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Housework as Work: Selma James on Unwaged Labor and Decades-Long Struggle to Pay Housewives

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A debate over housework shook the presidential race last week after a Democratic strategist accused Mitt Romney’s wife Ann of never having worked a day in her life. Ann responded: “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” Today we bring a historic voice into this discussion: the longtime activist, writer and political thinker Selma James, known for her pioneering work on women’s rights and against racism. She is credited with coining the phrase “unwaged” labor to describe the work of housewives — and she has argued women should be paid for housework. Selma James’ new book is “Sex, Race, and Class — The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings, 1952-2011.” In a series of arguments that have remained remarkably consistent across six decades, Selma James urges unity across the lines of race, class and gender. I interviewed Selma James recently, and she spoke about the great West Indian scholar C.L.R. James, who was her husband, and the writing of her seminal 1952 essay, “A Woman’s Place.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Does housework count as, well, “real” work? Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen has ignited a firestorm with her comments that Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, has, quote, “actually never worked a day in her life.” Rosen, a CNN political contributor and working mother, made her comments on CNN’s Anderson Cooper show on Wednesday.

HILARY ROSEN: What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country, saying, “Well, you know, my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues, and when I listen to my wife, that’s what I’m hearing.” Guess what. His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and how do we worry—why do we worry about their future. So I think it’s—yes, it’s about these positions, and, yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions. But there’s something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He just—he seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen. Well, Ann Romney put out her first tweet in response. She said, “I made a choice to stay home and raise five boys. Believe me, it was hard work.” Romney then went on Fox News with Martha MacCallum on Thursday.

ANN ROMNEY: My career choice was to be a mother. And I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make. Other women make other choices, to have a career and raise family, which I think Hilary Rosen has actually done herself. I respect that. That’s wonderful. But, you know, there are other people that have a choice. We have to respect women in all those choices that they make.

AMY GOODMAN: The Romneys’ son, Josh, tweeted, quote, “@AnnDRomney is one of the smartest, hardest working woman I know. Could have done anything with her life, chose to raise me.” Well, President Obama also weighed in on the controversy, saying there is “no tougher job than being a mom.”

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Here’s what I know: that there is no tougher job than being a mom. And, you know, when I think about what Michelle’s had to do, when I think about my own mom, a single mother raising me and my sister, that’s work. So, anybody who would argue otherwise, I think, probably needs to rethink their statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen tried to address the firestorm over her comments on CNN’s Newsroom, saying they were never meant as an attack.

HILARY ROSEN: This is not about Ann Romney. This is about the waitress in a diner in, you know, someplace in Nevada who has two kids whose day care funding is being cut off because of the Romney-Ryan budget, and she doesn’t know what to do. This isn’t about whether Ann Romney or I or other women of, you know, some means can afford to make a choice to stay home and raise kids. Most women in America, let’s face it, don’t have that choice.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we bring in a new voice, which is actually an historic voice, into the discussion: the longtime activist, writer, political thinker, Selma James, known for her pioneering work on women’s rights and against racism. She’s credited with coining the phrase “unwaged” labor to describe the work of housewives, and she has argued women should be paid for housework. Selma James’ new book is called Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. In a series of arguments that have remained remarkably consistent across six decades, Selma James urges unity across the lines of race, class and gender.

I interviewed Selma James recently here in New York. She had just flown in from London, where she lives. She talked about the great West Indian scholar C.L.R. James, who was her husband, and the writing of her seminal 1952 essay, “A Woman’s Place.” She referred to C.L.R. James by the nickname “Nello.”

SELMA JAMES: I was not interested in writing, per se. Everything that’s in this new book that you mentioned is written for a purpose, as part of a movement. I wrote A Woman’s Place because Nello had urged me to do it. And he called me one day and said, “Have you written, you know, your pamphlet?” And he said—I said, “No.” And he said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because I don’t know how to write a pamphlet.” And he said, “Well, you—it’s very simple.” He said, “You take a shoebox, and you make a slit at the top. And every time you think of something, you put it on a piece of paper, and you put the piece of paper in the shoebox. Then, one day, you open the shoebox up, and you put the sentences in order,” he said, “and you will have your pamphlet.” I said, “OK.” And so, I took a day off work. I was working in a factory wiring and soldering, and I left at the same time I would have left the home if I had gone to work. I put my son in child care at the same time as usual. But I went to a friend’s house instead, because if I had stayed at home, I would have cleaned the cook. I know I would have. And I put the sentences together. And by the evening, I had the draft of a pamphlet. He had been absolutely right. It was great advice that he’d given me.

