Viewpoint Magazine: Care Work and the Power of Women: An Interview with Selma James

Julie McIntyre March 19, 2012PDF

In their 1972 pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa presented an original and influential analysis of “unwaged work.” This concept, which identified the care work that women do in the home as an essential element of the reproduction of capitalism, opened the door to powerful new forms of struggle among working class women and men. James founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign, based on the demand that women should be paid for their round-the-clock care work, since it reproduces labor-power day after day.

This was not an attempt to subject women to the same exploitation as male workers. In 1970s Italy, the Wages for Housework movement was connected to Lotta Feminista, a group that sought to challenge male-centered forms of workers’ struggle. Silvia Federici argued, in a 1974 essay reprinted in the recent issue of The Commoner on care work, that the feminist struggle for a wage had to be understood in terms of “its significance in demystifying and subverting the role to which women have been confined in capitalist society.” Introducing a reprint of James and Dalla Costa’s pamphlet in 1975, the Padua Wages for Housework Committee explained, “If our wageless work is the basis of our powerlessness in relation both to men and to capital, as this book, and our daily experience, confirm, then wages for that work, which alone will make it possible for us to reject that work, must be our lever of power.”

Recently James has coordinated the International Women Count Network and the Global Women’s Strike. Several weeks ago, she kicked off a tour to promote her new book with PM Press, Sex, Race and Class – The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952–2011. At Occupy Philadelphia’s Dissecting Capitalism series, James gave a talk on “Women, Capitalism, and the State,” and later appeared at a special women-led International Women’s Day general assembly. Between her engagements, I spoke with her about the relevance of Wages for Housework today, her current involvement in US and UK welfare campaigns, and the challenges facing care workers.

I wanted to start with The Power of Women and the Subversion of Community and the central ideas around that, because they might not be completely familiar to people who are reading this publication from other perspectives. As I understand it, one of the central ideas in that publication is that women’s work is fundamental to the reproduction of capital, and that women’s struggles are not secondary to labor politics.

In fact, that women’s struggles are labor politics, but they’re unwaged labor politics. And they’re not less important or more important but integral to the entire picture. There is waged work in the society, and there is unwaged work in the society, and they’re both absolutely crucial to the accumulation of capital and to its destruction.

Thank you. You put it much more eloquently than I could. So with that as the foundation, and the fact that this publication came out in ’71-’72…


’72. I’m wondering if you could explain, with changes in women’s struggles and changes in labor, how that applies today, particularly for younger people who are new to these ideas or coming into this without having been alive at that time.

Some things are different. The first thing that’s different from 1972 is that we have a much more international view of unwaged work. There’s not a lot in Power of Women on the unwaged work on the land. And it’s much more directed at women in industrial countries. The housework of women in industrial countries. Whereas most of the housework in the world, and most of the caring work in the world, and obviously, most of the agricultural work in the world that’s unwaged, as well as waged, is in the non-industrial world.

And we understood that not long after. There are hints of that in Power of Women, because I had lived in the Third World and been involved in struggles in the Third World. But it was hard enough to make the case for unwaged work with women in industrial countries because a lot of feminism was not interested in that. They thought that, and said that, housework… you could more or less eliminate it. Do just a little something every day, which is at best absurd, at worst sexist. So that was a big change.

The other big change is that women went out to work in much greater numbers, for a number of reasons. Because we didn’t think we could get wages for housework. And we thought the important thing was to get the money to have the independence. And because, after the Seventies, there was an enormous attack on women having any money from the state. And single mothers were thrown off benefits. In this country it was absolutely horrendous by the Eighties. But increasingly, it’s happened everywhere, where women are driven out to work, irrespective of what happens to their children. Their children are nobody. Their children are irrelevant. The important thing is that the state not give anything, and that the women give more. That’s a big change.

What is not a change, is that women do the housework. And that the housewife is hidden behind her wage. That is, the fact that she goes home every day to see that her child has clean socks for the morning, and that her oldest son has his sports gear, and that her mother has somebody to look in on her, because she just lost her husband.

I mean, all of that enormous caring work has not gone away at all – except, and to the degree that it has gone away, to that degree, we’re not distraught that [women] don’t know what’s happening to their children, they don’t know what’s happening to their parents, their elderly parents.

