Rediscovering the Power and Utility of Selma James
by Victoria Law
In 2002, when my daughter was a toddler, I joined a fledgling group called M*A*M*A (Mothers’ Association for Militant Action). We were mothers who felt pushed out of political organizing because we came with children and the additional needs that children bring. We attempted to challenge the idea that once a woman becomes a mother, she can no longer be politically involved. We quickly realized that, in order for us to organize, we needed childcare for our very young (and, in one case, developmentally delayed) children.
Our requests for childcare were usually dismissed. When we brought our children to meetings and events, we were given the evil eye, if not verbally chastised, when our children made noise. Now, ten years later, childcare is still not the norm although it is offered at certain conferences and events.
None of us militant mamas had ever heard of Selma James, although she has been writing about the gendered nature of parenting and other care work since the 1950s. That, in itself, says something about the invisibility not only of women’s work, but also of those who write about women’s work.
In 1972, when Selma James, an anti-racist advocate for women’s rights since the 1940s, published “Women, the Unions and Work, Or What is Not to Be Done,” she wrote, “The very structure of the union puts women off. All those rules and regulations and having to talk at meetings and having meetings at night when we are putting our children to bed and washing up, often confirm to us that we are ‘backward.’”
I’ve never been part of a union, but I can say, from experience, that forty years later, we can substitute “activist group” or “social justice organization” or “pressing political cause” and the same often holds true.
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In 1972, James launched the Wages for Housework campaign, calling on governments to recognize the importance of women’s work in the home to both families and to the economy, saying, “We demand a guaranteed income for women and for men, working or not working, married or not. If we raise kids, we have a right to a living wage.” This demand has yet to be met except, perhaps in the UK where, under the 1948 Family Allowance Act, the government PAYS women for the work of caring for their own children.
Now why is it that, in 2012, so many of us — particularly those of us who struggle to balance paid work, social justice work and childraising (or what James would term “care work”) remain so unfamiliar with Selma James, her writings and her work? What lessons could we have drawn from the campaigns with which she was involved and her documentation of other campaigns?
Recognizing that James’s writings have addressed many of these questions, PM Press (which also published my book about resistance and organizing in women’s prisons) has reprinted a collection of James’s writings, aptly titled Sex, Race, and Class. These writings range from her 1952 “A Woman’s Place,” based on conversations with her working-class housewife neighbors, to her more recent articles about campaigns and movements in the UK, Venezuela, Haiti and Tanzania. In many of her writings, she contests the typical (male) Left dismissal of women’s issues as divisive. Instead, she challenges men to join women’s struggles: “The question is: Are they going to join us?” she asked in 1971. She continues to ask that question today; I heard it this past April when she gave a talk at the local bookstore in NYC.
In addition to championing the right of women to be paid for their housework and carework, James has also documented struggles that might otherwise be forgotten: In “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” James describes, in great detail, the twelve-day occupation of a church by the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) in 1983. She details the strategies and tactics of the women involved as well as outside supporters. For instance, gay male friends ran a crèche for the Occupiers. Others cooked and brought them hot dinners — one pot for vegetarians and one for meat eaters. Prostitutes who were not involved in the occupation showed their support by wearing ECP badges while working the streets. Given last year’s Occupy explosion and current sex worker organizing, why do so many of us know nothing about this historic takeover three decades earlier?
Not all of her writings are explicit blueprints for campaigns and actions however. James’s 2007 “Rediscovering Nyerere’s Tanzania” allows readers a look into how societies could be structured to account for women’s work. She gives an overview of the concept of ujamaa (which she defines as “a form of traditional African communalism, variously translated as ‘familyhood’ or ‘African socialism,’ updated and developed to meet the needs of the new Tanzania.” For me, this was the first I’d heard of such a concept — let alone a concept that a government had attempted to put into practice. Being wholly unfamiliar with Tanzania, I wished there had been more context — why had the RDA (built to create ujamaa society) been destroyed by Nyerere’s own party? Even after it was destroyed, what impact did it have? What did its participants come away with even after it had been destroyed? And what can we, as people struggling for liberation in our own communities, learn from this experiment while also understanding the geographic, racial, national, class and access divisions between 1960s Tanzania and 2012 United States?
She ends this particular essay with these words: “As we renew the movement to transform the nature of politics and the economy so that purpose is once again watu — people — we must educate ourselves and each other about our hidden history, which includes an Africa that gives leadership to our struggle, as women, as men, as workers urban and rural, waged and unwaged everywhere.”
We should take this as a challenge to delve deeper into such campaigns and movements and bring these histories into our present-day organizing for a truly liberated society.
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, mother, and Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles Of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison, and a co-founder of Books Through Bars — NYC. Her most recent book, Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind, focuses on how radical movements can support the families in their midst.