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Learning the lessons of history

Poor women have been organizing for mothers' and caregivers' economic rights for decades

By Jackie Regales

September 2006

Every time I see a mainstream article about motherhood these days, I get angry. And it's not just the pieces about opting-out or not marrying career women -- I get just frustrated when I see interviews and articles touting this newfangled movement of mothers agitating for radical things like health care and preschools. First I kept thinking, "Don't they know women have been working on these issues for decades? Stupid national news reporters with their blinders on! Don't they know about the National Welfare Rights Organization and Johnnie Tillmon? Don't they know about Cheri Honkala and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union?" 

But then I started hearing it from other places, feminist sources and authors, like in The Motherhood Manifesto by Joan Blades and Kristen Rowe-Finbeiner. Poor women's stories were used to support their points, but little to no mention was ever made of poor women's activism, a potent and inspiring movement that began in the 1970s and continues to organize and advocate today for the recognition of unpaid caregiving and society's responsibilities to families that struggle to stay healthy or secure. The connection between Blades' and Rowe-Finkbeiner's talking points and the stories I knew about poor women's activism seemed so clear to me, I was amazed that others didn't seem to be making the same connections.

The sad fact is that poor women and women in marginalized communities have been rising up, writing manifestoes, and taking action for decades, but their work has always been obscured or framed so that middle- and upper-class women see their battles as separate from "people like us." Academics like Nancy A. Naples and Anneliese Orleck have been documenting these movements for years, but the mainstream media prefers to cover the "mommy wars," and so these incredible stories of bravery and triumph never make it to those who need to hear them.

A strong mothers' movement can only succeed if we recognize that poor women have been working on these issues for decades, focus on building an inclusive movement that honors the work these women have done and learn the lessons their history has to tell us about activism, motherhood and public policy. We need a bridge between the national framework that seems to be developing and the localized groups across the country that have been in the trenches for decades already.

Welfare is a Women's Issue:
Johnnie Tillmon and welfare rights

In 1966, George Wiley, an African-American chemistry professor and activist with the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) founded the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), on the radical idea that women and poor people deserve respect and dignity from the governmental institutions designed to serve them. A corollary to this concept was that receiving a decent standard of living was not a handout, but a civil right that Americans were entitled to and should receive in a fair manner. This principle helped revolutionize the way welfare recipients were treated across the country -- as citizens, not supplicants. Most importantly for our purposes, one of the NWRO's core principles was that society has a vested interest in the health and welfare of children and families, and thus has a responsibility to try and provide policies and services that support creating and sustaining healthy and happy families. Sound like familiar rhetoric? It should, because the same theory underlies contemporary arguments for flexible work polices and universal preschool -- that tax dollars are well-spent on family-friendly policies because healthy families benefit all of society.

In 1972, Johnnie Tillmon was elected executive director of the NWRO, a position she held until the organization's end in 1975. Tillmon's legacy in feminist terms has often been seen as her contribution to the first issue of Ms. magazine in 1972, "Welfare is a Women's Issue," which made a powerful case for thinking of poverty as a feminist battle worth fighting. As Tillmon put it, "For me, Women's Liberation is simple. No woman in this country can feel dignified, no woman can be liberated, until all women get off their knees. That's what N.W.R.O. is all about-women standing together, on their feet." In that same piece, Tillmon also proclaimed the value of unpaid caregiving work, advocating for a Guaranteed Adequate Income, or in her words, "I'd start paying women a living wage for doing the work we are already doing -- child-raising and housekeeping." Add caring for elderly parents or relatives, and you've got a potent formula for the recognition of caregiving work in this country, which is still done predominantly by women, both in and out of the paid work force. While this article is deservedly taught in Women's Studies classrooms today, Tillmon's true legacy encompasses all that the NWRO stood for, both as an organization and as a movement bent on revolution.

The NWRO was also revolutionary because it provided the first location for a collective identity for poor black women -- 90 percent of its membership -- as political actors who could and should have a voice in local and national policy-making, especially on policies that primarily affected them. Their model of organizing and community was consciously designed to be modeled by other groups throughout the country, and involved leadership training workshops and seminars to ensure that welfare recipients would have a voice in the running of the organization founded to advance their rights.

Storming Caesars Palace:
Vegas mothers mobilize

One of the success stories of the NWRO began in 1969, when a group of poor black mothers in Las Vegas' Westside neighborhoods began to agitate for a better way of life for themselves and their children. At that time, Nevada was one of the most retrograde states in the country when it came to social services for poor people, though its tourism industry was in fact built on their very backs. One particularly egregious example is that when federal money became available for the nutrition program known as Women, Infants and Children, or WIC, the state of Nevada refused it outright. Welfare recipients in Nevada also reported being told to work in the legal brothels in order to get off welfare. In 1970, the state's welfare administrator, George Miller, abruptly cut half of the recipients of welfare from the rolls, leaving thousands without food or rent money.

Miller's experiment ignited mass protests from Westside mothers who were finally fed up with being stymied in their efforts to achieve the American dream by the very government that derided them for their poverty. Many of them worked in the Vegas casinos as housekeepers or waitresses, but lack of medical coverage combined with demanding physical labor led them to seek government aid in making ends meet and kept them available as cheap labor. The situation had been inequitable for years, but in 1970 one circumstance was very different -- the women of the Westside had organized and become the Clark Country Welfare Rights Organization, one of the many chapters of the NWRO, which at its zenith had local chapters in every state and many counties as well. The shift from thinking of welfare as charity and thinking of it as funds produced from taxpayer payments and available to women who had paid taxes most of their lives was truly empowering for the Westside women.

