Twenty years ago this week, Johnnie Tillmon, activist and chairperson of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), died at the age of sixty-nine. It’s a particularly bleak commentary on the nature of political backlash that Tillmon died a year before the passage of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill. I was in college at the time and learning about feminism pretty intensively. I knew the bill was bad news—the consolidation of Reagan’s disgusting scapegoating of poor women and a cynical attempt to “beat” the Republicans by selling out key members of the Democratic coalition who had no where else to go. But I didn’t realize just how cynical and disgusting until I came across Tillmon’s classic essay, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” I think through its reprint in Ms., which I was reading religiously. Tillmon cast all that pap about the “dignity of work” and indignity of welfare aside and memorably laid down the real indignity: a system that made people submit to invasive controls to prove themselves worth of sums woefully inadequate to care for children:
Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage. You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad. He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants. But in that case, he keeps the kids, not you.
The man runs everything. In ordinary marriage, sex is supposed to be for your husband. On A.F.D.C. you’re not supposed to have any sex at all. You give up control of your own body. It’s a condition of aid. You may even have to agree to get your tubes tied so you can never have more children just to avoid being cut off welfare.
Tillmon also called for the remedy that some sectors of the left are coming back to these days: what she called a Guaranteed Adequate Income, which she linked to Wages for Housework, as a recognition of the work women already do. No gender categories, no distinctions based on marriage: just an adequate sum for however many people are in a household.
Tillmon came from a sharecropping family in Arkansas. As a teenager and young woman she worked picking cotton, washing clothes, as a domestic, in a war plant, and in a commercial laundry.* Eventually illness led her to reluctantly apply for the program then known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children for herself and her children. After the initial passage of AFDC during the New Deal, Southern states used a variety of tricks to deny African Americans access to these benefits. When, in the wake of the civil rights movement, more African Americans claimed their rights, attacks on the program began. Discrimination continued to pervade the program, with African American women facing more harassment and unjustified denial of their claims.
NWRO was founded as a coalition of local groups in 1967. It focused on the inadequacy of benefits as well as on the humiliating treatment of women who were often treated to invasive “home inspections” that involved things like searching closets for men’s clothing, the presence of which were taken as evidence of “cheating” and grounds for denial of a claim. The political atmosphere of the day was such that a range of liberal and civil rights groups were allied with the NWRO cause, which was supported by private grants and even government funds.
Although then, as during the awful attacks on AFDC in the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of recipients were white, African American women made up the majority of NWRO activists. However, Tillmon always insisted on having an inclusive multiracial coalition, stating, “I’m told by the poor white girls on welfare how they feel when they’re hungry, and I feel the same way when I’m hungry.” As historian Premilla Nadasen outlines, in an odd reversal of familiar movement dynamics, it was white women who, in an attempt to counter prevailing stereotypes, were often pushed to the forefront of visibility and came to feel tokenized. At the same time, many poor white women came to be politically and personally galvanized by working in alliance. Nadasen quotes Peggy Terry, a poor white activist who was once asked by a richer woman why she was protesting for civil rights and replied: “Where else could I go and be treated with this respect that I’ve been treated with by Reverend King, the Nobel Prinze winner? No white Nobel Prize winner would pay poor white trash like me the slightest attention. Reverend King does.”
Laura Tanenbaum is an associate professor at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York. This article originally appeared on her blog, The Golden Notebooks.
* For details about Tillmon’s life and work, I drew on Premilla Nadasen’s essay “Welfare’s a Green Problem: Cross-Race Coalitions in Welfare Rights Organizing,” from Feminist Coalitions: Historical Perspectives on Second-Wave Feminism in the United States, edited by Stephanie Gilmore. Both Gilmore’s book and Nadasen’s two books, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States and Household Workers Unite, are invaluable and powerful correctives to the widespread misperception that the feminist movement of the 1960s and ‘70s was made up of a bunch of rich white women unconcerned with labor or racial justice issues.