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22 January 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 12:13pm

What’s the point of smashing the glass ceiling for a few women, when so many live in poverty?

By Laurie Penny

Selma James is still making trouble. The 82-year-old founder of the “wages for housework” campaign, who recently published a collection of her political writings, is in the middle of a packed day of meetings when I arrive for our interview. “You know, the Greeks used to say that a person who was not involved in politics was an idiot,” she tells me. James has been many things – anti-racist activist, firebrand feminist author, wife and mother and fighter and factory worker – but she has never been an idiot.

Usually, men who dedicate their lives to fighting the status quo, if they make it to their seventies and eighties, earn the status of national treasure. Tony Benn and even Arthur Scargill, those socialist monsters under the bed, are remembered indulgently by the same tabloids that bayed for their vital fluids in the 1980s. James has never had that luxury –partly because she is a woman and partly because she still goes to work every day at the Crossroads Women’s Centre in north London, where we meet on a freezing January morning.

James represents a kind of feminism that was never fashionable. Her half-century of activism, detailed in her book Sex, Race and Class, placed money and power at the heart of women’s liberation. Conventional wisdom has declared the question of women and money resolved, because they now have the legal right to enter historically male jobs and make a decent wage. “Sure they have – and they have the right to go to the Ritz, too,” James says, “but they can’t afford it.”

Today, with austerity hitting women harder than men across all sectors of society, from low-waged workers to mothers receiving child benefit, activists of all stripes are beginning to question, once again, how work and class fit into feminism. In this tense climate, James’s writing seems more pertinent than ever. “We have not arrived yet,” she says. “[Women] are still underpaid for some work and unpaid for other work. We are definitely the socially weaker sex.” James speaks in short, no-nonsense sentences, her Brooklyn accent lifted by a hint of a West Indies twang from her time in Trinidad, brooking no argument. When I question her stance on the Julian Assange case (she has claimed that attempts to extradite him are politically motivated), she raises her voice and forces me to back down. You can see how she’s spent 60 years getting people’s backs up.

“Feminism has become identified with breaking the glass ceiling as the central perspective,” she says, “but the speed at which women are entering boardrooms is not half as fast [as that of] women entering prisons for crimes of poverty.”

James was born Selma Deitch in Brooklyn in 1930, the youngest daughter of an immigrant lorry driver who formed a union at a time when doing so was a dangerous undertaking. “The bankers had jumped out of windows the years before,” she explains. “At that time, everybody I knew was part of the movement. You weren’t ‘politically active’ – you were just part of it.”

One of her earliest memories is of the marches in support of the Spanish republicans during the civil war in 1936. “I was on my father’s shoulders and I threw money at them,” she says. “I was just a kid and I knew which side I was on.” Aged 15, she joined the Marxist Johnson-Forest Tendency, where she met the writer and activist C L R James.

“My sister was doing secretarial work with him and she took her kid sister to meet him,” she says. “I was about 14 at the time and he would have been 43 or 44 – I thought he was very old.” The pair eventually married in 1956, after his deportation to England at the height of McCarthyism. After a short period in Trinidad, working with the independence movement there, the family, including James’s son from her first marriage, settled permanently in London. There, they became involved in anti-racist activism.

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The immediate reason for this was practical. As a mixed-raced family, they could not find anywhere to live. Landlords “did not want black families”, she recalls. “We finally found a place which was owned by a woman who had escaped Hitler, a Jewish woman.

”Women’s rights were central to James’s political work well before the Oxford feminist conference of 1970. “I’m mostly concerned with the working-class perspective,” says James, reminding me that what she and her fellow feminists mean by “the working class” is not the same as how much of the left imagines it today. “We take unwaged people as part of the working class,” she says. “That doubles it, for a start.”

In 1972, James started the wages for housework campaign, upsetting feminists and union members alike. “I was shocked at how much anger there was,” James says. “I knew that the central question of women’s autonomy was financial. And how people don’t know that even today is a miracle to me, because it’s so obvious that money is the source of social power in this society.”

Today, women of all ages are beginning to realise just how far feminism still has to go – and how class, money and family still matter. “A hundred women MPs arrived in the Commons and the first thing they did was cut single mothers’ benefits,” says James, stabbing a finger for emphasis.

The hour is up. James would stay longer but she has a meeting to speak at. Her helpers press pamphlets into my hands, urge me to call back, get involved – and I’m not sure if I’m wrapping up an interview or being recruited. James would probably be fine with either.