Interview: Selma James

First published in Canvas: 10th December 2012

On Friday 19th October, noted feminist campaigner Selma James visited The University of Sheffield Exchange to lead a discussion on “Sex, Race and Class — What are the Terms of Unity?” Before the event, she spoke to Chris Olewicz of Canvas and Hannah Rudman, chair of The University of Sheffield Women’s Committee and answered questions relating to her work.

Hannah Rosin has recently released The End of Men, which focuses on the idea that traditional forms of masculinity are being replaced by a new paradigm. An increasing number of males are becoming stay at home parents.  Do you think this is an opportunity for change?

There is no question that it will have still impact, but an increasing number of men still means a very small number. It may double and it would be one in a hundred. It would only have limited impact because the focus of society is the market. The reproduction of the human race is secondary, or third, or maybe even tenth in terms of importance.

Will this cause us to re-assess the value of housework?

Society is currently so pushed into prioritising the market over human beings, and over human reproduction, that there is no chance of something like a few men, relative to the number of men, having a great impact on the value of housework. Once you prioritise the market, the value of caring is irrelevant. It is a hell of a pill to swallow to accept that for children, and people with disabilities, and each other for that matter, caring for each other is not prioritised, even hardly mentioned.

Why do you think this is so?

Well you know, Margaret Thatcher said that there is no such thing as society. And we have to work out what that means, because it isn’t immediately clear what she meant. What Thatcher meant is that we do not have responsibility for others, and that the government does not have any responsibility for anybody. And that is not only diabolical but very murderous. Life itself is undermined by such a statement by a prime minister of a developed country. Such a statement does not prioritise life, it prioritises pushing human beings aside, and the environment, as well as animals, in the quest for profit.

Child rearing is the one role in life that most parents receive no formal training for. Should more be done to train people how to raise children?

I don’t want the state to tell us how to raise children. And I don’t think it should be part of the business of the state to tell us how to parent. I think what parents need is time and resources, and they will find their way to have relationships with their children. Because raising children is fundamentally a human relationship between yourself, if you are an adult, and a child. It is rewarding, and it is important, and I think that parents know that instinctively, as every other animal, it values it’s own young. But what has happened is that, first of all, is that women who have broken the glass ceiling are having many fewer children, and being top of the insurance or tobacco industries are not compatible.

Women are choosing to have children later in life of course.

Those of us who are in lower categories often delay having children until its problematic because our biological clock ticks faster and faster after we hit thirty. And the reason we are not having children before that, as other generations had done is because we have less and less support from society in having those children. As a consequence we have to go to work. And this is a real crisis for many women. I think for most women. Because it means you don’t get to raise your own children, you pay someone to do it. And if you have less money you pay someone who is perhaps less competent than you would like. And you spend your days at work worry about what is happening to your children. I know that feeling personally, and it is not a good one.

You come home, and your tired, and your child wants your full attention, because he or she has been without you all day, and you feel a little insane until the kid goes to sleep because you are torn between what needs to be done and what needs to be done in terms of cooking and other housework and what your child needs emotionally from you. So the question is very problematic.

Clearly from what your saying, the state does need to do something that caring is an important thing. Obviously it is problematic when most peoples priorities lie in work and making money. Do you think there is a solution to that?

Yes. A movement of women. And only a movement of women. There is nothing that is going to address that except women demanding that they have the money to raise their own children. I think there is no question of that now. And something like that is starting to be discussed in the United States now, at the very moment that they complain that there is no money because the banks took it all, and the military took whatever is left. I heard from my partner that Obama, when he was in one of the recent Presidential debates that he wanted to cut down on the military budget, because there was no other way of dealing with the needs of Americans.

Is there a double burden on women?

I do believe that women are exhausted from the double day. And many women are doing between three or four jobs a week. Every Monday from 2-5pm I do this, and every Thursday I do this from 3-6pm. That kind of job, going back and forth, and nobody pays for the transport, either the time or the money. And you are deeply exhausted. Your life is given over to employers. And you still have to raise your children. They aren’t refrigerators, and they aren’t washing machines, and they’re not vacuum cleaners. They are human being who need you. And you need them. Women are really fed up. I think that that is a good sign that they are fed up.

So what is the answer?

Now we have to get a movement together, and there are problems with do that. There is a lack of interest from feminists in this problem, which is in part responsible for the lack of movement to change. But if women come out, they will say that the market is not their priority. That is the first thing that women have always said. They have always said that children are their responsibility. Their education is their responsibility. The market cannot be their responsibility in addition to whatever else they are dealing with. Of course, I am not suggesting for a moment that women are limited.

In what ways do you think that modernity has failed to help families? Many two worker families appear no better off than one worker families in the past?

Our standard of living has dropped. Technology has not affected the length of the working day. The technology has risen, and so has the length of the working day. Every single government policy in relation to employment has increased our load and lowered our pay and our pension. And our pensionable age. I mean, they have got us from every angle. So the question is, will the movement rise in time to save us from disaster.

Unlike many other countries that have equalised maternity and paternity leave, the British parliament still expects women to be the primary care givers. Can a more equal government change things?

