Juan points to the cardboard box, full now of laughing children, and shouts “Get in the bus! We’re leaving soon!” The box that once stored flyers for an anti-ICE action has been transformed. Maria and Donna have drawn wheels on the side, and fashioned the front with headlights. With three wiggling bodies inside, the box is full to bursting: the tape wrapped around the edges is visibly stretching. We glance out of a door that’s slightly ajar to a room where activists are planning how to protect friends, families, and neighbors from deportation. Smiling, we put our fingers to our mouths and whisper: “OK but we have to be quiet. Your parents are at an important meeting right now!” Juan, Maria and Donna all giggle and put their fingers to their mouths too. We climb in with them and the box breaks open, our bodies tumbling onto the carpet.
The Philly Childcare Collective (PCC) is a group of activists that provide free childcare to racial and economic justice groups in Philadelphia. Their system is similar to that of other radical childcare collectives: coordinators offer free childcare trainings for those who want to support movements throughout the city by caring for kids during meetings, trainings and events. The collective develops relationships with activist organizations, and when one of those groups needs childcare, coordinators send out a call to the list of trained volunteers. On the day of the event, volunteers arrive with a backpack stocked with blocks, markers, coloring books, and toys, and ask the organizers where to set up shop. This might be a separate room down the hall, or a small corner at the back of the meeting space. As activists discuss recent setbacks and debate strategy for future actions, volunteers gently hush children’s voices and stifle giggles while climbing aboard imaginary buses.
It isn’t difficult to see why movement organizations would want to provide childcare. Many activists are parents, who might not be able to attend a meeting without free childcare; many are also unable to afford babysitters, and in any case collective provision is usually part of the ethos of the organization holding the meeting. But beyond its value to any individual child or parent, childcare is essential to the work of reproducing movements—to creating the conditions for activist struggles to continue and thrive. We often imagine social movement work as consisting of debates, speeches, and phone banks. But we rarely consider the sustaining activity, often seeming to take place in the background, that make these political moments possible.
Feminists have long demanded that the labor of social reproduction be recognized alongside the productive labor that generates economic value. Wages for Housework famously shed light on the unpaid work in the “social factory” of the family that makes capitalist production possible. A widely circulated poster from the time declares, “The women of the world are serving notice. We clean your homes and factories. We raise the next generation of workers for you . . . We have sweated while you have grown rich. Now we want back the wealth we have produced.” The movement made visible the vast amounts of labor that so often go unnoticed: making beds, wiping noses, ironing shirts, cooking dinners. This work was pushed onto the most marginalized members of society, yet was essential to the continued functioning of capitalism.
In her preface to a recent collection of essays on the subject, Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, historian and theorist Tithi Bhattacharya opens with a question: “If workers’ labor produces all the wealth in society, who then produces the worker?” One can ask a similar question in the context of social movements: if movements’ labor produces change in society, who then produces the movement?
Anyone who has joined a political organization or attended a few meetings in a dusty church basement knows that burnout rates are high. Meetings are long, resources are thin, and the work is emotionally taxing and exhausting. Waves of members ebb and flow. People have lives to lead, families to care for, jobs to go to. Providing childcare at meetings is one way to make sure those meetings continue. But there are others: a whole set of practices, though less widely recognized, are essential to the work of reproducing movements.
Occupy Wall Street is one of the most prominent mass movements in recent memory that made socially reproductive work central to its ethos. In the New York City occupation, kitchens, libraries, and street medics facilitated the ongoingness of the movement. To some organizers, putting energy into these spaces might seem—did seem—like a waste of time. But that changes when reproduction gets taken seriously. A people’s kitchen is a political practice because it works to sustain the movement, as does medical treatment and childcare. Consider, also, the protests led by indigenous activists against the Dakota Access Pipeline. In her new collection of essays, Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, Silvia Federici writes that “Whereas a broad coalition of forces met at Standing Rock to oppose the drilling on the reservation’s sacred grounds, it was primarily women who built the infrastructure that enabled more than seven thousand people to camp for months in one of the coldest parts of the country . . . organizing food and clothing supplies and classes for children, as well as creating slogans for the struggle.” In an occupation, attending to food, clothing and other necessities is obvious if the protests are to continue. But Occupy and Standing Rock are instructive: they highlight the reproductive labor that is actually essential to all movements.