The relationships on which the whole society rests are in wreck condition, are in disastrous condition because women are going out to work. It’s not just a few minutes a day. It’s taking care of the relationships that are the foundation of our lives. That’s what women do. And when we can’t do that, when most of us can’t do that, we are either furious, resentful, or we begin to be uncaring ourselves. And that has happened to some women.

It’s happened to all of us to some degree. That we don’t want to know about how the people that we would ordinarily have been taking care of, how they’re suffering. We don’t want to know. We can’t cope with the knowledge of the mess that people we love are in, as a result of the fact that we have no time to take care of them. I think there are really a lot of women in that situation. They call it the Sandwich Generation. They call it whatever they like. Any nice little name they give it, it’s definitely the suffering of the carer as well as those that they care for, obviously, which is why the carer is suffering.

Now something else has happened which I was not aware of until I read an article very recently by a woman called Allison Wolfe, who seems to be from Britain, who says that a major change among women, has been that the elite of women – and there is now much more of an elite, as a result of feminism – has resulted in a class divide among women as it has never been seen before. In fact, I was reading that article again this morning, and I can give you one or two quotes, like: “The revolution has taken place at the top. A majority of trainee barristers and almost two thirds of medical students are now female (up from 29 per cent in the early 1960s), and the majority of doctors will be women by 2012 on current trends.”

As a result of that, [Wolfe suggests that] the wage hierarchy based on gender does not apply to them. Hmm. It applies to us more than before, okay?

So that, she says, I want to just find another quote that I was kind of mind-blown by. She says: “Academic experts on the female labour market occupy very different points on the political spectrum, but they agree on the polarisation of women’s experiences. The feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, reflecting and feeding into a revolution in women’s lives, spoke the language of sisterhood – the assumption that there was a shared female experience that cut across class, ethnic and generational lines. The reality was that at that very moment, sisterhood was dying.”

Sisterhood was dying because most of us were not gaining pay equity. Most of us were deeply suffering from sexism, and the ones who were the leading feminists were not.

In fact, every once in a while, they got very angry and said, “It hasn’t all disappeared.” And they would mention something that they are still affected by, still attacked by, which they thought they would no longer be affected by. In other words, it’s a shock to find out that they’re still suffering as women when they thought, once you got the job, once you got the prestige, once you got the position, once you got equality, all that [would be] left behind.

Now I mentioned this to an audience last night, and I said, “I’m not absolutely certain she’s right.” But I think there’s a lot to be said, and the figures do prove that she is right in terms of the wage gaps in the boardroom are not what they are on the shop floor. I mean there isn’t even a shop floor anymore. You know, in the call center or in general, nursing as opposed to doctors and all the rest.

So that’s a change. Those are the things that have changed. We have changed; we are more international. But the situation for women has changed. More of us are doing the double day, and there is a change in the class, the extent of the class split in feminism… That’s a very big answer.

I was at your talk last night, so, informed by that and by things I’ve tried to read up on, I was hoping that you could talk about particular struggles or sites of struggle that you’re involved in today or that you think are important and linked to that original understanding of unwaged work. Particularly the work around welfare that you had mentioned last night, if you could comment a little more on that.

We’re just getting a petition together. That’s what Phoebe [Jones] and I were working on with women on the West Coast because [Congresswoman] Gwen Moore has put forward the Rise Out of Poverty Act. And a number of us, that is, the Global Women’s Strike, the Welfare Warriors in Wisconsin, who have fought welfare reform every minute. You see, I’m just familiarizing myself with this. I knew the Act had come up at a meeting, which we have often on Skype, between the US and the UK and Guyana, in particular, and sometimes with Ireland. We can’t do it with Peru or India because the language barriers are too great. But this is the core of the strike. Those are the country cores. They’re the countries that are part of the core.

And it’s something that we absolutely must pursue. Michael Moore has done us a great service in his film where he deals with the fact that this little boy who was unguarded while his mother was at work, working for workfare, had killed another child. Did you see that movie?

Yes, yes. A while ago.

