top of page

PPC READING LIST: child benefit as a renumeration for unpaid childcare work - SELMA JAMES

"Nothing can justify the subordination of one group of producers – the mothers – to the rest, and their deprivation of all share of their own in the wealth of a community which depends on them for its very existence.” – Eleanor Rathbone, 1924


Universal family allowance, is now known as child benefit and no longer universal. Selma James of Global Women's Strike, and the Wages for Housework campaigns, writes how it was primarily the work of Eleanor Rathbone.


"Eleanor Rathbone’s idea that mothers should be paid for the work of bearing and raising children was radical in its time – and inspires to this day ... Some prominent women in the Labour party and the unions, with the exception of the miners’ union, were opposed while Labour’s women’s sections and the Co-operative Women’s Guild – working-class housewives, some of whom also had waged jobs – were passionately in favour. ...


In 1929 Rathbone, now an independent MP, took her campaign to parliament. She convinced Lord Beveridge, on whose 1942 report the postwar welfare state was based, to recognise the work of the housewife with “family allowances in cash”.


He later commented that it was “a new idea” that “part of the total national income … should be assigned to those individual citizens who were undertaking the rearing of the citizens of the future”. It became the first measure of the welfare state.


Rathbone was disappointed. The small amount, paid only for the second and subsequent children, denied mothers the independence they’d earned.


When Edward Heath, in 1972, tried to incorporate family allowance into the father’s wage, the Wages for Housework campaign pulled a national network together to prevent it happening. Women everywhere referred to it as “the only money I can call my own”. It was sometimes the frontline against rape in marriage and husbands who spent housekeeping money in the pub – women could take the children to their mother’s once they had a family allowance book to feed them so they weren’t such a drain on her slender resources. It also fed the children when the father was on strike.


We don’t know how many women keep their dignity intact with what is now called child benefit, but the principle remains: if you are a carer (of children or others) you are entitled to financial recognition by society for that fundamental work and it is the height of sexism to be rewarded with poverty and dependence.


Unwaged carers alone save the state £132bn a year – the cost of a second NHS in England. A basic income is now widely discussed. If we can consider paying people who are not working, surely we can pay mothers and other carers, women and men, a living wage for the work they do.


Rathbone has been neglected since, and much of feminism has been reduced to breaking the glass ceiling. But caring and carers have not gone away, and Eleanor is an inspiration for all of us campaigning for a more humane society."




bottom of page