Home > Feminisms, housework, race, welfare > Gwendolyn Mink, “The Lady and the Tramp (II): Feminist Welfare Politics, Poor Single Mothers and the Challenge of Welfare Justice”

Gwendolyn Mink, “The Lady and the Tramp (II): Feminist Welfare Politics, Poor Single Mothers and the Challenge of Welfare Justice”

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“The Lady and the Tramp (II): Feminist Welfare Politics, Poor Single Mothers and the Challenge of Welfare Justice”

Gwendolyn Mink

Feminist Studies, Vol. 24 No. 1 (Spring, 1998). pp. 55-64.

I have worked in various political venues on welfare issues for ten years-for about as long as I have been researching and writing about women and U.S. social policy.’ Most recently, I worked as a Steering Committee member and cochair of the Women’s Committee of 100, a feminist mobilization against punitive welfare reform. I signed up with the Women’s Committee of 100 in March or April of 1995-roughly a year after completing a book on welfare policy history and around the same time as the book’s publication.2

I have always done both politics and scholarship, so directing my activism toward my field of professional expertise at first did not seem especially odd or problematic. However, I had just published a book critical of experts like me-a book which, among other things, faulted solipsistic women welfare innovators of the early twentieth century for building a welfare state harmful to women and to gender equality. The book was barely between covers, and I had already embarked on a path of policy advocacy that veered disturbingly close to the reformers I had criticized. There I was, consorting with a group of supereducated, do-good feminists, most of whom would never need a welfare check. And there we were, using our social and professional positions to gain entry into congressional offices, where we spoke against reforms that would affect not us but poor women. It seemed to me that maybe I hadn’t really internalized the lessons I had drawn from early-twentieth-century welfare history.

I struggled a bit with my own contradictions-between what I felt compelled to do as a feminist activist confronted by the political crisis of welfare reform and what I had cautioned against as a student of elite women reformers. But I didn’t have to struggle long. It quickly became apparent that any historical analogies I feared were the product of academic overinterpretation.

An awesome collection of women makes up the Committee of 100-none of whom, to my knowledge, has any interest in mothering the poor as our forebears did earlier in the century and all of whom reject the morally and culturally prescriptive politics of early-twentieth-century welfare innovation and of late-twentieth-century welfare reform.

We mobilized not to speak for poor mothers but with them – to speak for ourselves as feminists frustrated by the absence of women’s voices and by the lack of gender equality concerns in the welfare debate. Although members of Congress paid scant attention, in our lobbying, letter writing, and media efforts, we repeatedly explained how welfare reform risks many of the rights and protections upon which women’s security and equality depends. Often speaking of “welfare as a women’s issue,” we argued that “a war against poor women is a war against all women.”

This was a strategically clever rallying cry, but it failed to rally many women-even feminists. In fact, the war against poor women was just that: a war against poor women. And it was a war in which many middle-class women participated on the antiwelfare side. All but one woman in the U.S. Senate supported the Personal Responsibility Act when it first was taken up in the summer of 1995.3 In 1996, twenty-six of thirty-one Democratic women in the House of Representatives voted for their party’s substitute bill, which, like the Personal Responsibility Act, stripped poor single mothers of their entitlement to welfare.4 Meanwhile, across the country, a National Organization for Women Legal Defense and Education Fund appeal for contributions to support an economic justice litigator aroused so much hate mail that NOW LDEF stopped doing direct mail on the welfare issue.5

Although the feminist Women’s Committee of 100 campaigned ardently against the welfare bill, Republicans won their war against poor single mothers with the complicity of millions of other feminists. Feminist members of Congress did not write the Personal Responsibility Act, of course. Nor did NOW members or contributors to Emily’s List comprise the driving force behind the most brutal provisions of the new welfare law. My point is not that feminists were uniquely responsible for how Congress reformed welfare. It is that they were uniquely positioned to make a difference. We have made a difference in many arenas across the years, even during inauspicious Republican presidencies-reforming rape laws, winning recognition of sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination, and securing passage of a federal law against domestic violence.

Feminists certainly could have made a difference when a friendly Democratic president began casting about for ways to reform welfare in 1993; and although we could not have changed Republican intentions in the 104th Congress, we surely could have pressured the Democrat we helped elect to the White House to veto the Republican bill.

In the absence of widespread feminist opposition to the welfare reform principles of the Personal Responsibility Act, the legislative record is devoid of a counternarrative that might temper administrative and judicial enforcement of the new law. Moreover, it is devoid of any discursive precedent for womenfriendly, equality-enhancing amendments to the new law. Because most feminists did not contest or disturb the Republican welfare paradigm, about all they can do now to fix the new welfare mess is urge that more money be spent on job training and childcare and that broader exceptions for battered women be adopted. These are important goals, but they do not repair the damage wrought by the new welfare law on the lives and rights of poor single mothers.

