Faith Wilding on Wed, 9 Sep 1998 10:00:57 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Duration performance

Duration Performance: The Economy of Feminized Maintenance Work

Faith Wilding

[Performer dressed in a maid's uniform and apron sits at a computer console 
typing these words:] 
This is a story about invisible hands.
This is a story about endless work.
This is a story about women's work of maintenance and survival.
This is a story about the laboring female body in the invisible feminine 
economy of production and reproduction.
This is a story about repetition, boredom, exhaustion, stress, crashes.
This is a story about tedious, repetitive, straining, manual labor harnessed 
to the speed of electronic machines.
[During the narration, the following loop is projected on a video screen:]
clean, wash, dust, wring, iron, sweep, cook, shop, phone, drive, clean, iron,
enter, mix, drive, delete, clean, purge, wash, merge, edit, shop, fold, phone,
file, select, copy, curse, cut, sweep, paste, insert, format, iron, program, 
type, assemble, cook, email, fax, cry, forward, sort, type, click, dust, 
clean, etc.

1.Feminist Maintenance Art: In recent decades, the mass deployment of
electronic technology in offices and workplaces has profoundly changed the
structure of work, and the relationship of home and work life in ways that
are having particularly disturbing effects on women.  In the US, women who
have largely been concentrated in the lower echelons of the labor
market--such as clerical work, the garment industries, manufacturing and
service jobs--are increasingly being thrown out of waged labor and forced
into part time privatized telework, home-based piece work, and service
labor. This situation is once again confining many women to the private
sphere of the home where they perform double maintenance labor: that of
taking care of the family, and that of working in the global consumer
economy. Made possible by automated Information Technology (IT), and
controlled by mobile capital, it is a market economy based on just-in-time
production and distribution strategies that speed up and control the pace
of work and life. 

The global disappearance of secure salaried and waged jobs does not mean
the end of hard labor or tedious, repetitive, manual maintenance work.
Worldwide, much of the rote maintenance work of keyboarding, data entry,
electronic parts assembly, and service labor is still done manually,
predominantly by women.  But the spread of automated machinery into the
workplace and the hidden nature of homework and telework is contributing
to making women's work and women's laboring bodies invisible again. 
In the 1970s feminist performance artists developed work which made
visible women's laboring bodies and their daily maintenance work--the
repetitive, endless, unpaid work that sustains and makes possible the
daily lives of individuals, families, and institutions. The feminist
duration maintenance performance--the actual performance of a domestic
task such as ironing a sheet, scrubbing a floor, etc. lasted as long as
the real-life task--thus compelling the audience to experience the
real-time tedium of women's maintenance work.Feminist maintenance and
duration performances were a strategy to make women's labor visible, and
to foreground issues of working conditions, the gender division of labor,
unpaid labor, and agency in women's domestic work and lives. 

Recently, cyberfeminists have begun to meet, both face to face and
electronically, to discuss ways of analyzing, revealing, and transforming
women's current relationship to IT, as well as how to intervene in the
replication of traditional gender structures in electronic culture. I will
discuss some ways in which these concerns relate to women's changing labor
conditions worldwide; and also suggest how the 70's strategies for making
maintenance labor visible could be adapted by cyberfeminist artists and
activists today. 
[Performer returns to console and types. Her typing is projected on the
 By the early 1980s, women in the US were 43% of the paid labor force. And
43% of all paid employed women were clerical workers. In the US, women
were: 80% of all clerical workers 97% of all typists 99% of all
secretaries 94% of bank tellers 97% of receptionists A MAJORITY OF THESE
JOBS WILL BE/ ARE DISAPPEARING In the US women currently are: 31% of
computer programmers 29% of computer systems analysts 16% of executive
managers 92% of data entry operators 58% of production operators 77% of
electronic assemblers THESE STATISTICS ARE NOT CHANGING FAST. Black women
in the US are: 3% of corporate officers 14% have work disabilities 59% of
all single mothers. HOW MANY OF THESE JOBS WILL DISAPPEAR? At home all
women are: 66% married working mothers 100% of mothers 99% of childcare
workers 99% primary caregivers to the aged 83% of unpaid household workers
99% of domestic caretakers 99% of physical, emotional, and psychic human

