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Sex, Race and Class by Selma James, a review

Sex, Race and Class by Selma James

Feminism, anti-racism and Marxism – an integrated analysis for contemporary struggles around the world, a voice from the past for the future

By Amrita Shodhan

It was refreshing and energizing to read the selected writings of Selma James – an activist in the anti-racist, class and women’s movement since the 70s – and that’s the remarkable thing she combines all three perspectives when there wasn’t really such ‘a movement’ at the time either in the US or the UK.

James’ remarkable life of politics and activism, locating her analysis of class in unwaged work performed all over the world, is briefly outlined at the beginning of the book by Nina Lopez. All the collected articles are also prefaced by a short introduction situating it in the past but also providing a contemporary location and praxis.

She began as an American Jewish labour unionist in New York. Her amazing insights are even then located in the position of the black working class woman when that struggle was just becoming publicly voiced. Moving to the UK and for a brief period in the West Indies to avoid the Mcarthyism of 50s America, she has lived most of her adult life in the UK, working primarily in the anti-racist movement here and bringing to it the critical edge from the American experience of race.

Her notion of the woman’s place is briefly and simply articulated in the first piece presented in this collection, based on women working in a factory. Its promise of an engaged statement on women and class and race and work is fascinatingly held out and fulfilled in the excerpts from The power of Women and the Subversion of Community – published in 1973.  In 1972 at the conference on women’s movement in Manchester she first raised the debate on wages for housework in a pamphlet entitled Women, the Unions and Work – or What is not to be done.

Why had I missed this articulation and this writing though much of the perspective has pervaded the movement in some form or another?  Wages for housework was sidelined in the 70s movement but today it remains an area of critical engagement. I always held that my home and marriage are my jobs – but in a kind of thoughtless way.  In Selma James’ writing I found my theoretical and political grounding for this feeling. She analyses that women’s work is not merely for the individual family but for the productive system – producing labour and labourers and making them available for the factory/work place.  Hence the wage should be from those who benefit – the state/ economic system/ employer, rather than the individual family.

Her analysis of the working class movement reiterates that we must position the black working woman – often immigrant, at the center of our analysis. This perspective is most clearly articulated in her A Perspective of Winning (1973). It is important that the call to recognize unwaged women’s work is still raised–unwaged work is still not accounted for in national income. In 1985 the campaign earned a victory by the UN recognition granted to unwaged housework as part of the national income and the promise extracted from the various countries to count women’s work in the gross domestic product. This promise still remains unfulfilled.

selma James

Selma James- Photo courtesy: The Global Women's Strike Network

A thought-provoking dissonance is caused by her use of the term caste to refer to women, race and children. She uses this term to mark the groups as having specific interests related to their ‘nature’ rather than the work they do, thus they seem to be categories of identity rather than class.

However, she proceeds to demonstrate that this exclusion from class is misguided and these identity groups castes are the very substance of class. The divisions of castes are ways of creating a hierarchy of class. As she says, ‘as black feminists we are seeking to break down the power relations amongst us on which is based the hierarchical rule of international Capital’..… ‘We do not seem to convince whites and men of our feminism or upper class women of our classness, we offer them what we offer the most under-privileged women – power over their enemies. The price is an end to their power over us.’

She holds the third world as part of this struggle – actively by her work in Latin America and analytically by looking at the way in which third world economies are integrated in the world economy, being an integral part of it – as well as providing cheap labour. She recognizes the divisions that inevitably and necessarily exist and notes these as part of the strategy of struggle -  each group makes common cause and chooses who to wage their struggle with. No one else can choose for them.

Her distancing from NGOs that most movement organisations have become, criticism of ivory tower academics, the replacing of the term gender by sex, the considered re-enactment of activism and many other comments warmed the cockles of my 1980s heart

She continues to remain active with numerous political movements – she has expressed solidarity with the Occupy movement, the Venezuelan workers’ struggle or the struggle in contemporary Haiti as well as the struggle of prisoners in the US. In each association is her fundamental and crucial understanding that all these are struggles against the capitalist establishment as variously constituted and must be sustained by the divided workforce.

“Many of us have been told to forget our needs in some wider interest which is never wide enough to include us. And so we have learnt by bitter experience that nothing unified and revolutionary will be formed until each section of the exploited will have made its own autonomous power felt.” (p. 100) And she  realizes that the form and structure of such a united working class is not yet clear.

Her prose at once theoretical and inspirational has provided a renewed praxis to consider and work with. The re-ordering of community as outside women   (in the context of the new conservative movement in Britain), putting motherhood on the political agenda rather than women in boardrooms all made her politics at once meaningful and important in the 20th century.

Sex, Race and Class- The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011, Oakland: PM Press, 2012

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