Selma James is the international coordinator of the Global Women’s Strike, whose strategy for change is “Invest in Caring Not Killing.” Selma co-authored The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community. Her most recent book is Sex, Race and Class (PM Press in the U.S. and The Merlin Press in the U.K.). James is based at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in London.
Selma James, you have a long history of feminism, intersected with marxism and anti-imperialism. What have been the turning points in your development?
I joined the youth group of the Workers Party when I was 15, in part because my sister was in the party. It turns out that she was in a minority called the Johnson-Forest Tendency, and I found myself in that minority for months. I didn’t understand much, but Johnson-Forest was much less abstractly intellectual and much more respectful of working class people than the rest of the party.
The party talked about the Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state,” and I could not believe that a state which organised forced labor could be a workers’ state, degenerated or not. CLR [James, the founder of the Johnson-Forest Tendency and Selma’s late husband,] said it was state capitalism and that once the party that had led the revolution had got power they had used that power against us. That made perfect sense to me.
To judge a society on the basis of what happens especially to working class people in it was my assumption too, young and ignorant as I was (I was not a reader of books and had never read a newspaper). What I learned which I had never known, was that unless working class people keep hold of their own movement rather than depend on a party — nowadays also NGOs and personally ambitious individuals who want to use the movement for their advancement — capitalism would never be overthrown. Years later I was to read this in Marx and to understand how vital the movement and our participation in it was, and that building that movement and the confidence of people in it was what people like me should be doing.
This has been my starting point for organizing within the anti-imperialist and anti-racist movements, and the women’s movement when it burst out in the U.K., the U.S., Italy and the Caribbean from the 1960s onwards. CLR was enormously supportive of what I said and did about women.
CLR was deported from the U.S. under McCarthyism. I joined him in the U.K. with my 6-year-old son a couple of years later. Not long after, he went home to the English-speaking Caribbean, and we worked together there for the independence and federation of the islands. The experience of the Caribbean anti-imperialist struggle changed my life, building on what I knew from the U.S. and U.K. Women everywhere, although very different, shared a perspective that was extraordinarily similar. Their contribution to that struggle is still not acknowledged.
How do you see this new feminism? What for you are the continuities and the gaps with the perspective of the great 20th century?
We all had to work out a number of fundamentals posed by the women’s movement, and by extension every movement which exploded massively in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The first question is: What is the connection of each sector to capital? By 1970, having read most of Vol 1 of Capital in a study group with friends, I discovered the obvious: that women produced and reproduced the singularly capitalist commodity — labor power, the factor of production which uniquely produces more, much more, than it consumes. I also saw how productive sexism, racism and all the other discriminations were as part of a hierarchy within the working class which enabled capital to dominate us all.
Which leads me to the second question: These movements include people who are not working class and are managers or aspire to be even higher. How can a movement embracing many strata serve the interests of the most exploited?
These are the questions that some of us working together addressed. The perspective which emerged to give power to women against making people who would be slaves of capital and being enslaved by this work ourselves, as we had been, was wages for housework for all women from the state. In the course of campaigning and building an international organization within the women’s movement, which was international and directly relevant to the grassroots wherever we were, we have developed a political perspective which many strata of women could embrace.
For example the wife of the head of Chrysler Europe was a member of our London Wages for Housework group. She said that the work she did for her husband’s career was as much for Chrysler as his work, but hers was unwaged so she wanted wages for housework like the rest of us. The perspective of financial independence for unwaged work spoke directly to her. She felt she belonged with us and we agreed with her. That didn’t mean that the power relations among us had dissolved, but if we acknowledged and addressed them we could work together to the satisfaction and increase of power, of all.
Almost every high-profile feminist disagreed with our perspective.
Now we are in a different moment. Many women who were full-time housewives then have gone out to work for low pay and are overburdened with the two jobs, and are tired. At the same time some have moved up, sometimes way up, breaking not only the glass ceiling but the class ceiling dividing us as women along class lines more deeply than ever before. We were supposed to celebrate their rise as a victory!
Now some of the managers and the money makers which have always been against us are women, people of color, LGBTQ … The persona of the exploiter has changed. Exploitation is deeper and more widespread than ever, and in their hands the environment is more under threat.
Thankfully, the Occupy movement has given us the words to describe how the society is divided by class. We are the 99 percent and they — the exploiters, the managers, the profiteers, the war-makers, the environment degraders, the source of racist ideology and propaganda — are the 1 percent. Feminism has divided between those whose target is based on this framework and those who have joined the 1 percent or are trying to join it and will step on anyone — woman, man or child — in order to “achieve.” The “golden skirts” (as they are called in the Nordic countries) whose (women/immigrant) servants enable their ambition, are often the most prominent feminists.