2. The Political Conditions of Homebased Telework
(Note: Many of the particulars of this lecture refer to conditions in the US, 
but they are also applicable to many Western European countries, Canada, and 

Recently, cyberfeminist theorists, activists, and artists have been
addressing the role of women in the history of computer development, and
the contemporary gender constructions embedded in the new technologies. In
"The Future Looms,"  cyberfeminist Sadie Plant exemplifies some of the
more wildly utopian claims that have been made for women in technology:
"After the war games of the l940s, women and machines escape the simple
service of man to program their own designs and organize themselves;
leaking from the reciprocal isolations of home and office, they melt their
networks together in the l990s." (2) This free mythical realm--neither
home nor workplace--presumably is cyberspace, which is imagined as a brave
new world for women. Would it were so! But alas, research reveals a far
more complex situation for most women who work in the high tech
industries. Here I will briefly summarize the political and economic
conditions of contemporary female office and home-based teleworkers, and
the regressive effects on women's roles in the home (and of the home in
the market economy) caused by the displacement of large numbers of
employed women who have been forced back into the "informal" (part-time
and home work) labor economy by the global restructuring of work. 

When large numbers of [mostly white and middle-class] women first started
entering the waged labor market, their traditional gender roles of
maintenance and service were easily translated into the division of labor
in offices, banks, and many other work places.  Beginning in the late
l890s women increasingly became the majority of copyclerks, typists,
calculators, stenographers, switchboard operators, bookkeepers, clerical
workers, filing clerks, bank tellers, keypunchers, and data enterers. When
automated office technology was introduced in the 70s, women also became
the majority of computer users in offices and work-places. Because such a
high percentage of employed women (43%) are clerical workers, it is
important to study the effects of the deployment of information technology
on clerical work.  Researchers have noted the differences in how women and
men use computers:  "women seemed to have acquired computer skills that
leave them doing very different jobs than men who use computers." (3)
These skills tend to be the rote entry, filing, and maintenance of data,
done in isolation in front of a terminal. No particular new skills or
knowledge are needed for this work, and most companies never invest the
money to train women clerical workers in more advanced computer techniques
that would give them a chance to climb the internal company job ladders.
They are condemned both to mental and physical repetitive stress syndromes
to such a degree that the turnover in clerical workers is almost 100% in
many offices. 

In the 1990s many of these clerical jobs are being replaced by automated
computers and networks of robotic machines. Secretaries and clerical
workers are the first casualties of the electronic office. Lacking
advanced skills and knowledge capital, these displaced women workers often
have no other choice than to resort to low-skilled part time work, or
home-based telework. Such "home-work" includes different kinds of work
ranging from professional telecommuting, entrepreneurial businesses,
salaried employment, and self-employed freelance work, to (often illegal)
garment and needle industries, electronic parts assembly, and clerical
computer work. While for some upper-echelon female white collar workers
and professionals telecommuting has become part of their job and enhances
their value as employees, for the great majority of other casualties of
electronic joblessness, the forced "choice" of home work is a big step
down--measured in terms of wages, benefits, and working conditions--even
from clerical work in an office, and usually amounts to nothing short of
the enslaved maintenance work that keeps global capital's production lines
and data-banks speeding along.  Opportunities are especially bad for women
of color and immigrants, who tend to be concentrated in jobs with the
lowest level of skills most affected by office automation. 

The political conditions of office and homework in the 90s are
restructuring home and work life in crucial ways, and are producing a
worldwide labor crisis. 

