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

July 28, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya — 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.

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