London feminist conference disinvites Selma James and other supporters of sex workers’ rights

Oct 17, 2015
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From Global Women Strike (GWS) and Women of Colour GWS

We were told that Selma James (co-ordinator of the Global Women’s Strike) as well as a representative from Women of Colour GWS were to be invited to speak by Mothers at Home Matter (MAHM) at their Feminism In London panel (FIL) ‘Worth their weight in gold: the contribution of women’s unpaid labour to the economy’ (Sunday 25 October).

London feminist conference disinvites Selma James, supporter of sex workers' rights

Selma James

MAHM told us the conference organizers had made it clear that our stance on sex work was not in line with FIL’s stance. (We take our lead from the English Collective of Prostitutes which is part of our network and campaigns for decriminalisation – a view now shared by Amnesty International.) Therefore the two GWS women who were to speak on the value of caring work could not be invited.

We also learnt that Reni Eddo-Lodge, another speaker invited by MAMH, had pulled out of their panel. Her principled view is clearly and succinctly expressed:

A few months ago, MAHM invited me to speak on a panel for FIL 2015, on the feminism and politics of unpaid care. I didn’t feel qualified to speak on it, and suggested that they ask Selma James, who co-founded the original 1972 Wages for Housework Campaign. MAHM replied, saying that they have been working with Selma and Global Women’s Strike, and that she was on their wish list of FIL panel members, but that the organisers of FIL had expressed concerns about the group’s position on the rights of sex-workers. 

It appears that some FIL organisers will not accept challenges to the Nordic model. After some consideration, I decided not to take up MAHM’s invitation to speak. I cannot tacitly endorse any politics that deny marginalised women labour rights. Labour rights are human rights. I’m happy to support MAHM in any other capacity, and I urge the organisers of FIL to listen to current sex workers on the topic of their own labour rights.

Prostitution has nothing to do with the MAHM panel and that’s not what their proposed speakers would have been speaking about. MAHM said:

We decided to continue with the panel because the recognition and valuing of mothers’ caring work and mothers’ right to choose to take care of their children full-time is an urgent and much neglected issue, and we feel that it should be visible at a conference claiming to speak for women. We are disappointed that the speakers, including women of colour, whom we wanted to invite, will not have the opportunity to debate the contribution of invisible caring work. They will not have their say and we will all be denied the opportunity to learn from their experiences.

We have since seen on Twitter that one of FIL’s posters says: ‘We will platform mothers and highlight the value of women’s unpaid work.’ How ironic then that Selma James should be banned when she is the one who launched the domestic labour debate internationally with the classic she co-authored, The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.[1] And how ironic that this should be happening at a conference marking the UN Decade for Women and 20 years since the UN Beijing women’s conference. One of the main achievements of the UN Decade was the direct result of our work: the 1985 UN resolution to count unwaged work in the home, on the land and in the community in the GDP,[2] and the 1995 UN resolution to include the value of this work in each country’s satellite accounts.

We regret that those who have put women’s caring work on the international agenda are excluded and censored, and that MAHM who are fighting an uphill battle to make their voices heard are being deprived of support they are entitled to and deserve.

We also regret that sex workers internationally, most of whom are mothers, at risk of criminalization for trying to survive and support their families and communities in the face of destitution, austerity cuts, sweatshops and zero-hour contracts, are unwelcome at a feminist gathering unless they drop their demands as workers fighting for their rights in favour of a ‘feminist’ view that sees them as passive victims. We presume that Amnesty International has also been excluded.

We think speakers and participants should be informed that FIL, which claims to be ‘the biggest feminist conference in the UK’, is excluding longstanding women campaigners just because they don’t share their views.

Sara Callaway, Women of Colour GWS
Nina Lopez, Global Women’s Strike

[1] Excerpted in Sex, Race and Class – the Perspective of Winning, A Selection of Writings 1952-2011 by Selma James, PM Press 2012, available from
[2] ‘The UN Decade for Women: An Offer We Couldn’t Refuse’, Sex, Race and Class as above.


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