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Feminism and Crisis

Women for decolonization and debt justice

A Decolonial Feminism by Françoise Vergès, translated by Ashley J. Bohrer. Pluto Press, 128 pages.

A Feminist Reading of Debt by Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago, translated by Liz Mason-Deese. Pluto Press, 112 pages.

Who cleans the world? Depending on who you ask, the question isn’t so direct. Some might think about their own household and reflect on the person who never cleans the toilet or the person who happens to be too busy to do the dishes. Others might imagine the people who clean their workplace: the buildings, train stations, and even schools where they’re employed. Whether in the home or beyond, however, this labor tends to be badly paid, and feminists have long raised their discontent about commodified care work—and the underpaid and invisible travail of cleaning.

In her latest book, A Decolonial Feminism (translated by Ashley J. Bohrer in an edition from Pluto Press), the French political scientist Françoise Vergès points out that “billions of women take care of cleaning the world every day, tirelessly.” She invites readers to consider a moment when such workers withheld their labor and stopped cleaning, taking us to Paris, where a strike among cleaners brought up questions about the racialized and gendered nature of cleaning jobs in France. According to Vergès, the cleaners’ strike of 2018—a forty-five-day grievance led by mostly ethnic minority and migrant women workers of Gare du Nord—ignited a battle about the nature of work but also about the unexamined, colonial legacy of racialized labor in France.

The cleaners were employed by ONET Group, a private management company that provides contract laborers for SNCF—a major French train company. When the workers went on strike, they wanted to improve their working conditions, but in effect, they were also bringing to light the extractive and exploitative operations of ONET and SNCF. In her text, Vergès traces the historical significance of these companies—they have been working together since the 1930s—as well as the political currents of the strike. She shows how these workers were not only an anchor for French labor struggles but a seed for decolonial feminism.

The cleaner’s strike of 2018 ignited a battle about the nature of work, but also about the unexamined, colonial legacy of racialized labor in France.

Originally published in 2019 by the French publisher La Fabrique, A Decolonial Feminism offers a jagged and emotional account of colonialism by Vergès, a veteran political scientist and historian who has written over a dozen books on slavery, colonialism, and revolution. Vergès borrows from Angela Davis, who asserts that “feminism involves so much more than gender equality” in the workplace. She moves away from what she refers to as civilizational feminism—think girl bosses—and toward a feminism that centers the most marginalized—working class women, transgender women, and women from the Global South. With intersectionality in mind, Vergès reckons with the ways that race and gender, class, and labor, are not divorced from one another but rather reinforced in “the totality of social relationships.”

Vergès inserts her biography into the text, writing that her “interest, curiosity, and commitment to emancipatory struggles is grounded in the political and cultural education I received on Réunion Island.” As the daughter of Paul Vergès, who was the founder of the Communist Party of Réunion, her political heritage is rooted in anti-capitalism and the French worker’s struggle. She supplements that tradition by laying out the link between colonialism and sexism, moving beyond an orthodox version of class above everything else while trying to elucidate the social ecosystem that creates paid, unpaid, and underpaid work.

Her disappointment in bourgeois white feminism is a recurring theme throughout A Decolonial Feminism. Speaking on the complications of gender across race and class, Vergès observes: “Enslaved women were Black and women, but on the plantations, all enslaved human beings were beasts of burden.” This assertion is not entirely new. In Women, Race, and Class, Angela Davis writes about the lot of Black women on the plantation: forced to work, coerced to reproduce, overcome by a hard and bitter life that was far removed from the social struggles of bourgeois and free white women who mostly advocated for their needs and no other women. In the United States, the continued nonalignment of some feminist struggles has far-reaching consequences today.

What Vergès offers in A Decolonial Feminism that Davis does not is a snapshot of how Black and Arab women were and continue to be represented in French imperial discourse. She points to the thorny “negrophobic” and Orientalist tropes—seized on by the far right, by liberals, and by self-identified feminists—that assume Black and Muslim women need saving. Verges argues that this is not only insulting to these women but that it erases their own struggle against colonialism.