Home work is feminized labor:   

Feminized home work is a structural feature of the contemporary US
telework, data-entry, and service economies, as well as an aspect of the
global sweatshop economy (which includes all kinds of assembly work), and
the computer chip and electronic parts manufacturing industry. "To be
feminized means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled,
reassembled, exploited as a reserve labor force; seen less as workers than
as servers;  subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that
make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always
borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex."(4) Work is
restructured in a way that downgrades and feminizes professional work, and
in turn lowers the pay level and satisfaction of the job.  Ironically,
much of the automated technology was designed to replace the rote
maintenance labor--mostly performed by women--in offices and factories,
and the resultant displacement of women from the public workplace, and the
renewed invisibility of their work, has had the effect of devaluing
women's labor and home-making services even more, both financially and

Home work sustains the gendered division of labor:

It is hardly news that home-based work in industrialized nations has
historically been extremely exploitive. The global restructuring of work
manifests locally, and home work usefully demonstrates "problems in
capital-labor relations and in the gendered division of labor."(5)
Telework is defined as "work delivered to the worker via
telecommunications as opposed to the worker going where the work is."
"Home-based" telework refers to the individual working in the home, rather
than in a centralized location. Surveys show that teleworkers are 5 times
as likely as other workers to be women and to be working illegally,
without benefits or insurance. Teleworkers are often not trained in the
proper uses of machines and materials, or informed of the health hazards
of certain processes. They are paid by the piece--even by the
keystroke--rather than by the hour, and the pressure to speed up
production and work longer hours is motivated by economic necessity rather
than by the employer. There is never time to retrain for higher levels of
work, or to get the education to participate in the more lucrative work of
knowledge production and management.  For example, although women were
central as early developers of software, after it became evident that
software was the lucrative part of computer technology, they were
increasingly demoted to coding and keystroking functions, and have not
been able to regain their early level of participation. 

Home work reinforces women's subordinate status in the home and labor
markets: Despite the much discussed separation of public and private
spheres, the history of home work clearly shows that public power
(capital) has been used to structure the private lives and control work
opportunities for women.  Add to this the fact that the new communications
technologies have opened the home space to the world, and conversely have
brought the world into the private space of the home, and we get a
blurring of boundaries that allows surveillance of the home-based worker
and "makes the home more accessible to employers, marketers, and
politicians." (6) Women teleworkers become industrialized women, while
women in waged jobs become Taylorized homemakers.  As sociologist Arlie
Hochschild noted: "[people]...become their own efficiency experts, gearing
all the moments and movements of their lives to the workplace." (7) For
home-based teleworkers there is no distinction between home and workplace,
with the result that when both personal and worklife become Taylorized
they have no escape.  For women who have often been forced to "choose"
home-based work because of the lack of childcare options--a common problem
for illegal aliens, for example--home-based telework therefore amounts to
a doubling of their bondage to the home space. The blurring of boundaries
in the home-space between private and public also often places the woman
in a doubled psychological subordination--to her employers and to her
husband. The traditional feminine roles of emotional caregiving and
physical caretaking become entwined with her externally controlled,
maintenance telework in the home. In the long run, female rebellion
against these pressures could have the effect of redefining the division
of male and female labor, and of repositioning the importance of home life
and private free time within the public economy and social relations. In
the short run, since home life has no recognized public economic value, it
is being more and more curtailed, automated where possible, and
reorganized to serve the needs of paid work; and women who work at home
have the doubled role of worker and caregivers. 

Home work undercuts progressive labor conditions and standards:

The geographic mobility of capital made possible by IT uses waged labor,
which is space-bound, with the result that geographical areas are
increasingly reduced to the status of a captive labor pool. While this
makes new modes of production (especially home telework) possible, it does
not challenge "the place of the home in the economy, or of women in the
home" (8). The home space and the female working in it under the sign of
"choice" actually become the site of regressive labor practices and
intrusions of outside control made possible by the dissemination and
flexibility of the very information technology that now immobilizes and
isolates the woman worker. This isolation also contributes to women's
increasing marginalization in the computer sciences, and to the
stratification of women in the computer industry between a small
percentage of highly skilled engineers, scientists, systems analysts and
knowledge workers, and the vast numbers of low-paid, low skilled computer
workers.  It is this great disparity and its concomitant economic and
political consequences that cyberfeminists need to study and address. 
[Performer goes to console to type]

