Housework is Real Work: Selma James on the Decades-Long Fight for Wages for Housework
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And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. That is, you got some payment, you got your food and board, if you were a housewife, but you didn’t have the autonomy of money, which ensured that everybody knew you were working and which gave you the independence of having money of your own. But that was really only the beginning, because then we began to understand that most of the world had no wages, that we—that the subsistence farming in Africa—you know, 80 percent of the food that is eaten in Africa is grown by women, unwaged—you know, no money, nothing, just very, very hard work—and that all of this work, the volunteer work, you know, the reproduction of the human race, really, that women do, not merely, you know, in giving birth, which is quite important, not merely in giving children the food that they want and that they need, which is breast milk, but just caring for everyone and fighting for everyone. You know, it’s women who fight to get justice for their children and for men. You know, we have a slogan in London: "Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, fighting for our loved ones’ lives." And that’s not a Romantic view of women’s work that—women’s justice work. That is the reality. That’s who does it. That’s who’s on the line in front of the prison where men and women are held unjustly. It’s women who are doing this work. And it’s an extension of the caring work that we have always done.
Now, I want to make it absolutely clear: we do this work, and we are civilized by this work, we women, and have a much greater understanding of human beings, because that’s what we’re dealing with all the time. But we don’t want to be the only ones to do it. Men need to do this work, because men need to be civilized by this work as we have been. Men don’t—we don’t want them to be doing this work for capitalism and not doing this work for ourselves, for each other, you know, for the society generally. Men have to start making society, along with women, not to help—I’m not talking about men helping. Sometimes we have to fight so that they give us a little help, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about that being the aim and purpose of our lives, to be with others, to care for others, and to, as I say, to make society with us.
AMY GOODMAN: You wrote the original piece, "Sex, Race and Class," which is the title of the book of essays that you’ve put out now.
SELMA JAMES: It really came from the United States. I wrote it in England, but I went on a lecture tour in 1973, and I heard all the opposition to wages for housework, how it was going to institutionalize us in the home. I was thinking, wouldn’t that be nice to institutionalize—I have all these records that I want to listen to and all the rest, and I can be at home and not have to go out to work. But aside from that, it was just an education. I began to understand what wages for housework was and how it was a political perspective, how you began with unwaged, rather than waged, workers. And you got to the waged workers, but when you began with the waged workers, you never got to the unwaged workers. And so, I was smarter by the time I got back. And somebody—we had written a book. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and I had written a book called The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, and there was a brilliant review of it. That is, it was very favorable. But he had said that women knew what the black movement didn’t know. And I had to answer it. So I wrote a letter, but the letter kept getting longer and longer and longer, and pretty soon it was the pamphlet, Sex, Race and Class.