It might seem that feminist arguments in favour of Basic Income have been a thing of the last few years, appearing in the heat of the latest wave of social mobilisation. In reality, buried by a long list of illustrious male thinkers, there is a long history of the formulation of Basic Income proposals that is intimately linked to 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 for collective institutions to distribute a universal weekly income. The pamphlet recounts a heated argument between a woman and a landowner. The woman protagonist claims the right of every human being to obtain the fruits of the land one inhabits, enough to feed the newborns she is watching starve to death. “And since we have found our husbands, to their indelible shame, woefully negligent and deficient in defending their own rights, as well as those of their wives and children, we women intend to go into business for ourselves, and see if any of our husbands dare stand in the way. They will thus find the business much more seriously and effectually managed in our hands than it has been hitherto.” (Spence, 1797, 82)
Among all the business that needs to be managed collectively is a weekly income for the whole community. Land, without which the reproduction of life was impossible, had been given by God equally to the whole population and stolen afterwards by the privatisations of the big landowners. Basic income was a way of distributing its fruits as a universal right.
Although the writer is a man, and the fact that the protagonist was a woman has sometimes been attributed exclusively to his well-known literary imagination, the truth is that this is entirely attributable to his context. The arguments we read in this pamphlet are surely not Spence’s invention, but the reproduction of many discourses circulating in his time. Throughout the 18th century, women had played a key role in the well-known “food riots” throughout Britain. In the last quarter of the century, framed within 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 brewing for some time. Spurred on no doubt by the revolutionary atmosphere across the straits, 1795 saw a series of riots across the country, popularised by the Marxist historians Barbara Hammond and John Lawrence Hammond (1912) as the “housewives’ revolt”. Revolts, with a fundamental presence of women who had reacted to food shortages by seizing and redistributing the available stocks of bread and grain.
Throughout the period of transition to capitalism, from the 16th to the 19th century in Britain, women as members of the communities were always a substantial part of such revolts. Only the later development of industrial capitalism shifted the focus of protest from the acquisition of food in the market to demands for better working conditions in mines and factories, which led to the further development of an exclusively male protagonism. Until then, processes such as land enclosure and the imposition of the free market also had direct effects on women’s lives, and women took an important and sometimes leading role in revolts to ensure adequate food supply, quality and cost.
Although what we now call the sexual division of labour was predominant, the social valuation of both spheres was still much more balanced. The importance of the household economy, and even women’s role in the formation of what we now call “public opinion” in community social relations, meant that they were best able to mobilise, plan and lead riots against high prices or unfair distribution. That the woman protagonist of The Rights of Infants proposes among her arguments what we read today as a Basic Income is just one reflection of all this.
A second fundamental moment in the history of Basic Income, also little remembered, is the publication in the 20th century of Something to Look Forward To (1943) by Juliet Rhys-Williams. Rhys-Williams was a British Liberal Party activist and a leading figure in the motherhood and child welfare movement. In the 1930s she had been working on a number of experimental food aid programmes for pregnant women in the poorest areas of South Wales. Frustration with the way these benefits worked, and the whole system of means-tested benefits, led her in the early 1940s to work on a proposal for a universal guaranteed income. Rhys-Williams believed that unemployment benefits provided inadequate income to unemployed workers, 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 only provide material assistance to the unemployed and the elderly, and “replace it with the democratic principle that the state owes precisely the same advantages to all citizens, and consequently should pay the same benefits to the employed and healthy as to the idle and infirm”. Rhys-Williams not only forced Treasury officials to examine 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 such as James Meade or Tony Atkinson.
As Alyssa Battistoni (2021) has recently shown, another key moment in this history is the linking of the idea of Basic Income to the welfare rights movements in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the organisations that most clearly carried a Basic Income proposal on its agenda was the National Welfare Rights Organisation (NWRO). Although NWRO saw itself as part of the poor people’s rights movement, rather than the simultaneously developing feminist movement, in reality the vast majority of its members were poor African-American women, who did not generally feel challenged by the white, middle-class feminist movement. Despite this, their diagnoses of domestic work, family structures and the basis for 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 clearly pointed out how the sexual division of labour condemned women to a much higher level of dependency and precariousness, and saw a proposal for a universal guaranteed income as a way of recognising women’s unpaid work.
The model of freedom that these women had in mind was not the Malibu surfer that has been discussed so much when we talk about Basic Income, but the African-American mother subjected to male domination within the home and with few options for decent work outside. For part of the welfare rights movement, their basic income proposals were meant to function as a “Negro family wage”. One of the sources of women’s poverty, they argued, was that the post-war economy and its welfare state did not recognise women’s unpaid work as productive, which meant that they were poor even though they worked. They were not scroungers or parasites; on the contrary, they did crucial work that went unrecognised and unrewarded. A universally guaranteed income could serve as payment for that work. While they criticised state paternalism, they did so not to undermine the state altogether, but to push it towards more universal and unconditional forms of public provision.
These three moments are just one example of why a broader look at the history of the idea of basic income has to 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 de-industrialisation in central Europe in the 1980s, the truth is that it has a past that can be traced and recounted, and that forces us to broaden the focus on its political meaning. The idea that we need to guarantee people’s income as part of the right to life and the fair distribution of collectively created wealth is also part of the long history of women’s and feminist demands and struggles.
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, J. L.; Hammond, Barbara (1912). The Village Labourer 1760-1832. Longhman Green & Co.
Rhys-Williams, L. J. (1943). Something to look forward to: A suggestion for a new social contract. Macdonald.
Battistoni, A. (2021). “The Other Side of Abundance: Feminist and Ecological Arguments for 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.