This article is part of our series Global Feminisms. You can read an introduction to the series here.
45 years ago yesterday, it was a Sunday afternoon — the 3rd of April, 1977.
It was a rather chilly day as far as spring days go in London, but inside the hall of the City of London Polytechnic, it was warm; not just because the hall was packed full of people, but also because of their enthusiasm. Thousands of women across the U. K. gathered for the ninth National Women’s Liberation Conference.
The conference began on Saturday 2nd April, with numerous workshops and social events, and was already approaching its finale, the plenary session, when a resolution was raised proposing the right to what we now know as ‘Universal Basic Income’ — an adequate income paid to every person without any conditions. The resolution was passed with a majority vote. Universal Basic Income was one of the democratically and officially endorsed demands of the British Women’s Liberation Movement. But unfortunately this fact has become steeped in collective amnesia. An amnesia that may have started at the very moment of the resolution’s passing.
Spare Rib magazine, the British women’s liberation periodical reported the resolution passed, but in a lopsided way. The report lacked vital information, such as who raised the resolution, what exactly the proposed income scheme was, and why it was raised as a demand. Instead, Spare Rib reported who opposed it and why. In this article, I shall provide a supplement for this unreported side of the information and discuss the contemporary, global resonance of this demand.
Between Women’s Liberation and the Welfare Rights Movement
The first Claimants Union was founded in Birmingham at the end of 1968 by those receiving state benefits that were means-tested, meaning they were conditional on how much people earned. Similar initiatives spontaneously sprung up all over Britain, and the National Federation of Claimants Unions was founded in March 1970. While ‘the right to an adequate income without means test for all people’ had been on their banner from the start, it was in 1972 that the demand was clearly voiced for an unconditional, individual income. The spring of 1972 saw the launch of a national campaign for ‘guaranteed adequate income’. The campaigners’ formulation of guaranteed income as unconditional was rooted in their daily struggle against sexism within the social security system. This spring marks the 50th-year anniversary of Universal Basic Income as a feminist demand and 45 years since it become an official demand of the British Women’s Liberation Movement.
The Claimants Unions were, in principle, open to claimants (and ex-claimants) only. The majority of the membership consisted of women. They were particularly angered by the British welfare system’s ‘cohabitation rule’. The cohabitation rule treated men and women who lived together as ‘husband and wife’ and presumed that women were supported by men. In practice, this meant that women would have their benefits docked or cut completely if the state thought they were being supported by a man, or were married but were claiming individual benefits. In order to enforce this rule, welfare officers known as ‘sex snoopers’ conducted spot checks late at night on women. If a woman claimant had a sexual relationship with a man, it was assumed she would be supported by him. Sometimes just friendly, neighbourly activities, such as a male neighbour coming in to help fix a tap or a lightbulb, would be used as evidence of a partner or boyfriend and a woman would find that the next week her benefit was suspended.
The women of the Claimants Union didn’t take this personally, rather they detected the structural and institutionalised sexism behind the practice. In order to put an end this, they formulated the idea of Universal Basic Income, where no means test was involved and no spies nor humiliation either. For them, the campaign against the cohabitation rule and for Universal Basic Income were two sides of the same coin. However brutal and humiliating the cohabitation rule was, it was an inevitable component of making a means-tested benefit ‘fair’. While claimants women’s struggles against the cohabitation rule were almost unanimously supported by the Women’s Liberation Movement, their demands for Universal Basic Income were not vociferously accepted, except by the silent majority who voted in favour on two occasions at National Women’s Liberation Conferences.
The resolution was initially raised by women in the Claimants Union movement at a Women’s Liberation conference earlier than 1977, likely 1975 or 1976. Jane Downey, born to a working-class family in Yorkshire was active in the Claimants Union in East London recalled her nervousness when speaking to this motion:
I was supposed to be the second speaker. And I can remember standing on the stage thinking I can’t do this, I was absolutely terrified. I was just I was. I just, I mean, I wouldn’t have been able to say a word. I mean, it was just masses of people and like me, kind of, you know, I mean, I was like, Oh God. I never had an experience to speak in front of such a huge audience.
In fact, Downey didn’t end up having to speak, and was relieved.
According to Julia Mainwaring, who was born to a working-class family in a small Welsh mining village and was one of the founders of the first Claimants Union, the resolution had been raised at the earlier Women’s Liberation Conference and passed with a majority vote, but was erased by the chair of the plenary session.*
She reflected in an oral history interview in April, 2014:
Middle class women didn’t understand what the hell goes on it [the idea of Universal Basic Income] …. Quite a few women in the Women’s Liberation Movement, who had a lot of qualifications, and high significant jobs, didn’t agree with this. She [the chair] was a solicitor. She thought it ridiculous … Two times we did this. Both it got passed. Both. …. She stoned that demand. She was so incensed by that discussion … She didn’t want me to speak. She tried to block us speaking. She tried to stop us putting the resolution … The next year  we went back made the resolution typed … We gave everybody the resolution beforehand….We knew, before we went, that we will have majority support. … She just thought we were scum, I suppose … She didn’t see us as a part of the working class, so, below the working class.**
Claimants Unions were not professional campaigners or policy advocates. They were neighbourhood community organisations. Lyn Boyd and Annette Mckay, both of whom were born to working-class families and were active at the Newcastle Claimants Union, recalled in an interview in 2009:
It taught us how to work together with other people to support without prejudice… It’s about actually thinking about other people as well as yourself and actually trying to develop the community which is good for your kids.
