The Woman’s Party

On Hillary Clinton and welfare

One of the more telling exchanges of the Democratic elections took place this past February, when Rachel Maddow, moderating the New Hampshire primary debate, asked Hillary Clinton to respond to Bernie Sanders’s charge that she was not a true progressive. Clinton answered that she was “a progressive who likes to get things done” — and accused Sanders of sitting out the past three decades of Democratic politics. “Every step along the way I have stood up and fought,” she said, “and have the scars to prove it.”

Sanders noted that Clinton had previously called herself a moderate, and that it was impossible to be both a moderate and a progressive. “Secretary Clinton,” he said, “does represent the establishment. I represent, I hope, ordinary Americans.”

Clinton answered: “Senator Sanders is the only person who would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment. . . . It is really quite amusing to me. People support me because they know me. They know my life’s work.”

The moment captured the gulf between the candidates. Both seemed utterly confident of the truth of what they were saying; both seemed utterly scornful of the other’s claims. Behind Clinton’s assertion was the certainty of a woman who has embodied the social transformations of the Sixties for millions of people since being photographed for Life’s feature on the 1969 student protests, and has spent the past thirty years being attacked by the right as a radical feminist. Behind Sanders’s words was the stubbornness of a man who openly declared himself a socialist at the height of the cold war and has spent the past thirty years being ignored for the sake of his principles. Bernie is as much a militant socialist as Hillary is a radical feminist — that is, not very — but both represent the furthest encroachments of these traditions on American liberalism. For Clinton, this is second-wave feminism and the social movements of the Sixties. For Sanders, it is the social democracy of the midcentury New Deal and Great Society.

These traditions — feminism and social protection — have a common history, and their most visible point of intersection and conflict is welfare. Debates over welfare cut to the quick of divergent feminist politics in America, between “equality” and “difference” feminists, and welfare, more than anything else, is the issue defining Clinton’s primary campaign. Even before she championed the welfare-reform bill her husband signed in 1996, Clinton took a side in the debate simply by being who she was and pursuing the path she did. Her shortcomings as a feminist candidate trace back to this debate, which has yet to be resolved.


The feminist conflict over welfare begins in the 1910s, when the women’s suffrage movement brought feminists and progressive social reformers together. The most radical group in the coalition, Alice Paul’s National Woman’s Party, proved instrumental in gaining public support for the Nineteenth Amendment, but when Paul pushed for a new constitutional measure that would guarantee women’s rights in all fields, proposing the Equal Rights Amendment in 1923, her allies from the suffrage movement came out strongly against the bill.

Women from the National Consumers’ League and the National Women’s Trade Union League — adherents to the progressive tradition of social reform — identified strongly with the maternal values of selfless care and devotion to the welfare of others, which went against the ERA’s presumption of equality between men and women. These “maternalists,” as they came to be known, fought for state laws that restricted working hours for women and children, protected them from unsafe labor conditions, and provided small pensions to widows and single mothers. While Paul and the Woman’s Party claimed such legislation set a dangerous legal precedent, the maternalists countered that the proposed amendment failed to take into account the situation of working-class women — a uniquely vulnerable group with dual obligations to family and wage earning that forced them into working a “double day.” Rather than asserting women’s equality with men, they argued for recognition of their differences. “The inescapable facts,” wrote Florence Kelley in the Nation in 1922, are “that men do not bear children, are freed from the burdens of maternity, and are not susceptible, in the same measure as women, to poisons now increasingly characteristic of certain industries, and to the universal poison of fatigue.” What most women needed, they argued, was not a blanket guarantee of political and legal equality with men but the economic security provided by protective legislation.

Both sides enlisted support from male allies. The Woman’s Party made common cause with business interests who benefited from unregulated access to women’s cheap labor, and the maternalists were backed by trade unionists who saw protective labor regulations as a way to keep women from competing for men’s jobs. As the labor movement gained influence in the 1930s, the maternalists’ power grew, and they succeeded in blocking the passage of the ERA indefinitely. When FDR was elected in 1933, many prominent maternalists were appointed to his administration, including his secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, which enabled them to play a decisive role in shaping the federal welfare state.

