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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Geneviève Fraisse "Service ou servitude"

by Jacqueline Sellem

Geneviève Fraisse : « Service or Servitude »

Translated Wednesday 21 October 2009, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Henry Crapo

A philosopher and a feminist, Geneviève Fraisse has also done her « citizen’s service » as she calls the seven years, from 1997 to 2004, when she was inter-ministerial delegate for the rights of women, then a Member of the European Parliament. But all the while she never abandoned what to her is her essential vocation, namely the construction of “tools for feminist thought”, for “to deny the historicity of the gender question,” she explains, “is a feature of male domination”. The new edition of “Women for All Work" is proof that such demanding investigation is still, or indeed is becoming, increasingly useful.

HUMA: In your preface to the re-edition of Women For All Work you underline the fact that thirty years ago, the standard terminology was “service jobs”. But you did not then imagine that the uses of the word “service” would one day become as rich as they are today. What incited you to take up this line?

FRAISSE: Thirty years ago, namely in the late 1970s, a feminist decade, in which I had been actively involved, was near completion. We vigorously denounced women’s unpaid and invisible domestic work. At the same time, both within and outside the feminist movement, the critique of capitalism exposed the exploitation of labour, notably of female labour. As I tried to construct tools for feminist thought - no matter how loudly you chant “Private life is politics” when out in the street, that still remains to be proved! - I reasoned that women’s invisible labour cannot be dissociated from the question of the exploitation of labour, when some women straddle the two categories, being salaried domestic workers. Cleaners, domestic servants … there were a million of them who, naturally, did not even exist in feminist theory.

The members of the CFDT (which was stronger in that sector than the other unions) militated with a view to becoming part of the labour force. “We are workers too, no different”, they said. But does the path to equality pass through becoming a worker like any other? When I started working on this book, the word “service” hyphenated all the questions that interested me – just as did, later on in my life, the words “consent”, “exclusive democracy”, or “privilege”. But "service" is a word my feminist friends just won’t hear.

HUMA: I remember how, in any feminist meeting in the 1990s, the word would make the atmosphere electric…

FRAISSE: That is a structural difficulty since the emancipation of some implies the oppression of others. This appears in the minutes of feminist conventions in the 1900s. Today, the contradictions are even less easily assumed as the active promotion of this kind of work to the salaried status conceals that other, irreducible and disturbing part. The problem is not to find a solution but to point out the fact that, in a democratic dynamics (whereby maids of all work were replaced by domestic staff or domestic jobs) there remain contradictions that are essential to investigate: on the tax-form, the phrase used is “domestic job”, when the ministry of Labour will use the phrase “service jobs”. The word “jobs” in both cases certainly relates to the salaried classes, but what does the word “service” mean? The genealogy of the word goes back to the servants who, at the time of the French revolution, were denied the right to vote on the ground that they had no autonomy. (Men servants did not get it until 1848). In the early 1900s, in bourgeois families, the skivvy lived in the house, she opened the door, could be rung for in the night. She was the round-the-clock employee that showed the family maintained their rank. In the twentieth century domestic servants gained specific working hours, and a physical autonomy.

But this kind of job, which is becoming more and more invisible these days, remains a service inscribed in an unequal relation, and within the closed domestic sphere. Marguerite Duras’s magnificent text The Public Garden shows what the forced proximity between mistress and her "replacement" is like. And so, at the very heart of women’s emancipation, a non-symmetrical, yet reciprocal dimension develops. This story is rather crazy, and as a matter of fact it leaves men out. But in the case of care services, the person who benefits by them is no longer the rich employer, the bourgeois par excellence, but the vulnerable recipient. Demand comes from the employer. From “serving a person” to “providing services to a person”, the noteworthy difference lies in the change from the transitive to the intransitive formulation.

HUMA: Service or servitude? Is there less servitude in healthcare services?

FRAISSE: The question mark, as well as the connective (“or”) show we are on slippery ground. I have been considering relationships in order to discuss the issue of equality. Also to be considered is the private sphere that can be either simply private or intimate. In the late 18th century, the private sphere was deliberately separated from the sphere of politics to make sure it was not “contaminated” by democracy. Yet, after two centuries of emancipating advances, some democratic standards have broken into the private sphere, for instance the sharing of parental rights. To say that the private sphere is included in the sphere of politics implies defining the “private” and the “intimate” spheres. All the activities that keep the house running smoothly, the cleaning, feeding, or child-care, relate to the political sphere. Sexuality relates as much to the private as to the intimate sphere. It is a political issue in the case of discrimination, for instance against homosexuals. But sexuality is not just politics.

And then think of all that relates to dirt, the limits of the body. What are we to do with those? There is such a thing as filth. And there will be vulnerable men with groping hands when fresh young women come to do the housecleaning. Between all the sorts of domestic jobs and healthcare jobs, the relation is one of continuity, rather than opposition. We are in the sphere of politics and yet we tackle extremely raw issues. This re-edition is interesting in so far as it shows that the swing from household servant to healthcare service (service to the person) does not solve the problem inherent in asymmetry, in dependency, and in what takes place in a closed space with extremely fuzzy limits.

