Morning Star: The crucial work that women do is often overlooked

Women’s caring role in society means we end up doing a ‘double day’ whether we like it or not, writes SELMA JAMES

WHEN the women’s liberation movement began in 1970, groups sprang up all over London and all over Britain.

You would have a meeting and establish some of the things you wanted to discuss but at the next meeting there were twice as many women and you had to go over the same ground again.

So the newcomers were told “form your own group,” and the number of groups doubled and trebled.

A lot of women wanted to destroy all the hierarchies in society — not only of gender, but of race, nationality, age, disability, sexuality … but especially of class. We were almost all white but we were not all middle class.

I had been involved in the anti-imperialist movement in the Caribbean and, back in Britain, in the anti-racist movement (we were a mixed-race family).

I naturally brought that to women’s liberation. Some women embraced anti-racism but some treated it as an alien force competitive with feminism.

They had not yet registered that most of the women in the world are not white: the number of people of colour in Britain, though growing, was still relatively small.

I also brought women’s liberation to the anti-racist movement and fought it out with the men there; the women found their own voice.

At that moment in time it was difficult for most people — in any movement — to conceive of identifying as more than one sector. But some of us thought that we were all more than one sector and that we shouldn’t have to cut off any part of our identity to fit into any movement.

As women we identified first of all as those who did caring work for everyone but were the poorer and subordinate sex because we got not a bean for doing it. We had concluded that this unwaged work was central to the low status of women in every sphere and every country.

We produced and cared for all the workers of the world, and thus gave birth to and maintained every economy. In much of the world this included growing the food we fed our families. We were often asked by husbands in so called advanced countries: “What did you do all day?” as we put the meal on the table while tending a crying child. We women worked very hard doing what wasn’t considered work.

To redress this basic exploitation we formed the International Wages for Housework Campaign (WFH).

In 1975 WFH in London opened our first women’s centre — a little squat which ultimately became today’s Crossroads Women’s Centre in Kentish Town.

It’s one thing to campaign for unwaged work to be waged by governments, it’s quite another for various sectors of women to organise together with this perspective and at the same time make their own particular case — as women of colour, as lesbian women, as sex workers, as women with disabilities, as single mothers, as rape survivors, as immigrants, as asylum seekers…

It was that autonomous but mutually supportive way of campaigning that enabled us to come together in a women’s centre (there are more than one Crossroads centres in the world) and even in an international network which includes domestic workers, farmers, factory workers, students, teachers, nurses, claimants…

From 2000 WFH has co-ordinated the Global Women’s Strike in a number of countries.

This International Women’s Day is different in a number of ways. The women’s strikes which have been taking place around the world on March 8 have focused on rape, domestic violence and the murder of women, and the demand to end the impunity men are being given by the state. Caring work has featured as never before.

Caring has even entered university syllabuses. This is not only because women are insisting that this massive contribution be finally recognised but because we’ve gone out to work, doing a double day whether we like it or not. That was the only route to financial independence or even family survival once benefits were cut.

Now we face a climate emergency which threatens the whole of society, and in fact the whole world.

Strangely enough it was this crisis which opened the way to updating WFH. The Green New Deal for Europe, of which we are a dedicated part, is proposing a care income paid to all who do caring work for people and the natural world, whatever our gender.

At last protecting people and protecting Mother Earth are equated and elevated above the uncaring market.

This is light years ahead of a basic income which hides the crucial work that women do, leaves intact the sexist division of labour and the domination of the market and can even be used to abolish benefits.

And it is certainly more respectful of caring relationships than parking dependent loved ones with “professionals” in order to the “liberate” us, as some women economists urge.

We know enough about capitalism to worry that a “greening” of Europe means a new level of exploitation and environmental destruction of the global South — ie where is lithium for electric car batteries coming from and who is mining it? They will try to sell and celebrate this “development” — which makes international accountability and organising even more urgent.

The new and massively growing movement to save the earth is having to confront every prejudice which has divided us. Fighting for climate justice is our chance and our need.

This Sunday the Crossroads Women’s Centre will open its doors to women and to every gender, welcoming all to meet the 15 organisations based there and what they try to accomplish through collective self-help.

The open day on Sunday March 8 features workshops, films, exhibitions, music and refreshments. It runs from 12pm-5pm at 25 Wolsey Mews, London NW5 2DX. For more information visit