I look back now, and I know that one of the ways he found that out was because Nello had helped organize with sharecroppers in southeast Missouri, and he had told me that the men had said—and Booker was the leading person—had said that they needed a pamphlet. And Nello had said, “All right, Booker.” And he sat down at the table with a pen, and he said, “OK, what do you want to say?” And the man was not expecting that; he was expecting Nello to write a pamphlet for him. So he knew how to deal with grassroots people. He knew how to be useful to them. And he was a very creative person in that regard, as well. So by the time he got to this young woman who was a housewife and factory worker, he knew the advice to give me. And that’s how the pamphlet was written.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your main thesis in A Woman’s Place.

SELMA JAMES: Well, you know, I didn’t have a thesis, per se. But reading it, what, now—and a lot of women have liked it, and it’s the only thing I wrote that my mother liked. My mother said, “Yes, this is good. Now you’re on the right track.” It was that women are engaged in the work of making society, of making children—that is an enormous job—and that the separation between women and men is harmful to all of us.

After I wrote A Woman’s Place — you know, I remembered a lot of things, writing this or getting this anthology together. I remember walking into a neighbor’s house, and all her children’s clothes were lined up, were hanging from a line that she had put in her living room. And I said—I thought she’d gone mad. And I said, you know, “What is this about?” She said, “I’m selling them.” I said, “Why?” She said, “If I don’t get any money of my own, I’m going to go crazy, so I’m selling all the clothes that the children have grown out of.” And that stayed with me, you know, always. And I understood, you know, that we needed money of our own without having to go out to work and do the double day and all the rest. And that was an important part of what was in my mind when I wrote A Woman’s Place, and it’s still very important in my mind.

AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about the organizing you did and coining this phrase, “unwaged work.”

SELMA JAMES: Well, when the new women’s movement burst out in the early 1970s in England, I thought, oh, well, they will be way ahead of where I was, and I must go to learn, and all the rest. And they were, in many respects, but they still had not grappled with the housework. They still had not grappled with that lack of financial independence and how crucial that was. They still—and they had a very peculiar notion of what this work is. They said women will go out to work, as if it was some liberation to go out to work. They clearly—the work that they were thinking of doing was not the work that I had done of wiring and soldering and, in the machine shop, getting very dirty trying to make holes in metal. You know, they had never done or didn’t know about the kind of work that most women did who went out to work, who were working-class women. And so, I had to find out a number of things. I had to find out how to tell them about the lives of most women, which they didn’t seem to know about. And I also had to work out what was the role of women in relation to capitalism. What were we doing, you know, that made our work so essential? And I had just been reading Capital in a study group, because I just wanted to find out what the guy said—

AMY GOODMAN: Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.

SELMA JAMES: —by myself. Karl Marx. And he had said that we sell our labor power to capitalism. And I said, “Labor power? But women make labor power, and why haven’t they told me this?” Because I thought all the Marxists knew this and had neglected to mention it to me. That was my first thought. And then I realized that they had never understood that women produce the whole labor force and that that work is not acknowledged and not even considered as work. It’s like, “What did you do all day?” was a very popular way that men would greet women when they came home from “real” work.

And so, we then, you know, talked about the unwaged work that women were doing. That is, you got some payment, you got your food and board, if you were a housewife, but you didn’t have the autonomy of money, which ensured that everybody knew you were working and which gave you the independence of having money of your own. But that was really only the beginning, because then we began to understand that most of the world had no wages, that we—that the subsistence farming in Africa—you know, 80 percent of the food that is eaten in Africa is grown by women, unwaged—you know, no money, nothing, just very, very hard work—and that all of this work, the volunteer work, you know, the reproduction of the human race, really, that women do, not merely, you know, in giving birth, which is quite important, not merely in giving children the food that they want and that they need, which is breast milk, but just caring for everyone and fighting for everyone. You know, it’s women who fight to get justice for their children and for men. You know, we have a slogan in London: “Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, fighting for our loved ones’ lives.” And that’s not a Romantic view of women’s work that—women’s justice work. That is the reality. That’s who does it. That’s who’s on the line in front of the prison where men and women are held unjustly. It’s women who are doing this work. And it’s an extension of the caring work that we have always done.