But a new feminism is opening its petals like spring flowers. It is anti-capitalist, therefore pro the human race and, crucially, those who create and care for it and the planet which sustains us all. The International Women’s Strike has a spectrum of views on this issue. Some women failed to mention the most universal work women are expected to do — women’s caring work — or to the poverty that this unwaged reproductive work condemns us to, especially as mothers. Others, starting with ourselves, urged that financial recognition be included in the demands, and this was accepted. In our view this is not merely an obvious demand but the reinforcement of every demand where money and power matter.
This break with equating feminism with the advancement of the few into the corridors of power at the expense of all other women rising at all is the wave of the future. It is a “feminism of the 99 percent” and invites women in our millions to come together to transform the society into a caring world.
One of your first books was about redistribution of housework. Some feminists were against wages for housework because that would institutionalize women in the house. How do you solve this? What do you think about the proposal of a guaranteed income for everyone?
Women have had two choices: either to be enslaved by caregiving or to give up caring and be enslaved outside the home working for the market like men but at a lower pay — this is not liberation. Additionally, a lot of women are also institutionalized in the double day, especially once they have children.
Another “solution” that women have been offered to the impoverishment that is imposed on them by doing unwaged caring work is not to do it, and first of all not to have children, to have fewer children, or to have them as late as possible in the fertility clock and even beyond it via IVF. Perhaps the greatest social impoverishment is that women, though enslaved by caring for everyone, are also civilized by it, and men are deprived of that education.
All of us need to be carers, not as work but as relationships. Caring relationships must replace relations of power. In a money society, to demand money for caring elevates caring and empowers the carer.
A guaranteed basic income would enable all of us (including in the Third World) to eat even if we don’t have a job. Great! (This is assuming that it is not a state plan to cut our benefits and impoverish us even further when there are no longer jobs.) But how does it change the visibility of caring and of carers? How does it transform men’s attitude to taking care of their own children and getting to know them from birth? For that the carer must be paid in addition to a basic income, from paid maternity leave to a living wage for as long as the mother and/or father or other carers want to care for the children or anyone who needs care.
For many years you have looked at Latin American socialism of the 21st century. What do you think about the situation of the Venezuela of Chavez and Maduro and the protagonism of women in Latin America now?
I know only Venezuela and Argentina first hand from visits over a decade ago. When the Global Women’s Strike visited Caracas under Chavez we saw fantastic services, which local housewives had organized and the oil revenue paid for. And we knew, because we had been told with pride, that Article 88 of the constitution recognised work in the home as productive, entitling housewives to social security. The women had told us that they had organised a major picket every day when the constitution was being drafted to get this and other anti-sexist clauses included. In Argentina, we met the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo whose justice work — an extension of caring work — had put the first nail in the coffin of the dictatorship. Their actions led to the trials of many of the military who murdered, disappeared or stole their children and grandchildren. It is an example of women’s caring work winning truth and justice for everyone which should be better known in the world, especially by feminists. One of their slogans was: “Aparición con vida.”
We also know that the IWS in Argentina was massively successful. Their slogan “Ni una menos, con vida nos queremos” is a continuation of that struggle. It is also the feminist equivalent of “Black lives matter” in the U.S. and of our own slogan “All Women Count.”
What do you think about Trump’s attacks on immigrants, women and on Latin American socialism?
Trump was elected because people were deprived of Bernie Sanders, the anti-establishment candidate — a socialist — they would have voted for who repudiated the corruption, the greed and the murderous sadism of U.S. politicians. Some of that disappointment and fury exploded in the massive response against Trump’s attack on women, Muslims, immigrants and refugees. Three million women marched in the U.S. alone the day after Trump’s inauguration, followed by huge mobilisations against his ban on Muslims entering the U.S. That is a very good beginning against his presidency. In the U.S., the IWS was a continuation in what is clearly going to be an ongoing and decisive international battle against this American Mussolini, including against his attack on Latin America. This struggles continues.
What, for you, are the results and importance of this new feminist movement? What are your proposals and what is the relationship with Ni Una Menos?
This strike was an expansion of the movement that had already taken off in a number of countries — Argentina with ‘Ni Una Menos,” Poland and Ireland against the stranglehold of the Catholic church on reproductive rights, the U.S. and U.K. against Trump (and the U.K. woman prime minister holding hands with him)… The most significant aspect of the IWS is that some women from the South are urging others to adopt an anti-capitalist perspective, and to include the most silenced workers of all and the most discriminated: mothers, campesinas, domestic workers, sweatshop workers, sex workers, disabled, LGBTQ, trans… in Bangladesh, Haiti, Latin America, Thailand, South Africa… in fact in every country. Women everywhere will inevitably be considering not only if they are anti-capitalist but how the next strike must include us all.
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