Well, I was deeply affected by that. And I have been a single mother, raising a child, by myself. His father was there and ready to take him for one or two nights a week. I have no complaints about the father, but the situation is unbearable. You are, every minute, worrying about what’s happening to your kid. And you don’t want to ruin his life because that will ruin your life, among other effects. And yet, when we said “wages for housework,” there were feminists who didn’t take that seriously, and that is not very nice.

Anyway, we think it’s really important. In 1977, some of us in the US went to the conference in Houston. US President Carter had organized that. He was different. He was a white southern anti-racist; that’s what made him different on everything. And we said, with the welfare rights movement, the welfare rights movement was still vigorous, that women receiving income transfer payments – that’s welfare but in legalese or something – should have the dignity of having that payment called a wage, not welfare. And we said, “right on.”

There’s a photograph in the book of that conference where Margaret Prescott and Johnnie Tillmon and – I can’t remember the name of the other woman who was so great from the welfare rights movements – celebrating this decision, which transcended the divisions between the North women and the South and between the Left women and the Right. There were white southern women who joined with these black women to say that welfare should be called a wage, because of course, most women on welfare at that time were white farm workers. But the movement was spearheaded by black city women. So we’ve always been involved in the defense of welfare and tried to prevent welfare reform, as Mr. Clinton and his lady feminist wife socked it to us.

Now there’s a possibility of, again, getting welfare without workfare, and we’re gonna fight like hell for it. And we’re also fighting the same battle in the UK.

So, I had mentioned, I’m a teacher. I work in a non-unionized context, and I think in the UK, from what I understand, the same sort of tendency towards privatizing public education is happening.

Yes, it’s terrible.

Perceiving of schooling as intricately connected with the family in the reproduction of capitalism, I was thinking a lot about how, since these things are already connected, teachers and educators might ally in these struggles. Because there’s all of this rhetoric about putting children first, which is, you know, not happening in the home, and not happening in the school…


But it seems to be driving force for privatization. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts about linking these educators’ struggles.

My sister had been a teacher, but she’s no longer with us. In the UK, from Margaret Thatcher, 1979, equating to Ronald Reagan, 1980 – the best of friends, they were – they attacked teachers as a way of attacking education, and the unions did not defend teachers as educators. They defended teachers as workers. But they did not defend teachers as carers.

My son was educated in that system in the UK, and from when he was little, he used to love to go to school. This was not my experience in this country, but the teachers were – many, not all, but many of the teachers – were dedicated to the kids, fought for the kids, supported the kids. If they were studying a play, they would work out which of the kids were interested and take them to the play at the West End to see Olivier or whoever else. They were interested in education. It was a vocation, and, the union narrowed the demand to where you were just doing a job and how much money am I getting.

When one of the women at our center in London complained that police were in the school, and she wanted police out of the school where her children were going, her two daughters, the teachers didn’t agree with her because they said, “They can keep order.” And we thought, “You mean a teacher can’t keep order? What kind of a teacher is it who cannot keep even the attention of the kids?” What are they doing in that classroom, you know, that these kids are undisciplined, raucous, and feel that there is no difference between the repression they may find in the society generally and what’s going on in this classroom, that they need the policing of the kids? So, I feel that the unions have not helped to maintain the dignity and the mission – not a word I use often because I’m an atheist – and the mission of the teacher as a civilizing influence, as an enhancement of the lives of the children.

I think that something similar has happened with nurses – and nurses are fighting to take care of patients, you know. They’re not only fighting that they’re overworked and underpaid. They’re fighting so that they can take the proper care of the patients. You know, one of the nurses was complaining to me that his boss on the ward says that, “You spend too much time with the patients. If you have to go bandage a leg, just bandage a leg, but then you sit and talk with them, and that’s no good!”

So, I think there’s a real crisis – this is in general – between us carers and those who exploit us. On the one hand, we want to care. But on the other hand, we don’t want that wish to care to be used against us as workers. And we have always to decide, as carers, as teachers, as nurses, as mothers, as neighbors, we have to decide how to defend our caring but not allow ourselves to be exploited because we have this “weakness,” and in fact, this vulnerability is the right word. We have to say, “You have to pay us to do the right thing.” And we don’t take the little bit that [either] we want to do the right thing, or we want to take the money. We want both. That’s really crucial, and it took a lot of years, I think, to be absolutely clear, to be able to say that in that succinct way because it’s very hard to figure out, if you are a carer, if your work is the health and well-being of other people, how to be dedicated to it but not exploited, not allow yourself to be exploited by it.

