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Housework is Real Work: Selma James on the Decades-Long Fight for Wages for Housework

Selma James coined the term "unwaged" work to describe the real work of housewives--and she has some thoughts that Mitt and Ann Romney might learn from.

A debate over housework shook the presidential race last week after a Democratic strategist accused Mitt Romney’s wife Ann of never having worked a day in her life. Ann responded: "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." Today we bring a historic voice into this discussion: the longtime activist, writer and political thinker Selma James, known for her pioneering work on women’s rights and against racism. She is credited with coining the phrase “unwaged” labor to describe the work of housewives — and she has argued women should be paid for housework. Selma James’ new book is "Sex, Race, and Class — The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952-2011." In a series of arguments that have remained remarkably consistent across six decades, Selma James urges unity across the lines of race, class and gender. I interviewed Selma James recently, and she spoke about the great West Indian scholar C.L.R. James, who was her husband, and the writing of her seminal 1952 essay, "A Woman’s Place." 

AMY GOODMAN: Does housework count as, well, "real" work? Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen has ignited a firestorm with her comments that Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, has, quote, "actually never worked a day in her life." Rosen, a CNN political contributor and working mother, made her comments on CNN’s Anderson Cooper show on Wednesday.


HILARY ROSEN: What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country, saying, "Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing." Guess what. His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and how do we worry—why do we worry about their future. So I think it’s—yes, it’s about these positions, and, yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions. But there’s something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He just—he seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Well, Ann Romney put out her first tweet in response. She said, "I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work." Romney then went on Fox News with Martha MacCallum on Thursday.

ANN ROMNEY: My career choice was to be a mother. And I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make. Other women make other choices, to have a career and raise family, which I think Hilary Rosen has actually done herself. I respect that. That’s wonderful. But, you know, there are other people that have a choice. We have to respect women in all those choices that they make.

AMY GOODMAN: The Romneys’ son, Josh, tweeted, quote, "@AnnDRomney is one of the smartest, hardest working woman I know. Could have done anything with her life, chose to raise me." Well, President Obama also weighed in on the controversy, saying there is "no tougher job than being a mom."

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here’s what I know: that there is no tougher job than being a mom. And, you know, when I think about what Michelle’s had to do, when I think about my own mom, a single mother raising me and my sister, that’s work. So, anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement.

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