The way I work: Selma James

Global Women’s Strike co-ordinator Selma James says, at 85, she’s still working towards a caring society. Interview: Antonia Charlesworth

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Before I wrote A Woman’s Place I worked in factories, the only work there was for women that was not shorthand or typing. I worked on assembly lines making radio or television sets and in sweet factories packing boxes, which I presume is done by a machine now. You certainly felt like a machine when you were doing that work.

I got pregnant and I was out of the workforce for a couple of years because we decided that my son should have the benefit of my company. We didn’t want to put him with strangers. Then he went to childcare full time because there was no such thing as part-time work in the US then.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in a very similar community to the one Bernie Sanders describes he comes from. I absolutely am a supporter of his, I think he’s an honest man and that is very rare in politics. He has a background of Jewish socialist organising. He organised in the civil rights movement and against the apartheid regime in South Africa, very similar in some ways to my own background, which I really respect. I feel I got a good education in the home and community, whatever else they were telling me at school.

I feel Hillary Clinton’s one of the golden skirts – that’s the phrase that the Norwegians have found to describe women who rise to the top and who are full of money, full of ambition and don’t give a damn for the rest of us, whether we’re women or men. I am not in the movement for change and justice in order for a few people to rise and the rest of us get spat on from up there.

I was a member of a socialist organisation with CLR James [whom she later married], who is quite well known now because he wrote famous books on cricket and on the history of the Haitian Revolution. We were anti-capitalist and trying to understand and change the world. I told him about the life that I was leading as a housewife, how much work housewives did and how important they were to getting men out to work each day. The employer was getting two workers for one wage. He said “You have to write a pamphlet” but I paid little attention.

A few months later he called me and said “Have you written the pamphlet yet?” and I said “no, I don’t know how”. He said: “It’s very simple. You take a shoebox and you put a slit at the top. Every time you have a thought you put it on a piece of paper, put it in the slit and then, one day, you open up the box, put all the pieces of paper together and then you have a pamphlet.” I did that and it worked. The day I opened it I took off from work and put my child in childcare, as I would have anyway. I went to a friend’s house, because I knew if I stayed at home I would clean the cooker or do some other massive piece of housework. So I was at her desk by about 8.15am and by the end of the day I had a draft. I still use the shoebox technique now but the shoebox is a folder on my computer.

We’re working towards a society of caring. That’s what we want. Women are the primary carers in society – we take responsibility not only for our children but for our parents and for our friends and it is hard work, often soul destroying work, but work that needs to be done. But we are not cared for as carers – it’s not mutual – by individuals but especially by the state. The state thinks because we are carers and we often love the people we care for they can make all the cuts they like to services that help and support us. Eighty per cent, some say more, of cuts in jobs, in services and in pay have been at the expense of women. That is basic sexism. Not that they love men – they’ll exploit anybody.

Young activists must take their heads up from their computers and look at the world

We are deeply disappointed with what has happened to the women’s movement. I was there in the late sixties and early seventies. We started out to change the world and some women took that to mean to change their money and status, using the power of the movement to get what they wanted personally without any reference to the rest of us.

We have to fight a number of cases at our Crossroads Women’s Centre [in Kentish Town, London] where even breastfeeding women – women giving the best food that nature intended for the newborn – have their children snatched from them, and either fostered or even adopted by strangers despite the mother’s broken heart and the children’s great trauma.

As well as these kinds of cases we deal with rape victims and we deal with asylum seekers who are often in detention centres because they’ve run away from wars that the west has made and armed. Then a few of the women escape and they have to go through hoops without legal aid – in our collective way we help them with that. We work with sex workers who are persecuted. There’s a lot more street workers in the north than in the south and they are not getting the help they need. Instead the big shot feminists want the men to be criminalised, which will absolutely destroy the women’s ability to raise and feed their children. We work with single mothers and women of colour. We’ve had to fight a case where a black woman was attacked by a white racist neighbour and when the police came they wanted to arrest her husband – they said it’s domestic violence. These are the kinds of things we’re dealing with every day.

We are trying to build an international network through the Global Women’s Strike. We are anti-racist in the same way that the Women of Colour Network is. We are anti-homophobic in the same way the Queer Strike is. We are anti-sexism, anti-ageism. We all share those policies. These autonomous organisations help all of us define our politics.

I’m not sure what people mean by intersectionality. When I say sex, race and class I’m talking about power and power differentials among us, which we must address and overcome. We can’t eliminate them but in the course of trying to eliminate them we will change the world.

Young activists must take their heads up from their computers and look at the world. There are major struggles going on, which are becoming increasingly exciting and hopeful. Margaret Thatcher said that socialism is dead but socialism isn’t dead, and Thatcherism is dying.

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are great. John’s always been supportive of our work and organising. He’s very respectful of the struggles women are facing and we see him as a politician who is not there for personal ambition but to change the world, and that’s true of Jeremy as well.

We have a petition for a living wage for all workers but also for mothers and other carers. We want a living wage and the first step in that is to reinstate income support for mothers – we must have the right to have children without being dependent on a man. We want a living wage, not the way the Tories describe it, while they do their overseas accounts in their tax havens. We want a proper living wage for all workers, including the most hidden worker and the most fundamental worker, the carer – who’s often the mother.

Selma James’s new book Sex, Race and Class (PM Press, £12) is available from

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