Women’s housework must be paid, not the military – an interview with Selma James
Wages for housework
Kasia: When you think of the Wages for Housework campaign, what is its ultimate goal? Is it to improve women’s situation, to give them security, to give recognition for the work they do, etc.? Or is it aimed at a major change of the system? Is it aimed at overthrowing capitalism in a way?
Selma: It aimes, first of all, at improving women’s situation, if they fight for it. It will not change anything if women don’t fight to have a wage. But in fact it aimes to show that women have been fighting for a wage. It aimes to give a name to all kinds of struggle that women have been engaged in: for welfare, for services, for pay equity, so that their hosework does not indentify them as the people who get lower wages, which is true now. It aimes at women coming together about what they have in common in the way of work and what they have in common in the way of struggle, which is often individual women struggling in individual homes or individual families. Wages for housework says that this struggle that you are engaged in, she also is doing this work, she’s also trying to refuse some of it and get it acknoledged.
Once it aimes at making the struggle visible and bringing the women together, it aimes at changing the world. Because once you say that the work we as women are doing is crucial to the society, is crucial to humanity’s survival, is crucial for creating the workforce, and therefore is crucial to the economy, you are also saying that the concentration on industry and on profit making is absolutely not what we want in the society. The Global Women Strike, which we coordinate, sums it up by saying: invest in caring not in killing. So it’s not either it changes women’s situation, or it changes the world. You cannot change the world overnight. It’s not the way our lives are, that’s not the way our organization develops. As you fight to improve your situation, you are building a movement for a change. And when women are consered, it’s the most basic change. It’s the change in the way we relate, and it’s the change in the way we reproduce ourselves as the human race. Women are central to that.
K: What are some of the arguments that you use, why housework should be paid?
Selma: Because it isn’t. Fundamentally, housework should be paid because it’s work, it’s important work. Because if we don’t have the money it makes us financially dependent, it makes the women very weak . Because if we are not able to refuse the employers, the whole society is expecting us to be in some way or another financially dependent on others, first of all men, but sometimes also our families. Therefore we get a much lower rate of pay.
Not having money means that we are vulnerable to all kinds of injustices. You know, men are expecting us to be at their service and we do that including in bed, including on the street, including demanding, as the feminists so aptly put it all those years ago, that a woman smile… The whole weakness of women is founded on, A, that we do the reproductive work, and B, that it’s unwaged and therefore that this reproductive work that we do is less important. What employers, what capital said, is: when you work for me, I will give you money. That what you are doing at home, you can do it or not do it, we don’t care if your children survive, it’s of no importance to us once we have other workers we can call on if your children die. That’s really quite crucial because if you look at the history of the labor fource, you will see that women got money every time they were short of workers or soldiers. Every time the question of the reproduction of the workforce couldn’t be left to us, they gave us money.
Questions and answers about the payment
K: While discussing housework, there are always similar questions that are being asked. The very first one is: who’s going to pay for it? Is it going to be men, is it going to be husbands, partners? Or is it going to be the state? Or who else?
Selma: You know, the best, the most serious women also asked that question and said I don’t want him, refering to their husband, I don’t want him to pay because he doesn’t get enough. And we say: that is our point of view. We are not interested in lowering men’s wages or getting them to share with women. Now, that’s a yes and no question. Our political perspective is that he doesn’t have to share, she gets her own. But until she has her own, he bloody well has to share, ok? There’s no question about that.
But we want the money to come first of all from the areas of society which are destructive. Number one is the military. We feel that the perspective of wages for housework is a truly antiwar perspective, because we prioritise the caring for people and the relationships between people, which are based on that caring. And we want that to be prioritised as opposed to the killing. It’s not only that we want the war to end, but we want wars to end, which means that we have to confront the military. And that is an increasingly popular view. What we find is that people say: it should go into education, not the military, or it should go into housing, not the military, etc. We are not against that, obvioulsy. But we think that people, beginning with carers, should decide where it should go into, and in what proportion. We are not offering a plan for this, or a plan for that. We say: women know what it should go into. And you know, the experience of Venezuela confirms that entirely. Because women there say: we want this healthcare and it has to be in this form, because this is what this community needs. The missions of healthcare which we have seen, and the soupkitchens that we’ve seen the people doing, you know, that tells you that this perspective is really very sound, because it is in tune that when people have the opportunity, that’s what they do.
