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

May 07, 1987|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | 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.

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