Not on present showing of what the women are doing. The problem has been that women who get into power are one the whole suit themselves to what the men are proposing, or they come in proposing what the men have proposed. We have a woman home secretary who is not really interested in rape or in the policing of rape. She doesn’t have any policies that assist us in any way. When Labour gained power in 1997, there were over 100 Labour MPs, referred immediately to as “Blairs Babes.” And one of the first things they did was that Harriet Harman stood up and took single mothers benefit away.

And that has been true not just in parliament, but in every institution in society where women have gained access too. They have not fundamentally altered the institutions they have entered and sometimes lead. That is a truth. This has happened to other movements. Disabled MPs in parliament have not opposed ATOS, who are throwing people off benefit. They may even make a speech or two in parliament, but they haven’t joined a picket line with people with disabilities who are disabled than they are because they have far less money. Joining the institutions have not meant that the institutions have changed. The women have changed.

If there hadn’t have been a movement of women, do you think Barbara Castle would have taken up the issue of equal pay?

No she wouldn’t. What Barbara Castle was serious about was when she became a pensioner, and she was no longer a member of parliament, she fought like a tiger for pensions. She did very well. She really came into her own. And she stood up to all of them. But the ambition was gone. And when the ambition is there, we are not in their minds. Ambition is made of very stern stuff. And once it is lost, it does not come back easily.

UKFeminista recently lobbied parliament on a series of issues related to what you discuss. Do you think this is useful, seeing how hard it is to change the institutions?

I don’t know much about UKFeminista, and I haven’t heard much about them having meetings with grassroots women to find out what they want. I think they may have decided to lobby without reference to what grassroots women want, which is not good. But then again, they may do some good work. What they are not doing is trying to mobilise a movement. I want to make it clear that I do not mean rabble rousing. I’m talking about finding out what the struggle is about, and advertising that that is the case, and what the forces are against us, and how we might be together not only women, which is a big job, bringing women together. But also how we can make the trade unions back us, or back away, and I think that is true of every institution.

Unless you are building a movement, you might be doing some nice things, but you are not doing the basic work, and that is what I try to do in my work, and what we in the Global Womens Strike are trying to achieve.

You last visited the University of Sheffield in 2011 for an event on the “Big Society.” A year on, what impact do you think this has had?

None. I don’t think it has had any impact at all, because it isn’t a policy, it’s a slogan, and it’s kind of buried itself. It means nothing. If people thought it meant something, I’d really like to know what they thought it meant. It just meant, “I am for the Big Society.” I think it was a lie that we all found out that was pretty irrelevant to the truth. The level of corruption in society has galloped ahead in every aspect. Local government is corrupt. The police are corrupt. The case of the girls in Rochdale. And then we have Hillsborough, which is all of the corruptions at once, and people died as a result. And nobody has been before the courts yet, and I doubt too many people will be.

So what has happened to local power?

It has not materialised. We have less local power than we used to have, and we have less power all the time than we used to. Choice is used to prevent us from having choice. People would like to choose to have local healthcare. But they are told that they must have choice, which means that they move it away. They have second rate healthcare, but two brands of second rate healthcare, and you can choose between them. We know that that is going on. We aren’t stupid. Choice means that our choice is negated and we are offered other substitutes that we can choose between.

You’ve been involved in a great deal of political activism, and have witnessed the changing nature of the women’s campaign. If you could go back to when you started campaigning, would you have any advice for yourself?

Oh yes. First of all, it took us a couple of years of debate on wages for house workers to see the international implications, and that is unforgivable. And I tried to make up for it, but it took me a while. And I can’t understand why it took me a while. I don’t know why I was so narrow minded as to leave out most of the world. I was surrounded by people who were leaving out the rest of the world, but that is no excuse. That is a major thing with me. The narrow mindedness in 1972, when we debated housework and childcare and all the rest. Women in Africa for example, were growing 80% of the food in Africa un-waged. I didn’t know. And when I did find out, I think we moved ahead, and understood what women were doing with their lives. How their lives were dominated by work.

Other than that, I look back, and now I have an anthology of writing from 1952 to the present day, and I’m very surprised by how I was not too foolish. That’s all I can say. I’m not ashamed about things I wrote in 1954. I’m not ashamed of A Womans Place. It’s a bit outdated, though after sixty years, you have a right to be outdated. One the basis of what other people were thinking, I think it’s a pretty decent document.

Do you have any advice for young campaigners now?

As far as campaigning goes, there are two things people should do. They should discuss what is happening in their own lives. Other people can help you with that, you have to do it collectively. And you have to find out what a lot of women are thinking and doing. I think that one mistake that movements make is that people say very foolish things, who are very clever, but you have to look at what they are actually doing, and what their lives are actually like, because sometimes people say things because they cannot face the horrendous truth of their own lives, because they can’t do anything about it. And it’s kind of suicidal to think that you are tired beyond belief, and you have no prospect of rest.

If you are a campaigner, you have to speak to the wisdom which is behind the façade that you must build in order to survive. Then you have to do something, you can’t just sit there and discuss, and you can’t speak in the abstractions that you learn in school, so nobody knows what your talking about. You have to find out how to talk again when you leave university. I think that is a good way begin.

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