Selma James and Melissa Benn in The Guardian

Home truths for feminists

How should the work women do as mothers be rewarded? Selma James and Melissa Benn argue about carers and careers
Hi Selma,
You were probably as surprised as I was to see recent reports that Michael Howard’s new model Tories are floating the idea, borrowed from Finland, that mothers should be paid a substantial amount to stay at home when their children are young. That is, if we consider £150 a month, with an extra £50 per child, a substantial amount in today’s world.Thinking back to the 1980s when Wages for Housework campaigned so militantly for just such a proposal, and were opposed just as passionately by virtually all feminists, including my younger self, I just wondered whether you feel: victory at last? Or do you have just a few sneaking worries that the right has taken up your ideological cudgels? We await the fine print of these proposals, but could this just be top up fees for Worcester Woman or whatever we call her these days?

Curious to hear your views,

Dear Melissa,
No, I’m not surprised that the Tories are thinking of paying women. Politicians of both right and left (whatever that means now) are opportunistic, and women in all kinds of jobs have made clear they’re exhausted and still underpaid. They’re demanding the right to have a life, including with their children, rather than a daily marathon. Wages – for housework, caring work, women’s unwaged work generally – is definitely on the agenda.

You’re right: in 1972 when we began, most feminists did oppose women getting wages for unwaged work. But working-class women who were unlikely to identify as feminists never did. We were told that to be liberated, a woman had to “go to work”: why couldn’t a woman be more like a man, or at least his equal? Many working-class women were already struggling with a low-paid jobs on top of caring work, which hadn’t liberated them one inch. We argued that this caring work, which produced all the workers of the world, had to be recognised: measured, valued and paid for.

Many feminists pointed to Margaret Thatcher as a role model, and this role model pushed single mothers off benefits and “into work”. Socialist feminists who hated Thatcher were keen to tell us that women’s consciousness would be raised at the magical “point of production”, and Labour has used this to push single mothers off benefits and “into work”. We argued: why can’t a man be more like a woman?

About time we had this discussion again,

Dear Selma,
The debate has moved on quite a bit since those early feminist discussions, in lots of interesting ways. Motherhood, not surprisingly, remains central to feminist thinking but the whole debate about work and power is much more sophisticated than it was. Modern feminists, many like myself who have had children, recognise that the parent-child bond is an immensely deep, complex and important one that relies on closeness, especially, but by no means exclusively, in those early years. Any public policy that recognises the value of caring must be an advance.

But if we’re not careful, socio-biology will tell us very quickly that we’re hard-wired for caring and men for earning, and now that nice Michael Howard wants to pay us for our trouble in rearing the next generations’ citizens. This, as I remember, was the major worry about Wages for Housework all those years ago, and for me, it remains. Forget Margaret Thatcher. Modern feminists have insisted, rightly I think, on the importance of mothers remaining part of the work world with their hard-earned talents to contribute, their desire to matter undiminished.

Isn’t this a key question for our times?

Dear Melissa,
As I remember, motherhood became a feminist concern as young feminists had children themselves. But now, it’s true, many feminist mothers are rethinking their priorities. Many are aware that we endanger our children’s health and our own if we don’t breastfeed (that precious piece of socio-biology) for at least six months. And that leaving our infants puts their emotions and ours under severe and maybe lasting strain.

I don’t dig this life-balance talk. What’s so enriching about working in call centres? The only other choice: to scrimp on benefits or depend on a man, with no money of your own – a major source of domestic violence, including rape in marriage. I don’t think most jobs men do are more important than raising children. Nor do I think women should be institutionalised as carers or men deprived of their kids. Time for a change!

In Norway and Finland parents use the money from governments to pay others or do the caring themselves. This gives women bargaining power, to accept or reject what employers offer in wages and conditions. Power at home too: men either share the work or move on. For lesbian women, and in fact all women, the money makes it easier to be sexually independent and be mothers too.

So why glorify work outside the home. How many women are professionals? How many men? Most of us go out, get exploited, grab the dosh and run.

Doesn’t balance begin with all of us working less?

Dear Selma,
In many ways, you are and I share the same gut politics; if feminism is only about the bankers and the broadcasters, not the carers and the cleaners, forget it.

But I just don’t think that old crude divide – beloved of some earlier feminists – between a few career babes and the mass of toiling women holds true anymore. Work-life balance may sound like a ghastly new shampoo, but a lot of modern mothers, and a few dads, mix an interesting enough job – which they may, in part, enjoy just because it gets them out of the home and family, for a while – with spending time with their children.

