Reproductive labour means care, survival, and love. But under the conditions of capitalist modernity, under the aegis of normative heterosexuality and white supremacy, it also means violence.
Both the university and Christian theology are steeped in the language of descent and inheritance. If it’s not church fathers and begats, it’s Doktorvaters and meetings held in rooms filled with images of the white men who have preceded us. I have sat in church halls to be taught about the lines by which this particular theological belief can be traced back to the early Reformers, the apostles, or the Bible; I have sat in cathedrals to be inducted into university life and told about the long storied lines of tradition of which I am about to become a part.
In an article on the idea of genealogy as it is found in Nietzsche and subsequently Foucault, Raymond Geuss draws the distinction between genealogy (in its Nietzschean sense) and pedigree. Where pedigree lays claim to authority by tracing an unbroken, unsullied line back to the source, Geuss suggests, genealogy seeks to expose the violence by which history comes to be – the fractures, the disavowals, the exclusions by which a pedigree constitutes itself. But I want to suggest that the work of genealogy might also consist of an exploration of the violence of reproduction, the way that a pedigree guarantees its survival into the future. What we are told we inherit is what we are expected to pass on; and reproduction is ‘women’s work’.
Talk of reproductive labour – the work that women in particular are assigned within capitalist modernity – has recently returned to both scholarly and popular debates. Reproductive labour is the work of keeping people alive – giving birth, caring, feeding, cooking, cleaning, teaching social skills and manners. Marxist feminists have argued that a central feature of capitalist modernity is the separation of reproductive and productive labour, and the invisibilisation and devaluation of reproductive labour. But just because work is devalued doesn’t mean it’s good. In the world as it currently exists, reproductive labour is fundamentally ambivalent: it means caring for some at the expense of others, love that is structured by the logic of private property, ensuring the reproduction not only of the individuals you love but also of the very order in which they exist. Reproductive labour is calling the police because you feel threatened by the black kid walking down your street; it is writing thinkpieces about the dangers to children of ‘trans ideology’; it is appeals to policy and procedure in the face of organized resistance to declining conditions in universities.
With the separation of productive and reproductive labour which characterizes the advent of modernity comes the relegation – never complete and always contested – of both spirituality and child-rearing to the private sphere, placing both churches and universities at a difficult intersection of public and private life, in the sphere of ‘civil society’. In both, white women like me have used the institution’s reproductive functions as an argument for our inclusion. It is easy to recognise and challenge the role of pedigree in the church and the university: there are so many white men on reading lists, with their pictures on the wall in seminar rooms, with buildings named after them. It is easy to demand a pedigree which opens itself up to include women, too. But to want entry into an institution is to want that institution to continue to exist, and the difficult task of genealogical work demands not only that we name the exclusions of pedigree but also that we pay attention to the difficult work of reproduction.
Matthew’s gospel opens with a pedigree which includes women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. These women’s presence draws attention to the violent exclusions of the pedigree of Christianity. Tamar dresses up as a sex worker to get pregnant by the father in law who seeks to deny her her right to a son and would murder her for her ‘whoredom’ if she had not outwitted him; Rahab the sex worker lies to the city guards, betraying her people to protect the spies of the people who seek to colonise their land in the name of a promise given to them by God; Ruth risks her reputation to secure both sustenance and descendants for her mother in law; Bathsheba is multiply bereaved at the hands of Israel’s exemplary king; Mary is put at the mercy of her betrothed. To include these women’s stories is to recognise the mendacity of pedigree, its hypocrisies and brutalities. But it is also to recognise that the inclusion of women into pedigree is not enough: inheritance reproduces itself, precisely by the agency of women struggling to survive its violence. For all the risks they take, the rules they break, the scandals they cause, these women are admitted to the genealogy because they have sons: becoming part of the pedigree. More than this: while Matthew’s genealogy names women who struggle for survival, perhaps perpetuating the systems of violence which endanger them merely as an unwanted, inescapable consequence of that survival, it does not name the women amongst Jesus’ ancestors who secure their place in the line by enacting violence in the name of reproduction. Where in the genealogy is Sarah, whose treatment of the slave woman Hagar forced her to prefer death in the desert to survival in Sarah’s power; or Rachel and Leah, whose bitter sibling rivalry plays out on the bodies of their unconsenting slave women?
To become part of a pedigree is to be tasked with reproducing it, as every academic or theologian who has ended up in a managerial position or a bishopric is well aware. To become part of a pedigree that is under threat, an inheritance that might not be enough to live on, an institution whose survival is not assured, is to feel compelled to secure its reproduction, as those of us at lower ranked, more precarious institutions know viscerally; as those of us working for the church cannot easily forget. To become part of an institution as a member of a group which has historically been excluded from the university or from the discipline of theology is to be extremely conscious of the fragility of our survival within that institution, to feel the necessity of struggling against the forces of reproduction which conspire towards our ongoing exclusion.
White women in particular are heirs to a long tradition of using others’ exclusion not as an opportunity for solidarity but as a justification for our own advancement; of taking on our expected role as reproductive labourers to violently enforce standards of propriety and respectability. I want to suggest that in the work of genealogy we must pay attention not only to patriarchal inheritance and exclusion but also to the disavowed yet necessary work that women and others considered not fully persons have done both to survive but also to hold onto what scraps of power we can grasp at others’ expense. We must consider, account for, pay attention to the love and the care, but also the violence which is done in the name of survival, under the aegis of ‘women’s work’. To keep ourselves alive within theology’s household is not enough, will not redeem us. We must also reckon with this fundamental question: how to keep ourselves and those we love alive whilst working to destroy the logic of pedigree; how to survive without reproducing ourselves.