In the Blog
Letters Lived Contributor: Selma James
Illustration: Erin McPhee
Selma James is an anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist campaigner and author. Known for her pioneering work on women’s rights, James coined the term “unwaged” to describe most of the caring work that women do. James first put pen to paper in 1952 with her essay A Woman’s Place, describing the frustrations of women’s lives as housewives. James argues that women are engaged in the work of making society and deserve financial independence and recognition outside of the market economy. A leading activist in the women’s movement of the 1970s, James founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign in 1972, helping launch the domestic labour debate.
James’ publications include The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community and most recently, Sex, Race and Class — The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011. James wrote the original piece, “Sex, Race and Class,” which is the title of the collection. In it, she stresses the ties between the women’s movement, the black movement, the immigrant movement, and the LGBTQ movement. She believes that all of these campaigns are impacted by an international division of labour and sees the fight against this hierarchy as a collective struggle.
In James’ contribution to Letters Lived: Radical reflections, revolutionary paths, she emphasizes the importance of absorbing art and culture from around the world at an early age — an essential starting point for making connections between different kinds of human expression:
“My experience is that we are all saying most of the same things most of the time, and we don’t know it because we are locked out of the many languages in which we say it. By ‘languages’ here, I mean not only words, but dance and music and literature and culture and the study of words and pictures and the ways we organize ourselves collectively.”
James always returns to the power of collective action throughout her letter, reiterating her belief that the separation of women and men has a negative effect on us all.
“Don’t ever think you’re the only one who knows or understands suffering. Assume others have similar experiences, feelings and understandings; and try to acknowledge these, confirming your own and others’ reality, emotional and otherwise, always looking for allies against injustice.”
In 2000, James helped launch an international grassroots network for the recognition and payment of all the caring work women do called Global Woman’s Strike, which she continues to coordinate. James also lectures internationally and is currently holding public events in Ontario.