“Most important the figure of the witch…in this volume is placed at the center-stage, as the embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy; the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.” (p.1)
I have just finished reading this fascinating and excellent work.
I am avid enthusiast of the need for the reclaiming of women’s history and the necessity to document and learn about women’s past roles in our history. So it was with excitement that I came across this important work.
Federici gave me an interesting perspective on women’s history as she claims that it is not just about reclaiming women’s hidden history but understanding how women are often at the centre of historical events but their role has been diminished by historical accounts.
She talks of the “enclosure of knowledge” whereby new generations of women are increasingly losing a “historical sense of our common past.”
“Women then in the context of this volume, signifies not just a hidden history that need to be made visible; but a particular form of exploitation, and, therefore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.”
This is a study of the witch hunts of the 15th and 16th centuries in which Federici explains how the witch hunts were a central aspect of the development of capitalism.
“It is generally agreed that the witch hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism.”
What this analysis is attempting to do is to revisit the transition from feudalism to capitalism from the viewpoint of women and argues that capitalism is “…necessarily committed to racism and sexism” (p.17)
There are a number of issues that Federici raises to highlight the centrality of the witch hunts in the development of capitalism and the on-going misogyny and sexism which prevail today. She argues that this was a turning point in the history of women which led to:
- Deepened divisions between men and women
- Created the sexual division of labor
- State intervention in the reproduction of labor
- Control of women’s reproduction
- Creation of women’s roles as housewives and mothers
- Creating women’s dependency on men and employers
- Family sphere separate from public sphere
- Exclusion of women from paid work and therefore wages.
“Witch hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe and a condition of their resistance in their struggle against feudalism” (p.102)
The end of feudalism and the creation of capitalism involved land privatisation and, in Britain, enclosures, where land became privatised, and monetary relations began to dominate. It is women who were most affected by these developments – “…when land was lost and village community fell apart.” (p.73)
And she argues that women were at the forefront of rebellion against such forces, and thus prime targets.
It was also when paid labor force was developed, which excluded women, and where they were able to work, they were paid a pittance of men’s wages. So that by the 19th century full time housewives became the norm.
“In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, women suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital, and has remained so ever since.” (p.75)
Federici agrees that sexism and misogyny existed prior to the 15th century, and she describes how the power of the Church, which was the “…ideological pillar of feudal power, the biggest landowner in Europe, and one of the institutions most responsible for daily exploitation of the peasantry.” (p.33-34)
She argues that this set the scene and prepared the ground for the witch hunts.
“Without centuries of the Church’s misogynistic campaigns against women, the witch hunts would not have been possible.” (p.168)
But Federici points out that it was collaboration between the State and Churches involved in the witch hunts, thus highlighting the political, as well as ideological, motives for the witch hunts.
“If we consider the historical context in which the witch hunts occurred, the gender and class of the accused, and the effects of persecution, then we must conclude that witch hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and power, that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction and their ability to heal.” (p.170)
“Witch hunting was also instrumental to construction of the new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.” (p.170)
Feminists were quick to recognise that hundreds of thousands of women could not have been massacred and subjected to the cruelest torture unless they posed a challenge to the power structure.
Federici highlights the importance of our knowing this history, because the same forces continue in current day capitalism. As contemporary capitalist forces continue to accumulate capital in past-colonial countries, misogyny and the destruction of communities continues today.
“But if we apply to the present the lessons of the past, we realise that the reappearance of witch hunting in so many parts of the world in the ’80’s and ’90’s is a clear sign of a process of “private accumulation”, which mean that the privatisation of land and other communal resources, mass impoverishment, plunder and the sowing of divisions in once-cohesive communities are again on the world agenda.” (p.237)
Federici states that this study is an attempt to:
“…revive among younger generations the long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving the historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths”. (preface)