How one woman set out to do something about the financial burden of motherhood
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Our friends at the history podcast Throughline have been thinking about motherhood. The NPR podcast and radio show explores events of the past with meanings that endure today. They also hear of ideas from the past that we may repeat without knowing it, and their latest episode examines myths of motherhood. One was the idea of the welfare queen. They wrote about one woman in 1972 who briefly tried to challenge that stereotype. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei have her story.
RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: In 1972, an article called "Welfare Is A Women's Issue" was published in Ms. Magazine. It was written by a woman named Johnnie Tillmon
GWENDOLYN FOWLER: (Reading) 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 of those things, you don't count at all, except as a statistic.
ABDELFATAH: That's scholar Gwendolyn Fowler reading the words Johnnie Tillmon wrote decades ago, words that inspired her to focus her entire master's thesis on uncovering Tillmon's life and work. When Johnnie Tillmon wrote that article, she was a mother on welfare who'd soon become the head of the National Welfare Rights Organization, a civic group fighting for welfare reform in the 1960s and '70s. But Tillmon's journey began in the small town of Scott, Ark., where she was born in 1926.
FOWLER: Middle of Jim Crow.
ABDELFATAH: She was a sharecropper's daughter.
FOWLER: She also worked in the field.
RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Eventually, she decided to move west to California.
ABDELFATAH: By then, she was a mother to six children. They moved into a housing project, and Tillmon got a job at a laundry. But then...
FOWLER: She gets really, really sick, and she can't work.
ABDELFATAH: Tillmon had to consider something she dreaded - getting on welfare.
FOWLER: She doesn't want to apply for welfare. She's heard terrible things about the experience of being on welfare in terms of, like, how caseworkers treat you. And she's like, I don't want any parts. But they're like, you can't work. What are you going to do?
ABDELFATAH: So she does it. Tillmon signs up for welfare. And right away, she starts to feel the stigma she was afraid of.
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ARABLOUEI: One Sunday, she overhears a lady from a nearby church complaining loudly about welfare recipients.
FOWLER: And she just talked a whole bunch of crap about people on welfare, how they're lazy and things like that.
ARABLOUEI: At that moment, something just clicked. She started to question why people thought she was some sort of criminal just for being on welfare.
ABDELFATAH: At this point, federal welfare programs had existed for a few decades, since the 1935 Social Security Act. The idea behind these programs was simple - give cash to poor mothers with children. But historian Premilla Nadasen says other ideas were part of the program's DNA.
PREMILLA NADASEN: Well, the welfare system, from the very outset, was really centered on this idea that women - and the code word here was white women - needed economic support from the state if there was not a man available to provide economic assistance and to support the family.
ABDELFATAH: The program reinforced the gendered division of labor - men as breadwinners and women as mothers and homemakers. But it didn't recognize all women's work the same way. In order to qualify for these funds, families had to be considered suitable homes.
NADASEN: And this was very racialized. It did not apply to all women, which is why women of color were excluded from the welfare rolls in the early years. In fact, there were always more white women on welfare than Black women on welfare.
ABDELFATAH: But in the late 1950s and '60s, Premilla Nadasen says...
NADASEN: More and more women of color started applying for and receiving welfare assistance. And along with that, we saw a deep racialization of the welfare system, as well as growing stigma and social isolation of welfare recipients.
ABDELFATAH: Johnnie Tillmon saw how, at every level, mothers on welfare were seen as less than, so she started organizing other mothers.
NADASEN: In their living rooms, in their housing projects, in their kitchens, when they're waiting in line in welfare - they begin to talk to their neighbors.
ABDELFATAH: Groups like Tillmon's were popping up across the country, pushing for a few key protections, things like better worker training so they could reenter the workforce and affordable child care. The movement grew into the National Welfare Rights Organization, and welfare mothers began to expand their cause to include everyone. They proposed a new plan called the Guaranteed Adequate Income.
ARABLOUEI: And the idea caught on.
NADASEN: And so there was widespread discussion in the 1960s and early '70s about the possibility of the federal government providing an income floor for all poor people in this country.
ABDELFATAH: Johnnie Tillmon's dream was never realized. Historian Premilla Nadasen says by the mid-1970s, another idea had come to dominate the public conversation, an idea that consolidated all of the stereotypes Tillmon had been fighting against for decades into one phrase.
ARABLOUEI: The welfare queen.
NADASEN: The racialized stereotype of a woman of color who had multiple children out of wedlock, who was lazy, who was interested in living off of other people's tax dollars.
ABDELFATAH: The myth of the welfare queen seemed to prove what a growing number of lawmakers believed - that welfare made people dependent. In the battle of ideas, the myth won out.
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ARABLOUEI: In 1996, President Clinton dismantled the Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with the system we have today, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. But even though welfare was largely dismantled, Johnnie helped spark a revolution of ideas that questioned who got to be a mother and challenged the very core of the nuclear family ideal that powers American capitalism.
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INSKEEP: Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah host NPR's history podcast Throughline. You can hear the whole episode wherever you get your podcasts.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.