From the Vault: “Welfare is a Women’s Issue” (Spring 1972)

“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.”

From the Vault: "Welfare is a Women's Issue" (Spring 1972)
Many women came to feminism as veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and protests such as this 1968 Poor People’s Campaign march in Washington. (Jill Freedman)

Editor’s note: When Ms. was launched as a “one-shot” sample insert in New York magazine in December 1971, it was a brazen act of independence. At the time, the feminist movement was either denigrated or dismissed in the so-called mainstream media. Most magazines marketed to women were limited to advice about finding a husband, saving marriages, raising babies or using the right cosmetics.

In honor of Women’s History Month and to pay tribute to five decades of our reporting, rebelling and truth-telling, Ms. is launching a new series: From the Vault. Tune in every #ThrowbackThursday for some of our favorite feminist classics from the last 50 years of Ms.


From the Spring 1972 issue:

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.

From the Vault: "Welfare is a Women's Issue" (Spring 1972)
“Welfare Is a Women’s Issue” appeared in the first issue of Ms., Spring 1972.

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 AFDC, 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.


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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 (NWRO). We put together our own welfare plan, called Guaranteed Adequate Income (GAI), 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 NWRO are the frontline 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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About

Johnnie Tillmon was an American welfare rights activist born in Scott, Arkansas, in 1926. A migrant sharecropper’s daughter, she moved to California in 1959 and worked as a union shop steward in a Compton laundry. Tillmon became ill in 1963 and was advised to seek welfare. She soon learned how welfare recipients were harassed by caseworkers. To fight this treatment, Tillmon organized people in the housing project and founded one of the first grassroots welfare mothers’ organizations called ANC (Aid to Needy Children) Mothers Anonymous, in 1963. ANC Mothers later 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. Even after she went off welfare, Tillmon remained a committed welfare rights activist until her death in 1995 at age 69. In 1979, she married the jazz musician Harvey Blackston and continued to live in Los Angeles where she headed the National Welfare Rights Organization on the local level. Her name now graces day care centers and housing developments—a small reminder of her lasting influence on “welfare as a women’s issue.”