Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What's the Point of Smashing the Glass Ceiling for a Few Women, When So Many Live in Poverty?

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

What's the Point of Smashing the Glass Ceiling for a Few Women, When So Many Live in Poverty?

Article excerpt

Selma James is still making trouble. The 82-year-old founder of the Selma James is still making trouble. "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 Berm 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 198os. 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. …

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