Campaign Catches On : L.A. Pair Seek Wages for Women's Unpaid Work

Times Staff Writer

There was a gray, drizzly afternoon in October, 1975, when Sidney Ross-Risden, a licensed vocational nurse, stood in front of the Grand Central Market on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles. She was part of a little band of women staging a demonstration, a small one, for the International Wages for Housework campaign. The campaign's founder, Selma James, was in from England, and her followers held placards and passed out leaflets to largely disinterested or bemused passers-by while James stood on a box and spoke.

Nothing seemed more doomed to failure than their demands that governments recognize that women's unpaid work formed the underpinnings of the whole economy, that it be included in their gross national products and that they should be remunerated for it.

And nothing seemed more far out in the women's rights movement than that a woman should be paid to stay home, take care of the kids and get supper for her husband.

At about the same time in New York, Margaret Prescod, a school-teacher who was actively working for the rights of welfare mothers, was organizing, with Wilmette Brown, Black Women for Wages for Housework. She had read James' 1972 book, "The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community," outlining the philosophy of the campaign, and it made sense to her.

By the time the United States held a conference for women in Houston in 1977, Margaret Prescod was there, pressing her demands, organizing, spreading the word.

Today, both women are residents of Los Angeles, but they have not been there for the last few weeks. They have been in Nairobi, as are Selma James, Wilmette Brown and several more from their international campaign.

At Forum '85, the non-governmental world meeting for women that ended July 19 at the University of Nairobi, they conducted workshops, participated on panels, circulated petitions on several issues that developed on the spot and stood at the little table they had set up outside, next to the peace tent. The women of the world flocked to that table.

Pressing Their Case

Before the forum had ended, they were back and forth to the Kenyatta Conference Center where the official U. N. conference to assess the Decade for Women and plan for the future was being held through last week. Once the forum was ended, they were at the conference full time, lobbying the delegates constantly. Ross-Risden had to leave earlier in the week. Prescod and the others kept it up through the end.

They had not invented the idea. According to Selma James, even 19th-Century English novelist Jane Austen had seen the point, as had Virginia Woolf in more recent years. The International Labor Organization also was working with the concept. There had been, in fact, some words about recognizing the economic value of women's work "in the home, in domestic food production, marketing and voluntary activities" in the Plan of Action adopted at the 1975 U. N. Conference for Women in Mexico City at the start of the Decade for Women.

The Grand Central Market, in fact, was not where all the action was that October. On Oct. 24, 1975, the women of Iceland "took a day off" from their household duties, meaning, Selma James explained, there was a general strike.

By the time Nairobi came around, the main document to be presented to the delegates for adoption, the Forward Looking Strategies, contained a paragraph again calling for recognition of women's unpaid work, and urging its measurement and reflection in "national accounts and economic statistics."

Efforts Rewarded

The conference opened July 15. By July 18, Wages for Housework's lobbying efforts to strengthen that paragraph had paid off. The committee assigned the adoption, amendment or rejection of the paragraphs in question had adopted by consensus Wages for Housework's proposal that "concrete steps be taken" to quantify the unremunerated work and that, further, "appropriate steps" be made to measure and reflect that work in national accounts and gross national product."

'Higher Than a Kite'

Not only that. By last Wednesday, Leticia Shahani of the Philippines, secretary-general of the conference, told a press conference that one of the main accomplishments to come out of the decade "was a recognition that household work has to be paid."

At some point in all of this Margaret Prescod said, "I'm thrilled out of my mind." And Sidney Ross-Risden, saying she was "higher than a kite," commented, "You, know, I always knew we were right, but when I got here and saw this response, I said, 'But look! We were right.' It's so obvious."

The checks for housework, or any of women's unpaid work, are not in the mail--although if Wages for Housework has anything to do with it, that day will come.

But in the meantime, if ever there were two women who demonstrate what has been happening with women during the Decade for Women, and if ever there was a radical idea that has taken hold to a degree that can be called astonishing, it is these women and this campaign.

They are thoroughly politicized, these two women in their mid-30s. Relentless activists, tireless organizers, dedicated movement people.

Sidney Ross-Risden is white. Her father was an architect, her mother a teacher. She was an licensed vocational nurse, active in the anti-Vietnam movement. She had become frustrated with the left, finding the leaders arrogant, especially where women were concerned.

"It was almost as if they were getting ready for when they ruled the world," she said one day during the forum, taking a break from her duty outside the peace tent. She had cut short one earlier conversation, apologizing, "I have to go demonstrate against (Philippine President Ferdinand E.) Marcos."

Found Her Goal

She was an activist looking for a cause until she heard Selma James speak in Cleveland one day in 1974 and it all clicked.

