Women do reproductive work – giving birth, breastfeeding and nurturing – without which human continuity is not possible. But this very reproductive work that they do as mothers, that makes them vulnerable, because it confines them to the lack of autonomy.

Historically, the idea of autonomy was connected with the notion of citizenship. In Antiquity, Aristotle believed that citizenship was based in ‘friendship’ and denied the capability to grasp its notion to women and slaves, i.e. to those who lacked either resources or status positions to be seen as autonomous: they always belonged to someone. When the idea of citizenship was coined in its modern complexity in eighteenth-century France, women were denied full inclusion on the basis of their ‘special traits.’ Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers argued that women did not possess the qualities of autonomous subjects necessary for being citizens: they were not rational enough, their moral judgment was too partial, they were not capable of self-representation or grasping the concept of objectivity. The lack of these qualities was viewed as women’s nature; now we think of this denial of autonomy as derived from women’s lack of resources (or lack of access to resources). And access to citizenship was allegedly based on ‘identity features’ of individuals, yet their identity depended on the recognition by others, on the external confirmation of autonomous individuality and independence through social interaction. The distinctions between those who possessed the necessary ‘autonomy’ and those who did not have the autonomous individuality were eventually worked out to be of two types: between those who were economically and socially dependent and independent, and between women and men. Women and the poor are often (especially in the welfare state) seen in the same category. Like the poor, they do not have the resources that are necessary to exercise agency and be recognized by others as autonomous subjects, and they do not have them because they are busy doing something, which is not ascribed an economical value. They do reproductive work: birthing, nurturing and caring.

Marx argued that under capitalism ‘only labor that is exchanged against capital is productive labor and produces value’ and that if the good is not sold, its value cannot be realized or even said to exist. Thus, the work that women do produces no value: you can work your guts out, but still have no resources that matter economically. In this sense reproductive work does not provide the means to become autonomous subjects: only work outside the home does.

If agency is impossible without economic independence, socialism seemed to repair the situation, having socialized many of the family’s functions and thus providing women with the opportunity to work outside the home. Putting aside the issue of the double burden, that necessarily comes to mind in association with ‘women’s work,’ the main problem with it is that the support of working mothers was tied to the socialist system of resource allocation. This has two important implications.
The first one is how this type of resource allocation – not through the market, but through state policy – shapes agency. As there was no market, no kind of work had ‘value’ in the old capitalist sense. Everyone contributed one’s labour for the general good, receiving in reciprocity resources from the father-state (at least ideally) and then everyone lacked autonomy to some extent. In a sense, socialism denied liberal subjectivity, which is about active agency, to everyone, not just women. It promised (and largely provided) equality and livelihood, but made citizenship problematic: that was rather about formally having a national passport, than about being able to confront the state. The resources needed to enter active citizenship cannot be ‘given:’ they should be earned.

The second implication is that this kind of social provision can exist only in conjunction with socialism as the system of providing for everyone: it is incompatible with the capitalist idea of economic rationality and efficiency or, in other words, with the pursuit of profit. When the system changes from socialism to the one built around economic competition and driven by the interests of individual economic actors, the old contradiction of paid work versus reproductive work returns.

In today’s globalized and competitive economy, a ‘new employment model’ is in the making. Conceptualizing it, German sociologists H. Pongratz and G. Gunter argue that the current trend of ‘new capitalism’ results in the ‘new logic of corporate labor control, and therefore a fundamental change in the nature of employment.’ New forms of employment are characterized by enhancing the employee’s own responsibility, by more work becoming project-based (i.e., temporary) and done in groups, by outsourcing and subcontracting, by organizing virtual companies and by corporations substituting direct control over their employees with their own intensified independent planning and responsible autonomy. The new ideal worker is characterized by intensified active and practical ‘production’ and commercialization of one’s own capacities on the labour market and inside companies, as well as by self-determined organization of one’s daily life and long-term plans, and by willingness to accept the company as an integral part of life.

The post-socialist labour market relegated whole groups to the status where even thinking of autonomy is ridiculous, while it granted some workers an increase in wages; in return, it demanded a different type of work contract. The new arrangement is based on the idea of an autonomous and competitive, risk-taking ‘global’ worker, who must constantly market one’s capacities, proving that s/he is needed, and be the entrepreneur of one’s own potential. At this point the capitalist competition, which is about who can better sell oneself, is created. It brings profound changes into the life of those participating in it, for you can be there only as long as you are needed. The ‘entire context of life is commercialized.’ The ideal worker, overtly ‘neuter,’ is still gendered. Within the new economy, one’s ‘private matters’ are not supposed to interfere with the company’s pursuit of profit, but these matters are not absent from the life of the society and even from the lives of ‘global’ workers: someone else just takes care of them. It is at the point of the segregation into who dedicates one’s life to being competitive, and who takes care of ‘other things,’ when gender becomes important and embedded in the old issues of autonomy.  As the very ‘concept of a ‘job’ – a working place with a contract, employees’ rights, sick leave, retirements, working hours – is being abolished,’ men get a privilege over women in the new economy, because of the unequal distribution of capacities to cope with the specific dilemmas of self-organized work. The implied employee autonomy, when direct supervision has been eliminated, does not really mean independence, for in the new competition the control is permanent, as the employer needs you ‘totally, exclusively, anytime. What matters is the final product: its cost, quality and meeting a deadline, and not the social context of its production, which has changed drastically. Post-Soviet radical economic and social reforms, carried out with the advice of such proponents of neo-liberal economics as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, included partial dismantling of the system of social services. When receiving Western loan money, enterprises were required to turn their social services elsewhere, as these were impending economic efficiency. Thus with the change in social policy, caring work, without which no economic or social system can function, was relegated from the state to the private sphere. In households with perceived lack of time care may be provided by hired domestic workers (who are always women – and it could be interesting to see what happens to their autonomy), but most often it comes from wives. Passing over reproduction and caring into women’s hands demands re-domestication of women, ‘protecting’ them and placing them within the private as wives, or consuming their sexuality as prostitutes, i.e., confining them to the situation where they ‘cannot refuse’ to do the work relegated to them. They ‘cannot refuse’ because in the process of the rise of masculinity – which is a necessary part of post-socialist class formation – they were excluded from activities on which autonomy and active agency can be built.

When East-European dissidents in the 1970s and 80s were theorizing citizenship and civil society, they relied on male concepts of agency and individuality, but hardly anyone was judging the future freedom in those terms back then. Their goals celebrated democracy, individual autonomy and human rights, and the post-1989 institutional and cultural context did put the emphasis on ‘free agents’ and ‘independent individuals.’ The idea that not everyone was going to be free in the same way did not occur to those well-intentioned dissidents.

Elena Gapova, Director and founder of the Centre for Gender Studies ( https://gender-ehu.org), European Humanities University, Vilnius (Belarusian University in Exile in Lithuania); member of the editorial board of The Slavic Review.