It might seem that feminist arguments for basic income have been a thing of the past few years, appearing in the heat of the latest wave of social mobilization. In fact, buried by a long list of illustrious male thinkers, there is a long history of the formulation of basic income proposals that is intertwined with the history of feminist and women’s struggles.
By Alberto Tena
The Rights of Infants, published in 1797, is one of the first modern texts to describe an idea of what we now call a universal basic income. There, through the mouth of a peasant woman, the radical activist, teacher and bookseller Thomas Spence, wants to convince us of the idea that it is desirable that collective institutions distribute a universal weekly income. The pamphlet recounts a heated argument between a woman and a landowner. The female protagonist claims the right of every human being to obtain the fruits of the land they inhabit, enough to feed the newborn babies she watches starve to death. “And since we have found our husbands, to their indelible shame, woefully negligent and unable to defend their own rights, and those of their wives and children, we women intend to go into business and see if any of our husbands dare to stand in the way. They will thus find the affair much more seriously and efficiently managed in our hands than it has been hitherto. (Spence, 1797, 82)
Among all the affairs which must be managed collectively, there is a weekly income for the whole community. The earth, without which the reproduction of life was impossible, had been given by God equally to the whole population and then stolen by the privatizations of the big landowners. The basic income was a means of distributing its fruits as a universal right.
Although the writer is a man and the fact that the protagonist is a woman has sometimes been attributed exclusively to his well-known literary imagination, the truth is that it is entirely attributable to his context. The arguments we read in this pamphlet are certainly not Spence’s invention, but the reproduction of many discourses circulating in his time. Throughout the 18th century, women played a key role in the well-known “food riots” across Britain. In the last quarter of a century, framed by the long process of “land enclosure” and the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the harsh winter of 1794-1795 had precipitated a food crisis that had been simmering for some time. Prompted no doubt by the revolutionary atmosphere across the strait, 1795 saw a series of riots across the country, popularized by Marxist historians Barbara Hammond and John Lawrence Hammond (1912) as the “Revolt of the Women in foyer “. Revolts, with a fundamental presence of women who had reacted to food shortages by seizing and redistributing available stocks of bread and cereals.
Throughout the period of transition to capitalism, from the 16th to the 19th century in Britain, women as members of communities were always a substantial part of these revolts. Only the subsequent development of industrial capitalism shifted the focus of protest from the acquisition of food on the market to demands for better working conditions in mines and factories, which led to the development of an exclusively male protagonism . Until then, processes such as land fencing and the imposition of the free market also had direct effects on women’s lives, and women played an important and sometimes leading role in revolts to secure a supply. , adequate food quality and cost.
If what we call today the sexual division of labor was predominant, the social valuation of the two spheres was still much more balanced. The importance of the household economy, and even the role of women in shaping what we now call “public opinion” in communal social relations, meant that they were best able to mobilize , plan and carry out riots against high prices or unfair distribution. That the female protagonist of The Rights of Infants offers among her arguments what we read today as a basic income is only a reflection of it all.
A second fundamental moment in the history of basic income, also little remembered, is the publication in the twentieth century of Something to Look Forward To (1943) by Juliet Rhys-Williams. Rhys-Williams was a British Liberal Party campaigner and a leading figure in the motherhood and childcare movement. In the 1930s she had worked on a number of experimental food aid schemes for pregnant women in the poorer parts of South Wales. Frustration with the operation of these benefits and the whole system of means-tested benefits led her, in the early 1940s, to work on a proposal for a guaranteed universal income. Rhys-Williams believed that unemployment benefits provided insufficient income for the unemployed, while at the same time preventing them from taking part-time or casual work by withdrawing their benefit. The solution was to abandon this “strange convention” that the state should provide material assistance only to the unemployed and the elderly, and “replace it with the democratic principle that the state owes precisely the same benefits to all citizens and, therefore, must pay the same benefits for the employed and healthy as for the idle and the infirm”. Rhys-Williams not only forced Treasury officials to consider the feasibility of a basic income proposal through a negative income tax, but also became the key point of reference for economists working on the subject in the following decades like James Meade or Tony Atkinson.
As Alyssa Battistoni (2021) recently showed, another key moment in this story is the connection between the idea of basic income and the social rights movements in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. of the organizations that most clearly put a basic income proposal on its agenda was the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Although the NWRO saw itself as part of the poor people’s rights movement, rather than the concurrently growing feminist movement, in reality the vast majority of its members were poor African-American women, who generally felt unchallenged. by the middle-class white feminist movement. movement. Despite this, their diagnoses of housework, family structures, and the foundations of women’s freedom and independence coincided with socialist feminists and black feminists, and were part of the “Wages for Housework” campaigns of the 1970s. The NWRO made it clear how the sexual division of labor condemned women to a much higher level of dependency and precariousness, and saw in a guaranteed universal income proposal a way to recognize women’s unpaid work.
The model of freedom these women had in mind was not the Malibu surfer girl so much talked about when talking about basic income, but the African-American mother subjected to male domination in the home and with little support. options for decent work outdoors. For part of the social rights movement, their basic income proposals were meant to function as a “black family wage”. According to them, one of the sources of women’s poverty was that the post-war economy and its welfare state did not recognize women’s unpaid work as productive, which meant that they were poor even if they were working. They weren’t crooks or parasites; on the contrary, they have done crucial work that has not been recognized or rewarded. A universally guaranteed income could serve as remuneration for this work. If they criticized the paternalism of the state, they did so not to completely undermine the state, but to push it towards more universal and unconditional forms of public service.
These three moments are just one example of why a broader look at the history of the idea of basic income must go through the history of women’s struggles. Although for many the idea of basic income is a new idea, specific to the contexts of deindustrialization in Central Europe in the 1980s, the truth is that it has a past that can be traced and told, and that forces us to broaden the focus on its political significance. The idea that we must guarantee people’s income within the framework of the right to life and the equitable distribution of collectively created wealth is also part of the long history of demands and struggles of women and feminists.
Spence, T. (1797) “Los derechos de los infantes” in Tena Camporesi, A. Los orígenes revolucionarios de la renta básica, pp. 67-98. Postmetropolis publishing house.
Hammond, JL; Hammond, Barbara (1912). The village worker 1760-1832. Longman Green & Co.
Rhys-Williams, LJ (1943). Something to look forward to: A suggestion for a new social contract. Mac Donald.
Battistoni, A. (2021). “The Other Side of Abundance: Feminist and Ecological Arguments for a Guaranteed Income in the United States, c. 1960-1980”. In Universal Basic Income in Historical Perspective (pp. 89-117). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
Alberto Tena is a doctoral student at UAM Cuajimalpa in Mexico City, where he is researching the intellectual history of universal basic income.