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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.

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AMY GOODMAN: Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen tried to address the firestorm over her comments on CNN’s Newsroom, saying they were never meant as an attack.

HILARY ROSEN: This is not about Ann Romney. This is about the waitress in a diner in, you know, someplace in Nevada who has two kids whose day care funding is being cut off because of the Romney-Ryan budget, and she doesn’t know what to do. This isn’t about whether Ann Romney or I or other women of, you know, some means can afford to make a choice to stay home and raise kids. Most women in America, let’s face it, don’t have that choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we bring in a new voice, which is actually an historic voice, into the discussion: the longtime activist, writer, political thinker, Selma James, known for her pioneering work on women’s rights and against racism. She’s 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 called 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 here in New York. She had just flown in from London, where she lives. She talked 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." She referred to C.L.R. James by the nickname "Nello."

SELMA JAMES: I was not interested in writing, per se. Everything that’s in this new book that you mentioned is written for a purpose, as part of a movement. I wrote A Woman’s Place because Nello had urged me to do it. And he called me one day and said, "Have you written, you know, your pamphlet?" And he said—I said, "No." And he said, "Why not?" And I said, "Because I don’t know how to write a pamphlet." And he said, "Well, you—it’s very simple." He said, "You take a shoebox, and you make a slit at the top. And every time you think of something, you put it on a piece of paper, and you put the piece of paper in the shoebox. Then, one day, you open the shoebox up, and you put the sentences in order," he said, "and you will have your pamphlet." I said, "OK." And so, I took a day off work. I was working in a factory wiring and soldering, and I left at the same time I would have left the home if I had gone to work. I put my son in child care at the same time as usual. But I went to a friend’s house instead, because if I had stayed at home, I would have cleaned the cook. I know I would have. And I put the sentences together. And by the evening, I had the draft of a pamphlet. He had been absolutely right. It was great advice that he’d given me.

I look back now, and I know that one of the ways he found that out was because Nello had helped organize with sharecroppers in southeast Missouri, and he had told me that the men had said—and Booker was the leading person—had said that they needed a pamphlet. And Nello had said, "All right, Booker." And he sat down at the table with a pen, and he said, "OK, what do you want to say?" And the man was not expecting that; he was expecting Nello to write a pamphlet for him. So he knew how to deal with grassroots people. He knew how to be useful to them. And he was a very creative person in that regard, as well. So by the time he got to this young woman who was a housewife and factory worker, he knew the advice to give me. And that’s how the pamphlet was written.

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