Zillah Eisenstein

When Pope Francis paid his historic visit to the United States, our next guest admired that he spoke on behalf of the poor and against the excesses of capitalism, but she also expressed her frustration. “At the risk of being a feminist kill-joy,” she wrote, "no one can successfully address poverty or inequality without recognizing the structural dependence between capitalism and racialized patriarchy. Suffering, in other words, is not economic alone." 

It's an argument Zillah Eisenstein's been making for close to 40 years in her capacity as a professor at Ithaca College and in her writings. Among her many important books are: "Capitalist Patriarchy and The Case for Socialist Feminism," "Against Empire," and "The Color of Gender: Reimagining Democracy."  

Laura Flanders: I'm very glad that this moment welcomes her to our program. I'm so glad to have you here, Zillah.

Zillah Eisenstein:Thank you.

Laura Flanders:I have my copy. Do you see this? From 19-, I guess '82 or something. I'll have you sign it later. Let's start with the basics. This whole idea of suffering is more than economic. It's pretty crude as far as you’re concerned, but can you just lay it out for people that maybe need a moment to grasp what you're saying?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, it is to say that economic existence, life problems, they never exist without a location of an individual person with a body. That body is always raced, and it has a sex, it has a gender, it can even be fluidly so. The point here, historically in that book, was really this simple point: that capitalism was first patriarchal and then when you get rid of capitalism, you're still left with patriarchy.

Laura Flanders: How would you like the Pope to have talked about capitalism or how would you have liked we in the media to talk about the Pope? Because there was kind of silence to all the questions you’re raising.

Zillah Eisenstein:Right. I mean, my criticism is as much to the media and progressives who were embracing him for the way that they really condoned his silences. The question of how you name the system of capitalism, it is capitalist patriarchy. It's actually capitalist, racist, heterosexist patriarchy. For people who want to say well, that's just too many words, I think that the only way we see things is if they're named.

Laura Flanders:You called it intersectional. You say capitalism is intersectional.

Zillah Eisenstein:Right. Yes. Well, in the earliest work I did along with many black feminists actually, we talked about capitalism and patriarchy being mutually dependent. That they were, as Barbara Smith would've said, marbled. Actually, the term of intersection was somewhat questioned at that time as being too linear, as though you have lines intersecting.

Laura Flanders:Because the reproduction of slave-labor force, creating capitalism in America required rape. Can you lay out a little bit more about what you mean about how these two relate, capitalism and patriarchy?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, to the extent that even people talk about slavery as though - chattel slavery - as though it is a system of racism, it is as deeply a system of misogyny and sexism. The only way that slavery got reproduced was by the misuse and rape of enslaved black women. It was central to the system, yet when people talk about slavery, they speak of it as though it is a system of racism. Now, my point is, yes, absolutely, but it is racialized patriarchy, it's patriarchal racism, and actually maybe that's why we haven't done a sufficient job of getting rid of the slave system in the United States.

Laura Flanders:Help us with the history a little bit. I mean, I went back to a page that Ithaca College put up celebrating the many years you've been there, and the first entry is a forum that you held, "Is feminism dead?" in 1979. What have been the junctures at which you think we perhaps went down the wrong road or something else could've happened?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, I think that the junctures are actually made just out of history.

Laura Flanders: Sure.

Zillah Eisenstein: There are moments when there has been a challenge for feminists to stand up and take notice. Most of the time in the United States, the mainstream, liberal, and now neo-liberal factions of feminism win because they really are the most powerful.

Laura Flanders:That's what was happening kind of at '79, '80 ...

Zillah Eisenstein:Right. Right. Then, there really were issues related to the fall of the Soviet Union, then the Bosnian War. I mean, there were more and more issues that brought a kind of radical feminism to the forefront. With the rape camps in Bosnia, the idea again that legal equality is not the same thing as freedom or liberation. Of course, that was historically a huge distinction.

Laura Flanders:How do you define radical feminism?

Zillah Eisenstein:Okay, radical feminism, it really develops in the early '70s. It's height was through the '70s. What was their brilliant contribution to both feminist theory and to politics in general was really the idea that women form a sexual class. That was really trying to say that there's more than economic classes. Women are a sexual class. The problem with it was that they then didn't take the economic classes and really create the intersections that it's not one sexual class, it's a sexual class that shares the system of misogyny and its problems, but it's differentiated along economic and racial lines.

Laura Flanders:And racial lines.

Zillah Eisenstein:But I do think that the least recognized brilliant form of politics, and I was not a radical feminist, is radical feminism.