On March 6, 1971, the Clark County mothers marched on the Las Vegas Strip, their goal shutting down the Strip for at least an hour and forcing the Nevada government to listen to their requests. This protest was aided by thousands of NWRO members from across the country, as well as celebrities like Jane Fonda and Sammy Davis Jr. After garnering both state and national attention, the Clark County mothers also planned eat-ins, going into Vegas restaurants with dozens of women and children, ordering and eating meals for each of them, and telling the restaurant to send the bill to the state government. Two weeks after the Strip sit-in, a federal judge ordered that all the families who had been dropped from the rolls be re-instated immediately.

After the Strip sit-in, the Clark County mothers were recognized as a viable and potent political group, even independent of the NWRO, which ceased to exist in 1975. By then, the Westside mothers had joined with the League of Women Voters and Legal Services of Las Vegas to create a nonprofit corporation called Operation Life (before this terminology would have referred to the abortion debates). Over the next two decades, Operation Life took over an abandoned hotel and created the Westside's first day-care center, after-school program, public swimming pool and library. Operation Life also housed a community health clinic, lauded as one of the most efficient of its kind in the country, and a restaurant designed to train community members in management and food preparation. One of the most praise-worthy aspects of Operation Life's incredible history is that the majority of these programs were conceived and staffed by low-income women from the community, thereby providing them with on-the-job training and a sense of pride in what they were achieving for their families and neighbors.

Unfortunately, the Reagan years were as difficult for Operation Life as for much of the country, and drastic funding cuts to community-based organizations working on poverty ensured their end in the mid-1990s.

Mama Revolution:
The welfare rights movement today

Across the country, groups like the Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Arise for Social Justice in Springfield, Massachusetts, and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania are continuing in the path of the NWRO and are explicitly interested in fighting economic oppression.

Lillian Hanson lives in San Diego, California and considers herself part of the Milwaukee-based Welfare Warriors in her activist work for low-income families over the past fifteen years, during which she was also a single mother later diagnosed with breast cancer. During those years, Lillian and her partner have both organized and spoken publicly against welfare reform efforts, both at the federal level and in their county, one of the most stringent in the state. However, Lillian's frustration surfaces most visibly when I asked her about the current mainstream discourse on motherhood and economic rights. "As long as I have been activisting," she says, "I have had a challenge with getting middle-class mothers to understand the plight of the poor; typically, they're the ones who feel put upon, with the mantra of 'If we didn't have to pay so many taxes, etc., we wouldn't be scraping by,' which translates to 'You welfare mothers are bleeding us dry'." She tried to work with more middle-class groups for years, she says, but had a lot of trouble convincing the women that they shared the same concerns. "Interesting there's so much emphasis now on how hard life has been getting for the middle-class -- if they had joined us years ago, maybe we could have gained more ground in our issues?"

While that may seem bitter-sounding to women who are only recently radicalized, Hanson has a very germane point -- poor women have been decrying the penalties of working full-time as a mother for years, and have been agitating for recognition of caregiving work, but their arguments have been framed as "welfare reform," and even when treated as a feminist issue, have not been connected to greater feminist thought on work and family issues.

Pat Gowen is the editor of Mother Warriors Voice, the international magazine published by Welfare Warriors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for the past twenty years. Wisconsin has led the vanguard of states drastically cutting welfare rolls in the name of "reform," while at the same time underfunding childcare, just as the most recent federal reauthorization of TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) did by billions of dollars. The Wisconsin strategy has recently been exported to Israel, a model of privatizing workforce training while cutting cash payments to impoverished families and severely reducing childcare funding. Mother Warriors Voice included information like this in its most recent issue, alongside reports from Argentina, where homemakers will now receive Social Security payments even if they never paid into the program, and Venezuela, where homemakers will now receive guaranteed income while they are caring for their children.

Gowen expressed her dissatisfaction this year in an open letter to after the publication of Motherhood Manifesto, saying, "As you point out, the work place rarely provides enough for a mom to support a family alone. Yet we have millions of single moms in the U.S. What's more, only a rare mom can work continuously for 18 years without ever needing time off for children's needs or her own health needs." However, Gowen goes on to say, "In your list of goals to achieve justice for mothers you omitted the most basic, often the most important need: guaranteed cash support for dependent minors." Whether you call it a mother's pension, guaranteed child support, or a family allowance, most middle-class mothers' groups have neglected to address the idea of income for caregiving mothers and others in impoverished families.

Come Together:
Notes on future movement-building

There are so many lessons to be learned from stories like these: the need for collective action, for creative strategies, for coalitions between existing groups and new clusters still forming. One of the contributing factors to the NWRO's downfall was a troubled financial situation and racial and class divisions among the leadership, echoing Lillian Hanson's feelings about current mainstream group and serving as crucial warnings for any group to keep in mind when trying to build a national movement. On the conceptual level, the importance of involving community members in designing and administering social service programs is incredibly potent -- activists in the mothers' movement should begin thinking about what kinds of programs would best serve the gaps they see, and how best actual mothers could be integrated into these programs, instead of leaving them to be run solely by the government. Perhaps Pat Gowen's frustrations could have been avoided, if groups like Welfare Warriors had been included in the coalition of mothers' groups consulted by Joan Blades and Kristen Rowe-Finkbeiner.

Most importantly, we need to avoid one of the persistent problems plaguing the feminist movement -- allowing ourselves to be divided when we should be united, seeing each other as adversaries when we should be allies.

mmo : september 2006

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Jackie Regales lives, teaches and writes from Baltimore, Maryland. Her work has appeared in hip Mama, Bitch, off our backs, and Clamor magazines, and previously in the Mothers Movement Online. She writes often about activism, motherhood, and popular culture, topics which are all inflected by her twin four-year-old daughters.
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