Why were so many feminists unconcerned that welfare reform not only repealed poor single mothers’ entitlement to cash assistance but encroached on their basic civil rights as well? Given the degree of harm inflicted on poor single mothers by the new welfare law, why were there no candlelight vigils like there were against O.J. Simpson? Why were there no marches like there have been to defend Roe v. Wade? Why were no boycotts waged like there were against the film The People vs. Larry Flynt?

These questions are the fruit of my frustration as a welfare activist. They have renewed my scholarly attention to the rela tionship between welfare and equality, on the one hand, and between welfare and feminism, on the other. Out of these concerns has emerged a new scholarly project… a new book.6 The book is a broadside against the Personal Responsibility Act, culminating in defense of welfare. It is also a call to middleclass feminists to practice true “sisterhood” by upholding poor mothers’ rights as we do our own.

Although the Personal Responsibility Act deserves boundless criticism for its seismic practical consequences-for driving a million more children into poverty, for example-my book is concerned less with the economic than with the political impact of welfare reform. The new welfare law distinguishes poor single mothers as a separate caste, subject to a separate system of law. Poor single mothers are the only people in America forced by law to work outside the home. They are the only people in America whose decisions to bear children are punished by government. They are the only people in America of whom government may demand the details of intimate relationships. And they are the only mothers in America compelled by law to make room for biological fathers in their families.

Based on lessons drawn from eighteen months of struggle against the Personal Responsibility Act, one of my goals in the book is to defend welfare as an affirmative right of poor single mothers, a right backed up by the reproductive, associational, family, and vocational rights assured to all persons under the Constitution. Toward this end, I argue that welfare (by which I mean income support for caregivers) is a condition of women’s equality (by which I mean full and independent citizenship). Without welfare, mothers who work inside the home are deprived of equal citizenship, for they alone are not paid for their labor. Moreover, lacking earnings for their economic and social contributions, women who work full- or part-time as caregivers for their children are ideologically unequal in a political culture that prizes income-producing work as the currency of virtue. Further, unwaged mothers do not have marital freedom: lacking the financial means to exit marriages, they lack the freedom to choose to stay in them. When they do dare to exit or avoid marriage, mothers do not enjoy vocational liberty: unpaid for their work in the home, they are forced either by law or by economic circumstance to choose wages over children.

We should not think of welfare as a subsidy for dependence but as insurance for the rights that comprise independence. Nor should we think of welfare as an income substitute for the wage earned by breadwinners-fathers-in the labor market. Rather, we should reconceive welfare as the income owed to persons who work inside the home caring for, nurturing, and protecting children-mothering.

The idea that welfare should support mothers in their caregiving roles should not be terribly controversial. This was a core premise of mothers’ pension programs early in the century and a justification for including Aid to Dependent Children in the New Deal’s Social Security Act.7 The problem is that the caregiving work performed by poor mothers has lost its luster over the past thirty years; who welfare mothers are explains why. In the popular imagination, welfare participants are reckless breeders who bear children to avoid work. Such vintage stereotypes have bipartisan roots and were popularized beginning in the 1960s by Republican Richard Nixon, southern Democrat Russell Long, and sometime Democrat George Wallace. Even Lyndon Johnson, often credited for expanding welfare as part of his War on Poverty, shared these views: he called for limits on payments to nonmarital children and complained that their mothers “sit around and breed instead of going out to work.”‘ Into the 1990s, the racial mythology of welfare cast the welfare mother as Black, pinned the need for reform on her character, and at least implicitly defined Black women as other peoples’ workers rather than their own families’ mothers.9 Racially charged images of lazy, promiscuous, and matriarchal women have dominated welfare discourse for quite some time, inflaming demands that mothers who need welfare-although perhaps not their children-must pay for their improvident behavior through work, marriage, or destitution.10

If racism has permitted policymakers to negate poor single mothers as mothers, middle-class feminism has provided them an excuse. New attitudes about wage earning by mothers amplified by successful feminist challenges to employment discrimination have turned work outside the home into a rhetorical resource for critics of welfare. 1Middle-class feminists’ emphasis on women’s right to work outside the home also has inflected welfare politics among women, diminishing the scale of coalitions for welfare justice-especially by comparison to coalitions for abortion rights or against rape or domestic violence. This created something of a vacuum in the defense of poor mothers’ political and economic rights.

