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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: The shoebox got very full.

SELMA JAMES: You could say that. The point was that by that time, there were—there was a real problem with how do you balance the movement of black people, the movement of immigrants, the movement of women, the movement of lesbian and gay people. How do they relate to each other? And there was a kind of competition for priorities. And I wrote the pamphlet to say, "Look, we are all in the same struggle, and there is a connection between all of us that we must draw out. But in order for that connection to be made, each sector will make its own autonomous case, and on that basis we can unite." How exactly? I don’t know, because I wasn’t the left in that way. I didn’t feel I had to have the answers, only the questions. And that’s what "Sex, Race and Class" is about, really. And it said that, for example, black women, or women of color generally, they’re the women’s movement, and they’re the black movement. And so, what’s wrong? I mean, there are—you know, people are many things, and that we are all in that hierarchy, because there’s an international division of labor of which we are all part, including those of us who are unwaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, you wrote recently about SlutWalk.


AMY GOODMAN: Slut is a big conversation in the United States now, because Rush Limbaugh, one of the right-wing radio talk show hosts, who plays such a major role in the Republican Party, called a young law student who was calling for health insurance coverage of contraceptives, he called her a "slut" and a "whore," a "prostitute" who should have sex videos. She should have to put—post sex videos of herself online. And it has caused many, even of his past supporters, to stop supporting him for saying this. Why do you talk about SlutWalk?

SELMA JAMES: Well, you know—you know the long—you know "Death, where is thy sting?" You know, what the SlutWalk women did was to make it impossible to use those words in a way that is hurtful and insulting. I was astonished by the march. I went on the SlutWalk march. First of all, it was started by a 16-year-old who had had enough of women being raped and the police not paying attention, and who had refused, like women everywhere, to accept that if we dress a particular way or if we speak a particular way or if we do a particular thing, we can be accused. She said, "Accuse us as you like. We accept it all, and we then refuse everything that you accuse us of." So, they were very anti-racist. They were very pro-prostitute. They were very anti-rape. They were very diverse. And they were the new women’s movement. They were very young.

And I didn’t feel, walking with them, that I was surrounded by women who were ambitious. I think that’s really crucial in the women’s movement today, because a lot of feminism has gone into individual careers and into ambition, and there’s some evidence that the class line between women is much greater now with feminism, because a whole set of women have gone into the part of the elite. They get pay equity. They get a lot of kudos, a lot of—they are very accepted in the society. And the rest of us are getting screwed. I mean, our pay is not going up. The child care doesn’t exist or is very bad. Welfare has been abolished. And we really need to have another reason to be together, which is the real conditions of our lives, rather than an individual ambition. And I felt that the SlutWalk was part of that new movement, which says it’s not ambition we want. We want to have the freedom to live the lives as we like them, and we are together for that.

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