But while the maternalists’ protective legislation laid the groundwork for the New Deal’s federal labor regulations, the specifics were left to the men. Many of the benefits enshrined in the New Deal were tied to employment, but the drafters were careful to distinguish among different types of work, providing generous benefits to some workers and none to others. The Fair Labor Standards Act, which set the first federal minimum-wage and maximum-hours laws; the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed workers the right to bargain collectively; and Social Security’s old-age and unemployment insurance programs did not extend to many low-paid workers, including farm laborers, maids, housekeepers, laundresses, child-care workers, and companions to the elderly, thus excluding most women, as well as black men, from the economic security and political recognition these laws afforded to the white male industrial working class.

Early welfare beneficiaries, including immigrant mothers, were told to take English classes, attend church, and stop cooking with garlic.

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Meanwhile, the maternalists’ efforts focused on a supplemental form of public assistance called Aid to Dependent Children — the origins of what came to be called, simply, welfare. Designed as a federal grant that would add to the money states spent on their own public-assistance programs, ADC was meant to augment the state pensions for single mothers that had been a central victory of maternalist policy in the 1910s. By leaving these pensions intact, ADC inherited many of their flaws. The programs, which relied on an understanding of widows and children as innocent victims of misfortune, had stringent eligibility requirements. Recipients had to prove that they were both legitimately in need and “morally fit.” Their beneficiaries, many of whom were immigrant mothers, had to go through a lengthy verification process to prove that their incomes were too low to support them, and were instructed to take English classes, to attend church, to stop cooking with garlic. Benefits were set deliberately low to discourage single motherhood.

The Woman’s Party had warned in 1923 that protective legislation could be used to keep women confined to “the lowest, worst paid labor.” Their fears turned out to be well founded. In the 1940s and ’50s, the surest way for white women to enter the postwar middle class was not through work, but through marriage; black women, because black men were also excluded from the benefits of downward redistribution, were denied even this option. Well into the 1960s, newspapers divided help-wanted ads into men’s and women’s sections, reflecting the material differences in opportunity, security, and income that separated one class of worker from the other. The labor market was more segregated by sex than it had been half a century earlier: three-quarters of women in the workforce worked in female-dominated fields, largely in the service industry, with limited job security or possibility of advancement. Single women’s jobs were designed on the assumption that at any moment they might get married and quit; married women’s jobs were designed on the assumption that at any moment they might get pregnant and quit. Pregnant women who showed signs of not wanting to quit their jobs were often dismissed with no unemployment benefits. A man with a high school degree earned more, on average, than a woman with a bachelor’s degree.

When the second-wave feminist movement broke out in the 1960s, it was with the returned force of decades of denial and repression. The ideas that seemed radical when Alice Paul called for them in 1923 — that women deserved to be treated as individuals, rather than as wives and mothers, and to compete on equal terms with men in all areas of life — were suddenly embraced by hundreds of thousands of suburban housewives. Much of the movement’s political energy was devoted to breaking down the formal obstacles to women’s participation in the primary labor force, and some of its most significant victories involved overturning the protective legislation the maternalists had erected.

More than forty years later, Hillary Clinton is perhaps the most visible beneficiary of this social transformation. She is by an order of magnitude the most powerful woman in American politics, and unlike her hero Eleanor Roosevelt, she was not born into a political dynasty. Instead, like our two most recent Democratic presidents, she is a product of the postwar American university system. Her success is a testament to the gulf between the old order and the new opportunities that were available to women who were positioned to take advantage of them. She was one of twenty-seven women admitted to Yale Law School in 1969 out of a class of more than two hundred, the first female chair of the Legal Services Corporation in 1978, the first female senator from New York in 2001 — and now the first female nominee of a major US political party, a milestone that would have been difficult to imagine when she was born, in 1947.

Clinton’s origin story is by now one of the representative histories of the baby boomers, the second-wave equivalent of a log-cabin narrative. She was born in Chicago and grew up in the postwar suburbs, the daughter of a dependent housewife with a high school degree and of a domestic tyrant who beat his children and kept tight control of the family purse strings. When Hillary left for college at Wellesley, she was a Republican. When she graduated, in 1969, she was a member of the New Left who had been involved in the campus antiwar movement, marched for civil rights, written her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky, pressured her college to remove in loco parentis regulations, and given the school’s first student commencement address, in which she called for “more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living.” After college, she moved to Berkeley and interned at Robert Treuhaft’s radical law firm, campaigned for George McGovern, and became involved in the left-wing movement for children’s rights, advocating that children be recognized as autonomous legal entities rather than dependents of their parents.

