and PhD candidate (though not necessarily in that order) currently living in upstate New York.