Supporting each other without prejudice wasn’t something that came easily — especially taking into consideration the diverse and intersectional composition of Claimants Unions: single mothers, the disabled, old-age pensioners, strikers, unemployed; women and men; transgender and cisgender; working-class and middle class; Black, Asian, and White. But they tried their best. The minutes of the East London Claimants Union record Julia Mainwaring’s warning against welfare officers’ tactics to divide the claimants: ‘We reiterate that we support all claimants without condition’. Demanding an unconditional income echoes the unconditional solidarity these claimants collectively tried to seek.
The Claimants Union movement also problematised the gendered division of labour, and the nature of ‘work’ itself. People saw their demand for Universal Basic Income as a transitional demand, one that would lead to a better society free from the impositions of gendered labour and from harmful ‘work’, such as in the military, or meaningless work; what the anthropologist David Graeber would later call ‘bullshit jobs’.
Global and contemporary context
The same sexism existed in many parts of the world where there were means-tested benefits. It still continues, even if its overt brutality has changed when compared to the 1970s. If after watching the video below, produced by the U.K. Department of Work and Pensions, we were to detect nothing wrong, we would be partaking in the same sexist assumption shared by the British Government, that, a woman accommodating her boyfriend and ironing his clothes, must be financially supported by him.
Fighting this type of sexism has been global, too. ‘Guaranteed Minimum Income’ was demanded by the welfare rights movement and by the Black rights movement in North America, though their articulation of it was not unconditional.
Through his involvement in the Newton Abbot Claimants Union, Bill Jordan took on the idea of Universal Basic Income and became one of the founders of the Basic Income European Network (now the Basic Income Earth Network). In 2010s, the Self Employed Women’s Association in India conducted a pilot project of Universal Basic Income.
The Claimants Unions’ interrogation of the gendered division of labour and of the nature of ‘work’ has a heightened relevance, now more than ever. During the current pandemic, feminists have reclaimed the feminist tradition of Universal Basic Income. In April 2020, The Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women made the first feminist economic recovery plan for Covid-19, where one of the policy proposals was Universal Basic Income. Khara Jabola-Carolus of the Commission notes:
Some of the key elements are full economic self sufficiency regardless of work. And that sounds really neutral at first. But if you think about it, many of us, especially women, women with disabilities, women who are caregiving and don’t have the same ability to access employment, and will never have that same value as workers. And so making sure that universal basic income, which has been a long intergenerational rallying cry of feminists is at the center was really important.
Several weeks later, the International Association for Feminist Economics made a statement calling for ‘the immediate and urgent implementation of a gender-equitable universal basic income’.
Yet despite the centrality of women’s activism- then and now-written history and research on Universal Basic Income has been white and male-dominated. One initiative challenging this dominance – a research group on Universal Basic Income and Gender – was recently established. It is my hope that this brief exposé, which sought to reclaim an erased history, constitutes a small contribution to what the Hawaiians who collectively composed the feminist recovery plan have called ‘a transnational feminist future.’
* The first occasion the demand was raised would be either at the 7th Women’s Liberation Conference in Manchester, 1975 or on the 8th Conference held in Newcastle upon Tyne, 1976. However, I haven’t found yet any record or testimony of this first occasion other than the testimonies of women in the Claimants Union movement. It would be grateful to any readers might know this and ask them to kindly contact the author.
** For a detailed history of this feminist movement for Universal Basic Income, see Yamamori, T. (2014). A feminist way to Unconditional Basic Income: Claimants Unions and Women’s Liberation Movements in 1970s Britain. Basic Income Studies, 9(1-2), 1-24. For a historiography of the concept of Universal Basic Income, see Yamamori, T. (2002). Is a penny a month Basic Income? A historiography of the concept of a threshold in Basic Income. Basic Income Studies, forthcoming.
Constraints of space precludes including here everyone by name, but the author holds a debt of gratitude to all interviewees from the Claimants Union movement, especially to those whose names already appeared in the text and to Roger Clipsham, for their encouragement and friendship.
Toru Yamamori (On the left, with Valerie Remy who was active in East London Claimants Union) is a professor at the Faculty of Economics, Doshisha University, Kyoto, Japan, and academic research editor of the Basic Income Earth Network. He has been working at the intersection of heterodox economics, history and philosophy of economics, and oral history. He contributes to international journals such as Cambridge Journal of Economics, Journal of Economic Methodology, Ethics and Social Welfare. His theoretical research on the concept of need in economics has been recognised with the award of the 2017 K. W. Kapp Prize from the European Association for Evolutionary Political Economy. His oral historical research on the intersectionality between women’s liberation movements and claimants unions movement in the long 1970s Britain won the 2014 Basic Income Studies Best Essay prize.