Wages for Housework is 50. This is the change it has inspired

Wages for Housework is 50. This is the change it has inspired

In March 2022, Wages for Housework turned 50 years old. If you haven’t heard of this landmark campaign that asked for women to be paid an income for their caring duties at home, you might be familiar with its successor Care Income Now, which demands a living wage for all caregivers of any gender. You probably will have seen footage of the millions of women marching on International Women’s Day each year, stopping both waged and unwaged work for one day to protest unequal pay and domestic abuse. 

Wages for Housework was a radical idea when it was conceived by Selma James,  Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Silvia Federici and Brigitte Galtier in 1972, but it wasn’t an entirely new one. British MP Eleanor Rathbone had campaigned for an allowance for mothers to help raise their children, which was established in 1946, in the first move  towards the establishment of the UK’s welfare state. 

When Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath tried to transfer this to the pay packet of the man of the house, it was Wages for Housework who rallied and stopped it from happening. 

True economic freedom

This was at the height of the women’s liberation movement, but the feminists of the era didn’t understand it. Their ideal of feminism was having a career and rising to the top just like men could, and they looked down on the idea of a woman staying home by choice. They claimed giving them an allowance would shackle them in their homes, when in fact it was giving them economic freedom, particularly to the poorest women who had the least freedom and were at most risk of domestic violence. 

“We made the very long standing demand that our work be valued and we be paid for the work that we do,” Selma says. “Wages are a power for workers, sometimes very little power, but always different from unwaged slavery. We didn’t have a wage of our own, and it was really a problem to acknowledge that, because feminism didn’t see the work we produced – which is people.”

Today more and more people are joining Antiwork, which began as a community of social anarchists on Reddit who questioned why they were spending most of their waking life working, yet still struggling to pay the bills. After several waves of Covid-19 and events signalling the very real start of climate catastrophe, this backlash against capitalism began gaining popularity as more people realised the real-world value of caring for each other and the planet. After all, shattering a glass ceiling doesn’t change a destructive capitalist structure, it merely leaves you without a roof. 

Care not poverty

There is no doubt the pandemic has had a profound effect on the way people think about caring. “When it really hit, people saw that in the hospitals, it was the nurse, the doctor, the cleaner and the nurse’s aide who were standing between life and death,” Selma says. “They really had to pay attention to see how people were breathing and what their pulse was doing. You have to be accountable to what you see, that is a really crucial part of caring. People were exhausted by it, not only exhausted by the hours they worked, they were also exhausted by the attention they had to pay to people who were hanging in the balance between life and death.” 

“The other thing that happened was that people were prevented from caring for each other because of the lockdown,” Nina Lopez, Selma’s partner and fellow activist explains. “That was a source of great hurt because people were dying who no one could take care of. That has left a very deep wound.”

Fifty years on from Wages for Housework, society has at last realised that poverty, sexism, racism, homophobia, and environmental destruction are cultivated from the same bitter root. At the age of 91, Selma along with Nina and their colleagues at Crossroads Women’s Centre in north London, continue to work every day with a number of autonomous grassroots organisations which are part of the Global Women’s Strike, such as Women of Colour GWS and WinVisible (women with disabilities), as well as with the All African Women’s Group, Women Against Rape and Payday Men’s Network which are also based there.

“It was the internationalism of the Wages for Housework campaign that enabled us to see that caring for people and caring for the planet was one totality,” Selma says. 

“The struggle is not only for women to have financial independence, but for us to save the planet. When you look around you see that it’s women who are the most active people fighting for climate justice in the non-industrial world. They take as much care of the soil as they take care of their family. We feel that is a framework for building a movement. Every single thing that goes into any struggle is now connected, and either it’s for the climate or it’s against it.”

Selma James’ new book OUR TIME IS NOW: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet is out now. Buy it from Global Women’s Strike

Leila Hawkins

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