I think that that is what the teachers should be saying and doing. They should be spelling it out. They should be telling the parents, “If you want me to teach, fight for my wages, and fight for my time. Fight for the facilities, and fight for the children to have instruments to play in band and things like that, on school timewith school money.” You know, we want to give these children an education that really fits them to have a happy life, not fits them to be a repressed individual at the service of the state.

In the new anthology – there’s only one anthology, of course it’s new because there wasn’t any before – I edited a speech that I was asked to make by President Aristide in Haiti, to the students, because my husband was a great historian and an historian of Haiti. He thought, “Well, let’s take a chance on you.” And I said there was a distinction, a crucial distinction that kids have to make – kids, but teachers should help them – between rising out of poverty and destroying poverty. Do you use education to get out of it, or do you use education for all of us to get out of it? That’s also something that the teachers haven’t made clear. They’ve entered into the competition – I must be jet lagged because a lot of these words I can’t remember, and I did, I was alright in England, so it must be jet lag – entered into the competition which schools invited children to be part of. And teachers should be saying, “Yes, I want you to know this. This will be useful to you. You’d like to learn this. Yes, you might want to know this, and this is the way that everybody can move. You know, you have to pass exams, but the fewer exams, the better. The more education the better.”

And I think this is something that that new movement, which Occupy really signals and personifies, really has to address. The teachers within it have to address that. What do you think of that?

I think particularly, this tension between wanting to care, feeling that your work has meaning and knowing that it’s still work, is really difficult. I want to provide children with these wonderful, eye-opening experiences and support but at the same time, resist the exploitation that that work can involve. It’s a major tension that I, personally, feel.

You have to speak about it as that. It’s terribly important that you spell it out, and you say exactly how it is, and how some people do one thing, and some people do another, and that you want to do both.


You know, I think it’s very important to say that and to say that loud and clear in every single quarter, in every single place where this question would be suitable to be raised.

It can be hard to say, particularly in contexts where, you know, there’s no union, there’s no protection. But it’s essential, I agree. 

It is. But when you’re organizing for a union, that’s the basis on which you want to organize for it. Because if you organize on the narrow stuff, you’ll never get to the wider stuff, you know. Even if it takes you longer get the union, when you get it, it will be for the right reasons.

I had an International Women’s Day conversation with all of my students today. I teach high school English.

How old are they?

They’re tenth graders.

Tenth is what?

15, 16. 


Yeah. And I told them a little bit about what I was doing this afternoon, and what I did last night, and tried to give them a little background information. I asked if they had any questions for you based on the little they knew.


So one committed and interested student had a question. I was wondering if I could ask you…

Certainly, you can.

She was wondering: “What keeps you motivated in continuing the campaign?” I talked a little bit about Wages for Housework, and so I think that’s the campaign she was talking about. I explained that you had been around through a lot of struggles for a lot of time, and she was like, “Wow! Why is she still doing it?”

What keeps me motivated is that I want to enjoy my life, and the closest I can get to full enjoyment is to attack my enemies. And I find that, if I do it honestly and with others in a collective way, I have a good chance to know what’s happening in my own life. So my own life is not mystified, so I don’t believe the lies they tell me about what I think and what I feel or should feel and should think. That I really begin to see other members of the human race in the round rather than with the nonsense that all of us spew out from time to time when we don’t know what better to say. And that’s what really keeps me motivated. I have a very high opinion of my own life, and therefore, I want to use it in a way that is elevating to me but also to all those who are down here with us. I don’t know if I’ve said that very clearly, but you know, it’s something that I want for myself. To be part of this struggle is to be learning, all the time. And that’s more fun than anything I know, I mean, like anything. To learn what’s really going on is such a major thrill that it’s what really keeps me motivated.

Julie McIntyre is an educator who has worked with children and youth in schools, libraries, art organizations, and residential detention centers. She lives and works in Philadelphia, PA.