Selma James and the Wages for Housework Campaign

The purr of the vacuum, babies crying, the flush of the toilet, splattering oil, sizzle of crisp fatty bacon cooking on a hot pan: these are sounds of politically and morally important work. The home is a place where working class struggle unfolds one day at a time. This is exactly the argument of Selma James, the coordinator of the Wages for Housework Campaign and the Global Women’s Strike Campaign. Women working: washing dishes, scrubbing floors, chasing their children, cutting coupons, drinking a quick cup of coffee before they are off to the next task. This whole day is repetitious and can be a monotonous experience that billions of women live day after day. Not surprisingly, we often associate this with words such as “homemaker” or “housewife” but not “worker.” We often fail to see work in the home as a socially important experience connected directly to the lives and struggles of working class people.

According to Selma James, many thinkers of women’s autonomy fail to mention in their praise or solutions for women’s emancipation, that the work women do at home is invaluable not only because it has held countless generations of families together, but because it has held a specific type of family together—the sacrifice of women at home has been the glue of working families. However, James’ analysis does not stop at empty praise, as many Conservatives are fond of doing. Rather, she continues with the important demand that women must be paid for their labor, “If we raise kids, we have a right to a living wage.”[1] And here she is not speaking of professional domestics, nannies, and immigrants who function in that capacity off the books, though she is also committed to their own struggles for dignity and autonomy. She wants to link the struggles of women who work in the home whether as hired helpers or as housewives with the struggles of women in the workplace.

James asserts, contrary to politicians on both the Left and the Right, that the work that billions of women do is caring and moral work and is not secondary to the “more important labor” that working class or middle class men and women do at their jobs. This makes sense, if we consider that teachers are paid tens of thousands of dollars in wages to educate children in the classroom. Mothers are often the first reading instructors, moral theologians, and social studies teachers that their children ever have. But as far as society is concerned, this significant and difficult work of education at home is overlooked and unpaid.

The Wages for Women’s Housework Campaign together with Selma James and the Global Women’s Strike raise basic questions stemming from the demand that women’s work be paid since their work is invaluable for sustaining this society, as it is presently constituted. What role have working class housewives played under capitalism? How might we conceptualize women’s rebellion against capitalist labor? Can waged labor be a progressive force for women’s liberation? What does international solidarity mean between women, and particularly housewives?

A further look into her writings will reveal decades-long commitment to the liberation of women from a nuanced perspective that understands the needs of housewives. Exploring her writings should help us grasp James’ responses to these questions and how those animate the Wages for Housework Campaign. Importantly, James’ analysis provides an opportunity to explore and expand a vision of the liberation of women, and the working classes in general, through a perspective of anti-racism and workers’ self-management that takes seriously the experiences and struggles of the majority of the world’s women, not simply those of a select group of “modern” women who work outside the home. Selma James’s writings cover more than a discussion on wages for housework, but for the scope of this paper, her writings in relation to this issue will be the focus. Her thoughts on Marxism or unions, although immensely rich, will only be commented on as they relate to the focus of this paper.[2]

Burdens of the Past: Why We Need to Move Beyond Orthodox Conceptions of Labor and Feminism

“…the ‘real’ working class is white, male and over thirty.”[3]

Classic formulations of labor organizing have put many women who labor at home on the sidelines, seeing them as completely outside of the struggle to ameliorate or oppose capitalist social relations. Housewives experience capitalist relations of production similar to what workers face in factories, mines, and workshops. In Women, The Unions and Work, James writes, “But for those of us who are deprived of wages for our work, who are full-time housewives and do not have jobs outside the home, unions don’t know we exist. When capital pays husbands they get two workers, not one.”[4]

What is at stake here is not only a more integrated concept of women’s housework in capitalist society but also the assertion that women can fight as housewives as equals in the class struggle. In contrast to generations of progressive thinking, Selma James has challenged what labor, housework, and the role of women in the anti-capitalist struggle means. She asks, “Has anybody pointed out how much every strike of men is dependent on the support of women?”[5] The prejudices Selma James and her co-thinkers have had to fight in order to present their ideas need to be put in the proper context if their demands and strategy are to make sense.

James’s writings, such as Women, The Unions and Work; The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community; and Sex, Race and Class are critical works on the Left and unions. They present a vision where housework and raising children are of social and moral value. James and her peers had to develop this vision against the backdrop of the Left and competing feminist visions. In the first few pages of Women, The Unions and Work she outlines how the Left has limited women’s struggle:

“They have effectively convinced many of us that if we wish to move to working class women it must be either through them, or more pervasively, through their definitions of class, their orientations and their kind of actions. It is as though they have stood blocking an open door. They challenge the validity of an autonomous women’s movement either directly or—by treating women, an especially exploited section of the class, as marginal—indirectly. For them the ‘real’ working class is white, male and over thirty. Here racism, male supremacy and age supremacy have a common lineage.”[6]

She has a long list of grievances against the unions, writing that they “…have helped to maintain unequal rates of pay despite the brave attempts by individual women (and some men).”[7] She goes on, “The unions take for granted job categories which have kept women lower paid and will continue to under the equal pay act. Even more, they worry that equal pay for women might ‘disturb’ the wage differentials among different grades of men.”[8] Her insights lead her to conclude that the unions function “…by following organisationally [sic] the way capital is organised: [sic] a fragmented class, divided into those who have wages and those who don’t. The unemployed, the old, the ill, children and housewives are wageless. So the unions ignore us and there separate us from each other and from the waged.”[9]

In The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa are in conversation with feminists as well. Addressing housewives and feminists (the two are not mutually exclusive) of their generation, they recognize that not only are definitions of class contested, but so are meanings of feminism. While they lean towards an anti-capitalist vision of feminism, there are other tendencies where “…the liberation of women is reduced to equal pay and a ‘fairer’ and more efficient welfare State. For these women capital is the main enemy but because it is backward, not because it exists. They don’t aim to destroy capitalist social relations but only to organize it more rationally.”[10]

James recognizes the existence of different poles in the women’s rights movement. In the spectrum of the movement, a variety of arguments were posited which commented on the cultural sensibilities, the self-governing capacities, and the goals of women’s liberation. So, what were feminists in the United States saying in the period that The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community was written? Who are “these women”? James wrote, “…two distinct political tendencies have emerged, apparently opposite extremes of the political spectrum within the women’s movement.”[11] James goes on to describe the more liberal trend:

“The possible future directions of these politics vary, mainly because this point of view takes a number of forms depending on the stratum of women who hold it. An elite club of this type can remain introverted and isolated—harmless except as it discredits the movement generally. Or it can be a source of those managerial types in every field which the class in charge is looking for to perform for it ruling functions over rebellious women, and god bless equality, over rebellious men too.”[12]

James is aware of what the more liberal streams of feminism were accomplishing. She footnotes an article by the Financial Times, “…that suggests many capitalists are missing the opportunity to ‘use’ women in position of middle management; being ‘grateful outsiders,’ women would lower the pay structure.”[13]

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