How History Shaped My Feminism(s)

Originally posted by elle on 02/09/07

**Yes, it’s long and I apologize :-), but bear with me and read it. I really want your opinions on the last part.  Crossposted at**

“Your mama on welfare!”

When you’re a black child, growing up where I grew up (and in many other places), that is one of the worst insults other children can hurl at you. Before we can even put into word our biases, before we can fully engage in our own stigmatization of poverty, we know, in the simplest terms, that welfare is racialized, feminized. Shameful.

My mom’s mom was a retired domestic and farm worker, relegated to the “welfare” provisions of our social security system. I’ve mentioned before that she was a cook with unmatched skill. What I haven’t mentioned is that she also bought much of her food with food stamps and that during the summers, we were the ones who’d have to walk the short distance to the local grocery store to buy the makings of lunch and dinner.

Those were the most humiliating experiences of my young life. Typically, my sister, my cousin Tesha (Trinity’s sister) and I would have to go. We never went in together–each day, one of us had a turn and the other two lagged outside, as if people in our small town wouldn’t realize we were a group. We went early in the morning, so no one our age would be there and shopped quickly as possible, the shopper of the day dreading the moment she had to tear the appropriate amount out of the booklet and receive her change in paper stamps. It seemed as if the cashier took forever and that the quick scurry out of the store, head down, eyes glued to the tile, was never fast enough.

Eventually, we pretended to overcome the shame in a “radical” way: “Yes, I am in this store with food stamps and I am not ashamed!” as we slapped the stamps on the counter and eyed the cashier. It seemed bold at the time, but it was not. It was more of a “See, I’m not ashamed to do this shameful thing.”

As I got older, my behavior morphed from scorn and ridicule to a condescending sort of pity. You know, the kind that expresses itself verbally as “Those poor people. I just don’t know what I’d do if I were them” and silently as, “But thank God I’m not!” By the time I was in my MA program, I had the distinct feeling that something was not right about the discourse surrounding welfare and mothers and children who received it. Still, I had not formulated my own theory and while I thought I identified with poor women, part of me wanted it clear that I was not like them.

And then I found some of those works I mentioned here, Linda Gordon’s Pitied but Not Entitled, Jill Quadagno’s The Color of Welfare, Gwendolyn Mink’s Welfare’s End, Whose Welfare, and The Wages of Motherhood, Winifred Bell’s Aid to Dependent Children, Lisa Levenstein’s “From Innocent Children to Unwanted Migrants and Unwed Moms,” JoAnne Good’s Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform and so many more.

I learned how white women reformers championed only one mother as deserving of assistance–the widowed, white woman–how they ignored other mothers for fear that they–these never married or abandoned or brown or non-western European mothers–would turn public sentiment against the call for mothers’ pensions. I learned how white men crafted the Social Security Act so that people most “deserving” of assistance would be white males attached at some point to the work force, so that there are two tiers–the unemployment insurance and retirement pensions that people “deserve” after having worked–and the “other tier”–the despised welfare programs for people who had not worked or who had been employed in excluded categories. I learned that excluded categories included jobs like teaching, social work, and nursing, thus excluding many women from the top tier, and also domestic and agricultural work, thereby excluding most blacks from the honorable tier. I learned that the later distinctions, that created a top tier category for women who had been married to men who worked in one of the included occupations, meant that many white women got to leave the bottom tier programs.

And I finally knew what was wrong. From its earliest days, the system was designed to leave people of color and women in bottom tier, “handout” categories. It never valued the work of women outside the work place, never acknowledged the right of women to be mothers outside any but the most narrow of confines. It was never meant to be a true system of social provision, characterized as it is with paltry payments and intrusive interrogations. In its most recent forms, it spurs people to question recipients’ abilities and rights as parents, an idea I think Fab addresses here:

What can we do in the name of integrity and justice to stop the state’s attempts to destroy low income and people of color by taking children away, by CPS investigations on low income families, the resorting to second class citizenship via one’s lack of access to efficient, free to low cost, friendly and of high quality health care including dentists and psychiatrists-ending the immigration bullshit operation, constant police intimidation of our communities and families, how it is expected that our act of change be done with “grace” and non “angry”, or divisive, dreaming for the better tomorrow and living as our life depended on it, because our integrity is shattered daily by poverty and those out to protect us and the bullshit services for low income people. Where supposed criminal behavior, bad parenting, neglect and abuse is judged upon [by] a middle unaffected class.

If there is ever an experience during which it feels like scales fall away from your eyes, this was it for me. My politics, my self-identification, my thinking–all have changed since.

Which brings me to another point (related, I promise). Considering John Edwards’s anti-poverty platform, Nonpartisan asked me did I think Edwards was an urban populist or an agrarian radical. I had to do some quick research (and I’m so grateful NP brought this to my attention) and I found this speech, excerpted at Ezra Klein’s

Work gives pride, dignity, and hope to our lives and our communities… To be true to our values, our country must build a Working Society – an America where everyone who works hard finally has the rewards to show for it…
In the Working Society, nobody who works full-time should have to raise children in poverty, or in fear that one health emergency or pink slip will drive them over the cliff.
In the Working Society, everyone who works full-time will at last have something to show for it…
In the Working Society, everyone willing to work will have the chance to get ahead. Anyone who wants to go to college and work will be able to go the first year for free.
In the Working Society, people who work have the right to live in communities where the streets are safe, the schools are good, and jobs can be reached.
In the Working Society, everyone will also be asked to hold up their end of the bargain-to work, to hold off having kids until they’re ready, and to do their part for their kids when the time comes.

And, though his proposals are different and sound wonderful, here is where I have a problem: what is the difference between his rhetoric and that of the Social Security Act framers? Why are the only ones deserving are the ones engaged in paid work? For that matter, why do we still work under definitions of who is or isn’t “deserving?”

If we prioritize paid work over all else, ignoring that paid work is not always liberating, honorable, possible, or desirable, what happens to the people included in the 5%+ who are always unemployed in a “full employment” capitalist society? What happens to those that can’t or don’t work? Why are we steadily trying to fix and fix?

When do we change?
For more of my struggle with the stigmatization of welfare, see here


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