On Private Property & Gender

I’m teaching a lot of new texts this term in my graduate feminist theory course, so to collect my thoughts as I work my way through the readings I’ve decided to write up something every week and post it here. 

Davis, “The Emerging Obsolescence of Housework”

Harris, “Whiteness as Property”

“Trans Political Economy Deconstructed”


Though the conventional story says that the social contract is about freedom, if you go back and read Locke and Rousseau, you’ll see it’s actually about protecting private property. In fact, it understands personhood (i.e., the status one has as a fully recognized member of the political unit, as being both obligated to follow and deserving the protection of that unit’s laws and conventions) as a kind of property relation. Here’s Locke from Two Treatises:

“every man has a “property” in his own “person.” This nobody has any right to but himself. The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property. It being by him removed from the common state Nature placed it in, it hath by this labour something annexed to it that excludes the common right of other men. For this “labour” being the unquestionable property of the labourer, no man but he can have a right to what that is once joined to, at least where there is enough, and as good left in common for others” (2.26).

Persons own themselves, whereas sub- and non-persons do not. Again, Locke: “man (by being master of himself, and proprietor of his own person, and the actions or labour of it)” (2.44).

Gender was invented in this context. It policed the same status differences that Europeans had until then policed with kinship relations (father, husband, wife, mother, second cousin twice removed, etc.), but grounded those status differentials in private property relations rather than in kinship. (Yes, gender was invented in the European Enlightenment; there were kinship differences that acted a lot like what we would call gender differences, but they were different conceptual technologies.) As Davis argues, “sexual inequality as we know it today did not exist before the advent of private property. During early eras of human history the sexual division of labor within the system of economic production was complementary as opposed to hierarchical.” (194). For example, marriage law traditionally entitled husbands to their wives’ person as a form of property. This is what couverture was: wives’ legal personhood was subsumed in their husbands’. The marriage contract was where she signed her personhood over to him; she consented to become his private property (Pateman 1988). Private property is conventionally understood as that which cannot be intruded upon without the owner’s consent. By making husbands owners of wives, wives’ bodies and labor and votes and and and become subject to the husband’s consent. Husbands are entitled to use their wives bodies in whatever way they choose, because wives are not persons but property and thus disposable without consent.

The emerging discourse of race further complicated this already convoluted reasoning about women, men, and consent. As slavery and colonialism make clear, white supremacy is also a property relation about who can intrude upon whose land or body without consent (Pateman & Mills 2007). We can add to this the claim from the participant in the “Trans political economy deconstructed” piece:

“Paying attention to political economies means attending to the ways by which the trans body, enmeshed in systems of state surveillance and (in)security, emerges alongside, or in resistance to, the neoliberal, capitalist machinery that would render it (il)legible. By extension, this necessitates interrogating the biopolitical management of life (and death), the mechanisms of global capitalism, and how, and whose, (trans)sexual laboring bodies are ascribed with value, erased, or rendered invisible” (17).

Trans and GNC identity is a private property relation.


Harris “Whiteness as Property” and Davis’s “The Emerging Obsolescence of Housework”

Responding to the “Wages for Housework” movement, Davis argues that race complicates what white feminism traditionally understands as a gendered public (m)/private (f) binary. “Throughout this country’s history,” she notes, “the majority of Black women have worked outside their homes” (199). Black domestic workers have performed, for pay, the very kind of labor for which white women are demanding wages. In a context where normative/white femininity is equated with economic nonproductivity/mere reproduction, black women weren’t seen as ‘real’ women because they were producers of economic value–their work effectively de-gendered them. So the public/private binary is both gendered and racialized: black women take care of white women’s private property so that white women can be seen as economically nonproductive and merely reproductive, whereas black women are both economically productive and reproductively….problematic.

There is a generalizable point here about reproductive/care/emotional/affective labor, gender, and race: the distribution of this labor works differently for white women, black women, and non-black POC women. It’s complicated. But it all works to reinforce the disproportionate distribution of private property to white supremacist patriarchal institutions and their representatives. (Neoliberalism complicates this by subsuming traditionally nonproductive, merely reproductive work into formal surplus value extraction…but we can talk about this. How are racialized and gendered status differences coded into distributions of affective/emotional/care labor, human capital cultivation, etc? How do newer forms of private property (especially human capital) require gendered, racialized distributions of labor to support them?).

Davis also suggests that the property relations secured by marriage are essential to full participation in society–i.e., that marriage protects the property interests in whiteness that Harris discusses. Thus, practices that make marriage difficult, practices like apartheid (which Davis discusses) and mass incarceration, also work to reinforce racialized property distributions. Melinda Cooper’s book, which we’ll read later in the term, will pick up on some of these themes. One way this week’s other readings address marriage as a private property relation is through the idea of inheritance. Marriage is, in part, about the intergenerational transmission of private property. One of the speakers in the “Trans political economy deconstructed” piece asks us to consider how mainstream LG movements have appropriated the work of trans women of color in a way that reflects some really not queer, pretty white supremacist norms about inheritance:

“A quick example of this necropolitical economy would be the cannibalistic “inheritance”and manipulation of the political, emotional, and aesthetic labor of trans women andtransfeminine people of color—labor that is subsumed within narratives of trans and gayliberation while rendering invisible the trauma, pain, and violence that gave rise to these resistant art forms engineered as a means of survival and as a “fuck you” to the ongoing rhetorics of disposability.” (21)

The main takeaway you need to get from Harris’s article is that white people experience the benefits they get from white supremacy as a private property interest. As she explains, “because the law recognized and protected expectations grounded in white privilege (albeit not explicitly in all instances), these expectations became tantamount to property that could not permissibly be intruded upon without consent” (Harris 281). This is one plausible explanation why white people get upset at measures to make society more racially just–it feels like theft to them because they have been enculturated to expect that people/government will only interfere in their interests with their consent. She writes: “in protecting the property interest in whiteness, property is assumed to be no more than the right to prohibit infringement on settled expectations, ignoring counterveilling equitable claims to predicated on a right to inclusion” (Harris 290). How do gendered divisions of labor and gendered relations of consent contribute to advancing white supremacist distributions of private property?