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Welfare Is a Women's Issue

Johnnie Tillmon's Call for Reform

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Johnnie Tillmon's essay "Welfare is a Women's Issue" was printed in the first issue of Ms. magazine, published in 1972.

Who Was Johnnie Tillmon?

As she described herself in "Welfare is a Women's Issue," Johnnie Tillmon was a poor, black, fat, middle-aged woman on welfare, which she said made her count as less of a human being in U.S. society.

She had lived in Arkansas and California, working for nearly 20 years in a laundry before she became sick and could not work anymore. She raised six children on $363/month from Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). She said she had become a statistic.

One Woman's Explanation of the Issue

For Johnnie Tillmon, it was simple: welfare was a women's issue because "it can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women."

Here are some of the reasons that welfare was a women's issue, according to Johnnie Tillmon:

  • 99% of families on AFDC were headed by women. If an "able-bodied man" was around, the family was not eligible for welfare.
  • As a condition of aid, women may have had to agree to birth control or even sterilization procedures
  • Politicians never talked about the blind, disabled, and elderly who received welfare, only the women and children
  • The "work ethic" was a double standard: women on welfare were expected to work, but a "society lady from Scarsdale" could sit around in prosperity not working
  • There was no "dignity of work" in jobs that paid less than minimum wage and were not enough to keep a woman's children from starving
  • Women were accused of having more children to get more welfare money. "Having babies for profit," she wrote, "is a lie that only men could make up and only men could believe."

Welfare Reform and Lingering Issues

In the decades since the premiere issue of Ms., welfare has continued to be a subject of political and media debate. Johnnie Tillmon led the National Welfare Rights Organization and worked with legislators and government committees on concerns related to welfare. She died in 1995, remembered for her pivotal role in making welfare a feminist issue.

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