Boston Review: Care Work in a Wageless World

As the planet burns and pandemics rage, Selma James’s work with the Wages for Housework movement shows that we ignore the labor of care at our own peril. Emily Callaci

  • March 2, 2022

Sex, Race, and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011
Selma James
Common Notions and PM Press, $20 (paper)

Our Time is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet
Selma James, edited by Nina Lopez
PM Press, $17 (paper)

Two years ago this month, activists from the Global Women’s Strike convened a virtual conference. Selma James, then nearing her ninetieth birthday, was one of several speakers. “We are carers,” she said, speaking from her home in London. “We are not sorry that we are carers. But we are very tired of being poor carers.”The crisis of care brought on by COVID-19 serves as an opportunity to forge solidarity among carers.

These were the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when images of white-collar professionals in Zoom meetings harried by children in the background were just beginning to go viral. But even then James was clear: the inequities of care work have deep historical roots and reach far beyond the pandemic. James described an ongoing crisis of environmental destruction that creates unpaid care work for those living with floods, forest fires, droughts, and pests. She spoke of poverty and the unpaid work of caring for children and communities in places neglected by the state. She spoke of the work of survival, the protection and healing necessary for those living in places devastated by military occupation and war. With these variations of unpaid care work in mind, she framed the crisis of care brought on by COVID-19 as an opportunity to forge solidarity among carers. The demand that can unite us in our various struggles, she concluded, is a care income: monetary compensation for all those who do the unpaid work of caring for children, the sick, the elderly, and the environment.

If James seemed unusually prepared to address this moment, it is because she has been thinking about this for decades. Today’s Care Income Now movement is a direct descendent of Wages for Housework, the political demand James has made for five decades. The market economy, James has long argued, has always fleeced women. When middle-class women could afford to be housewives, they accessed wealth as dependents of their wage-earning husbands—an arrangement leading to its own distinctive kind of oppression. Working-class women and the majority of women of color, meanwhile, have always had to work outside their homes, subject to the oppressive vicissitudes of the market. Today, even among the most privileged sectors of the workforce, women are penalized for any time they spend away from their jobs doing the unpaid work of childrearing.

James makes clear that it is not just women who lose out. People who live in urban communities that have been systematically impoverished, segregated, and excluded from formal employment opportunities are often shunted into the so-called “informal sector” and then criminalized for it. Looking beyond the United States and Western Europe, particularly to the Global South, resources are not distributed through the full-time waged worker. Indeed, regular, universal waged labor has never been the norm for most of the world. Americans are uniquely socialized to believe that waged work is the condition on which people should be included in the distribution of society’s wealth. The mechanisms in place for sharing wealth beyond workers’ salaries are pitifully meager, derided as “hand-outs” and batted around as political pawns.

In this fraught context, the Wages for Housework offers a perspective that fundamentally reimagines the nature of work and workers—a fact made abundantly clear in a timely new volume of James’s writings, Our Time is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet (2021). They could not be more urgent.

James was born Selma Deitch in 1930 to a movement family in Brooklyn and was profoundly shaped by the radical politics of the ’30s. When she was barely a teenager, her older sister began taking her to meetings of the Socialist Workers Party. She was of the same generation of New York Jews as Vivian Gornick. “Before I knew that I was Jewish or a girl I knew I was a member of the working class,” Gornick once wrote. Working-class struggle ran through everything, including James’s decision to forgo college, work in a factory, and dedicate her life to political struggle.Americans are uniquely socialized to believe that waged work is the condition on which people should be included in the distribution of society’s wealth.

James began organizing around the issue of unpaid work in the early ’50s. She began as a member of the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a small group that came out of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. Founded by C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs, the group was committed to the inherent wisdom and revolutionary potential of working-class people. They were skeptical of centralized political parties and party leaders and believed revolutionary change should come organically from the intelligence, creativity, and culture of working class people. They put this into practice in their newspaper Correspondence, which aimed to record, engage and circulate the words and perspectives of everyday people—from gang members, to autoworkers, to housewives. In her organizing work, James sought out women like herself, doing invisible labor at home. A young single mother and factory worker, James visited the homes of her fellow workers and neighborhood housewives to record their reflections and engage them in dialogue.