I'm the Total Quality woman. I am the culturally engineered, downsized, 
outsourced, teleworked, deskilled, Taylorized mom, just-in-time, take-out, 
time-saving, time-starved, emotionally downsized, down-right tired...
My home is my work, my work is my home. 
I work with machines; I live with machines; I love with machines;
computer, modem, TV, VCR, printer, scanner, refrigerator, washing machine, 
dryer, vacuum cleaner, cars telephones, fax machine, hairdryer, vibrator, CD 
player, radio, pencil sharpener, blender, mixer, toaster, microwave, cell 
phone, tape recorder... 
[Animated bits come on screen]
IT is now the single biggest part of the US economy, 11% of the GNP.
Globalization. Free Trade Zones. The Market Economy.
Bye Bye Borders.
There is no place to hide.
Knowledge management: Husbandry for ideas.
Mass customization: The market of you.
Just-in-time learning: knowledge at your fingertips.
[Performer puts her arms round the console and chants]
Just-in-time conception,just-in-time production, just-in-time delivery, 
just-in-time assembly, just-in-time laundry, just-in-time dinner, just-in-time
childcare, just-in-time quality time, just-in-time sex, just-in-time pleasure,
just-in-time pain, just-in-time stress, just-in-time insanity, just-in-time 
sacrifice, just-in-time drugs, just-in-time death.

3.  Activism, Intervention, Resistance
The political conditions of home-based telework I've outlined pose questions 
about the effects of restructuring work for women in the integrated circuit: 
Will this reorganization  of work further stratify jobs by race, ethnicity, 
and gender?  Will the changes in work structures "reproduce existing patterns 
of inequality in only slightly changed forms, perhaps leading to different, 
more subtle forms of inequality?" (9)

What are possible points of intervention, resistance, and/or activism for 
cyberfeminists and artists (among whom I include myself) working with computer
technology? On the micro level, it is time to educate ourselves thoroughly 
about these conditions, and to disseminate this information as widely as 
possible through the different cultural and political venues in which we work.
We must rethink the  contexts in which computers are used, and question the 
particular needs and relations of women to computer technology. We must try to
understand the mechanisms by which women get allocated to lower-paid 
occupations or industries, and make visible the gender-tracking that obtains 
in scientific fields of work. For example, many women tend not to choose 
certain fields because of the "male culture" that is associated with them.

Cyberfeminists could use the model of the recent feminist art project
"Informationsdienst" to create "Information Works" that address the
political conditions of telework, and make visible how the deployment of
IT is affecting the restructuring of work and the loss of jobs in the
market economy worldwide. (10) A teleworker's bill of information and
rights, disseminated to offices and private homes through a webpage on the
Internet could also clarify the linked chains of "women's work" and
working conditions for women worldwide. A "Home work School" on the
Internet and in local community centers--taught and organized by home
working women (many of whom are increasingly artists, single mothers, poor
urban black women, immigrants, and displaced older women)--could offer
(free) classes in everything from the politics of the new global labor
economy and its effects on women's lives and work, to feminist history,
and creative and practical lessons in upgrading computer skills. Wired
women need to form new unions that bring together women computer
engineers, analysts, managers, programmers, clerks and artists. We need to
form coalitions with immigrant rights groups that are interested in
computer literacy.  The classical tactics of organizing to improve working
conditions must be translated into new forms which take into account the
decentralization and reprivatization of workers, and subvert the already
established communication chains of IT to reach and organize the people
displaced by it. The creative ideas of cyberfeminist artists experienced
in computer networking could be especially useful here. 

