Friday, July 30, 2010
The Gift Economy and Reconceptualizing Women's Labour
I am a very simple woman and I take pleasure in very simple things and this fact often makes me completely incompatible with many of the things that modern feminists advocate today. I do not see my home as drudgery, nor do I look upon my children as some burden that I am carrying. On the contrary, this is the center of my life and a place of pleasure. If I could once more feel the life of a child moving within my body, it would bring me great joy and yet this desire to procreate, is not something that I can see modern feminists embracing. My life is not about breaking through glass ceilings; it is about the simplicity of taking care of my family.
For me, this care begins in my kitchen and not a high powered office. Feminism is about choice as long as you choose to follow the party line, but if like me, you choose hearth and home, there is no place for you. My work in the kitchen services the private sphere, and as such it is easy to overlook because it provides no profit for my family. There is a social failure to recognize that without the nurturing work of women, society could simply not afford to continue with the model of labour we have chosen to organize our society. We do not count the value of this labour, though it is absolutely essential to the functioning of society. It is seen as gift labour because it comes from a place of love, which is why so many are quick to suggest that women should abstain to thereby elevate the value of female labour. This is a completely unrealistic solution. Someone must wash the clothes, clean the home and cook food -- and if so called empowered women refuse to do it as a symbol of their empowered femininity, you can be assured that there is a WOC fulfilling this role for them. The exploitation of WOC in the field of domestic labour does not elevate women, it simply racializes the oppression by using class as a weapon. It further does not recognize the experience of WOC and women from outside a North American context. There is a relationship for many women with food and their homes that cannot be broken simply because some western White woman believes this is the best path forward. For many, food means family; it means love.
Years before the children were born I had some friends over for dinner, and one of them asked me why I cook for the unhusband and why I took such pleasure in it. My answer was simple - "because I love him and deem him worthy of my time and affection". I take pride in my work in the kitchen and am pleased when it results in pleasure for those that I love. The problem is not the labour, in fact this labour is essential to life. The issue is that we have forsaken the gift economy and devalued this labour. People have forgotten the value of giving, in the name of acquiring commodities that are purposefully designed to fail. Even when there are those who would make the choice to give, a capitalist economy presents barriers that are for many insurmountable. Today it takes class privielge to cook with real ingredients and produce a meal that is not loaded with chemicals that kill the earth. Would our great-grandparents recognize much of what we consume as food today? How many people know what the earth really feels like in their hands? Food takes time and capitalism assures that this is something that is in short supply for the working poor.
One cannot radically bring about a change in the lives of women without creating a vision of a gift economy combined with a loving respect for the earth, yet to say this is to be accused of backwardness. Have we really achieved the kind of progress we think that we have? Has the modern age brought about liberation, or have we in fact become slaves to the machines and the capitalists? Is there a direct relationship between our labour and our survival, or have we created nonsensical jobs to fill time and further separate us from the pursuit of our true joys? We spend on average 40 hours a week at meaningless jobs, dull our sense with pop culture, drink and do drugs to anesthetize ourselves -- and this is the life cycle. This is what we call progress. What I do is radical not simply for eschewing modernity and the trappings that it brings, but in the fact that for me there is wealth, power and love in subsistence. There is pleasure and a necessary function of the gift economy. Choice should mean actual choice, because otherwise we have not created liberation and or freedom, what we have done is to create yet another form of performance by which we must be judged by.
My labour comforts me, it does not contradict who I am as a person and it is freely given with love to those I love. A gift economy empowers the worker and gives value as well as subsistence should we chose to look outside of money -- a creation that has not uplifted us. It means time and craftsmanship. It means personal responsibility and complete radical endowment of the feminine with power. It is time to look away from seeking equality with men to re-defining what it is to truly live. As long as the feminine is the necessary opposite of the masculine, we will forever be attempting to beat them at a game that was designed specifically for our defeat.