Jeanny Gering: You have argued that women have played an active role in left and national liberation struggles and yet they have been subjugated to patriarchy after national liberation or political victories of movements by the very movements they had supported. Can you elaborate on this on how you came to this conclusion?
Maria Mies: I first realised this pattern, for the role of women in liberation struggles, when I was teaching at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague. I had started a program for women and development there. It was the first one in the world, where women from third world countries could come and do an ‘MA in Women and Development’. In 1979 this was quite new. These women came from various countries, from Somalia, Sudan, South Africa, from the Caribbean, India and Bangladesh. We talked about the situation of women in these countries and I learned that most of them had undergone a liberation struggle like India, Bangladesh, South Africa and Somalia. Then I gave them a course on Socialism and the Social Democratic Party and the women's movement in that party in Germany. I had studied what had happened to that movement in the 19th Century and later on. The German example showed that women were active in the socialist struggles. Clara Zetkin had even started a separate women's organisation within the SPD. But Rosa Luxemburg did not join her. She did not want to join that women's organisation. She wanted to do “real politics”, and “real politics was a men's affair. When the SPD was banned by the state, the men were forbidden to agitate openly. But the women's organization could continue their work. The state did not consider their work as political and left the women's organization alone. Later on when the Socialist Party was legalised again the Socialists wanted to integrate the women into the SPD as individuals. They said: “We don’t need an extra women’s organisation”. That meant women had no longer an organisation of their own, could not organize their “Only Women's Conferences” and continue their journal: “Die Gleichheit”. When I studied other Liberation Movements I found similar tactics. When I shared this observation with my students they came and told me the same, for instance a woman from Somalia told me: “We were active in the liberation movement in our country, and for some time now the Marxists have won victory in Somalia, but when it comes to the question of how we as women should continue, what role would we have in the new government. What kind of government would we want to have, what kind of economics would be good for women, we found that women's problems were not considered important.” The same happened in South Africa. Even today I get news from one of those students. She had joined the ANC and did her PhD on Women in South Africa. Today she is so disappointed with what the ANC has been doing. So, when it comes to the question of political and economic power – women's issues are forgotten. Their separate women's organizations are dissolved. Women have to do the same jobs they did before and have to go back to housework. That was the general understanding I had gotten from the German experience.
Actually, the erstwhile revolutionaries often aim for women to have the same position as the bourgeois women. “Equality” was and is their solution for the “Women Question” as it was called in Germany in those years. Even Engels wrote much earlier, “What is good for the bourgeoisie, should be good for everybody”. I have always criticized this idea, because if we only want to get to where the bourgeoisie is, it’s not worth a revolution. I think today “Equality” is still more or less the aim of most revolutionaries and even of many feminists. Most feminists in today’s women’s movement, whatever there is left of it, only want equality. This has not been the aim in the early days of the feminist movement; it was about women’s liberation. Our demand was: “We want liberation” and that means liberation from male violence, patriarchy and capitalism. We were much further in our thinking than women are today. My students in the Hague and I came to this understanding already around 1980.
JG: What were the core aspects of the women’s movement to you when you were teaching in the Hague?
MM: The issues which practically all feminists in the world were studying at that time were the issue of violence against women and of housework. Why is there still so much violence against women, even in our so-called civilized societies? Why is housework not considered as work in this society by capitalists? Our critique of capitalism as well as of Marxism started with that question. Why is housework not understood as work? Why is it not paid? The issue of unpaid housework was and still is a crucial problem in all our societies. In those years there was a worldwide campaign on housework. It was discussed by feminists all over the world. To solve that problem some feminists demanded wages for housework. Their argument: If housewives would get a wage for their work as any male worker gets a wage, then the problem would be solved. The campaign “Wages for Housework” was started by three women who are still my friends today. Two Italians: Sylvia Federici and Maria Rossa da la Costa and Selma James from Jamaica. I did not agree with them, because I do not believe that the solution of the problem of housework lies in turning all unpaid housework in wage-work. Because wage-labour has not liberated men from the exploitation by capitalism. Hence, apart from male violence against women my first theoretical critique of capitalism began with the question: What role does housework play in capitalism? That is still one of the most important questions today. Even today women who have only done unpaid housework are not entitled to get a rent in their old age.
