Wages for housework.
By Selma James
Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2012, 296 pp., $ $20.00, paperback
In 1952, more than a decade before Betty Friedan published her earth-shattering The Feminine Mystique (1963), Selma James, a 22-year-old mother, factory worker, and socialist activist living in Los Angeles, set out to write a pamphlet that would address the experiences of housewives in her neighborhood, explore their common joys and dissatisfactions, and consider the political causes for and implications of their restlessness. The result of her work, "A Woman's Place," which stands as one of only a few Cold War-era calls for a women's movement, is the first essay in this chronological collection of James's writings. The volume also contains more than forty other speeches, articles, and essays, which span nearly seven decades and address a range of topics from the sexual division of labor in the United States in the 1950s to recent political developments in Venezuela, Haiti, and Tanzania. The book documents the trajectory of James's commitment to organizing women and reveals the evolution of her political thinking about women's place in the home, the workplace, unions, western society, and the global economy. Perhaps most important, Sex, Race, and Class brings together James's disparate works--many of which were originally printed in activist publications that no longer exist--and makes them accessible to contemporary readers who have likely never read them before.
Selma James was born in into a left Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, in 1930. Her immigrant father was an anti-Zionist internationalist who helped to organize the Brooklyn Teamsters Union local, while her mother, a former factory worker, participated in the tenants' movement during the Depression, fighting landlords' efforts to evict unemployed workers and their families. James's early political activities included collecting tin foil to make bullets for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. When she was fifteen years old, she visited some of New York's many left organizations in order to decide whether she would join the Communists her parents supported or the Trotskyists endorsed by her sister. In the end she decided she liked the Trotskyists best. She joined the youth group of the Workers' Party, and soon lined up behind the Johnson-Forest Tendency, a splinter group led by the Trinidadian historian and anticolonialist C.L.R. James. At seventeen Selma married a fellow factory worker and moved to Los Angeles, where she worked soldering radar sets for use by the US military, gave birth to a son
and, after a divorce at age 21, became a single mother. It was in this personal and political context that Selma, encouraged by C.L.R. James, her political mentor at the time, researched and wrote "A Woman's Place" and first expressed her ideas about the vital importance of women's domestic and reproductive labor, and the personal and structural contradictions that trapped them between home and workplace in the rapidly transforming, post-WWII economy.
James reports that the Johnson-Forest Tendency printed more than 1,000 copies of "A Woman's Place," and that it was the only one of the group's pamphlets ever to sell out. The piece's prophetic call for "a complete change" for women was not enough to mobilize a movement at the height of the McCarthy period. Soon after it was published, the US government detained C.L.R. James in an Ellis Island prison, and Selma became his regular correspondent. Despite gulfs between them including race, ethnicity, and forty years in age, the two fell in love. After C.L.R. James was released from jail in 1954, Selma and her six-year-old son followed him to London, and the couple married shortly thereafter. Selma spent the rest of the 1950s and 1960s working primarily as her husband's political assistant and secretary, typing his manuscripts and accompanying him on a lengthy sojourn to Trinidad and Tobago, where he edited the Independence Party's newspaper, and they both worked together for a federation of West Indian states.
When Selma returned to London in the early 1960s, the women's movement had burst on the scene and, from that point on, she returned to her earlier political focus. But although she resumed writing about women, she did not leave behind her commitments to race and class justice: all her writings from this point onward emphasize the complex and overlapping dynamics of gender, race, and class.
Sex, Race, and Class is built primarily around several important essays from the 1970s, when James's work had the most significant impact on the worlds of Marxist feminist theory and activism. In 1972, James coauthored her best-known essay "The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community" with the Italian feminist Mariarosa Dalla Costa. In this work, the two authors refined and expanded upon James's earlier formulations about women's domestic labor, arguing that housework--meaning every aspect of the work involved in attending to the physical and emotional needs of children and other family and community members over the course of their lives--is unwaged labor that is central for reproducing human society and therefore vital for capitalism. By labeling housework "unwaged labor," James sought to broaden Marxists' ideas about what qualified as work and who qualified as part of the working class. By recognizing the potential collective power of women who labored within their homes, she argued, socialists could expand their organizing arena to encompass both industrial and domestic workplaces.