Laura Flanders:I ask about radical feminism because it’s now the term some people are using as they exclude trans people. Have you had that experience?  

Zillah Eisenstein: Well yes I have, but first to say that radical feminism historically and for probably a couple of decades, really was an enormously inclusive concept about the female body whatever, however it was expressed. It was not used to exclude but rather to problematize what all people face living as women. So today, fast forward about three and a half decades, there been a kind of appropriation I think of the term radical feminism that has no recognition for me to its earlier meaning. Because actually to the exclusion of trans women as not truly female and therefore not truly women is really rooted in a construct that denies the social, cultural, political definition of what it means to be a woman. So the purism of really being able to say that a trans women is not a women --

Laura Flanders: Because you went to a conference of radical feminists and what happened.

Zillah Eisenstein: Well it was a conference dedicated to Shulma Firestone who was an incredible architect of the early radical feminism and at the conference there was a lot of contestation over whether trans women should be allowed in. And when I was asked - I asked about it, I did say, if trans women are not allowed in, then I will not attend. Also, at the same times, in London there was a conference that really faced that as a huge problem, and the conference got closed down as a result of that conflict. But to me these really are diversions and the idea here is to open the meaning of identity, not to close it down.

Laura Flanders: You were one of the first, and I think still probably one of the few feminist critics of Thomas Piketty's work when it came out, his best-seller, although I don't know how many people actually read it, called "Capital." He, too, even in this era or in this era seems to have made all the same mistakes that you were criticizing 40 years ago from left economists. Do you want to talk a bit about your critique of Piketty?

Zillah Eisenstein:Pretty much I've already said it. On the level that for him, his study of capital, that he does, has no consistent analysis of the relationship of the slave trade -- He mentions it, but it is not theorized and understood as part of the problem of capital. He also has no recognition of the multiple forms of labor that women are constantly producing and reproducing in the labor force whether it's domestic or consumer labor, the multiple forms of it. Not a mention of it.

Laura Flanders:Now, those forms of labor are getting quite a new look these days as people talk about what's going to re-stimulate our economy. What's going to change our economy. The McKinsey report recently released talked about the added value that could appear in the gross domestic product of different countries if we included women's unpaid caring work for children, for old people, housework. I think they said in the United States alone that unpaid work constituted something like $1.5 trillion in value. Do you see hope there or are you interested in that discussion? Is that a useful place for us to be looking?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, I'm interested in anything.

Laura Flanders:I know you are. (laughter)

Zillah Eisenstein:That said, it gets in my way because even the distinction between domestic and then paid labor force, I mean, that is a structural constraint that is both racist and misogynist - at its heart. The idea here that I'm going to say okay, 30 years ago they said a housewife is worth 25,800...

Laura Flanders:Right. Wages for housework.

Zillah Eisenstein:So, where does that get us? We’re we supposed to pay the housewife? That's not about restructuring. The issue that has become more in the forefront, which is the tension between individual and structural power. For some reason sex, gender, and race always take second-seat to the idea of what is structural. I am sick of it.

Laura Flanders:(laughs) Well, it takes us back to that brilliant slogan, "the personal is political." I don't know why that hasn't received more scrutiny over time or more attention. It has to be one of the great, insightful slogans of our time.

Zillah Eisenstein:It is totally. I mean, I wouldn't call it a slogan to the extent that it came out of such rich intervention into where is power located. It was really saying that there is a politics to sex, that the public is private, and the private is public. It was really a total realignment of what those relationships are.

Laura:Is that the direction any of our conversations are going around what a lot of people call the "new economy?" As we think of reimagining, is that concept front and center anywhere that's getting you excited? Do you see any models of people who are thinking about gender in this new economy?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, most of the work that I've seen on the new economy doesn't do that. That doesn't mean that it couldn't very easily start to do that.

Laura Flanders:So, encourage them.

Zillah Eisenstein:Yeah.

Laura Flanders:How so?

Zillah Eisenstein:Well, so well, it would be really to try to unsettle some of the categories of really what is considered to be invisible labor or what is considered to be the unpaid force or - what is it - the affective labor. I mean, all of those terms on some level, if they're not interrogated, become reproductive of the system of misogyny and the lessening of the value. I also think we live in such complex times that this affects men and women, males and females. Labor is not as divided as it used to be. We also need to be thinking newly about that.

Laura Flanders: Zillah Eisenstein. You can get a list of books you could read or have on your shelf at our website.