Mainstream Feminism's Statements
on Welfare Rights
Martha F. Davis
THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN ( NOW) IS THE largest and most enduring of the activist groups founded during the "second wave" of the women's movement. From the start, the issue of women's poverty was given a prominent place on NOW's agenda. At its first national conference in 199 6, NOW stated that:
We start with a concern for the plight of women who now live in poverty. The most serious victims of sex discrimination in this country are women at the bottom, including those who, unsupported, head a great percentage of the families in poverty; those women who work at low-paying, marginal jobs, or who cannot find work, and the seriously increasing numbers of high school dropouts who are girls. No adequate attention is being given to those women by any of the existing poverty programs. 1
Indeed, "[a]iding women in poverty and expanding opportunity" was one of NOW's five targets for immediate action. 2
Despite this rhetoric, many of NOW's early members lacked personal experience of poverty and brought little understanding to the issue. The strong commitment of a few activists within NOW to identify welfare as a women's issue was seldom translated into national NOW action.
With the latest round of "welfare reforms" in the 1990s, however, NOW members have mobilized at every level of the organization. This reflects a growing awareness of the need to bridge class and racial divides in order to sustain the women's movement beyond its early accomplishments, as well as a reaction to the overtly antiwomen sentiment fueling the most punitive reforms.
Beginning in 1991, NOW President Patricia Ireland participated in a series of meetings with National Up and Out of Poverty Now,