This insight created the foundation for James's other influential works, "Women, the Unions, and Work, or What is Not To Be Done" (1972), which criticized the women's movement for ignoring class and the union movement for ignoring women, and "The Perspective of Winning" (1973), which justified the call for wages for housework and the incorporation of housewives into a broader conceptualization of the proletariat. "Sex, Race, and Class" (1974)--which begins with the cutting observation that "if sex and race are pulled away from class, virtually all that remains is the truncated, provincial, sectarian politics of the white male metropolitan Left'--makes the most developed argument for socialist activists' need to recognize the inseparability of race, class, and gender, and to struggle against all three simultaneously. "If the divisions among us keep capital in power," James wrote in this book's postscript to this essay,
then overcoming the divisions among us is by definition the destruction of capital ... Who do we become when we have by our own effort stopped directing our energy against each other and direct it instead to collectively confronting anything or anyone standing in the way of our freely associating with each other to reshape the world? This is what we thirst to find out.
As a historian of the US women's movement whose work has focused on the gender politics of American Communism in the 1940s and 1950s, I thought I had read just about everything radical women wrote during those decades about women's oppression and the need for women's liberation. And as a onetime member of a group that descended in part from the one that formed James's political outlook, I believed that I was familiar with the Marxist tradition of thinking about women's position at the nexus of race, class, and gender. Yet, before I began writing this review, I had never heard of Selma James. My lack of knowledge stems in part from the fact that her best-known work took place in England in the 1970s, but more significantly, James's invisibility can be attributed to most Marxists' and feminists' rejection of her primary insight about the economic centrality of domestic and reproductive labor. Her call for wages for housework alienated both groups, who worried that it would limit women's opportunities, keep them "backward," and imprison them in their homes. Marxists continued to emphasize the working-class as it was traditionally defined, and feminists coalesced around demands for equal pay for equal work; by the 1980s, when I began to read about these issues, James's ideas and activism had already been widely disregarded.
James's approaches to and strategies for organizing to benefit unwaged laborers seem to have fared better outside of left organizations than within them. In addition to her theoretical essays on women and housework Sex, Race, and Class includes numerous articles that reported the struggles and victories she waged during the 1970s-2000s. "Hookers in the House of the Lord" (1983) is an account of the 1982 occupation of a London church by sex workers who recruited James to be their spokeswoman. The piece, which details the ways the sex workers strategized to win protections against harassment by both their clients and the police, later served as a blueprint for sex workers' organizing in other countries. "The UN Decade for Women--An Offer We Couldn't Refuse" (1986) details the grassroots struggles of third-world women to win UN recognition for women's unpaid work. Similarly, James's articles on a wide variety of other subjects--from the importance of breastfeeding, to Jean-Bertrand Aristide's return to Haiti, to recent feminist Slut-walks--show how she and her International Wages for Housework and Global Women's Strike campaigns have struggled to make grassroots women's issues visible and to demand that governments and other organizations "invest in caring, not killing."
At age 83, James is still writing, speaking, and organizing, and it looks as if her long efforts to reconceptualize the political and strategic agendas of the left might finally be gaining some recognition. In the preface to this book the American historian Marcus Rediker calls Selma James "one of the key political thinkers and activists of our times," and her comrade and partner Nina Lopez remarks that James's articles and speeches "are being sought out by a new generation of activists and professionals ready to use their position to help change the world." PM Press's publication of this anthology breathes new life into James's essays at just the right time. Although many of them are written in the turgid prose that will be recognizable to anyone familiar with left newspapers and pamphlets, reading these essays in the current political context makes their value and relevance easier to see. Deindustrialization has caused the disappearance of the traditional working class from most of the first world. The vast expansion of the service economy has blurred the conventional divisions between productive and reproductive labor. Globalization has drawn attention to the importance of organizing across international boundaries. Protests such as the Occupy movement, which have propagated a broader acceptance of the idea that the 99 percent should not suffer for the benefit of the one percent, have taken the place of the strikes and demonstrations that formed the center of left activism for most of the twentieth century. For anyone who seeks to make sense of this strange new world and to see a way forward, many of Selma James's ideas--which might have seemed "old" in the 1980s and 1990s--now seem as new and important now as they did when she began writing back in 1952.
Kate Weigand is an independent historian living and working in western Massachusetts. She is the author of Red Feminism: American Communism and the Making of Women's Liberation (2001).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Sex, Race, and Class: The Perspective of Winning - A Selection of Writings, 1952-2011|
|Publication:||The Women's Review of Books|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2013|
|Previous Article:||Outlaw texts.|
|Next Article:||Pursued by hounds.|