The most important historical question addressed by the book is how to aCCOUnt for the execution of hundreds of thou.sands of “witches” at the beginning of the modern era, and how to explain why the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against WOmen.
Feminist scholars have developed a framework that throws much light on this question. It is generally agreed that the witch-hum aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch-hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism. But the specific historical circumstances under which the persecution of witches was unleashed, and the reasons why the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women have not been investigated. This is the task I take on in Caliban and the Witch, as I begin to analyze the witch-hunt in the context of the demographic and economic crisis of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the land and labor policies of the mercantilist era. My work here is only a sketch of the research that would be necessary to clarify the connections I have mentioned, and especially the relation between the witch-hunt an.d the contemporary development of a new sexual division of labor, confining women to reproductive work. It is sufficient, however, to demonstrate that the persecution of witches (like the slave trade and the enclosures) was a central aspect of the accumulation and fomlation of the modern proletariat, in Europe as weU as in the “New World.”
There are other ways in which Caliban mId tire Witch speaks to “women’s history” and feminist theory. First, it confirms that “the transition to capitalism” is a test case for feminist theory, as the redefinition of productive and reproductive tasks and male-female
relations that we find in this period, both realized with the maximum of violence and state intervention, leave no doubt concerning the constructed character of sexual roles in capitalist society. The analysis I propose also allows us to transcend the dichotomy
between “gender” and “class.” If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cuJrural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations. From this view point, the debates that have taken place among posmlOdern feminists concerning the need to dispose of “women ” as a category of analysis, and define feminism purely in
oppositional terms, have been misguided. To rephrase the poine I already made: if feminity has been constituted in capitalist society as a work-function masking the production of the work-force under the cover of a biological destiny, then “women’s history” is “class history,” and the question that has to be asked is whether the sexual division of labor that has produced that particular concept has been transcended. If the answer is a negative one (as it must be when we consider the present organization of reproductive labor), then “women” is a legitimate category of analysis, and the activities associated with “reproduction” remain a crucial ground of struggle for women, as they were for the feminist movement of the 1970s which, on this basis, connected itself with the history of the witches.
Silvia FEDERICI, Caliban and the Witch, p. 14