Part of the problem, I think, is that white and middle-class feminists-who are the mainstream of the women’s movement-view mothers who need welfare as mothers who need feminism. They see welfare mothers as victims-of patriarchy, maybe of racism, possibly of false consciousness. They don’t see welfare mothers as feminist agents of their own lives-as women who are entitled to and capable of making independent and honorable choices about what kind of work they will do and how many children they will have and whether they will marry. As a result, when many white, middle-class feminists weighed into the welfare debate, it was to prescribe reforms to assimilate welfare mothers to white feminists’ own goals-principally, independence through paid employment.

Most of the policy claims made by Second-Wave feminists have emphasized women’s right to participate in men’s world and have made work outside the home a defining element for women’s full and equal citizenship. Middle-class feminists responded to their particular historical experiences, experiences drawn by an ethos of domesticity which confined middle-class women to the home. From this perspective, the home is the site of oppression for women, while the labor market is potentially liberating. But when middle-class women moved into the labor market, they did not trade in their caregiving obligations. Now doubly taxed by the dual responsibilities of earning and caring, many feminists have demanded labor market policies to address the family needs that fall disproportionately on women-parental leave and childcare, for example.” However, they have been less interested in winning social policies to support women where we meet our family responsibilities: in the home. In the absence of widespread feminist attention to the social value of the childraising and home management work mothers do, poor mothers’ right to do motherwork has been only faintly defended.

The popular feminist claim that women earn independence, autonomy, and equality through wages historically has divided feminists along class and race lines, as women of color and poor white women have not usually earned equality from sweated labor. To the contrary. Especially for women of color, wage work has been a mark of inequality: expected by the white society for whom they work; necessary because their male kin cannot find jobs or cannot earn family-supporting wages; and exploitative because their earnings keep them poor. Thus, the right to care for their own children-to work inside the home-has been a touchstone goal of their struggles for equality. The fact that women are positioned divergently in the nexus among caregiving, wage earning, and inequality separated feminists one from another on the welfare issue and separated employed middle-class feminists from mothers who need welfare.

Out of the middle-class feminist emphasis on winning rights in the workplace has emerged, sotto voce, an expectation that women ought to work outside the home and an assumption that any job outside the home-including caring for other people’s children-is more socially productive than caring for one’s own. Feminists in Congress betrayed this bias, voting unfazed to require poor single mothers to work outside the home both as a condition of welfare and as a consequence of time limits.

Although feminism is fundamentally about winning women choices, our labor market bias has put much of feminism not on the side of vocational choice-the choice to work inside or outside the home-but on the side of wage earning for all women. Thus, most congressional feminists, along with many feminists across the country, have conflated their right to work outside the home with poor single mothers’ obligation to do so. This is an obligation of no small significance for poor single mothers, who are conscripted into wagework under the new welfare law.

Most single mothers work outside the home, and most single mothers who receive welfare want to. The question is whether social policy should dictate that they must. Poor single mothers already shoulder a double burden in parenting: should social policy require them to perform yet another job? Except for a few young men in my classes who insist that mothering is love, not work, I think most people understand that the caregiving mostly provided by mothers is work. Disagreements arise over whether that work is worth anything if it is performed for one’s own family. Or, more accurately, disagreements arise over when that work is worth something and in what kinds of families.

When Republicans and Democrats have wanted to, they have acknowledged mothers’ caregiving work in public policy: they’ve even remunerated it. The very week it negated the motherwork of poor single women by giving final approval to the Personal Responsibility Act, Congress affirmed the motherwork of middle-class homemakers by granting them rights to their own IRAs.12 Representative Nancy Johnson hailed the measure as forwarding equality for homemakers. Others hailed it for honoring them. Viewed alongside welfare reform, IRAs for homemakers deepened existing differentiations in law between married and unmarried mothers, between white women and women of color, and between rich women and poor. It also created a distinction between poor single mothers’ activities in the home and married, middle-class mothers’ work there. IRAs, after all, are an untaxed portion of earned income.

Clearly, legislators do understand that what (some) domestic mothers do is not pass the time but work. The challenge, then, is to lead policymakers to give poor mothers’ caregiving work the dignity it is due by providing it an income. Payments for mothers’ caregiving work ought not to be too difficult to calculate, for much of the work done by caregiving mothers already has a market price if performed for someone else’s family. We pay teachers, for example, as well as psychologists, nurses, accountants, chauffeurs, launderers, housecleaners, cooks, waitresses, even personal shoppers.’3

To some extent we can derive a right to a caregiver’s income through constitutional reasoning: a socially provided income guarantee ought to be a condition of reproductive, marital, family, and vocational freedoms-as well as a matter of equal protection. Although the Constitution does not oblige us to provide for one another’s economic security, it does permit us to imagine different ways to enforce its meaning legislatively: the Fourteenth Amendment gives Congress the responsibility to enact laws that enforce its provisions, including its clause promising “equal protection of the law.” Moreover, the Constitution permits us to defend rights with remedies, including remedial social supports-legal assistance for poor criminal defendants, for example-without which the rights of some citizens would disappear.

