Waging the War Over Wages : Fight for Homemaker Pay Has Seen Ups, Downs

Times Staff Writer

The International Wages for Housework Campaign is observing its 15th birthday this year, and founder Selma James was in from London recently on a speaking and organizing tour. In Los Angeles she joined up with Margaret Prescod, a local activist--and James's daughter-in-law--who leads the campaign here.

It was a visit marked by action and reflection as both women paused to look back and assess how far they had come toward goals that are easy to dismiss as utopian, revolutionary or simply amusing.

Those who would be amused would do well to wipe the silly grins off before facing this formidable pair.

They know good manners and use them selectively. James can be shrill, Prescod strident. Both are passionate women with keen intellects and a grasp of the concrete facts of daily life. They are activists who are building and broadening their ideology as experience dictates.

Their rallying cry is "We're in it for the money," and they are not joking.

Two years ago James, Prescod, their colleagues and their wages-for-housework campaign got wide international attention at the U.N. Decade for Women conference in Nairobi. Their message was simple: "Women count. Count women's work."

Among 20,000 women and almost that many issues, they stood out. Women flocked to their table at the unofficial forum, picked up their literature, endorsed their petitions and signed on for action. Nor was their impact any smaller across town at the official U.N. conference, where they lobbied national delegations to include their demands in the final document to be passed at the conference.

Largely due to their efforts, the nations of the world agreed to measure women's remunerated and unremunerated work inside and outside the home, and to include it in economic statistics and gross national products. This was radical stuff for governments of capitalist, socialist, developed and developing countries to consider. The campaign called it a milestone along the long road to getting money for all the work that governments promised to quantify.

How far has the campaign come in 15 years? How far has it come since the promise of Nairobi?

Little Progress So Far

The checks are not in the mail. Nor are the figures in the gross national products. Australia has set up the apparatus to start counting; most countries have not. And, when and if they do, some, like the United States, are indicating the figures will not be what the campaign had in mind.

"I'm afraid (the Americans) are going to say, 'We'll count professional homemakers and the rest of you can go blow,' " Prescod said, basing her remarks on a meeting she had with government officials.

Prescod defines "professional homemakers" as those who only work as housewives and do not hold paying jobs outside the home. She fears the work done at home by women who hold paying jobs would not be included.

James and Prescod, however, remain undaunted and anything but beaten. In Los Angeles, they were in a mood to talk success and challenge.

Longtime Campaigners

James, a Brooklyn-born woman in her 50s, did factory and office work most of her life, while writing tracts called "The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community," "The Global Kitchen," and one study called "The Ladies and the Mammies," on class, economics and feminism in the writings of Jean Rhys and Jane Austen.

Prescod, a woman in her 30s who emigrated from Barbados when she was 12, has been organizing women, first in New York and recently in Los Angeles, around a variety of issues. In her estimation, all of the issues are related--welfare rights, community control of education, rights of immigrant women, rights of prostitutes. Locally she organized the Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders last year in response to the series of murders of mainly black women in South Central Los Angeles.

Both women are serious about wages for housework. They want money. They want all women to get paid for the work they do for the state in producing, rearing and caring for the labor force that includes their husbands, their children and themselves.

"Welfare, not warfare," they say. They want the money to come out of military budgets.

More Than a Demand

As they have said all along, however, the campaign for wages for housework is more than a demand. It's a strategy.

Theirs is an international grass-roots women's movement, they say. They are concerned with people at the bottom, with those women who have a way of getting left out of everybody else's movements--either by oversight or embarrassment.

Some of the growing number of their offshoot groups and affiliates tell the tale--the Black Women for Wages for Housework, the U.S. Prostitutes Collective, the Wages Due Lesbians movement, the Right to Be Here collective of immigrant women.

When the women's movement came along in the '60s, James said, she was ready for it.

"I brought to it an international experience and a Third World experience, as well as experience of the metropolitan factory and kitchen. I tried to learn all I could, and then after a few years, asked myself, 'What do I do once my consciousness has been raised?' That's what I did with it,' " she said of Wages for Housework.

Answered Questions

It was founded in 1972, coming out of a women's conference in Manchester, England. To James, the demand and the campaign were an answer to the questions she and others faced: "How do you organize women, black and white together? What do both want? How do you organize full-time housewives with women who go out to work? How do you organize across national boundaries--because you couldn't win without it. Wages for housework, from a political perspective, spoke to all of these questions and the connection of the major battles women were involved in--equal pay, child care, health care, the right to have or not have children."

They are not organizing from a middle-class perspective, but out of their own working-class experience. If James tends to make paid work sound like drudgery, it is because that is the sort of the work she has known. It is something, she is quick to say, she has in common with most of the world's populace.

"I worked in this city packaging marshmallows," James said of her life in postwar Los Angeles. "I still remember the motions." She illustrated, methodically moving both hands back and forth in the same lift-move-pack motions, over and over.

"That was it, kid. That was to raise my consciousness? " she asked incredulously, taking a slap at middle-class feminists who she says overestimated "liberating" women from the confines of home. "That almost drove me crazy."

Connected With Africans

It is a short leap of imagination for her to connect with women in Africa who spend four hours a day hauling water for their families, a fact that is barely lamented and never a priority for redress in a country or an agency's development plans.

"This means this woman's time is irrelevant," she said of the indifference, adding fiercely, "It's only her life!"

There is a strain that comes between them and the mainstream middle-class, predominantly white women's movement. There is not outright enmity, and in fact there is often accord and coordination, but it coexists with an underlying mutual discomfort and criticism.

Feminists who are more mainstream often criticize James, Prescod and the campaign as trying to take over in joint meetings, as being too vague about how their goals are to be realized and as smacking of Marxism. The campaign has something in common with Marxist ideology, and James has written about the compatibility of Marxism and feminism. James and Prescod stress, however, that they are neither pro-Soviet nor pro-capitalist and, indeed, it is hard to imagine the men in the Politburo listening any more sympathetically to their demands and grievances than the men in America's corporate board rooms would.

In turn, they think the mainstream movement has been missing the boat, seeking at best to integrate minority, working-class and poor women into the mainstream. It's the other way around to them.

'Point Is to Unite'

If you want an integrated women's movement, James said, it is the middle class who must unite with the other women, organizing around those women's issues, telling no one that their issues must wait or take a back seat.

"The point is to unite," James said. "Yes, unity, but on the basis of the less powerful."

They are confident that the women's movement of the '90s will be an international grass-roots one, and they find themselves right on track. A lot of organizing and networking went into their success at Nairobi and it has continued to grow and strengthen, they say. They are coordinating with similar movements of housewives and farm wives in Europe, Cyprus and Egypt.

"We also have contacts among some of the best people in the various liberation movements, in churches, in the peace movement. They're there. We're in touch. They're rooting for us," James said. "There's a coming together of people who are ordinarily divided. We're all making the connections. Yes, that's the wave of the future, and we're delighted."

Having an Effect

And while they connect at the grass roots, there are signs they are having an effect above ground, James said, citing examples: A U.N. agency, the International Training and Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, in the Dominican Republic, has undertaken the task of figuring out how to count women's work. The Greens party in West Germany (where the campaign is established) is pressing for hearings on women and work. In the United States, the Rand Corp. has been exploring the subject of how and what to count, and how to pay.

"Once you start to speak about it, you transfer the nature of the whole political debate," said James. "Women's work is now seen as a political issue. The debate has started. Fifteen years ago, it was 'What did you do all day?' Now, it's 'Of course it's work, but should it be paid?'

"That's 15 good years. I have no complaint."

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