Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Welfare is a Women's Issue" (Ms., 1972), by a U.S. Feminist Shero and Welfare Warrior, Johnnie Tillmon (1926 - 1995)

image of book on women and welfare, with Johnnie Tillmon front and center, is from here
Johnnie Tillmon is mentioned throughout the book above. As well she should be.
She is one of several defining voices addressing the welfare state
as part of the racist patriarchal state called the U.S. 
More on the book may be found
*at Amazon.com* and *on Google Books*.

The full image that was made into the cover of Welfare Warriors:
photograph of Johnnie Tillmon is from here

Behold herstory.

What follows is a brilliant piece of writing. Below it is biographical information the author, feminist activist Johnnie Tillmon. It is with full permission from Ms. (thank you, Jessica!) that I reprint the article here on A.R.P.

It is originally from Ms. magazine's very first issue in 1972!
It re-appeared in Ms. thirty years later. Please click on the title to link back to the source website of this writing, at msmagazine.com.

FEATURE | spring 2002

Spring 2002 Table of Contents 

Welfare is a Women's Issue (1972)

by Johnnie Tillmon

I'm a woman. I'm a black woman. I'm a poor woman. I'm a fat woman. I'm a middle-aged woman. And I'm on welfare.

In this country, if you're any one of those things you count less as a human being. If you're all those things, you don't count at all. Except as a statistic.

I am 45 years old. I have raised six children. There are millions of statistics like me. Some on welfare. Some not. And some, really poor, who don't even know they're entitled to welfare. Not all of them are black. Not at all. In fact, the majority-about two-thirds-of all the poor families in the country are white.

Welfare's like a traffic accident. It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.

And that's why welfare is a women's issue. For a lot of middle-class women in this country, Women's Liberation is a matter of concern. For women on welfare it's a matter of survival.

Survival. That's why we had to go on welfare. And that's why we can't get off welfare now. Not us women. Not until we do something about liberating poor women in this country.

Because up until now we've been raised to expect to work, all our lives, for nothing. Because we are the worst educated, the least-skilled, and the lowest-paid people there are. Because we have to be almost totally responsible for our children. Because we are regarded by everybody as dependents. That's why we are on welfare. And that's why we stay on it.

Welfare is the most prejudiced institution in this country, even more than marriage, which it tries to imitate. Let me explain that a little.

Ninety-nine percent of welfare families are headed by women. There is no man around. In half the states there can't be men around because A.F.D.C. (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) says if there is an "able-bodied" man around, then you can't be on welfare. If the kids are going to eat, and the man can't get a job, then he's got to go.

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.

The man, the welfare system, controls your money. He tells you what to buy, what not to buy, where to buy it, and how much things cost. If things-rent, for instance-really cost more than he says they do, it's just too bad for you. He's always right.

That's why Governor [Ronald] Reagan can get away with slandering welfare recipients, calling them "lazy parasites," "pigs at the trough," and such. We've been trained to believe that the only reason people are on welfare is because there's something wrong with their character. If people have "motivation," if people only want to work, they can, and they will be able to support themselves and their kids in decency.

The truth is a job doesn't necessarily mean an adequate income. There are some ten million jobs that now pay less than the minimum wage, and if you're a woman, you've got the best chance of getting one. Why would a 45-year-old woman work all day in a laundry ironing shirts at 90-some cents an hour? Because she knows there's some place lower she could be. She could be on welfare. Society needs women on welfare as "examples" to let every woman, factory workers and housewife workers alike, know what will happen if she lets up, if she's laid off, if she tries to go it alone without a man. So these ladies stay on their feet or on their knees all their lives instead of asking why they're only getting 90-some cents an hour, instead of daring to fight and complain.

Maybe we poor welfare women will really liberate women in this country. We've already started on our own welfare plan. Along with other welfare recipients, we have organized so we can have some voice. Our group is called the National Welfare Rights Organization (N.W.R.O.). We put together our own welfare plan, called Guaranteed Adequate Income (G.A.I.), which would eliminate sexism from welfare. There would be no "categories"-men, women, children, single, married, kids, no kids-just poor people who need aid. You'd get paid according to need and family size only and that would be upped as the cost of living goes up.

As far as I'm concerned, the ladies of N.W.R.O. are the front-line troops of women's freedom. Both because we have so few illusions and because our issues are so important to all women-the right to a living wage for women's work, the right to life itself.

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What follows next is from *here* at blackpast.org.

Tillmon, Johnnie (1926-1995)

 Johnnie Tillmon was born in Scott, Arkansas, in 1926. A migrant sharecropper’s daughter, she moved to California in 1959 to join her brothers and worked as a union shop steward in a Compton laundry. Tillmon organized workers and became involved in a community association called the Nickerson Garden Planning Organization which was established to improve living conditions in the housing project.

Tillmon became ill in 1963, and was advised to seek welfare. She was hesitant at first, but decided to apply for assistance to take care of her children. She immediately learned how welfare recipients were harassed by caseworkers who went to their apartments looking for evidence of extra support and who designated how they should spend money. In order to fight against this dehumanized treatment, Tillmon organized people on welfare in the housing project and founded one of the first grassroots welfare mothers’ organizations called ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous, in 1963. When a former CORE activist, George Wiley, brought together local welfare recipients’ groups and transformed them into a national movement, ANC Mothers joined the movement and became a part of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). Tillmon quickly emerged as a leader and became a chairperson of the NWRO. Together with other welfare mothers, she struggled for adequate income, dignity, justice, and democratic participation.

While the NWRO was officially run by welfare recipients, the male middle-class staff managed the finances and administered the national office, wielding great influence over the organization. Tillmon and other welfare mothers became increasingly critical of Wiley and his supporters who dominated leadership positions, and sought to place control of the organization in the hands of the welfare recipients. When the number of recipients rapidly increased and the NWRO was under fierce attack, the internal conflict between the staff members and welfare recipients came to the forefront. While Wiley and his advisors tried to mobilize the working poor, especially the white blue-collar workers, into the welfare rights movement, welfare mothers led by Tillmon sought to align with a women’s movement and gain support from feminist organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).

In 1972, Tillmon published an article in Ms magazine entitled “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue,” articulating how the welfare system controlled the lives of women on welfare and constantly placed them under the scrutiny of government authorities. She tried to broaden the horizon of the feminist movement by redefining poverty as a “women’s issue.” When Wiley resigned in late 1972, Tillmon was chosen as the new Executive Director of the NWRO. The funding for the organization, however, had become depleted by the time she became the director. After the NWRO folded in 1975, Tillmon returned to Los Angeles, continuing her struggle for welfare rights at the local and state levels. In 1995 Tillmon passed away at the age of 69. 

Johnnie Tillmon, “Welfare is a Women’s Issue,” Ms Magazine (Spring, 1972): 111-16; Guida West, The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women (New York: Praeger, 1981); Premilla Nadasen, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005).
Tsuchiya, Kazuyo
University of California, San Diego
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For more on Johnnie Tillmon and her activist work, please also visit these linked-to websites:

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