ESR 11 Blog January/February 2023: Fabiola Fiocco

Women. Artists. Nuns.


These months I’ve been working on one of the chapters of my thesis in which I reflect on artistic labour and on the art workers’ campaigns for the recognition of better working conditions and wages. Specifically, I draw a parallel to the Wages for Housework (WFH) Campaign, a pivotal experience in the transnational feminist mouvement. To my surprise, as I was reading about these various initiatives, I uncovered a fascinating historical connection between women, artists, and nuns.


The WFH campaign emerged in various parts of the Western world during the 1970s as a social and political movement advocating for the recognition of domestic work, historically ascribed to women, as an essential component of the productive system. The WFH campaign was promoted by a transnational network of local collectives, often emerging out of left-wing workers’ collectives, which they believed had long disregarded and marginalised women’s struggles – an historical rift still unresolved to this day. The Collettivo Internazionale Femminista, instituted in Padua in 1972 by Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Selma James, Silvia Federici, and Brigitte Galtier, played a particularly crucial role.


The campaign aimed to challenge the common perception of reproductive labour as a ‘labour of love’ and to counteract the isolation of women furthered by the separation between public and private spheres, as well as their economic subjugation. By demanding a salary for domestic work, they sought to set a common horizon of struggle that intersected with the ongoing processes of liberation and self-determination within the feminist movement. In fact, the salary was meant to compensate women for their unpaid labor at home, providing them with greater economic independence and autonomy, and alleviate their dependence on their husbands’ income. Furthermore, welfare measures and family allowances were still primarily remitted to husbands, reinforcing the dependence of women on their spouses and discriminating against unmarried women. A system completely based on the nuclear heterosexual family as the only recognised social unit.


The campaign also made use of a number of national militant newspapers, including Le operaie della casa (The house workers) in Italy or Power of Women and Wages for Housework Campaign Bulletin in the United Kingdom, which collected and circulated news, deliberations, opinions and updates from around the world. While reading one of the issues of Le operaie della casa, I came across a box that recounted the mobilisation of a group of nuns from Bologna who were left without a job due to the closure of the institute where they worked. After the ‘firing’, the nuns turned to the court for a monetary recognition of the work carried out within the institution and the regularisation of their union and insurance position, managing to obtain a substantial compensation from the Magistrate. In the very short article, the work of the nuns, which is framed under the motivation of Christian devotion and charity, was connected to women’s care labour, which was assumed to be done out of love and natural disposition. A parallel that reminds us how the control of (women’s) bodies and the exploitation of reproductive labour, no matter where it occurs, is central to the patriarchal-capitalist system.


This immediately made me think of a similar story written by Airi Triisberg in the book Art workers: material conditions and labor struggles in contemporary art practice.[1] In the essay, Triisberg explores the correlation between the diversity of contracts and funding within the art sector and the absence of social security, particularly health insurance, for art workers in Estonia.[2] Art workers, in fact, are not officially categorised as employees by the Estonian system, nor are they considered as special cases covered by the solidarity principle, which underpins the existing scheme. This legislative ambiguity produces a blind spot that places art workers in a position of vulnerability with respect to the protection of their health that has been addressed several times by art workers’ associations. In 2004, they successfully advocated for the Creative Persons and Artistic Associations Act, which provided unemployment subsidies and health insurance coverage. However, the criteria for registration as an entrepreneur were deemed unsuitable for the working reality of art workers, leading to further battles. The criterion was eventually abolished in 2013.  In 2011, Triisberg recounts, the mobilizations of the art workers had intersected with those of some of the nuns of Pühtitsa convent who were facing similar issue in relation to health insurance. Not having a financial income and being themselves excluded from the list of special cases in the Estonian Social Tax Act, nuns were an occupational group that fell between categories as were art workers. A distortion of the system that had until then been covered by the government with ad hoc measures, and as such never structural, but which with the financial crisis of 2011 and the interruption of the government’s help had re-emerged with full force.


The topic of devotion hence re-emerges as, Triisberg argues, as a common thread between nuns and art workers, who are expected to work out of their inner passion and creative necessity.[3] Religious devotion is here linked to the idea of creating art for art’s sake just as women are required to work for love. An unexpected triangulation that highlights how the institutions of capitalist and patriarchal power appropriate bodies and put them at the service of production, albeit in apparently different ways, while managing and regulating their reproduction through increasingly strict laws and procedures. The maintenance of the system and institutions is thus outsourced to marginalised groups, either from a gendered or financial position. An unexpected alliance in the secular soul of feminist struggles which reminds us of the importance of looking at problems through multiple perspectives, seeking common horizons of struggle.


I want to conclude the blog by acknowledging the great kindness and the precious work carried out by militant archives, specifically the MayDay Rooms archives and the Bishopsgate Institute of London, and Archivia, the archive of the International Women’s House in Rome, for their effort in protecting and promoting the invaluable and fragile legacy of past struggles.

[1] A. Triisberg, Unwaged Labour and Social Security: A Feminist Perspective, in E. Krikortz, A. Triisberg and M. Henriksson (Eds.), Art workers: material conditions and labour struggles in contemporary art practice, self-published, Berlin, 2015, pp. 85-99

[2] ivi, pp. 92-94

[3] ibidem

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