James wrote about housewives in her first publication, a political pamphlet called “A Woman’s Place” (1952). She paid close attention to the seemingly mundane—the monotonous isolation of housework, the frustration of having no money of one’s own, and the strains that a gendered division of labor put on marriage—as well as moments of joy and connection, like when the women in her housing block all finished housework early on a Friday afternoon in order to make time for a shared beer in each other’s company. In quotidian expressions of both frustration and joy, James saw resistance, political consciousness, and the potential for political organizing. Through attention to the material details of women’s lives, she began to theorize what it meant to be wageless in a capitalist world.

By writing about capitalism from her position as a housewife, James challenged the conventional wisdom of socialists, which positioned such women as politically backward and assumed that the “real” working class struggle necessitated working outside the home for a wage. James believed this was ludicrous. Women already worked. They lacked money and power, not a second job.

In the mid-1950s, James married C. L. R. James and moved with him to London where he went in the McCarthy era. For years she collaborated with him politically while also acting as his secretary, typing his manuscripts. She returned with him to his home country of Trinidad for four years during decolonization and the struggle to form a West Indian Federation before settling in London again in the early 1960s. In the ’60s and ’70s, their apartment became famous as a salon for radical activists, thinkers, and artists from around the world. Many found it a place of conviviality, creativity, rigorous debate, and political organizing, including the great Guyanese anti-colonial theorist and revolutionary Walter Rodney, Bajan novelist George Lamming, founders of the British Black Panther party, and members of the Italian workerist movement Potere Operaio.The market economy has always fleeced women.

In London James was soon disillusioned with the primary British labor movement that defined “the working class” as white and male, and she was not alone in her frustration. Her community included immigrants and anti-racist, anti-colonial activists (she acted as a witness for British Black Panther leader Althea Lecointe in the famous Mangrove 9 trial, the first trial to successfully challenge police racism in the United Kingdom). James was animated by the same logic as many Black activists, who identified not as an interest group separate from the working class, but rather as the working class. They redefined anti-capitalist politics by centering colonialism, racism, and the immigrant experience. Similarly, James was not interested in “women’s issues” as separate from working-class issues but rather saw women’s unpaid work in the home as a critical site of working-class struggle against capitalism. The aim was not to liberate women, but rather to start with women in order to liberate everyone.

When the feminist movement came to the UK in the early ’70s, James joined as part of the Notting Hill branch of the Women’s Liberation Workshop. Her vision of feminism as an extension of class struggle sometimes put her at odds with the mainstream women’s movement, which advanced gender equality in the workplace as a core demand. As a working-class woman who had taken many low-paid, exploitative jobs to support herself, she did not see employment as a source of liberation or self-realization. Rather, she argued that working-class women, already burdened with unpaid housework, should fight to work less.

In 1972 James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa—an Italian labor activist, scholar, and founder of the Marxist feminist group Lotta Femminista in Padua—launched the Wages for Housework campaign. Women’s unpaid work in the home, they argued, profited capitalism by producing its most valuable asset: labor power itself. The home was therefore not a respite from the world of work, but rather a key site of capitalist profit-making, powered by the unpaid and invisible work of women. Cultural forces colluded to convince women that it was in their nature to do this work and that they should derive fulfillment, rather than wealth, from it. If women stopped, capitalism would grind to a halt.

Wages for Housework experimented with the idea that housework was an immense, untapped source of political power. Sometimes they advocated withholding work, other times they demanded compensation for it, but always they held the goal of making it visible and revealing its critical role in capitalism. “My personal dream,” James said in 1973,

is that some women will get together, and take their children and go to some big factory somewhere, and walk in, and put their children down in the laps of the men on the assembly line, and walk out. Everyone in the society would understand that if they were not seeing after the children, these men in that factory wouldn’t be able to do any work. You know you can’t make Ford cars and change nappies at the same time.

The women of Wages for Housework were not the first to demand that housework—particularly the care of children—be compensated. Their campaign built on the organizing work of Black feminists in the United States, including Johnnie Tillmon and Beulah Sanders, leaders of the National Welfare Rights Organization who argued that mothers were workers and welfare was their payment. They also built on the work of the Claimants Unions in the United Kingdom, comprised of women on public assistance who fought for mothers’ rights to a family allowance. Wages for Housework was unique, however, in its ambition to theorize beyond individual struggles and unify all unwaged workers of the world.James was not interested in “women’s issues” as separate from working-class issues but saw women’s unpaid work in the home as a critical site of working-class struggle against capitalism.