Her critique of Western feminism is reminiscent of Sara R. Farris’s articulation of “femonationalists”: far-right European women who use the language of feminism to espouse Islamophobic policies. Like Farris, Verges asserts femonationalism as a feature of French politics; she dates the movement to the 1960s as part of a “pro-colonial, repressive right wing in the overseas departments,” which dictated migration and birth control policies. There is no doubt that French colonial legacies bleed into the present, signaling some of the social hierarchies in France today. Vergès argues that letting go of archaic forms of feminism might be our best hope for a decolonial practice; I tend to agree. We might find there is more to be found in applying feminist approaches to decolonialism—opportunities for autonomy, and for refusal. Her analysis points to feminism’s relevance in unpacking societal divisions beyond gender, which is also captured in a feminist reading of another political crisis: debt.

In A Feminist Reading of Debt—also published by Pluto Press—Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago interrogate debt beyond the individual and situate the phenomenon as financial terror. They argue that this terrorism “forces the poorest sectors (and now not only those sectors) to go into debt to pay for food and medication and to finance the payment of basic services in installments with incredibly high interest rates.” But it doesn’t end there: the dispossession of the indebted directly contributes to the accumulation of capitalists. And for the authors, overturning that injustice is the soul of their resistance.

Emerging from their participation in the Ni Una Menos Collective, Cavallero and Gago are a product of the first international feminist strike, which sought to address gender-based violence, financial exploitation, and unpaid care work. With an international collective of students, unionists, and feminists, they had a simple message to offer at the crux of an economic crisis: “The debt is owed to us.” In A Feminist Reading of Debt, Cavallero and Gago acquaint us with the international feminist strike and movements that subsequently exploded across Argentina, North America, and Western Europe.

The authors note that it is not enough to say that women are disproportionately and negatively impacted by debt. How do we provide a feminist diagnostic to cut across the situation that creates debt in the first place? Several key progressive scholars inform their feminist analysis of debt: Silvia Federici, Saskia Sassen, and Wendy Brown. They do not just think about the present neoliberal form of debt; following David Graeber’s analysis, they point to debt as a colonial feature of the Global North to maintain a regime of control over the Global South. Debt’s colonial roots, in order words, shape debt today.

And so, they write, debt begets obedience. But collective resistance instills confidence on the part of the oppressed. In 2017, for example, feminists across fifty countries marched and withdrew their labor on International Women’s Day. By many measures, this was a feminist general strike. Cavallero and Gago explain who is included in that framework. The aggrieved are

those of us who spend all day managing accounts . . . women, housewives, female heads of households, formal workers, popular economy workers, sex workers, migrants, inhabitants of the villas or favelas (informal settlements or slums), Black and Indigenous women, travestis, campesinas, or students.

In other studies of grassroots resistance, they tour through the Argentinian feminist landscape, drawing attention to the people behind ollas populares (popular pots), free food distributed in the plazas of Buenos Aires: a new generation of women and non-binary activists who are “politicizing the crisis of reproduction” in the public space.

They also remind the reader that the lives of these heroines can be cut short. In 2018, a primary school teacher in Buenos Aires who protested school closures was kidnapped and tortured, with “no more pots” carved into her stomach. As Cavallero and Gaga write, “It transmits a message: the same one that was already circulating through anonymous fliers that said that the next olla would be in the cemetery.” The overall effect of this horrendous act was intimidation—a way to instill fear in the feminists who had gained confidence with a new set of international comrades. Argentinian feminists who were collectively challenging austerity and unpaid care work could still be met with individual terror. Their harrowing depiction of capitalism was thus corroborated.

Debt perforates through our lives, affecting how we live, where we live, and the ways we relate to each other. And it is clear that we live in a debt crisis that has been unequivocally damaging to women, transgender, and non-binary people. The capitalist con is that even when working class and racialized women try to do all the “right things”—seek an education, buy a home, or work for themselves—they are cordoned into financial disrepair. In the United States, women represent the majority of the indebted among the country’s $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, and Black women are disproportionately crippled by this usury. Even more horrific are microloans, which were originally advertised as empowering women in the Global South—with the assumption that it would provide them with financial autonomy. Instead, this profit-driven model has buried many women further in debt. This tension is a perfect illustration of why feminism against debt must also be decolonial, since we can see how colonial dynamics play out in these financial programs. But how do we express these alienating politics into action and create something different?

