In 1975, women in Iceland went on strike, from their domestic responsibilities as well as their day jobs. The strike, organized by women’s councils across the country after the United Nations declared 1975 as International Women’s Year, saw some 25,000 women in the streets of Reykjavík alone. In the strike’s aftermath, Iceland elected Europe’s first female president, and the country formally outlawed gender discrimination in 1976. Iceland’s gaps in pay and education became among the world’s smallest.
To the women of the Wages for Housework movement, the Icelandic strike was a salutary example of their politics in action. Internationalist, anti-capitalist, and feminist, the movement argued that by focusing on women’s unpaid labor inside the home—child care, cleaning, emotional support, even sex—activists could highlight more fundamental inequalities based on gender. And the best way to do so was to refuse to do that kind of work. As the International Feminist Collective (IFC), which launched the Wages for Housework campaign, wrote in a press release: “We don’t want just to demonstrate our strength but to use it and increase it to get what we want…. We are tired of our work and of not having any time of our own.”
That press release is just one of the trove of documents collected in the new book Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972–1977: History, Theory, Documents. Published by Autonomedia and edited by Silvia Federici, one of the core members of that committee, and artist and scholar Arlen Austin, Wages for Housework is one of those rare books that takes the reader inside the theory and practice of a radical movement, reproducing posters and flyers, photographs, internal strategy papers, and media clips along with previously published articles.
Wages for Housework helps to recover a movement that had modest origins but spread around the world within several years. From the gathering in Padua, Italy, that launched the international campaign in 1972 to the spin-off groups like the New York Committee, the women of Wages for Housework made arguments and demands that were well ahead of their time, helping to fill in the gaps overlooked by the mostly male left and the mostly liberal mainstream feminist movement, both of which have long excluded the home and the processes of social reproduction from their activism and thinking.
As the IFC’s launch statement (which served as a founding document for the New York Committee) put it:
We identify ourselves as Marxist feminists, and take this to mean a new definition of class, the old definition of which has limited the scope and effectiveness of the activity of both the traditional left and the new left. This new definition is based on the subordination of the wageless worker to the waged worker behind which is hidden the productivity, i.e., the exploitation, of the labor of women in the home and the cause of their more intense exploitation out of it. Such an analysis of class presupposes a new area of struggle, the subversion not only of the factory and office but of the community.