If capitalism constructed the figure of the housewife, then women can disassemble them both.


When, where and how was it decided that women would, by default, take care of housework? Even more, how is it possible that in our advanced capitalist society, where wage marks the symbolic line between production and dependence, housework is accepted as a natural condition, an attribute distinctive mainly to women and destined to be unwaged.

In her seminal book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici points to the profound transformations introduced by capitalism to the reproduction of labor-power and the social position of women. At first, it required the transformation of the body into a work machine, and then the position of women as the means of biological production of workforce. Capitalism is grounded on division amongst the working class, establishing hierarchies built upon gender and race. As a system, it institutionalized patriarchal society based on productivist premises on which most of us have been trained.

With the advance of capitalism during the Twentieth Century, the division of labor and class accentuated also a division of gender. If the Second World War created the conditions for the development and the spread of international architecture throughout the western world, the techniques and materials developed by war industry also catalyzed the development of appliances marketed for women, to efficiently manage housework. In this way, the idea of domestic happiness was born.1 But these developments didn’t called into question the seclusion of women to the domestic sphere and the denial of interaction in circles beyond those related to child and housework.

Oihane Iragüen_01
Oihane Iragüen. Semioticsofthekitchen.com (2016)

In the early 70s, the movement ‘Wages for Housework’ promoted by The International Feminist Collective and fed by ideas of Italian Operaismo, pointed to the fact that childcare and housework are essential for industrial work since together they are the basis in which its workforce is reproduced. The movement was revolutionary because it confronted capitalism with a reality already common to most women – and pointed to the relevance of unwaged reproductive labor within the capitalist growth model. As pointed out by Silvia Federici, “The WfH movement had identified the house-worker as the crucial social subject on the premise that the exploitation of her unwaged labor and the unequal power relations built upon her wageless condition were the pillars of the capitalist organization of production.”2 Mariarosa dalla Costa and Selma James, both co-founders of WfH eloquently assert that ‘If you are not paid by the hour, within certain limits, nobody cares how long it takes you to do your work.’3

Some feminists objected ‘Wages for Housework’ considering that the movement institutionalizes housework as a task for women. Nevertheless, in the core of the movement was a clear attempt to emancipate housework from its traditional gender bias, challenging the myth that it is “women’s labor”. The critique was never intended as a dichotomy of gender – a confrontation between women and men, but its demands were posed to the state as representative of collective capital – “the real Man profiting from this work”.

Martha Rosler. Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).

Throughout the second half of the last Century, with the normalization of neoliberalism on a global scale, and the expansion of the world labor market under the hollow promises of trickle-down economics, accumulation by dispossession and class division accelerated. Under neoliberal agenda, feminist politics has focused on achieving equal workspace and pay for women and men4, and has neglected perhaps the most important lesson from the ‘WfH’ movement: the identification of unwaged housework as a pillar of capitalist growth. We are yet to identify a state where housework is recognized and paid in a similar way to waged labor. A recent OECD survey points to Nordic countries as having the most equal distribution of paid and unpaid work. The survey indicates that gender equality is not only about women reaching full-time employment but also about men reducing their long hours in paid work. Although it offers some advance towards gender equality, the OECD position fails to challenge the symbolic line between paid and unpaid labor, nor make the case for housework as a fundamental driver of capitalist modes of production.

The OECD survey suggests that Japan is the least equal when it comes to the balance of paid and unpaid work. According to Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare; by 2010 the percentage of women that continued to work after childbirth was around 46% of all working mothers. The same report states that, of all working mothers, 86.6% took childcare leave compared to just 2.3% of male workers who did. Data suggest that Japanese women juggle to combine the paid job with housework; and also reveal that, until housework and childcare are recognized as the basis of economic production, the liberating gift of work will remain a poisoned chalice for most women.

Household X_BNKaho Minami in Household X by Kōki Yoshida (2010).

Is there a way to correct this inconsistency? What if a rebellion emerges from within the home itself, growing into a network which challenges the very foundations of patriarchal capitalism?

Starting in the late 90s and boosted during the first years of this century, a group of Japanese women gave unexpected meaning to their condition as housewives, redefining the very concept of domestic housework in the form of online currency trading. Something that started as a micro-economy of online trading became a destabilizing force in foreign currency exchange markets.

The financial success of the FX Beauties relies on their ability to take care of the most minute details in household saving; an ability developed through several years of post-war frugality. These tansu (named after the traditional wooden cupboards in which savings are stored) constituted one of the world’s largest pool of savings.5 Investing those savings in volatile trading markets worked as long as the yen did not increase in value against the currency of investment. Their strategy is mimicked by professional traders, banks and hedge funds today, who all borrow in yen at low-interest rates, converting it into foreign currencies before investing the return at higher rates (yen carry trade strategy). By 2007 the yen began to rise, and returns on investments fell dramatically, provoking the loss of several family savings. Several trade experts relate the global liquidity before the 2008 financial crisis to this carry trade in yen.

The success of the FX Beauties attests to the power of decentralized action to destabilize the very system that enables that action to take place. The adventure of these enterprising Japanese women could also be taken as an exemplary narrative of emancipated housewives, undermining the patriarchy imposed by capitalism, and questioning the distinction between categories of paid and unpaid labor. Read as a collective action they are digging up the unwaged foundations that sustain capitalism and translating housework into a quantifiable financial force.

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Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series (1990).

Nonetheless, their activity is also a manifestation of the pervading power of money in contemporary society and the successes and failures generated by greed in stock markets. The FX Beauties celebrate the imagination, obscurity, and unpredictability of human relations. Their collective action is an exploration of a subjective and gender-neutral realm, made up of our desires and intuitions.

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Carrie Mae Weems. The Kitchen Table Series (1990).


This text was written for the publication project (On the Floating World of) the FX Beauties edited by Christine Bjerke exploring the gendered environments of Japanese female Forex trading collective, the FX Beauties.

[1] Beatriz Colomina. Domesticity at War. MIT Press 2007.

[2] Silvia Federici. Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. Autonomedia 2012.

[3] Dalla Costa and James The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Falling Wall Press 1972.

[4] Equal Pay Day and other similar initiatives investigate why women are still paid less than men and carry actions toward an equal wage for labor developed both by women and men.

[5] Satyajit Das. Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk. John Wiley and Sons, 2011.

Main pic. Being a Stay-at-Home Mom. Source Japan Info


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