From anti-communist witch-hunts to independence movements to wages for housework and rights for sex workers, 91-year-old Selma James has been in the struggle for a lifetime.
I’m here to interview James about her latest book, Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet, an anthology of essays that draw lessons from her decades of activism. At age 91, Jamesis still working on a variety of causes. She has been an activist all her life, and she can’t recall a specific moment when she decided to dedicate her life to fighting for what she believed in.
James rose to prominence in the 1970s, when she co-founded Wages for Housework, now an international movement. Its core idea is that financial compensation for the essential contribution of carers to society—caring for children, looking after sick friends and family, and all the work of keeping a home—would raise millions of women (and anyone doing unpaid care work) out of poverty. That in turn would reduce domestic violence and other forms of abuse based on power dynamics.
The concept wasn’t popular with everyone when it was introduced, like the feminists who thought it merely chained women to the household. WFH will turn 50 in 2022, and it has grown—it now coordinates Global Women’s Strike, which campaigns for a care income for people of every gender who want to care for others and protect the environment.
Even today, WFH is still a contentious issue for some feminists, which I tell James I find surprising. “So do I,” she says. “They said it would institutionalize us in the home. But we are very institutionalized in poverty as a result of the caring work that we do without the recognition of payment. We are expected to be carers in a society that is focused on what is profitable and plunders life, people, and planet for that profit.”
Another obvious reason Wages for Housework is unpopular with some is “because it completely transforms the capitalist meaning of work and what you are paid for,” says James. “It can’t be measured in the same way, and it doesn’t make profit, so what is the point of doing it? If you asked [U.K. Prime Minister] Boris Johnson, he’ll say businesses hire people to make profit, and that profit goes into developing society—which it doesn’t. … The important thing is that caring for ourselves and for each other is productive to us, not to those who exploit us.”
James was born in Brooklyn in 1930, in a decade she says was an extremely important time politically. “We were a Jewish family living in a multiracial neighborhood, and it was a working-class town, which it isn’t anymore. I really learnt a lot from the people I knew, although I didn’t know I was learning it at the time. I don’t think that people who experienced the 1960s understand what a massive international movement there was in the 1930s,” she says. “We had President Roosevelt, who supported trade unions and welfare. He supported working-class people, and we had access to all kinds of services—I heard classical music for the first time in the working-class school that I went to,” she recalls. “At the same time, we were threatened with Nazism and concentration camps. We knew about them; they were part of the context of our lives.”
As a teenager, James joined the Johnson–Forest Tendency, a Marxist humanist offshoot of Trotskyism led by Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and Grace Lee Boggs. Then, the McCarthy witch hunt began, and James herself was blacklisted.
“They had a lot of spies,” she says. “People were so afraid to say anything that was in any way political. At one point, they were going around reading parts of the American Declaration of Independence, like, ‘All men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ and they’d ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ and call it communist. It was really a difficult period.”
James was a single mother at the time, but while she was unable to work, she had support from her child’s father and the organizations she was active in. C.L.R. James was sent to Ellis Island, at that time an immigrant detention center. The two kept in touch, eventually falling in love and marrying in London.
In 1958, the couple moved to Trinidad, and Selma James became the letters editor of the Trinidad pro-independence newspaper that C.L.R. James edited. Editing readers’ letters sharpened her awareness: “I had to find out what they were saying and why they were saying it, and really help to make sure that their point of view emerged,” she says.
Her time in Trinidad also informed her environmental campaigning. “The farmers who owned their little farms knew a lot about the climate, knew a great deal about the soil, and tried to protect and enhance that soil. They were committed to the natural world in ways that city people never have been, which is a very important part of my frame of reference, and must be of all our frames of reference.”
By the time James returned to London in the 1960s, the second wave of feminism was in full swing, and she became part of the women’s movement. Her study of Marxism led her to understand the relationship between women and capital—that women’s labor, in other words caring and housework, is a commodity that upholds power. “People asked me where I’d got this idea from. It led to understanding that the hierarchy of how the power relations of sex, race, and age, and nation, are part of the way class society is structured.” James helped launch Women Against Rape in 1976, which successfully campaigned for marital rape to be made illegal in the U.K.
Today, “intersectional feminism” is a buzzword, and the value of caring is in the spotlight thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But before that, James and her fellow activists were prominent campaigners for the rights of sex workers, lesbians, women of color, immigrants, asylum seekers, rape survivors, and working-class people, viewing all these as part of the same struggle.
None of this felt radical to her. “We were very down to earth. We were anti-racist, because we saw racism as part of the hierarchy that kept capital in power.”
For a while, James was the spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, which had long been asking feminists to support sex workers against the brutality of the police. This meant analyzing deeply uncomfortable economic considerations in sexual relationships between men and women. In 1982, ECP occupied the Holy Cross Church in King’s Cross—one of London’s “red-light” districts at the time—to protest the police treatment of prostitutes. “Feminists were in two minds,” James explains. “This was the first time they had been confronted by the sex workers’ struggle. Most of them could not get it together to attack them, even if they were against prostitution and thought it degraded women. … We were open to everybody, and a lot of people were very curious. If they wanted to come to the church, they had to go to the Women’s Centre first to say who they were. It was very exciting. It was hard work—we were sleeping on the floor. We were tired. We were dependent on others bringing soup, for example, because we were very short of funds.”
They had many visitors and got a lot of media attention. Labour Party politician Tony Benn and his wife, Caroline, came to listen to them. Once he’d heard them speak, he took out his tape recorder and began dictating letters to the authorities with their demands. Their request that local government pay someone to monitor illegal arrests in the King’s Cross area was granted. Their 12-day protest had won.
James wanted to release Our Time Is Now, a collection of her essays from 1977 to 2020, to show how different groups of people—like feminists and sex workers in the ECP, or like those who gather at Crossroads Women’s Centre today—can work together. “I felt that we had created a big experience as organizations working together which were autonomous from each other. We worked out a way of keeping the focus on our sector, but able to get on with other movements,” she says.
The last chapter of Our Time Is Now contains several essays that address divisions of race, nationality, income, age, gender, sexuality, and disability. James writes, “The more such divisions are addressed, internally and working with others, the less we are divided by them, and the more the power of each sector becomes a power for all.”
“This is crucial,” says James, “especially if you are aware, as we are, that you need an international movement to solve the problems of this world. We had a responsibility. We wanted to put down how we did it. And I wanted to make clear in particular that it wasn’t any geniuses that sat down and worked it out. We were practical people, we had decided to help build a movement. We worked it out collectively.”
She has confidence in younger generations of activists, but she’s nervous about the time we’re in. “There’s going to be an explosion of some kind soon. People are absolutely infuriated, and they’re infuriated for all kinds of reasons.” I ask whether, in over 70 years of campaigning, she has ever felt tired or burnt out. “Tired sometimes, but it’s a temporary thing. Never burnt out. We win some stuff all the time because we don’t give up easily, and we celebrate any success by any part of our international network. It gives us energy and determination.” She was discouraged when Donald Trump was president, as well as at recent political developments and events in the U.K. “But slowly, little by little, I’m climbing out of that, because I’m with people who are trying to do the same thing that I am, and there are more of us all the time.”