In Johnnie Tillmon’s 1972 declaration of the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWR), “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue”, her analysis of the way women’s rights have been subverted in the struggle over welfare rights has been defined by the history of race, class, gender and sexuality and the subsequent hierarchical relationships which emerged. A year prior and another continent away, in her 1971 essay “Women and the Subversion of the Community”, Maria Rosa Dalla Costa speaks about the women’s roles within revolutionary Marxism in Italy, and describes the contradictions in how feminism as a movement has been subsumed by, seen as in opposition to, Marxism as a movement against class and labor oppression, when the role of women and the family are the fundamental core on which the structure of capitalistic oppression lies. Dalla Costa outlines women’s roles within the family, and details how the structure of hetero-normative nuclear family itself facilitates and perpetuates the organization and division of labor for the success and profitability of the capitalistic system.
According to Dalla Costa, when dismantling hierarchical systems, such as capitalism, we must see who is at the bottom of the structure of inequality and deconstruct their role as natural and inherent, and in these seeing fundamental contradictions which keep women in this role, we must forefront women’s ideas and goals in order for the revolution to succeed. Therefore, to overthrow capitalism and hierarchy, we must look at the root of the problem, i.e., who’s at the bottom of the hierarchy and who is subordinated under domination and oppression, or who is excluded from social production.
Tillmon reveals how women on welfare serve as the bottom of this system by being used as examples, stigmatized and devalued, “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 tried to go at it alone without a man” (375). In Tillmon’s analysis, this is how our society keeps women in place, in their expected, proper, and productively functioning role, as women’s productivity in capitalistic terms is derived from how “she acts as a safety valve for the social tensions caused by [capitalistic organization]” (Dalla Costa 16). This enforced passivity of women by the State, by men, by husbands and children, bosses, and by other women is what Tillmon decries as “a super-sexist marriage” (374). This can be evidenced by the policing and punishment of women and their children as dependents, for their daily lives and needs are determined by what the welfare system says the women and children need based on statistics not on personal, humanizing interactions.
Constructed as the “undeserving poor” by the 1935 Mother’s Pension Laws, women and their dependent children (deemed no longer “needy” by the linguistic switch from Temporary Assistance for Families with Needy Children (TANF to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)) are personally vilified for the structural and institutional inequalities which maintain and perpetuate poverty. Their lives are regulated, decisions sanctioned, their few choices laid out for them, autonomy limited, as if the welfare state exists as a punishment apparatus of white supremacist heterosexist patriarchal dominant culture. By reinforcing values of dependency as okay for some and bad for others, punishing some women for not working, but not allowing them to choose a livable wage and imposing forced welfare-to-work laws on some but not on others, this sends strong messages to both these welfare women and to the rest of society that poor working women-of-color are on welfare due to their own personal inadequacies. Welfare women, in short, are being punished by the state for not meeting the standards of what it takes to be a “real” woman, for not having and/or keeping a man in their lives to financially support them, acting the role of the man in a super-sexist marriage between the welfare woman and the state (Tillmon 375). Yet, if women on welfare find a man it is assumed that he doesn’t experience barriers himself in being able to support a family, for example racism, classism, and imperialism.
Welfare policy thus acts as a regulator of our ideological and social norms and structures by perpetuating unequal access to resources, rights and human dignity. By punishing and stigmatizing those who fail in dominant culture’s terms, welfare has been designed to be a type of aid which is not stable nor promotes self-sufficiency and is barely enough to survive on even if one swallows their pride and succumbs to this “handout” for those who are deemed undeserving of “dependency”, creating a state of enforced dependency by its strict regulation of individual behavior and lifestyle. Thereby, in its current state, the welfare system is not doing enough to help the poor overcome poverty and succeed, nor is it doing anything for the right reasons. Relying on assumptions about the poor, the working class, people-of-color, and women, unless drastic changes are made welfare reforms will continue to be directed at the individual rather than at the dynamics which maintain, perpetuate, and benefit from institutionalized inequality. In the words of Mariarosa Dalla Costa:
We are dealing here with the revolt of those who have been excluded, who have been separated by the system of production, and who express in action their need to destroy the forces that stand in the way of their social existence, but who this time are coming together…The revolt of the one against exploitation through exclusion is an index of the revolt of the other. (6)