The movement grew during the 1970s and ’80s, as feminists began to form committees across Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. It gained particularly strong traction in Italy, where committees proliferated across the country. As the movement grew, it also expanded in scope. In Toronto, for example, lesbians organized around the recognition of custody struggles, the care work of lesbian women, and the inherent vulnerability of living in a society organized around the nuclear family. In Bristol and London, immigrant women came together around immigration and the rights of domestic workers, whose wages were so low they could not afford to bring their children with them from their home countries and were excluded from public benefits. In Los Angeles and San Francisco, the campaign backed sex workers in opposing the criminalization of prostitution, positioning sex work as part of women’s broader economic subordination under capitalism. Feminists in the Caribbean brought the movement to organizations of domestic workers in Trinidad, Guyana, and Jamaica, connecting unpaid women’s work to ongoing struggles against slavery, colonialism, and underdevelopment.

In 1976 Margaret Prescod and Wilmette Brown transformed Wages for Housework when they formed Black Women for Wages for Housework. They highlighted the work of raising Black children in a racist society and spoke out against the predatory police force. In her essay “Black Women: Bringing it All Back Home” (1980), Prescod, from Barbados, contextualized Black women’s care work in relation to imperialism, global migration, and racial capitalism. She illuminated how women from the Global South often travelled to wealthy countries to perform domestic work, frequently having to leave children and dependents home to be cared for by extended family. Brown, who grew up in a Newark neighborhood downwind from chemical factories and who later battled colon cancer, wrote about the unpaid work of surviving environmental racism and caring for the sick. In a powerful 1983 essay “Roots: Black Ghetto Ecology,” she showed how those who live in areas exposed to environmental toxins—predominantly poor Black communities—are burdened with the “housework” of protecting their families from polluted air, water, and soil, and then must care for those who get sick. Brown, who was also active in the antiwar movement, had a concrete idea about how to fund Wages for Housework: “Pay Women, Not the Military!” Black Women for Wages for Housework transformed the movement into a feminism that could be truly global.

Since then, Wages for Housework committees have fought for direct cash payments to women and caregivers. They have done so while also insisting that it is not just the compensation alone that matters, but what that compensation is called: it is a wage, not charity. Wages are paid to workers. Workers can organize, withhold labor, go on strike, and demand better working conditions; recipients of charity cannot. For this reason, a Wages for Housework delegation to the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, led by Prescod, joined with welfare rights activists to pass a resolution that welfare be called a wage. This was prescient: when the U.S. welfare system was dismantled, it was through onerous work requirements, which presumed that mothering is not already work. Eight years later, at the United Nations Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, and then ten years later in Beijing, a Wages for Housework delegation led by Prescod—which included many women from the Global South—fought for a UN resolution to count women’s work as part of GDP. These might seem like symbolic victories, but the implications are profound. Consider, for example, what this means as climate change increases the burden of unpaid care work on women in the Global South. To count women’s work in combating and surviving climate change—which they did not cause—shifts the narrative from one of victimhood to one of accountability.

Our Time is Now, collecting James’s writings mostly from the last decade, comes nearly a decade after Sex, Race, and Class: The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings (2012), which contains her foundational writings and traces the development of her ideas through five decades of organizing. While we may read these anthologies as works of feminist theory, James clearly intends for them to provoke and support direct action in the world. Each of the selections was created with a specific aim in mind; they are tools created in the context of political struggle. Many of the pieces originated as pamphlets, self-published by organizations including the Johnson-Forest Tendency, Notting Hill Women’s Liberation Workshop, and the Power of Women Collective. In that sense, this book is as much a document of James’s unique political mind as it is an archive of a political movement, documenting relationships and collaborations over a life of political struggle.Housewives and immigrants were both selectively incorporated, and then abandoned, by employers and the state to meet the needs of capital.