Welfare remedies poor single mothers’ inequality, specifically the inequality of economic disfranchisement. Mothers’ economic disfranchisement comes from our failure to impute economic value to the work that they do. In marriages, mothers who work inside the home surrender their economic personhood to husbands and occupy the legal status of dependent. Such married mothers’ lack of their own economic resources-earningsskew power relations in the family; some mothers may feel tethered to husbands because they could not survive the economic consequences of leaving them. Single mothers, meanwhile, must accept destitution as a condition of caring for their children. Unpaid and disdained, they are expected to forswear childraising for full-time wage earning. Full-time caregiving mothers, then, are disproportionatelyd ependent on men if married and disproportionately poor, if not. These private inequalities have public effects, foreclosing mother-workers’ independent citizenship.

We would begin to redress these inequalities by providing caregivers who are parenting alone an income in recognition of their family work. A socially provided income for solo parents who bear the dual responsibilities of providing care for their children and financing it, welfare is a condition of equality in the family, in the labor market, and in the state. As such, welfare should be a right, not an entitlement-a claim backed by law and courts that should be irresistible, or at least impossible for a rogue Congress to deny. Unless we can establish a right to welfare, we cannot cure inequality where it is most gendered-in sexual, reproductive, and family relations.

A right to income support in return for poor single mothers’ caregiving work tackles the neglected side of the gender divide, the side that has defined women as the legal and economic dependents of men. But although a caregiver’s income would address the gender divide, it need not reproduce that divide.

Rights that accommodate mothers’ caregiving work need not ascribe motherwork to all women, nor only to women: men can mother, too. Nor need rights that accommodate mothers’ caregiving work disparage women’s choices and equality claims in the labor market. Such rights should widen options for solo caregivers of either gender by backing up the choice to work outside the home with the means not to. Ending welfare by redefining it in this way will enable equality-in the safety net, between the genders, among women, and under the Constitution.

1. “Lady and the tramp” refers to my essay, “The Lady and the Tramp: Gender, Race, and the Origins of the American Welfare State,” in Women, the State, and Welfare, ed. Linda Gordon (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), 92-122.
2. Gwendolyn Mink, The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995).
3. The Republican initiative (H.R. 4) was first introduced in January 1995. Passed by the House in March and by the Senate in the late summer, the bill died with the 1995 budget impasse. In 1996, the Congress passed and the president signed a new bill, H.R. 3734, or P.L. 104-193. The new law repealed the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program.
4. This was the Castle-Tanner substitute amendment to H.R. 3734. See Congressional Record, 18 July 1996, H7907-7974.
5. Felicia Kornbluh, “Feminists and the Welfare Debate: Too Little? Too Late?” Dollars and Sense, November/December 1996, 25.
6. Mink, Welfare’s End (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998). Some material in this article is taken from this book with the permission of the publisher.
7. Mink, Wages of Motherhood, chap. 6.
8. President Lyndon Johnson to his budget director, LBJ White House telephone tapes, CNN Morning News, 18 Oct. 1996.
9. Dorothy Roberts, “The Value of Black Mothers’ Work,” Connecticut Law Review 26 (spring 1994): 871-73; Lucy A. Williams, “Race, Rat Bites, and Unfit Mothers:
How Media Discourse Informs Welfare Legislation Debate,” Fordham Urban Law Journal 22 (summer 1995): 1159-96.
10. See, e.g., Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980 (New York: Basic Books, 1984).
11. See, for example, Barbara Bergman and Heidi Hartmann, “A Welfare Reform Based on Help for Working Parents,” Feminist Economics 1 (summer 1995): 85-91.
12. The IRAs for homemakers provision was part of the Small Business Job Protection and Minimum Wage Increase Act, H.R. 3448 (104th Congress, 2d session).
13. In 1972, Chase Manhattan Bank economists concluded that the weekly value of a family caregiver’s work was at least $257.53, or $13,391.56 a year (1972 dollars). See Ann Crittenden Scott, “The Value of Housework: For Love or Money?” Ms., July 1972, 56-59.

Categories: Feminisms, housework, race, welfare
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