So how can government policy help them do more of that? Yes, extra money at the point of care will increase women’s bargaining power. But it might just mean more dosh for consumer durables for your average middle England family, which already has a high earning spouse, and lower benefits for poorer women or single parents. Call me cynical, but I suspect that’s the real Tory agenda here.

So, yes, by all means, let’s increase carers’ payments, as long as men are entitled to the money as well. But I’d still like to see more public child care, not 12-hour a day baby farms but something more flexible and modern along the lines of the government’s long planned Children’s Centres. They’d be good for communities too.

Oh, and while I’m in personal manifesto mood, don’t forget the long term. All forms of caring should earn proper pension credits. The scandal of female pensioner poverty, usually the price of a lifetime of caring for others, has gone on long enough.

Dear Melissa,
Going to work to “get out of the home and family” – can we accept living like this? Why deny that caring for people is the very stuff of life? Basic to relationships. Basic to human survival. Yet treated as worthless. Women give their all, but it’s not mutual and it’s not paid.

Class divides are strong as ever, I’m afraid. What’s changed is that our thinking is finally international. Women grow 80% of food consumed in Africa and over 60% in Asia, yet are officially “economically inactive”. Despite slogging all day every day, no work record and no wage. Any wonder that we women are 70% of the world’s poor?

Women in Venezuela point the way. They won Article 88 in their constitution which “recognises work at home as an economic activity that creates added value and produces social welfare and wealth. Housewives are entitled to social security”. This includes the pension you propose for women and men carers. But must we wait till we’re old? It’s not as though there’s no money. Look at the $1trillion in annual military budgets.

As for women wasting carers’ wages on “consumer durables”, it’s theirs, and they can do what they damn well please with it. Men do. But experience tells us they’ll feed their children, educate them, and take their independence.

Dear Selma,
I’m completely with you over the criminal waste of war and the disgraceful fact that millions of the worlds’ women are designated as “economically inactive”. And no – let’s not wait until we’re old. I’d also like to see far better wages for many of the jobs that women do, often an extension of the caring role. I still can’t figure out why a lawyer can charge up to several hundred an hour for his – or her – services and a care assistant should consider herself lucky to get £6.50.

But I feel we’re in real danger here of forgetting one of feminism’s historic achievements: the recognition of women’s need to do more than take care of the home and husband. Remember the “problem that had no name”: Betty Friedan’s description, over 40 years ago now, of the depressed housewife? Feminism didn’t demand the right for women to go out and be a wage slave. Capitalism has distorted that message. But it did put the crucial idea of fulfillment on the agenda.

Is it so very terrible to want – to need – time away from scuddy sinks and sticky fingers and repetitive routines? Men have walked away from these relentless demands for decades, and things are only slowly changing.

So I still insist on women’s right to create meaning out of their lives beyond the hugely important job of caring. Looking after others can’t be the only value by which we shape our lives: that way lies the potential for exploitation.

And I don’t think it’s just a class thing, a professional woman’s thing. I think it’s a human thing.

Dear Melissa,
I’m afraid feminism has to take responsibility for urging women to get exploited in our own right! Housewives (and sex workers) were not sisters but obstacles to liberation. For years my fights with feminism centred on its dismissal of the work women spend our lives doing: for children, relatives with disabilities, neighbours, on the land, in courts of justice defending sons (whom we had spent years cleaning hospital floors to feed) from racist police … Often from Islington or Hampstead homes with daily cleaners, they said it could all be done in a couple of hours!

Friedan’s “problem” not only had no name; it wasn’t “work”. (Like New Labour with over 100 women MPs calling single mothers ‘workless”.) If women got wages for it, would we be institutionalised at home? Not in Norway or Finland. Let’s have a little respect for what women will do with power.

Validating caring work – which we began to do in 1985 in Nairobi and 1995 in Beijing, when we got the UN to agree that it should be measured and valued – is the first step to radically changing the whole division of labour and the economy.

Things have changed. Women now don’t want to be institutionalised in waged work or anywhere. They want their children to be more than “the job at home”. As caring work is recognised, we win leverage, not just for careers for a few, but to create what Venezuelan women call “a caring economy, an economy at the service of human beings rather than human beings at the service of the economy”.

Men in Britain have the longest working week in Europe. This is no basis for fathers’ liberation. We’ve got to stop glorifying the work men do and invite them to take part in caring for other life. If we’re not segregated, demeaned, discriminated and impoverished by it, as is true with women now, it’s the most civilising work of all.

· Melissa Benn is a writer and journalist whose books include Madonna and Child: Towards a New Politics of Motherhood.

· Selma James founded the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972 and now coordinates the Global Women’s Strike; her most recent book is The Milk of Human Kindness.