Sex, Race, and Class opens with the text of James’s original 1952 pamphlet “A Woman’s Place,” about the position of wageless housewives in early 1950s Los Angeles. This thread is picked up nearly two decades later in a very different setting: London in the early 1970s, in the context of a labor movement fighting for its life against a rising tide of conservatism, the ongoing struggle of Black Britons against systemic racism, and the rise of a British feminist movement. James joined the feminist movement as a member of the Notting Hill Women’s Liberation Workshop and attended the inaugural 1970 Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College in Oxford, but struggled to reconcile her years of anti-racist and anti-capitalist work with what she encountered in the mainstream feminist movement. In a self-published pamphlet that would later become her classic 1972 essay “Women, The Unions and Work, or. . . What is Not to be Done,” James wrote as an outsider to both the labor movement (because she is a woman) and the feminist movement (because she is working-class). She criticized unions for ignoring unwaged women, failing to organize women workers, and implicitly supporting bosses in their efforts to keep women workers unskilled and underpaid in the workplace. “For them the ‘real’ working class is white, male and over thirty,” she argued.

Here racism, male supremacy and age supremacy have a common lineage. They effectively want to make us auxiliary to the ‘general’ struggle—as if they represented the generalization of the struggle; as if there could be a generalized struggle without women, without men joining with women for women’s demands.

In that same essay, she also critiqued the mainstream feminist movement that consisted of a largely white, middle-class, and university-educated demographic. She was especially critical of their emphasis on workplace equality, which assumed that the workplace would be a main site of women’s liberation. James argued from experience: for most working-class women, the workplace was a site of exploitation, not liberation. Furthermore, any job women worked must be considered in relation to the fulltime work they already did in the home. In response to the demand for equal pay for equal work, she demanded a shorter workweek for all and a guaranteed income for anyone who did housework. She also criticized the mainstream feminist focus on abortion rights, which she saw as too narrowly focused on middle-class white women. In its place, she demanded abortion access in conjunction with financial support for the work of childrearing and community-controlled daycares. Here we hear echoes of the political demands of Black women’s organizations and members of Claimants Unions, who faced motherhood in poverty, systemic racism in public assistance programs, and the threat of coercive sterilization.

Indeed, one of the revelations of these two books is how James’s thinking on Wages for Housework emerged in dialogue with anti-racist activists. It is significant that her treatise “Sex, Race, and Class,” perhaps her most clear articulation of her political vision, was published in a 1974 issue of Race Today—a journal published by a collective of Black writers and editors, including Darcus Howe, Leila Hassan, Barbara Beese, and Farouk Dhondy. Race Today centered the lives, activism and expressive cultures of Black Britons, foregrounding them in the struggle against capitalism and imperialism. This approach resonated with James. “Why wages for housework?” she asked in her article.Wages for Housework was unique in its ambition to theorize beyond individual struggles and unify all unwaged workers of the world.

It is here in this strategy that the lines between the revolutionary black and the revolutionary feminist movements begin to blur. This perspective is founded on the least powerful—the wageless. Reinforcing capital’s international division of labor is a standing army of unemployed who can be shunted from industry to industry, from country to country. The Third World is the most massive repository of this industrial reserve army. (The second most massive is the kitchen in the metropolis.)

In other words, housewives and immigrants were both selectively incorporated, and then abandoned, by employers and the state to meet the needs of capital. They therefore have always shared a common struggle.

While the selections in the first half of Sex, Race, and Class show the development of the core components of James’s feminism, the essays in later part of the book shows where this approach has taken her over the years. They range in subject matter, from statements of solidarity with sex workers, analyses of women in the literary works of Jane Austen and Jean Rhys, and reflections on the role of women’s work in Tanzania’s experiment with African socialism to an engagement with imprisoned activist Mumia Abu-Jamal and to reflections on the legacy of C. L. R. James and the enduring lessons of his classic book, The Black Jacobins (1938).

While the book highlights decades of collaborative work, it also reveals tensions and internal power struggles. For example, Sex, Race, and Class includes the essay “Women and Subversion of the Community,” which was originally published in 1972—first in Italian and then in English—with Dalla Costa listed as sole author. A later version in English listed James and Dalla Costa as co-authors. Here, James excerpts passages from the essay that she claims to have written herself. (Dalla Costa disputes this account in her own volume of collected writings Women and the Subversion of the Community, published by the same press in 2019.)

For its part, Our Time is Now contains op-eds, manifestoes, speeches, and interviews (including a particularly fascinating interview about James’s training in the Johnson-Forest Tendency and reflections on the legacy of C. L. R. James). While Sex, Race, and Class shows the development of James’s thinking about Wages for Housework, Our Time is Now shows how she further develops her perspective in response to a range of political contexts, including the struggles for Haitian and Palestinian sovereignty, the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, the COVID-19 pandemic and the demand for Care Income Now. Two central theses emerge from this eclectic volume: that any political movement opposing unwaged work must be global, and that such movements must organize themselves both “autonomously” and yet still in unity with a wider anti-capitalist movement.James’s thinking on Wages for Housework was highly influenced by the work of anti-racist activists.