"What a relief. It was possible to continue to participate in the struggle as a woman who is working. I did not have to feel invisible and left out."

She moved to Los Angeles, worked and went back to school for her nursing degree, all the while working for the campaign. Now she describes herself as provincial, since she didn't see the necessity for organizing internationally.

It came to her "in a gut way," she said, through the campaign, union organizing, the problems of migrant women and coming to know Black Women for Wages for Housework.

Like Prescod, she is not a one-issue person, although unwaged work of women is central to her.

She is a nurse at Cedars-Sinai, working in the surgical intensive care unit, and is married to a nurse, who supports the campaign, she said, partially because he does a lot of the housework.

Not surprisingly, she has been organizing nurses.

Specifically, she has been organizing an all-professional unit of nurses and other hospital workers, the impetus having been a disagreement over the method of payment for night shift nurses.

'Housework Expected'

About nurses in general, she said, "They're relatively low-paid. Those skills we learned from our mothers are not considered acquired skills, but innate. There is an incredible amount of housework expected of a nurse on the job."

The Nairobi conference has been not only rewarding to her, but enlightening. Nowhere could the idea of the importance of women's unpaid work be more self-evident than in Africa.

"This conference has really highlighted the fact that it's hard to draw the line between waged and unwaged work. The conference has been a great organizing tool. There's been a tremendous leap both in understanding and political skills. Any occasion where women are able to come together, across all divisions--I just want to figure out ways that this victory here can be concretely useful to nurses. I think it has a lot to do with comparable worth."

Margaret Prescod is black. She was born in Barbados and moved to New York as a teen-ager in 1962. Within two weeks, she was on a picket line with a civil rights demonstration outside a medical center in Brooklyn that refused to hire blacks.

"My family has always believed that any skills we attain do not belong to us but the community," she said by way of explanation, starting the detailed history of her activism.

She went to Long Island University, dropped out of graduate school at Columbia Teachers College, and taught school, specializing in adult remedial reading.

"I was one of those dedicated teachers," she said. "I knew how to take direction from my students. You learn that in the course of organizing."

She had been organizing: Ocean Hill-Brownsville and a community schools issue, City University of New York and an open door policy, welfare rights for mothers, where she worked to get mothers elected to school boards and helped establish school breakfasts and after-school programs.

A Merging of Roles

At about the time Wages for Housework came into her life, she had been thinking along these lines: "I was active in civil rights. I was black. I was seeking to organize as a black person and also as a woman. I thought there has to be a way to put these together. Wages for Housework had money in its name. In organizing in the black community, you always organize for resources."

She joined up with Wilmette Brown. After the Houston conference she was part of a group that was called to the White House to discuss its campaign, she said, adding wryly, "and they were 'very impressed' with what serious thought we had given this."

She moved to Los Angeles in 1980 with her husband. He is a union leader for the Utilities Workers, she said.

"I do a lot of unwaged work for them," she said of that union. And more unwaged work for her young daughter.

'Out of Necessity'

"I got into this out of necessity, I think. I had a college degree but I was in hock up to my ears. Coming from the poor sector, as I did, so much of your income belongs to your family. It has to cover so many things. At home, money was always a crisis for my mom. She was exploited--she earned $3,000 a year and had three kids to support. My family is always in crisis. I'm in Wages for Housework for myself. I want it for myself. I want it for my grandmother, my mother and my daughter."

Neither she nor her co-workers see their campaign as a way to keep women at home and out of the feminist movement that would have them take their places in society alongside men. They see it as justice, and as recognition of reality.

"To believe in feminism and not include it is absurd," she said. "It's what we've all have been up against. The arguments (from other sides, such as conservatives) that the government can't afford it, is the same argument they used against freeing the slaves, against unemployment insurance, against social security."

Actual wages paid are probably a long way off. But James, Prescod and Ross-Risten really do sense the first steps being taken. Having work quantified, acknowledged and counted in the gross national product will have its effect, they say. It will exist. It will increase women's status, leverage and bargaining power.

They are already seeing their concept acknowledged in divorce settlements, in some job qualification requirements that recognize various unwaged activities, in pensions and social security regulations in some countries.

Some Details Solved

They have worked out many practical details themselves, but overriding that is what Selma James has been terming "creating the political will" in governments. Once the will is there, governments would figure out a way to do it.

As the conference ground down last week, they were circulating resolutions, on aging women, on the rights of migrant women, the disabled. . . .

Margaret Prescod was last seen calmly pacing among the seated delegates in the committee room. She said Norway seemed supportive and so was the Vatican.

She went over the resolutions the International Wages for Housework campaign was supporting, other than its central campaign, and chuckled, "We've got a lot of irons on the fire."

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