For three decades, Clinton has been a public face of second-wave feminism. She has been a focal point of conservative attacks since Pat Buchanan made her the centerpiece of his famous culture-wars speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention. (“What does Hillary believe? Well, Hillary believes that 12-year-olds should have the right to sue their parents. And Hillary has compared marriage and the family, as institutions, to slavery and life on an Indian reservation. . . . This, my friends — this is radical feminism.”) You could assemble a montage of public anxieties over the figure of the career woman of the ’80s and ’90s using nothing but moments from her life: her vacillation over whether to take her husband’s last name, her decision to wait until her thirties to have a child, her pantsuits, her hair. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies.” “I’m not some little woman standing by my man.”

As she moved to the mainstream of national politics, Clinton modulated her earlier opinions, but she has continually insisted on women’s liberation from traditional forms of authority through participation in the paid workforce. The embrace of the market as a tool for women’s emancipation is the basis of her alliance with the New Democrats and her reputation as a champion of female entrepreneurship. It is this vision that lies behind her support for her husband’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it” in 1991.

Bill introduced his plan to dismantle welfare, by that point called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC, early in his campaign. Speaking before students at Georgetown in fall 1991, he claimed that the “New Covenant” he wanted to offer the American people could “break the cycle of welfare”:

Welfare should be a second chance, not a way of life. In my administration we’re going to put an end to welfare as we have come to know it. I want to erase the stigma of welfare for good by restoring a simple, dignified principle: no one who can work can stay on welfare forever. We’ll still help people to help themselves. And those who need education and training and child care and medical coverage for their kids — they’ll get it. We’ll give them all the help they need and we’ll keep them on public assistance for up to two years, but after that, people who are able to work, they’ll have to go to work, either in the private sector or through a community service job. No more permanent dependence on welfare as a way of life.

At the time, AFDC was perhaps the most widely reviled program in government history. Since its passage, in 1935, it had become a symbol of everything that was wrong with redistributive government programs. Among its most vociferous critics were welfare recipients themselves, who were subjected to a battery of moral tests and denied the dignity and title of a worker, no matter how much unwaged housework and child care they did. Although AFDC gave all unemployed mothers the right to benefits, states were free to set additional eligibility limits, and many did. In 1943, Louisiana became the first state to institute “employable mother” laws, popular in the rural South, which suspended benefits to mothers at planting and harvest time. “Suitable home,” “man in the house,” and “substitute father” laws denied benefits to mothers who caseworkers could prove were having regular sex, the regulations being loose enough that “regular” was interpreted as anywhere from once a week to once every six months. Social workers were often sent to examine the homes of welfare recipients, searching for unwashed dishes and unmade beds. How you were treated depended on where you lived: the laws tended to be harsher in regions with more black mothers on welfare. Payments in the South were, on average, about half as large as in other parts of the country. As black Americans migrated to northern industrial cities, those cities’ welfare laws became more restrictive.

In 1967, the National Welfare Rights Organization was formed by civil rights activists and welfare mothers to reframe what had long been seen as a form of public charity as an entitlement. Activists argued that unpaid domestic labor should be recognized as a form of work and granted the dignity allocated to work. Welfare, they insisted, was a right, not a handout. Rather than a stigmatized, bureaucratically administered payment, the NWRO called for a universal Guaranteed Adequate Income for poor men, women, and children regardless of marital or employment status.