Debt begets obedience. But collective resistance instills confidence on the part of the oppressed.

A Feminist Reading of Debt and Decolonial Feminism belong to a recent set of texts that recognize that feminist practices are far from simple when it comes to sifting through the detritus of injustice. We can see feminist movements on the one hand turning toward internationalist strategies for liberation while also being throttled by the violence of capital. These books offer shrewd feminist contributions to the fields of debt and colonialism, but a weakness of both is that they are lacking in animated and empathetic details of feminist movements: the messiness of organizing, the intermingling of seasoned and budding activists, the metabolic activity that puts people on the streets in the first place. My confession: I find these texts of particular interest yet layered with ideological garment. Both lack the rhythm of the everyday, the spark that radicalizes feminists. Missing from A Feminist Reading of Debt is the kind of evocative imagery that demonstrates the financial wreckage that upends women’s lives. In A Decolonial Feminism, Vergès’s narrative style is taut and trenchant, but the text is drenched with slogans, and it could benefit from more entries by the people she seeks to center.  

While Vergès does speak about specific struggles in France—namely the cleaning people who do the work of striking and winning—they are all part of the country’s active working-class tradition of massive strikes. In 2018, the year of the SNCF cleaners protests, public sector workers were in revolt across the country—with some under the banner of the yellow vests. But outside of these broad movements, there is only a superficial engagement with Black feminism in her book. Vergès refers to reparations in passing without fully engaging with the growing movement, and reparations are nearly entirely absent from Gago and Cavallero’s book. How do we account for the wealth that has been stolen from the formerly colonized? Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s latest book, Reconsidering Reparations, argues that this mode of repair should be a global project. Sadly, Vergès, Gago, and Cavallero provide no plan for a feminist restitution, no feminist recompense. But they do offer us a necessary feminism rooted in radical class politics that comes riven with its own set of practices and goes beyond armchair activism.

We confer so much unpaid labor on those we deem disposable, people who remain invisible. “Since the winter of 2020,” writes Eyal Press in Dirty Work, “our collective reliance on invisible workers who help keep society running has been glaringly exposed.” Press argues that the invisible, undervalued, and underpaid work that makes societies run not only deserves attention for political reasons but for moral ones. In a way, he writes, this dirty work is injurious not just to the people who do the labor but damaging to those who allow it to continue. There is no absolution for those who willingly continue to maintain systems of inequality. But their ambivalence doesn’t really matter when the marginalized revolt.

Recently, cleaners in France have once again been in rebellion, with hotel cleaners leading demonstrations and strikes to improve their working conditions. In May, after a twenty-two-month battle over compensation and conditions—both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic—cleaning staff at an Ibis hotel in Paris won. As always, one of the major distinctions in this battle is demographic. The workers in this sector are often women, of immigrant background, and un- or undercompensated. It is notable not just that they are racialized but that in their actions they are speaking to what they are owed, as workers who gave their mind, body, and spirit to the cause.

“The call to obligation, duty, debt, and care,” writes Maggie Nelson in On Freedom, “can quickly slip into something oppressively moralistic, more reliant on shame, capitulation, or assuredness of our own ethical goodness in comparison with others, than on understanding or acceptance.” Nelson’s work is deeply critical of binaries without completely abandoning the politics of care. This is an important ethic of any feminist struggle. How do we talk about feminism without forgetting the human lives that are compromised by the missed paycheck, the oppressive boss, or the customer who wants to maintain that they are always right? What people are fighting for is an electric sensation, to be unmoored from the death drive of capitalism.

One way to keep the human cost of these systems in mind is to ask: What do we lose when we are indebted, and how does debt stifle our ability to dream? Debt and menial labor both take away from people’s leisure time, from their ability to think and imagine. Vergès writes in her book of the long-term wish “to return all of [our] creative force to dreams of defiance and resistance, justice and freedom, happiness and kindness, friendship and wonder.” In the short term, this might mean cleaning up after ourselves.