Ham & High: ‘We’ve put caring on the agenda’: Selma James on Wages for Housework campaign

Frankie Lister-Fell0 Published: 3:32 PM March 18, 2022

Selma James outside of the previous Crossroads Women’s Centre – Credit: Archant

I meet Selma James at Kentish Town’s Crossroads Women’s Centre on what feels like the first day of Spring. She was described to me as a “force of nature”, and on first impression she is, but a force that is simultaneously powerful and gentle, striking and welcoming. 

Standing in the doorway to her office, the New York-born, Kilburn-based activist softly calls to one of her border collies, Litowa, named after the first socialist village in Tanzania.  

Selma is a woman who has written more books and founded more campaigns than you can count on your fingers. But the first thing she says to me is: “What’s your story?” 

Her story is one of centring anti-racism, anti-imperialism and socialism in the global feminism movement; her ideas were radical – and opposed by some second-wave feminists at the time.

Selma James wearing multicoloured scarf standing outside of the Crossroads Women's Centre in Kentish Town

“What is more important than caring? Caring is life-giving, life-affirming. We can’t do without it.” – Credit: Frankie Lister-Fell

Selma’s work started in 1945, when she was just 15. She joined the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a group within Trotskyism led by the Trinidad socialist historian and activist, CLR James, whom she later married. When she was 22, Selma wrote her first pamphlet: A Woman’s Place. Simple Bedtime Ritual To Empty Your Bowels ProperlyGUT SOLUTION | SPONSOREDWe Will Guess Your Education Level in 20 QuestionsHTTPS://THEMONEYTIME.COM/ | SPONSORED

She co-founded Crossroads in 1975, the longest standing women’s centre in London. The centre has been making its mark on local and global women’s lives from its home in Kentish Town since 1997. 

Poet Linton Kwesi Johnson with Selma James from Global Womens Strike at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town – Credit: Archant

At 91 years old, Selma shows no sign of slowing down. In July she published another book, Our Time Is Now. But today I’m here to talk with her about the International Wages for Housework Campaign (WFH), which she founded in 1972. This year, the campaign celebrates its 50th anniversary. 

“When I first proposed WFH, I wasn’t sure what it meant entirely,” she says. “But I knew there were two things that women suffered with that this campaign addressed: poverty and financial dependence.” 

The campaign argued that women’s unwaged work – in the home, in the field, in childcare, in the community – should be paid for by the government. The campaign coined the term “unwaged work”. 

At the time, single mothers were “poorer but freer” than wives. And wives were financially dependent on their husbands, but sacrificed their independence. All women do unwaged work, that is not recognised as work. 

“But what is more important than caring?” Selma asks. “Caring is life giving, life affirming. We can’t do without it. A baby doesn’t start working or gets a degree the moment it’s born. It needs to be cared for. Why aren’t women paid to introduce new life into society?” 

In the first few years of the campaign, a lot of feminists, such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, were hostile to Selma’s idea, believing it would institutionalise women in the home.  

“I never understood that argument because women were already institutionalised in poverty in the home. Women were dependent on men. Once we become carers, we have long periods of our life that are unwaged, which brings down our earning power,” Selma says. 

Selma James pictures in 2015 at an International Women's Day conference held in Hampstead. 

Selma James pictured in 2015 at an International Women’s Day conference held in Hampstead. – Credit: Polly Hancock

Despite the scepticism, WFH achieved some incredible milestones. During the UN Decade for Women (1975 -1985), it was agreed that women’s unwaged work will be officially counted in national statistics. That became the first time that unwaged work was measured. 

“This was especially important for women in the Global South, as they often grow the food that feeds the family,” Selma explains. 

70% of the food eaten in Africa is grown by women who are not paid for their work. 

Does Selma consider WFH a success? “It has put caring on the agenda,” she says. “In a large part, people find the words to talk about caring because of us. 

“We know more, we have more acknowledged, we know the arguments, we share them on an international level. Women expect more and demand more when they can. 

“The people in the society have changed, but the structure of the society has not improved.” 

One success that Selma celebrated recently was the renaming of London’s Tube Map for International Women’s Day. The map was reimagined to celebrate the lives of women and non-binary people who have left a lasting impact on the city. Kentish Town was renamed Selma James

Selma James standing in front of wooden office door smiling next to paper sign that has her name on Tube roundel

“We really are at home here in Kentish Town.” – Credit: Frankie Lister-Fell

“I felt the whole centre had been named really. We really are at home here in Kentish Town. We have roots here. We have the respect of a lot of women in the community because we are respectful of other people. 

“They see we do good work. We’re not the usual NGO that polishes up. We’re grassroots. We try to win.”