HUMA : You explain how in Portugal, at the time of the Carnation Revolution[1] [1] housecleaners set up a cooperative. They said “We do not want to work for the rich only but for all those who need help…”

FRAISSE : In the early 19th century Fourier[2] [2] thought that since some women wanted to do housecleaning and others did not, a common space could be opened where activities would be distributed. It was a mixture of idealism and realism. That kind of question was often raised in the 1970s.

What I learned from those Portuguese women is that they wanted to take an active part in history instead of being only supernumeraries. That is very important. But it is not sufficient if one wants to change the structure of the relation between public and private, if the goal is equality between the sexes.

HUMA: Some say there is a future for service jobs. Does it mean they are going to be upgraded?

FRAISSE : Some do not use the word “service”; they use the English word “care” instead … thinking that the word carries a certain amount of dignity, since it evokes nursing. And that certainly corresponds to the real situation of vulnerable people, especially the elderly, who are more and more numerous. There are different ways of interpreting the word “care”. Some will see in it only a source of jobs: female, part-time, badly paid jobs… but quite a lot of them, and that is good for figures! Others will hold forth about the triumph of the principle of solidarity, in a society that multiplies relations between its members through private salaried employment. I will not debate with the latter on the question of demanding and demeaning female work but in return, I will raise the question of equality. What is the relationship between equality and solidarity? Is not solidarity of this kind a smokescreen for an unequal society?

And then there remains the question of how the private sphere is managed. How is the permanent, or day-to day recurring dirt to be dealt with? What is to be done with our dirty or sick bodies? Who will be given charge of what ? If I wanted to be polemical, I would say that if women educated their sons more properly, if they taught them to take care of their bodies in a shared space, something would start to change.

HUMA : Your book is a philosophical study of an entire field within the world of work. Current evolutions show how interesting this kind of study can be. Why are today’s philosophers so little interested in work?

FRAISSE : That’s a good question indeed! I will simply evoke one element in the philosophical tradition: maybe the answer is to be found in Plato’s Theaetetus. In the dialogue on knowledge, Socrates relates how Thales had fallen into a well because he had been looking too intently at the stars, a servant girl from Thrace – the region most slaves came from - “started mocking his zeal in trying to know what was in heaven when he did not notice what was in front of his feet !... Now,” Socrates goes on, “as for those who spend their time philosophizing, the raillery is rather well-aimed, for in fact, it is not just that men of that type do not know what their next of kin or their neighbours do, they don’t even know whether they are men or some other sort of creatures!”…Well, I hope I am the descendant of that Thracian servant girl. She deals with the dirt but in the story her role is to mock. That is basically why, at the end of the preface, I mention the servants in Beaumarchais’ or Marivaux’ plays who are critical decipherers of the world.

HUMA: You often say – you do in this preface – that your objective is not to offer solutions but to raise questions…

FRAISSE: I try to translate public debates into intellectual questions. My aim is not to say “I think harder than you do” but to prove that the gender question is a way of thinking as well as a certain functioning of society. Historicity is the key to our understanding of this but everything is done to leave history out. Who knows that the first translation of Darwin into French was done by a woman, Clémence Royer? I am deeply convinced that to deny the historicity of the gender question is a feature of male domination. Being the descendant of the Thracian servant makes it possible to guess that gender too – not just the masses, or men, or structures – makes history.

But our minds are polarized by artificial debates in which we are enjoined to take sides: for or against surrogate motherhood, for or against the scarf, for or against prostitution. The question is not to know if a woman’s consent is real or not when she prostitutes herself. To question the subject behind the prostitute or the woman who wears a scarf is a form of class contempt. The real question is whether consent is a political argument. And to that I say: no! I cannot think correctly in politics without having first carried out an epistemological investigation: with what tools, what arguments do we think?

HUMA: As a citizen, you have made choices…

FRAISSE: All along the seven years during which I carried out responsible political functions, I was naturally politically committed. I made choices and I can formulate them. But what I do as an active participant in history or as an activist is less important than the investigation I carry out through my books. That is why the reception of the re-edition of Femmes toutes mains (Women For All Work) is a great pleasure which I did not expect. Today, this book is understood, which was not the case thirty years ago.

[1(Portuguese: Revolução dos Cravos), also referred to as the 25 de Abril, this was a left-leaning military coup from April 25, 1974, in Lisbon, Portugal, that changed the Portuguese regime from an authoritarian dictatorship to a democracy. Thousands of Portuguese descended on the streets, mixing with the military insurgents. Holding red carnations (cravos in Portuguese), they joined revolutionary soldiers on the streets of Lisbon, in apparent joy and audible euphoria. Source: Wikipedia

[2François Marie Charles Fourier (7 April 1772 – 10 October 1837) was a French utopian socialist and philosopher. Fourier is credited by modern scholars with having originated the word féminisme in 1837;[1] as early as 1808, he had argued, in the Theory of the Four Movements, that the extension of the liberty of women was the general principle of all social progress, though he disdained any attachment to a discourse of ’equal rights’. Fourier inspired the founding of the communist community called La Réunion near present-day Dallas, Texas as well as several other communities within the United States of America, such as the North American Phalanx in New Jersey and Community Place and five others in New York State. Source: Wikipedia

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