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear: we do this work, and we are civilized by this work, we women, and have a much greater understanding of human beings, because that’s what we’re dealing with all the time. But we don’t want to be the only ones to do it. Men need to do this work, because men need to be civilized by this work as we have been. Men don’t—we don’t want them to be doing this work for capitalism and not doing this work for ourselves, for each other, you know, for the society generally. Men have to start making society, along with women, not to help—I’m not talking about men helping. Sometimes we have to fight so that they give us a little help, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about that being the aim and purpose of our lives, to be with others, to care for others, and to, as I say, to make society with us.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote the original piece, “Sex, Race and Class,” which is the title of the book of essays that you’ve put out now.

SELMA JAMES: It really came from the United States. I wrote it in England, but I went on a lecture tour in 1973, and I heard all the opposition to wages for housework, how it was going to institutionalize us in the home. I was thinking, wouldn’t that be nice to institutionalize—I have all these records that I want to listen to and all the rest, and I can be at home and not have to go out to work. But aside from that, it was just an education. I began to understand what wages for housework was and how it was a political perspective, how you began with unwaged, rather than waged, workers. And you got to the waged workers, but when you began with the waged workers, you never got to the unwaged workers. And so, I was smarter by the time I got back. And somebody—we had written a book. Mariarosa Dalla Costa and I had written a book called The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community, and there was a brilliant review of it. That is, it was very favorable. But he had said that women knew what the black movement didn’t know. And I had to answer it. So I wrote a letter, but the letter kept getting longer and longer and longer, and pretty soon it was the pamphlet, Sex, Race and Class.

AMY GOODMAN: The shoebox got very full.

SELMA JAMES: You could say that. The point was that by that time, there were—there was a real problem with how do you balance the movement of black people, the movement of immigrants, the movement of women, the movement of lesbian and gay people. How do they relate to each other? And there was a kind of competition for priorities. And I wrote the pamphlet to say, “Look, we are all in the same struggle, and there is a connection between all of us that we must draw out. But in order for that connection to be made, each sector will make its own autonomous case, and on that basis we can unite.” How exactly? I don’t know, because I wasn’t the left in that way. I didn’t feel I had to have the answers, only the questions. And that’s what “Sex, Race and Class” is about, really. And it said that, for example, black women, or women of color generally, they’re the women’s movement, and they’re the black movement. And so, what’s wrong? I mean, there are—you know, people are many things, and that we are all in that hierarchy, because there’s an international division of labor of which we are all part, including those of us who are unwaged.

AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, you wrote recently about SlutWalk.


AMY GOODMAN: Slut is a big conversation in the United States now, because Rush Limbaugh, one of the right-wing radio talk show hosts, who plays such a major role in the Republican Party, called a young law student who was calling for health insurance coverage of contraceptives, he called her a “slut” and a “whore,” a “prostitute” who should have sex videos. She should have to put—post sex videos of herself online. And it has caused many, even of his past supporters, to stop supporting him for saying this. Why do you talk about SlutWalk?

SELMA JAMES: Well, you know—you know the long—you know “Death, where is thy sting?” You know, what the SlutWalk women did was to make it impossible to use those words in a way that is hurtful and insulting. I was astonished by the march. I went on the SlutWalk march. First of all, it was started by a 16-year-old who had had enough of women being raped and the police not paying attention, and who had refused, like women everywhere, to accept that if we dress a particular way or if we speak a particular way or if we do a particular thing, we can be accused. She said, “Accuse us as you like. We accept it all, and we then refuse everything that you accuse us of.” So, they were very anti-racist. They were very pro-prostitute. They were very anti-rape. They were very diverse. And they were the new women’s movement. They were very young.

And I didn’t feel, walking with them, that I was surrounded by women who were ambitious. I think that’s really crucial in the women’s movement today, because a lot of feminism has gone into individual careers and into ambition, and there’s some evidence that the class line between women is much greater now with feminism, because a whole set of women have gone into the part of the elite. They get pay equity. They get a lot of kudos, a lot of—they are very accepted in the society. And the rest of us are getting screwed. I mean, our pay is not going up. The child care doesn’t exist or is very bad. Welfare has been abolished. And we really need to have another reason to be together, which is the real conditions of our lives, rather than an individual ambition. And I felt that the SlutWalk was part of that new movement, which says it’s not ambition we want. We want to have the freedom to live the lives as we like them, and we are together for that.

AMY GOODMAN: Selma James, activist, political thinker, writer, the founder of International Wages for Housework Campaign, she helped launch the Global Women’s Strike. She is the author of numerous publications, including, most recently, Sex, Race and Class—The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. She was married for years to the West Indian political philosopher, activist and writer, C.L.R. James. And that does it for our show. For the full interview with Selma James, you can go to our website at

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