Small Axe 8.1 (2004) 123-217
[Access article in PDF]
Counting Women's Caring Work:
An Interview with Andaiye
Upon an evening like this, mother, when one year is making way
for another, in a ceremony attended by a show of silver stars,
mothers see the moon, milk-fed, herself a nursing mother
and we think of our children and the stones upon their future
and we want these stones to move.
—Lorna Goodison, "Mother the Great Stones Got to Move"
During the 1970s when the Caribbean generation of 1968 undertook the struggles for the revolutionary transformation of our societies, they formed political organizations—sometimes formal political parties—through which to mobilize the masses of the population and to confront the apparatuses of the neocolonial order. The Workers' Party of Jamaica, the Working People's Alliance, and the New Jewel Movement were among the more prominent of these revolutionary organizations. Shaped in varying degrees by Marxism (and sometimes by Leninism), their overall goal was state power, and a good deal was surrendered to the anxieties and immediate strategic (and security) instrumentalities involved in pursuing that pressing objective. The problematic [End Page 123] of gender was one of these (race, of course, was another). Needless to say, there were women in these organizations, sometimes in positions of leadership, sometimes taking exception to the sexism and masculinism of the men at the helm. But "gender" as a category of historical understanding and political intervention was largely invisible, or at least it seemed always dependent upon the "final instance" of the economic and class. Like race, the relative autonomy of gender had yet to emerge as a distinctive zone of social criticism.
By the mid to late 1980s, however, the whole landscape of political opposition in the Caribbean was in a state of considerable upheaval. Sheltered by the new political context of international capital (these were the Reagan/Thatcher years, remember), the political right in the region reasserted itself with great ferocity, and the left began to spiral into crisis. The assassination of Walter Rodney; the collapse of the democratic socialist experiment of Michael Manley; and most damaging of all, the implosion of the Grenada Revolution and the US invasion—these seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the Caribbean left as a revolutionary project. And yet, in a very curious way, this period of left decline was at the same time a period of remarkable growth and transformation in Caribbean feminism; it was a period in which women's organizations and networks that were independent of male-centered political formations emerged—the Caribbean Association for Feminist Research and Action, for example—and they set about recasting the agenda of women's activism. In short, "gender" emerged as a visible category of criticism, and in so doing destabilized the very idea of radical politics.
But there is a sense in which this is paradoxical. The context is one in which the hope of an alternative to capitalism is rapidly receding, and a politics of identity is displacing a politics of social transformation. Moreover, it is a context in which transnational capital is focusing surplus-value extraction on women's labor (in free trade zones, in service industries, and so on); and therefore capital itself now has a vested interest in the question of women in economic development. In other words, just as what constitutes "politics" and the normative consensus on its "progressive" direction becomes ambiguous, "gender" emerges as a site for the proliferation of NGO development work. And as the Age of Projects arrives, the old political left, both men and women (understandably looking for sources of income in a hostile neoliberal environment), are urged to transform themselves into technical experts writing assessment reports for international funding agencies.
This is not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part of it. And one member of that insurgent Caribbean generation of 1968, who, from the mid-1980s onward, became preoccupied with thinking through the distinctive predicament of gender, is Andaiye. It is hard to imagine anyone who more...