After Thomas Paine published Agrarian Justice in 1795, it was for a long time thought to contain one of the earliest proposals for a form of basic income. He proposed a grant for young households and pensions for all over 50. But Thomas Spence went the whole way and proposed an unconditional stipend for all. The next year, in a dialogue between a ‘mother of children’ and an aristocrat called The Rights of Infants he wrote:
“WOMAN: ‘…Is not this earth our common also, as well as it is the common of brutes? Nay, does nature provide a luxuriant and abundant feast for all her numerous tribes of animals except us?”
Despite Spence’s many writings, his self-produced medals and poetic broadsides; and despite his energetic distribution of these up and down the Strand, few but the secret police paid attention. Worse than money for women in their own right as mothers or potential mothers, and everyone they cared for – so really, everyone – he proposed that all private titles to land be abolished, and land be held in common. This would pay for the basic income he proposed, since any who profited from the fruits or activity on that land would pay it into a common pot to be shared by all.
Spence was considered something of a nutter by the property-respecting London Corresponding Society and other English Republican groups, but he did have a small group of followers for a generation or so after his death. Spenserians were involved in the Cato Street conspiracy and other agitation at the end of the Napoleonic wars.
Fortunately, for nearly the past 100 years, women have been more effective advocating for themselves – for their own money, and everyone’s, no matter what they do.
Sylvia Pankhurst advocated not merely votes for women, she also said that “we wish to abolish poverty and provide abundance for all.” (1923)
Virginia Woolf understood the need for basic income in 1929. As Woolf wrote then: “[Shakespeare’s sister] who never wrote a word and was buried at [a] crossroads…still lives in you and in me, and many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh. This opportunity…is now coming within your power to give her. For my belief is that if we live another century or so….and have five hundred a year each and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think…then the opportunity will come.”
After Eleanor Rathbone MP had campaigned for money for mothers since the publication of her book The Disinherited Family in 1924, she threatened to vote against her own Family Allowances act when it was rewritten to say men would get the money. With her own skilled lobbying and that of other women MPs she fought this off and ensured that mothers would get it directly. Family Allowances turned into Child Benefit (CB) in the 1970s, and until recently when parents on higher incomes started to have CB taxed back, had been the closest the UK has come to granting a basic income.
Juliet Rhys Williams MP campaigned for a ‘cash allowance’ for all in rivalry with Beveridge’s National Insurance plan in the 1940s. She was a Conservative MP, and her son Brandon went on to promote a negative income tax scheme in Heath’s government in the early 1970s.
In more recent times money for women (and by extension everybody) has again come to the fore in diverse ways. Women have not only written, but have often been the lead organisers for unconditional, universal basic income.
In the 1970s:
- Johnnie Tillmon, a sharecropper’s daughter, chaired the National Welfare Rights Organization in the US and wrote ‘Welfare is a women’s issue’ in 1972 which advocated for a guaranteed income.
- In the UK women from the Claimants Union also advocated for an individually paid guaranteed income throughout the 1970s.
- Selma James, who formed the Wages for Housework Campaign with Maria dalla Costa and Silvia Federici, highlighted guaranteed income as one of the key demands in ‘Women, the Unions and Work’ (1972). Federici supported basic income in a recent interview.
- Annie Miller, a retired lecturer in statistics, was a founder member of the Basic Income Research Group in 1986, and until recently chaired the Citizens Income Trust. She is also in the midst of organising Citizens Basic Income Network Scotland, which will launch on November 26. She is about to publish a book about the feasibility of a citizens basic income.
- Ailsa McKay, economist and activist, strongly advocated basic income for an independent Scotland during the referendum campaign in 2014; sadly she died the same year.
- Evelyn Forget, a professor of Health Sciences in Manitoba, unearthed documents from Canada’s experiment with ‘Mincome’ in the 1970s and finally analysed some of the results in ‘The Town with no Poverty’. The health arguments highlighted in her work are what is largely fueling the current interest in basic income throughout Canada.
- Renana Jhabvala, head of the Self-Employed Womens Association (SEWA) in India, was involved with setting up the recent pilot studies of basic income there, and advocates for unconditional cash transfers because of the good results, especially for women.
- Louise Haagh is Co-Chair of BIEN, and a reader in the Politics department at York University. She has published extensively on basic income and the politics around it, and edits BIEN’s journal Basic Income Studies.
- Almaaz Zeleke teaches political science at NYU Singapore, and has been involved for many years in both US Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) and Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN).
- British Columbian campaigner Cynthia L’Hirondelle’s blog Livable4All was one of the first places I read about basic income. Her website is a rich mix of historical sources, facts and opinion on the topic, which she calls ‘Guaranteed Livable Income’.
- Kate McFarland currently edits and contributes to BIEN’s Basic Income News website, which publishes news about basic income on a daily basis.
- Frances Hutchinson has long supported basic income in the form of ‘Social Credit’ after the ideas of CH Douglas, popular in the 1920s and 30s. She is the founder of and contributes to the journal ‘The Social Artist’.
- Naomi Klein feels basic income is essential to achieve the 3-day-week she advocates to help save the planet.
- Vanessa Olorenshaw’s recent book Liberating Motherhood talks about basic income as the best solution for women “to reflect the valuable – yet unpaid – work of home, family and community.”
- Sabrina Joy Stevens “What I want for Mother’s Day is a Basic Income”
- Kathi Weeks discusses basic income in her book The Problem with Work, and was recently interviewed on the feminist case for basic income.
- In the Care Centred Economy (PDF) Ina Pretorius argues that a basic income is necessary to allow people to “look after ourselves, each other and the planet.”
This is just a short sampler. I have had to leave many women out, not least the women who, by “washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed” among a wealth of other things, have supported more famous male advocates for basic income over the last three decades. One of these women is beautifully remembered in Andre Gorz’s Letter to D.
Money for women has always been about money for everyone. Starting out with the perspective of those who do the most while earning the least, gives us arguments in the here and now for basic income for all. We don’t need to wait for the robots!
This piece is part of our new blog series ‘Universal Basic Income: Security for the Future?’. You can read the other articles here.