So the money must definitely first of all come from the military. That is such a revolutionary perspective, although simple and popular, that it begins to shift everybody’s view of the whole society. There are whole kinds of industry that should be abolished. We have to get rid of oil, otherwise we will not survive as a planet, as human race, as animals, as anything. But we don’t start with this because a whole set of things you could discuss or not discuss, but what everybody does know, is that the military has got to go, otherwise we will put all our ressources into killing and nobody wants that anymore, except the small elite who don’t care because their children don’t go.
K: I can see in Poland how this perspective is getting more and more popular, especially if our state is spending more and more money on the military… Another question that often appears is that if housework is to be paid, it should be controlled somehow. Somebody needs to make sure, that it’s done properly. I mean, if you pay, you need to pay for the quality. What do you think about this?
Selma: Well, you know my view has changed on that. I always thought that there should not be control, because women are controlled in many ways that we shouldn’t be. And that on the whole, we care about our children and about other people and we put them before our own benefit. But now I think that the only way to get this caring work done, is to pay for it. Because I think once women have formed the movement to get the money for caring, then it validates what you do and you are really able to give yourself to it, rather than be told every day: what you do is not important, you should get a job. And I think once it gets the validation of the society, it will mean an enormous rise in caring for people and in men being finally deeply interested in caring for people, beginning with their own children.
And that again you can see in Venezuela, you see women are really able to devote themselves to it because they appreciate that this is a vital social, economic, political and personal rewarding atcivity. The society,including the state in Venezuela says: that’s what you should be doing and we are very glad you are doing it. It’s a very different view from the one that is based on the unwaged work, which is: you do it, we are glad that you do it, most of the time, but it’s really not that important and get out of the way of the important work that men and women do when they go out to work for an employer.
K: When I was discussing housework with Polish and German students, the Polish students were saying, what you mentioned earlier as well, that housework should be paid because it’s work. And the German students were saying that we should start with the concept of work itself and stop thinking of only those activities that are paid for as work…
Selma: And why is there an opposition between those two?
K: I’m not saying it’s an opposition, it’s just…
Selma: An emphasis. Yes. This is not important really. If people want to see it as we must redefine work, I agree. If they see that it is work, I’ve redefined it already, and it must be paid, ok, I don’t care. Exept that it is very important to register that people from their own experience come to a conclusion, which is the same conclusion that other people from their experience have also come to. In a meeting a couple of days before a man read the reasons that men, mainly men, had refused the military: some on religious grounds, some on political grounds, some because they had done research and found the information that they were being asked to do things which they are against doing, because people had been lied to. There isn’t any correct reason for demanding that women and men are paid for their caring work. Every reason is useful and important. And valid.
I agree that the idea of wages for every work is demeaning, because it means the only reason you spend your life doing something is because somebody will give you money. It desrcibes exploitation. I’m a marxist, of course I agree with that. But if others are getting it, we want it too. And that is the only way that we will have a society, where people will not work only because there’s money at the end of it. The point is that either we abolish wages because we no longer need them, because everything is free and, you know, from each according to his ability, to each according to his need, which is the society I’m working for, and many millions are, or women, as well as men, get money for work that we are doing, which is crucial to the society.
K: I remember reading a piece of research about housework, done in Poland and actually the majority of women who were part of this research, were pretty much against the idea of wages for housework. They said they were doing it because they loved their families and they wanted to do this; they didn’t want to take it as a job and be paid for it.
Selma: I’ve heard that many times from women: ‘I do this beacuse I love my family’, and I always say that Picasso loved painting, but he didn’t gave them away, he sold them. You know, there’s a question of what is social power in a society and social power definitely arises from money. And women are not to be deprived of it. You know, people say: ‘I love my job and even if I won two million pounds, I would continue with my job’; I never heard anybody, ANYBODY ever continued with their job. I think that women have to know that to get the money is the beginning of caring, not the end.
