JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Kathi Weeks

October 19, 2022 by Sonja Johnston

Kathi Weeks—JHI's 2022-23 Distinguished Visiting Fellow⁠—joined us from October 11 to October 14, 2022. Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies at Duke University, Kathi Weeks is a Marxist feminist political theorist, whose analysis of gender identities and hierarchies foregrounds the gender division of labor as a mechanism that reproduces inequality. Her research re-examines 1970s feminist analyses of waged and unwaged women’s work for insights into how both gendered and class systems of inequality are sustained and how they change over time.

JHI: What is your main research interest and what led you to it?

KW: I define my field as feminist political theory and my main research interests as Marxist theory and feminist theory with an emphasis on Marxist feminist theory. Within that nexus I am particularly invested in 1970s U.S. feminist theory, the critical study of work, and utopian studies. How did I get there?  It’s hard to say because it all happened so long ago, which is to say either that I’m unerringly loyal to my intellectual and political commitments (the positive spin) or that I’m just too stubborn to give up on these old and occasionally despised discourses (the negative spin), or probably a bit of both. I will say that I came to Marxism first as an undergraduate, then to feminism soon after early on in graduate school, and that both of them led me to the study of work as a focus of my critical diagnostic practice and to utopian studies as a way to think about possible alternative futures.

JHI: What research project are you working on now?

KW: My main project right now is a book manuscript that I describe as an archive for the future of U.S. Marxist feminist theory. I’m working with one or more manifesto-like texts written by three authors—Shulamith Firestone, Donna Haraway, and Angela Davis—and am trying to read them a bit differently, with an eye to their applicability to this political moment. I’m also thinking more explicitly about the temporalities of feminist theory and experimenting with different ways of approaching the relations among the feminist past, present, and future. This includes trying to re-imagine what it means to be part of a theoretical and political project, in my case Marxist feminism, over time, ways of formulating this commitment and practice of belonging that don’t imagine the connection between past and present on the models of family, property, debt, or even as a tradition—with all of its linearity, exclusivity, and authority. I love these texts, which I find endlessly generative and thus always potentially timely, and so see this project as also an occasion to explore more of the intellectual and political possibilities and limitations of 1970s radical and Marxist feminisms. Part of what I think this archive of texts can offer centers on the project of abolition conceived as a structural and utopian method that demands that we scale-up our theoretical and political ambitions.  Read together, these texts also propose what I think of as key targets for feminist theory and practice today in the institutions of waged work, the family, and the prison.

JHI: If you could instantly change one popular misconception about your area of research, what would it be?

KW: If I define my field as gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, it might be hard to narrow it down to just one!  But speaking as a Marxist theorist, I would say that the misconception that matters most to me is that Marxism is a tradition of productivism. In my view, the Marxist tradition has a lot of tools for approaching work and workers, both as and in waged work and unwaged work as we now know them, not as something and someone to liberate but as something and someone to be liberated from.     

JHI: What experiences were you hoping for during your JHI visit?  

KW: The theme of labor was obviously attractive to me, but it was the description of the faculty fellows that was the most enticing reason for me to come to the JHI.  And the experience was everything I had hoped for and more in that we managed over and over again to have truly interdisciplinary conversations about labor.  The beauty of interdisciplinarity, when it works, that is, when everyone really shows up, manifests in the wonderfully unknown and unexpected resonances with other fields’ objects, methods, preoccupations, and idioms.  These encounters can both, and sometimes simultaneously, enrich one’s own approach to a topic and usefully unsettle it.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

KW: I’m not sure if this is fun or alarming or sad, but I’m a big fan of post-apocalyptic film and fiction, especially when it involves zombies.  And I prefer slow-moving to fast-moving zombies. I’m a purist in that respect.