Academic journal article Social Justice

Women on the Move: Civilian Responses to the War on Poor Women

Academic journal article Social Justice

Women on the Move: Civilian Responses to the War on Poor Women

Article excerpt

I WISH TO DISCUSS HOW WE AS FEMINISTS AND INDIVIDUALS CONCERNED WITH WOMEN'S issues can attain the power needed to influence the Clinton administration's plans regarding welfare reform and to promote alternate goals. One necessary element is the authority to tell the administration, for example, that their position on the non-negotiability of the two-year limit is not acceptable.

Like Richard Cloward, I believe that organizing is really the name of the game. The need to focus on organizing was underscored by David Ellwood, the Clinton administration official who invoked the history of 1968 and 1970, when the nation was debating the guaranteed minimum income. Ellwood warned that pressing now to improve welfare in ways that diverge from the rules he has proposed migh lead us to recreate a situation where liberals are so divided that Congress would again come up with something that nobody is happy with. I believe we can avoid this morass by organizing a movement that includes the women's movement and organizations concerned with reforming welfare along just lines into a cohesive force that can serve as a stepping-off point for commenting on this administration's proposals.

Of course, no single organization represents the women's movement. That caveat aside, I intend to discuss some of the work of the National Organization for Women and the NOW Legal Defense Fund (they are separate, sister organizations that work closely together), along with the National Welfare Rights Union. Of course, many other people are also involved in organizing efforts that attempt to bridge gaps between low-income women's organizations and middle-class women' organizations. The Vermont Women's Union is one really good example of that kin of coalition.

It is no secret that the middle-class feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s had a history of failing to address poor women's issues. I am not a historian, so I can't say definitively what reasons explain that, but several possibilitie come to mind. One is that the Civil Rights Movement was to some extent a model for the women's rights movement and the Civil Rights Movement began with a very clear focus on equal rights. The women's movement adopted that approach to some extent. Early in the movement, there was a focus on formal equality rather than on an agenda for economic change. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and the righ to abortion are important issues, but they fall to address questions of access and power that may be determinative for poor women.

Another possibility may be that the contemporary women's movement started with the idea of consciousness-raising, with its emphasis on personal experiences an communications with peers, which did not encourage going outside one's immediat community to establish coalitions with other women. That may also have prevente the early women's movement from looking beyond middle-class issues, at least immediately. The Civil Rights Movement itself went through a period of ambivalence about poverty, so this is not something unique to the women's movement. There is now a considerable literature on the Civil Rights Movement, and about Baynard Rustin, for example, for being one participant in that movement who was very articulate about and concerned with stressing economic issues instead of looking solely at equality issues. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Whitney Young, Jr., who was the head of the Urban League, were much more resistant to going beyond equality, in the work-place context, for example, and to looking at poverty issues in a broader scope.

As an aside, there have always been small groups of feminist activists working on poor women's issues. One example is the National Organization for Women. In addition, outside the middle-class women's movement a great deal of women's activism has been taking place and some of it has been feminist in nature. The National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) in the 1970s is a good example, but unfortunately there was no joining of forces between the middle-class women's movement and the welfare fights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. …

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