The fact is that women often see their own interest and the interest of their children and the rest of the people they care for in conflict. And the wage absolutely removes that. You know, I remember when I was a single mother with very little money and on Thursdaty I run out of milk and I run out of cigarettes, and I was in deep conflict about what to buy, it was very, very hard to decide. I loved my child, I wanted him that milk, I didn’t know that milk was no good for him at the time… I knew that cigarettes were no good for me, but I needed them. And it’s that kind of conflict that mothers should never have to face, no carer should have to face that. I feel very stronlgy about this. I know exactly how it feels like to be financially dependet and also to go out to work and to be financially independent but with practically nothing. So don’t tell me about this financial independence, it’s just a lot of nonsense. Most women are financially independent by the skin of their teeth.
Marxism and housework
K: You said you were a marxist. Why is Marx such an important reference point in the Wages for Housework campaign?
Selma: Well, we come from him, because he undestood our struggle and desribed it in ways that made us central. He’s not like the marxists, he said he wasn’t a marxist. He said we were central to our own liberation, that was his basic premise. And based on that, he desribed all the ways in which we are prevented from acting as autonomous social beings. He also said that in a few places to make it clear, you know, that he meant the whole working class, women, men and children, not just a few people at the point of production.
And I’ve just never seen anything like that, I’ve never understood from anybody, exept, you know, in novels, in great art, you see snatches of what I call marxism, in a sense that a great artist has found or find his or her way to that conception of human beings and that conception of the brutality of the society and the violence against us that prevents us from moving as autonomous social beings.
The international movement
K: You were talking about the two pillars of the movement: the international and the autonomy. Can you say a bit more about it?
Selma: The autonomy of the working class from the institutions like the unions and the political parties, and the autonomy of sectors of the working class, first of all women, Black people, people of colour, thirld world people, lesbian and gay people, children, young, single mothers… You know that autonomy, that is really the way for us to get together with our own sector and clarify what we stand for, independent of other sectors, which have more power than us.
And the international is the basis of our unity. It is: we come together on the basis of our clarity and strengh as different sectors and we come together across national boundaries. And we find people in other countries where we are closer to them then we are to people in our own country, because the sectors are more less the same. That’s absolutely crucial to building the movement and it’s absolutely crucial to defining who is the working class, who is in struggle and what do we stand for. We stand for what all these autonomous sectors tell us they stand for. It’s a very big program, it is not summed up in what the Left has to say. As a matter of fact the Left exludes most of us from their conception of what is and what’s to be done.
In 1982 we formed an organisation called Housewifes in Dialogue. That organisation then became an independent charity with an acreditation to the UN Economic and Social Council. It got money for the first time to have a conference on women and emigration. And the experience of deciding what that conference was to be stayed with me because it was really a breakthrough in our thinking.
We invited two women to come and discuss it with us, the Bangladeshi woman and an African woman, and they said: you have to discuss this, you have to discuss that, and Solveig and I listened and listened and listened and we made list of everything they said and took notes of everything. And when they left I said to Solveig: we’re not going to do any of that, this is absolutely out of quetsion. There will be nothing that comes from this conference if we do it that way. And we decided that we were going to have a conference on women and emigration that was going to have three panels. Section one was: organizing to come here. Why and how we did it? And it is no political question. Women said why they became imigrants and how they became imigrants. And that was just extraordinary information pouring out. The second section was: building a life in Britain. What they faced, rasism, etc., and how they dealt with all the questions of trying to build a life, which is what women do for themselves and for their families. And the third section was: claiming our rights, which was demanding the right to stay and not to be deported and anti-deportation campaigns that women were engaged in. And I knew that we would never go back to political discussions, highly political, I’m not saying we were talking about dress and frivolity… But we only began with women speaking about what they knew and what they had experienced and what they had in their gut. That was the truth as they knew it. At the end of the day the audience did not want to go home, they just stayed there. I summed up at the end and said ‘thank you very much’, they aplauded and they just sat there, they didn’t want to go home. This was really what they wanted. They wanted to know what the hell was happening to these women, and to them.
K: Thank you very much, Selma.