One way that James’s thinking has evolved to speak to the contemporary moment is in the shift from “housework” to “care work.” The concept of “housework” may not resonate now as it did with an earlier generation for whom being a housewife was still an economic possibility. More recently, James and her community of organizers have invoked “care work” as a more expansive concept, less tethered to the nuclear family. Over the years James and her community of organizers have expanded their political vision to include a wider range of unwaged work. The essays in Our Time is Now show where this political preoccupation has taken James—from sex workers, to prisoners, to domestic workers, to peasants, and beyond.

This is an inclusive vision of feminism. The underlying demand of the book—“Care Income Now!”—came from the fight to gain power for women, but it does not rely on a biological concept of womanhood. This is a feminism that endures, in part, because it is open to anyone—care work is not something you are, but something you do. Maybe you are caring for an elderly person. Maybe you are fighting to protect the waterways from a new pipeline so future generations can breathe clean air and drink clean water. Maybe you are spending many unpaid hours commuting each week between prison and the courthouse to defend the life of your incarcerated relative. Maybe you are caring for children. Maybe you are battling cancer—your own or someone else’s. As James writes, hers is a feminism that “begins with women but embraces everyone—it invites all genders to look again at the work we do and the lives we live.”

James closes the anthology with a series of reflections on “autonomy,” an organizing model developed and honed over decades of experience that arose out of the recognition that political movements are not free from power hierarchies. The struggles of lesbian women, for example, cannot simply be folded into a feminist movement dominated by straight women—their distinctive experience necessitates an autonomous space to articulate their needs. The same applies for other groups, whether disabled women, Black women, gay men, the elderly, sex workers, or breastfeeding mothers. Yet separatism, James found in her experience with the Wages for Housework campaign, deprives each group of power. The strategy of autonomy recognizes that capitalism exploits us all, but in different ways. “We wanted the money for all of us for work all of us were doing,” she recalls, “and we needed each other in order to win.” Within a global movement to recognize all forms of unwaged work, the strategy of autonomy enjoins groups with distinct experiences of exploitation to maintain focus on their unique struggle while also acting in unity with the struggles of others.  “Every struggle is urgent to the people who are making it,” James said in an interview in 2014, which appears in Our Time is Now. “I don’t think that we should prioritize struggles. The question is: How can the power of one struggle reinforce the power of others?”

Wages for Housework is often misunderstood as a movement narrowly concerned with demanding cash payments. But far from an end goal, such wages are only the starting point for a more fundamental transformation of our political imagination: the conjuring of a world organized around care rather than capitalist growth, the destruction of the environment, and pointless productivity.“I don’t think that we should prioritize struggles. The question is: How can the power of one struggle reinforce the power of others?”

Arguments that many once dismissed as too idealistic are now becoming common sense. The feminist dictum “Every mother is a working mother” is hard to ignore when we can see it happening in real time on Zoom. In the 1970s Wages for Housework pushed against the liberal truism that women’s fullest liberation would come through joining men as equals in the workplace and that employment was the fullest expression of human self-realization. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, millions of men and women are leaving their jobs, by choice or by necessity, challenging the long-held political belief that what Americans want, above all else, are jobs in the capitalist economy. In calls to defund the police and invest in community care as an alternative to racist policing and mass incarceration, we hear distinct echoes of the Wages for Housework argument, especially as articulated by Wilmette Brown: “Pay Women, Not the Military.” We now know that climate change, driven by the consumption patterns of the world’s wealthiest and most privileged, will make our planet uninhabitable for all. Before it does, it will create countless hours of unpaid work for those who take care of it and its people. But there are other options.

To be immersed in James’s seven decades of writing is to encounter a relentless optimist, always ready to see that a revolution is possible if only we keep at it, looking for the right moment to grasp hold of the system and change it. If there ever were a moment for James’s feminist vision, surely it is now.Share on facebook Share on twitter Share on email Share on print

Emily Callaci

Emily Callaci is an historian of modern Africa. Her interests include urban history, popular culture, gender, sexuality and reproductive politics.