Women have not always been housewives. When I think of my mother, a peasant woman, she had to do housework of course, but she was a peasant woman who also had to work in the fields, take care of twelve kids, feed the chicken and the pigs, milk the cows and do all the necessary work that has to be done in a subsistence farm all over the world. Under capitalism the concept of women's work changed dramatically. The new concept of women's work was housework. This concept means that a woman does unpaid work at home and depends on a wage-earning husband, the so-called “breadwinner”. Of course, the women of workers had to combine their wage-work in a factory with their unpaid housework at home. This situation is still the same for most working women today. Men however go to a factory or an office and sell their labour power for a wage. But he has not created that labour. Without the woman he would not be able to sell any labour power anywhere.
This insight in the role of housework under capitalism led me to Marx and his concept of labour. He sees a fundamental difference between “productive labour” and “reproductive labour”. Productive labour means that men produce a commodity that can be sold with profit on the market. Re-productive labour is non-waged labour that is not sold on the market, for instance housework. Marx calls this non-wage work “re-productive labour”, because he understood that this labour is necessary to “reproduce “the labour power from day to day but also from generation to generation. He also knew that the intergenerational re-production of labour power could not be technically planned. But he was of the opinion that this re-production of new human labourers could be left to our natural instincts.
His opinion on “productive and “re-productive” labour brought me and other feminists to the conclusion, that making a car is productive but giving birth to a child is non-productive. This Marxian definition of labour under capitalism made clear to me that women have nothing to expect from socialism. Because the socialist concept of labour and the sexual division of labour is basically not different from the capitalist one.
I discovered the concept of patriarchy in a similar way as I had discovered capitalism: not by reading books but by personal experience. I had been in India for five years, from 1963 to 1968. In 1972, I wrote my PhD on Indian women and patriarchy. It was the first book written ever on modern Indian women and patriarchy. When I studied the Indian patriarchy I discovered that German society is also ruled by patriarchy. And so are most societies in the world.
JG: Why did you decide to do your PhD on that topic?
MM: That has to do with a whole part of my biography, (Mies 2010). I was a lecturer at the Goethe Institute in India in Pune. I taught German to Indian women and men. Men were the majority but there were also some women students. I asked myself: “Why do these women want to learn German, what can they do with German?” For the men it was clear, they wanted to find a job in Germany or to study sciences. But when I asked the women about their motivation I found out that they wanted to postpone the so-called marriage talk. Because Indian women had to get married -at least in those years. These were not love marriages. Marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and the bridegroom. The two partners hardly knew each other. What was important was that caste, class and family status matched. Girls had to get married before they were too old. Otherwise they had no status and no economic security in India. In those years there were hardly any middle class women who had a regular job and an income of their own. A woman was dependent throughout her life. As achild she was dependent on her father. After marriage she depended on her husband. In her old age she depended on her son. An unmarried daughter was therefore a burden to her family.
Moreover, the parents of a girl had to pay a dowry to the bridegroom's family as a kind of tribute. There is absolutely no economic rationality behind this custom. Dowry is the opposite of a bride- price. A bride-price still acknowledges that the woman has a value. She costs for instance as much as cow. The Indian dowry system however de-values the woman totally. It is the most patriarchal marriage system I know. The “bride-giving” has not only to give a daughter for nothing to the “bride-receiving” family, but on top of that has also to pay “for the honour” that their daughter is accepted by that other family. If a family has several daughters they can go bankrupt to get them all married. And they have to get married. But even after marriage the woman has to work for free for the husband and his family. She has no right to work outside the house. She has to obey her husband and the mother in law. Even modern people legitimize the custom of dowry by the argument that a bride has to be fed by her husband's family. The giving and receiving of dowry is forbidden by law. But many progressive and educated families still practise this custom. I understood why our women students tried to postpone that marriage talk by studying German. Because in the Indian middle class education of girls has a high status. A BA of the girl is an asset in the marriage negotiations. All this I learned from my women students in Pune. Here I got my first experience of what patriarchy is.
