Care Work

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. selma_james_sexraceclassWe 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?

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