Chrystos is a Menominee feminist poet and activist. As a political poet, they have spent their career writing about the social forces they experienced as part of a struggling indigenous family in San Francisco: colonialism, racism, and patriarchy. A victim of sexual abuse and a broken social services system, the daughter of an indigenous father ashamed of his heritage and a Euro-American mother, themes of marginalization and structural oppression run throughout Chrystos’s work. In a prose poem contribution to This Bridge Called My Back, a collection of political poetry and essays by Black and Third World feminists, Chrystos reflects on their involvement in lesbian movements in the 1960s, revisiting the work they did and how that work was seen by other activists:
Night after night in endless picky meetings discussing everyone’s inadequacies & faults & the harm which men do or night after night in dreary body shop bars drinking themselves into a stupor I worked so hard as part of a local women’s coffeeshop & bookstore, harder than I’ve ever worked I ordered for the kitchen, & the art shows, did shifts, brought flowers, cleaned, met the pest man & phone man, did entertainment, washed a million coffee cups Recently someone told me that a young lesbian whose parents have given her a law practice, commented that she remembered me I didn’t work she said . . .
How does the work of attending “endless picky meetings” relate to that of ordering food, coordinating events, bringing flowers, and washing dishes? The young lawyer mentioned in the anecdote remarks that the latter—where Chrystos spent so much of their time—wasn’t work because they rarely spoke during formal political meetings. For the young lawyer, Chrystos’s labor isn’t the real work of the movement: it wasn’t serious political activity that would change society. Chrystos offers a pained reflection on the time their comrades thought they wasted: “After 3 ½ years,” they reflect, “I had so little left of myself so many bitter memories of women who disrespected me & others.” Gaps in Chrystos’ poem—large spaces between words—foreground the absence left when such essential work goes unrecognized.
Social reproduction is often forgotten along with the people who perform it. This forgetting has serious political consequences. Chrystos describes the erasure of their labor as one of many injuries they experienced as a person of color in a movement led by white women. “I left the women’s movement utterly drained,” they write. “I have no interest in returning.” The failure to take reproduction seriously has a real human impact, and ultimately undermines efforts to build collective action.
In 1970, Ruskin College at Oxford University held the first National Women’s Liberation Conference. After trying to plan a conference on women’s history with their professor Sheila Rowbotham, students Arielle Aberson and Sally Alexander realized women’s history had largely gone unwritten. They held a conference on contemporary women’s issues instead and got a huge response. Due to the larger than expected interest, they needed to change locations for the event, which quickly became a movement event as well as an academic one. According to a Ruskin College history of the meeting, “in what wasn’t intended to be a political statement, traditional gender roles were flipped when a crèche was opened and ran by men while women spoke, debated and attended the conference.”
That year, Stuart Hall was the Director of the influential Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham. By that point, Hall had made a name for himself as a founding member of the New Left Review, and by advancing the study of culture and communication from a Marxist perspective, placing new emphasis on race and gender in economic analysis. Hall was also involved in movement work as an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Though not known as a childcare provider, he was one of the men taking care of kids at the National Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College. Chandan Fraser took this photo of the famous theorist doing childcare:
Last year, this photo circulated on social media, usually accompanied by praise for Hall’s remarkable contributions to the women’s movement. In a piece for Frieze, the scholar Stephenie Degooyer asked viewers to attend more closely to the background of this image:
There is a woman, her back to the camera, body bent over a child, reading perhaps. I wonder how many books, albums, artworks, made by men and women, have been assisted by labour such as this—invisible, unacknowledged, unpaid? Taken out of its private archive and posted for public celebration, this image centers a male scholar as a leftist hero to women, when what he is doing should be seen as merely routine. I can only imagine Hall would be horrified to be cast in such a light. Men should care for children without expecting credit. Once they do, perhaps we can finally begin to imagine a more ambitious and inspiring utopia for people of all genders. This is what the Women’s Liberation Movement conference—its full title—was all about.