On the macro level, cyberfeminists need to initiate a visible resistance
to the politically regressive consequences of relegating women back to the
homework economy and imposing on them the privatized, invisible, double
burden of labor. Many libertarians, economists, and labor leaders are
addressing the social isolation and economic privation suffered by
millions of casualties of electronic joblessness by calling for the
creation of socially productive jobs with a guaranteed annual income (or a
social wage) for workers displaced by automation. They are also supporting
moves for a shorter workweek, for job sharing, for more equal distribution
of knowledge and maintenance work, and calling for corporations that
benefit from the global market economy made possible by IT to return some
of this great wealth to support a Third Sector of social and community
work. While many of these demands seem desirable steps toward a more
equitable labor economy, in practice they amount to a social welfare tax,
and do nothing to challenge the intense stratification and concentration
of wealth and power, increasingly produced by the global market economy,
with devastating effects, on already marginalized, impoverished, and
invisible populations, and on women. Cyberfeminists need to analyze the
effects such schemes might perpetuate on the gender division of labor.
Will women continue to be concentrated in the low-paying "caring" and
social maintenance jobs which double and extend their housekeeping
"skills" to the whole community? Or will we fight to have such socially
productive work be revalued by awarding it decent salaries, benefits, and
job security? Such work should be acknowledged as vital to the survival of
human life and should be highly rewarded--not just monetarily, but also by
granting workers the greatest autonomy in planning and structuring the
work, by having them determine working conditions, pay, benefits, and
hours. Above all, we must rejoin the fight that was never won: the
re-valuing--by way of decent wages, benefits, and improved labor
conditions--of the human work of childraising and family care-giving that
is vital to the productive lives of all human beings.  If such maintenance
work were liberally rewarded, and balanced with adequate free time and
educational and social opportunities, it would be work attractive to both
men and women, and could do much to substantially change traditional
domestic--and paid labor--gender roles. 

Given the groundbreaking changes IT is causing in the relationship of home
to work, and in the place of the home (and private life) in pancapitalist
economies, some radical rethinking must take place about women's changing
conditions in both the domestic sphere and the public economy.  The
suggestion that the home should again become a locale of resistance to
capitalism's predatory effects on privacy, sociality, and free time may be
a regressive one for women, because it treats these problems as private
ones with private solutions. The utopian promises claimed for IT--for
example, the possibility of being freed from never-ending repetitive work
and heavy manual labor; the drastic reduction of working time for all
people and the concomitant expansion of self-managed free time--must be
skeptically countered with a critique of the ways in which IT has actually
increased work time and has eroded aspects of the pleasure and meaning to
be found in work--such as sociability, worker solidarity, job security,
and pride in skills.  This critique should be combined with vocal
opposition to and denunciation of the reintroduction of regressive labor
conditions and policies for workers worldwide. It is crucial that we
address the human sacrifice that the worldwide proliferation of home-based
telework and sweatshop labor causes for millions, predominantly women. The
wide social indifference to such vast inequities once again renders
invisible the life-sustaining unpaid or underpaid maintenance work
performed by women. 

1. Miwon Kwon, "In Appreciation of Invisible Work,"  Documents No. 10, Fall 
l997: 17.
2. Sadie Plant, "The Future Looms,"Clicking In: Hot Links to a Cool Culture, 
ed. Lynn Hershman. San Francisco: Bay Press, l997: 123.
3. Barbara Gutek, "Clerical Work and Information Technology," Women and 
Technology,  ed. Urs E. Gattiker. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, l994: 206.
4. Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto," Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, New York:
Routledge, l985: 166.
5. Andrew Calabrese "Home-based Telework,"Women and Technology . ed. Urs E. 
Gattiker. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, l994: l77.
6. Ibid. 163, 169.
7.  Arlie Hochschild, The Time Bind , New York: Henry Holt and Company, l997: 
8. Calabrese, 179.
9. Evelyn Nakano Glenn and Charles Tolbert II, "Technology and Emerging 
Patterns of Stratification for Women of Color," Women, Work, and Technology.  
Ed. Barbara Drygulsky Wright, et al. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan 
Press: 320.
10.  See Sabeth Buchman, "Information Service: Info-Work," October No. 71, 
Winter, l995: 103 ff.

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