After my return to Germany in 1968 I wanted to study the position of Indian women more thoroughly. I went to the University of Cologne and told Professor Koenig, a famous sociologist, about my experiences in India and that I wanted to know more about the status of Indian women. He suggested “Why don't you do a PhD on this subject?” I went back to India and did an empirical study on the role conflicts of educated Indian women. There I learned thoroughly what patriarchy means in reality for women. This study was for me also the begin
ning of my commitment in the new women's movement.
JG: What did this realization - what patriarchy is - mean to you? And how do you explain patriarchy to someone today? Many people today in a place like Germany would say that there is no patriarchal system any more.
MM: To me personally it meant that I went on studying patriarchy further and used the same method I had used before. That means: Experience and practice come first. Theory comes later. This method I consider the only one in which the “research objects” can participate as subjects.
I came back in 1968. This was a fantastic moment of history. In Germany the Students' Movement had just begun. These years were also the beginning of the Women's Movement. I participated in both of these movements. While I wrote my PhD thesis I tried to tell my feminist friends about my experiences in India and about patriarchy. But all this was too exotic for them, and too far away. They struggled against male oppression and inequality between men and women in our society.
Immediately after my doctorate I got a job at the School of Applied Social Sciences in Cologne. My specialization was Family Sociology and Sociology of Social Minorities. This was an ideal combination. I could integrate all I had learned before into my teaching. I talked about my discovery of the patriarchal family system in India and elsewhere, on the status of women as a social minority, on alternatives to these systems, on the various utopian movements to build up a new society. For the students all this was new and they were fascinated. They all had to read Engels', “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”, When we discussed whether patriarchy has disappeared under capitalism, as Marx and Engels had predicted, it became clear that it had not. Some of the women were already feminists and asked “What about our job chances, what about studies, what are our prospects for our future? Why don’t women in Germany have the same job opportunities as men? Why is there so much violence against women in our society? Why are so many women raped or beaten by their husbands? Isn't that patriarchy or how do you explain this?”
About ten of these women students started a campaign to establish a “House for Battered Women” in Cologne. I supported them and together we founded the association: “Women Help Women”. Our struggle began in 1976 and by the end of the year we had our “Autonomous Women's House”. It was the first one of such “Women's Houses” in Germany.
The experience of this struggle against violence against women taught all of us that violence is the secret of patriarchy. You can’t understand patriarchy unless you understand the role of violence to uphold this system. And capitalism would not have emerged if it had not been built upon patriarchal ground.
Note: Maria Mies: The Village and the World , Spinifex, Melbourne, 2010
=======Maria Mies is a Marxist feminist scholar who is renowned for her theory of capitalist-patriarchy, one which recognises third world women and difference. She is a professor of sociology at Cologne University of Applied Sciences, but retired from teaching in 1993. Since the late 1960s she has been involved with feminist activism. In 1979, at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague, she founded the Women and Development program. Mies has written books and articles that deal with topics relating to feminism, third world issues and the environment. Some of her published titles include The Lacemakers of Narsapur (1982), Women: The last colony (1988), Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (1999) and The Subsistence Perspective (1999). Today Maria Mies lives in Cologne, Germany with her husband Saral Sarkar.Jeanny Gering is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. She studied Politics and Development Studies at SOAS in London, has worked in Pakistan, India and South Afirca and assists the Dart Cente for Trauma and Journalism Europe. Her stories always take a people’s perspective of political and social change, whether she publishes them in written form, for radio, online or on film. The conversation with Maria Mies was recorded in 2013 in Cologne, Germany. To find out more about Jeanny’s work go to www.jeannygering.com
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