Even as we celebrate the conference’s efforts to alter gendered relations of care-work, Degooyer asks us to consider how this event is memorialized. Why is it Hall’s image that has circulated decades after the historic gathering, rather than, say, the two women who organized the conference in the first place? In our rush to celebrate Hall’s contribution to caregiving, whose routine work is made invisible?
Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America understands the profound importance of childcare when organizing, and offers one model for pursuing the kind of movement Degooyer asks us to imagine. In 2017 they launched their Socialist Sprouts program, which aims to “meet the needs of children and caregivers” and to build an inclusive movement by “alleviating the burden that is placed on the shoulders of individuals whose needs are often overlooked, and whose labor is exploited by the capitalist imperialist system.” Full of practical tips and political analysis, the Socialist Sprouts guide outlines how to provide childcare at every meeting as a movement guarantee, rather than a special accommodation available upon request. They situate this commitment within a broader social context where childcare is prohibitively expensive, creating an especially heavy burden for low-income families. With this reproductive concern left unaddressed, low-income parents are effectively excluded from democratic socialist organizing, and their children are excluded from activist spaces. As the guide aptly notes, “To change everything, we need everyone.”
In 1977, activist Barbara Smith organized a series of retreats for Black feminists from around the country. Reflecting back on this time in a recent interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Smith describes how her work as an academic had brought her into contact with other Black feminists. “I felt like wow, it’s so frustrating that we’re so separated,” she recalls. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get together?” She orchestrated a series of gatherings in comrades’ homes, designed to foster social connections, share literature and resources, and create space for political discussion. But what stands out in Smith’s memory is the food: at the heart of each retreat was “food of a level you could not even imagine.” “My sister and I, we loved to cook,” Smith explains. “We would just absolutely throw down.” She notes that for many of the women attending these retreats, cooking held particular importance as a shared cultural practice among Black women. Beyond its cultural significance, the food at these meetings was deeply nourishing, fueling the intense, three-day sessions of sharing, debate, and building power.
Feminist writer and activist Starhawk has a long history of participation in peace, environmental, and anti-globalization movements. An educator and trainer in nonviolent direct action, she has put her body on the line countless times—from antiwar movements of the 1960s to the 1999 blockade against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Starhawk’s political writings extend beyond these newsworthy encounters to the collective formations that make them possible. In her book Dreaming the Dark, she reflects upon the work of meetings, and the question of how bodies are arranged in space. Here, she contrasts the formation of a circle with the hierarchies—or “ladders”—that structure capitalist institutions. “In a circle, each person’s face can be seen, each person’s voice can be heard and valued. All points on a circle are equidistant from its center: that is its definition, and its function: to distribute energy equally.” Starhawk advocates the circle over rows facing forward, to ensure equal recognition while speaking and listening. But she notes that adopting this formation is no simple task. “We are familiar with ladders; we understand them even when we dislike them; they make us comfortable because we know what to expect.” As Starhawk makes clear, the arrangement of bodies in a space has tremendous influence over the interactions and relations fostered within it. But altering those relations takes ongoing, concerted work.
Political meetings rely upon social reproductive labor: washing dishes, caring for children, feeding participants. But the meeting itself also presents a reproductive challenge: how do participants sit, in what sequence do they speak, how do they address one another? The stakes of these questions are high, and can ultimately sustain or destroy us. These sorts of high stakes are why Silvia Federici lifts up movements that “place at the center of their political project the restructuring of reproduction as the crucial terrain for the transformation of social relations.” The work of reproducing movements is not only that of sharing the invisible labor that makes a meeting possible; it is also about attending to the ritual practices of meetings themselves, like speaking and listening, that foster and maintain relations of activism. This is the work of meeting needs.
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