SEX, RACE and CLASS
The perspective of winning
A selection of writings 1952-2011
American Selma James is one of the co-organisers at the Crossroad’s Women’s Centre in Camden, London. This was opened by the Wages for Housework Campaign in 1975, and is possibly the oldest women’s centre in the UK.
‘Invest in caring not killing’ is Selma James strategy for revolutionary change and this selection of her writings since 1952 includes a redefinition of the working class to include sectors previously dismissed as ‘marginal.’
Why did you write the ‘Woman’s Place’ pamphlet in 1952?
Marxist historian CLR James asked me to write it after I told him about the important role played by housewives in the production process. I was a housewife as I was married to a machinist, had a young son and worked in a factory.
I felt that as well as looking after children, housewives worked by repairing men who had spent at least 8 ½ hours of their lives every day on a soul-destroying production line.
Why did your ‘wages for housework’ proposal to a 1972 women’s liberation conference prove explosive?
It was because it meant dealing for the first time with housework. Which was absolutely central to every woman’s life - including those who had found work as professionals, as they had done so in order to escape it!
The question was how do you deal with this as a political movement? Some women said ‘make believe it does not exist.’ But this was not an abstraction or an idea or a TV series. It was life and that’s a very explosive fact. If we raise kids, we have a right to a living wage.
Isn’t your belief in exploited sectors organising autonomously a recipe for permanent division?
No, it is a recipe for unity. Unless we admit and address the divisions amongst us they will never go away and we will spend our time cutting each other up. When you address the divisions you have an independent movement in which problems and experiences are recognised and tackled.
What’s behind your statement that ‘with women there is no separation between living and working?’
We work for 24 hours a day, do two-thirds of the world’s work but receive less than 10% of world income and own under 1% of world assets.
Work we do includes constant relationship building between sister and brother, father and infant and that requires hard, physical labour in which you give yourself away. That is the work of reproduction and in the Third World it also means growing the food and then processing it as the people you love need that food and this is the only way to get it to them.
When many western women’s organisations scoffed at participating in the UN Decade for Women (1975-85) you were heavily involved, why?
The idea that all government’s were meeting together to discuss women and we would not be there to influence them, to protest or to tell them we love them as we need something from them? It’s absurd.
People with power can turn it down. Those without it or not much - we are not so delicate. Women from third world countries walked and scrapped together bus fares to get to those conferences. In Kenya in 1985, women we met said ‘thank you for coming, because we work so hard and you will tell them about how hard our life is.’ We had to be there!
Our work also helped develop international links. These have proved essential in the subsequent development of the Global Women’s Strike network that seeks to gain recognition and payment for all caring work. Funds for this would be met by returning military spending to local communities.
Why was former Tanzanian leader Julius Nyerere’s 1967 ‘Arusha Declaration’ republished for the first time in 2007?
Julius Nyerere based himself on the power of the people by using the traditional collectivity of African village life in a modern context. He sought to keep capitalist markets at bay whilst attacking poverty. But he also honestly said the divisions between men and women were partially responsible for what was keeping the village poor. Women were not appreciated and men were often lazy. Nyerere explained what his government was going to do to tackle corruption, which even President Chavez in Venezuela, who I admire, has not really organised against.
Arusha was a historic landmark document and we felt it was a tragedy that it was not available to even the Tanzanian people. That’s why we published it.