Universal Basic Income and Women’s Liberation

Ursula Huws

Friday, 13 January 2017

From 1971 to 1978, the UK women’s liberation movement held ten national conferences at which it formally adopted a total of seven key demands. The fifth of these demands, added in 1974, was for financial and legal independence for women, accepted with widespread support across all wings of the movement. It is indeed difficult to imagine a form of feminism which does not, in a money-based society, insist that women have their own means of financial support as a way of avoiding being trapped by economic dependence in coercive, perhaps abusive, relationships.

It is therefore perhaps ironic that the question of how this financial independence should be achieved played a role in the bitter disputes within the movement that led to the decision that the 1978 conference would be the last. Although it was by no means the only reason for the split, the espousal by many radical feminists of the demand for ‘wages for housework’ (developed in 1972 by the International Feminist Collective which included Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa, Brigitte Galtier and Silvia Frederici) was for many socialist feminists the last straw. Housework, they said, should not be institutionalised as women’s responsibility. It should be shared equally with men or, better, socialised, in the form of state-provided nurseries, laundries and canteens. And what would happen if women refused to do the housework for which they were paid? Would the husband, the father, or the state, taking on the role of the employer, discipline them and decide that they should not get it? Meanwhile radical feminists argued that reproductive work was for the benefit of all society and, since women did most of it, they should be rewarded for this. Why should they be forced into the labour market just for economic survival, when this important caring work took up so much of their time?

More than forty years later, some of the wounds inflicted in those debates still fester. But could it be that the demand for a universal basic income might be a way of healing them?  Instead of posing women with the option of, on the one hand, aiming for full participation in paid work supported by public (or market) services and, on the other, an income for staying at home and taking responsibility for caring, could it, perhaps, offer them a basis for greater choice and autonomy, substituting a form of ‘both/and’ for a false ‘either/or’ dichotomy?

In order to do so, several important preconditions need to be in place. First, it is crucial that the basic income should be provided not just to women, or, more specifically, to people carrying out reproductive labour (parents or carers) but to everybody, regardless of gender or social status. Second, it should be provided as a right of citizenship or residency and not as a reward for carrying out work that would otherwise be unpaid. And third, it should not be seen as a substitute for the provision of public services.

With all these conditions in place, a universal basic income could become a means of offering both women and men freedom to choose how to divide their time between reproductive work, paid work in the labour market and other activities, and decide what proportion of their income to spend on buying in services rather than providing them in kind, in the knowledge that the welfare state is available as a safety net when things go wrong.

It could also go some way towards addressing the less obvious bur more deeply corrosive personal effects of economic dependence: the way that it can lead to ‘breadwinners’ feeling trapped in their roles and resentful of their dependents’ apparent freedom from the constraints of the employer’s clock, as well as leaving their dependents struggling with guilt, obligations to show gratitude or feelings of pressure to engage in coercive sex, or even put up with violence or abuse to keep a roof over their heads and those of their children.

A universal basic income might, in other words, actually lead to better relationships as well as a more equitable society, providing a genuine basis for liberation.

Forty years after the demand for financial independence was first raised, have we at least reached a moment when mass support might be available for actually achieving it?

This piece is part of our new blog series Universal Basic Income: Security for the Future. You can read the first piece by Jane Lethbridge here 

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