The welfare movement’s leaders saw welfare as something that concerned all women. “Welfare’s like a traffic accident,” wrote Johnnie Tillmon, one of the founders of the NWRO, in her classic essay, “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue.” “It can happen to anybody, but especially it happens to women.” Mothers, as the maternalists had recognized, had less bargaining power than other workers; they lacked the freedom of motion and flexibility of single men. From this perspective, welfare was unemployment insurance for the most vulnerable members of the workforce. It gave women the power to hold out for better jobs and to leave abusive relationships. But the broader feminist movement failed to incorporate this insight. Although prominent feminists such as Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and then president of NOW Aileen Hernandez vocally supported welfare rights, the movement’s central focus remained formal equality in the workplace. As women in government and organized labor who had previously favored maternalist policies began to throw their weight behind the struggle for equal rights, welfare became a punching bag for conservative politicians advocating increasingly punitive work requirements.

Having abandoned the maternalists’ sentimental defense of motherhood as a sacred calling, most second-wave feminists had no terms in which to mount a convincing justification for income support to poor mothers. Other women were working; why shouldn’t they work too? But for middle-class women, work meant public recognition, self-determination, the right to be seen as autonomous individuals and to participate in civic life. For welfare mothers, especially black women, who made up two-thirds of all domestic workers by 1960, it meant watching other women’s children, preparing their food, and scrubbing their floors, services that professional women increasingly relied on as they entered the workforce in greater numbers. The version of welfare reform Bill Clinton envisioned was much more generous than the bill eventually passed by the Republican Congress in 1996. It would have included child-care and job-placement programs — but it would still have required welfare recipients to work. Hillary’s support for the bill reveals the deep fault lines of class and race that fractured the second-wave feminist movement, as white middle-class women purchased their independence from domestic labor by shifting the burden to working-class women of color.

The welfare reform that was signed into law effectively ended all direct, cash-based public assistance. While earlier welfare programs included work requirements but tacitly protected recipients who were unable to find jobs, this one instituted strict time limits. The bill stipulated that states have less than 20 percent of welfare recipients on the rolls for more than five years, and that 50 percent of all single mothers on welfare be employed. “The bill closes its eyes to all the facts and complexities of the real world and essentially says to recipients, Find a job,” Clinton’s former assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Peter Edelman wrote in a widely circulated article called “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done.” The money was allocated in the form of block grants, meaning that each state received a fixed amount of money and full control of how to distribute it, thus wiping out decades of hard-won federal legislative protections of AFDC. The result was to sharply reduce the number of people on welfare. Some states threw 90 percent of recipients off the rolls, a result many of the bill’s advocates managed to celebrate as a sign of its success.

Twenty years later, the bill’s catastrophic effects are obvious. The number of people in extreme poverty — those living on less than $2 a day — rose from 636,000 in 1996 to 1.65 million in 2011, prompting the Financial Times to compare the US unfavorably to Russia, Jordan, and the West Bank. Reverting to an entirely state-directed model has meant more racial discrimination. (Oregon, for instance, where 80 percent of welfare recipients are white, has some of the most generous welfare policies; Louisiana, where more than 80 percent are black, has some of the least.) And because Congress decided to save money by not indexing the block grants to inflation, their real value has already decreased by a third. Clinton expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit to offset some of these cuts, but the credit was tied to regular employment. As a result, although the working poor have been protected to a certain extent, there has been almost no cash assistance for those without steady work, a provision that has disproportionately hurt women, especially single mothers.

Women’s economic empowerment was at the heart of Clinton’s politics in the ’90s, and it has been at the heart of her message this year.

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In her memoir Living History, published in 2003, when welfare reform was still broadly seen as a success, Hillary claimed credit for whipping Congress to vote for the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. “This was a historic opportunity,” she wrote of the bill, “to change a system oriented toward dependence to one that encouraged independence.” Her support for welfare reform was couched in the rhetoric of women’s empowerment through work (“work that gives structure, meaning, and dignity to most of our lives”). She framed the bill’s work requirements in terms of the contest between “dependency” and “dignity,” saying, “Too many of those on welfare had known nothing but dependency all their lives, and many would have found it difficult to make the transition to work on their own.”

Women’s economic empowerment was at the heart of Clinton’s politics in the 1990s, and it has been at the heart of her message this year. But her call “to systematically and relentlessly pursue more economic opportunity” for women, as she put it in a speech at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation several years ago, has failed to move younger women, who voted overwhelmingly against her in the Democratic primaries. The belief that what’s best for the market is best for women, which has powered her political career for decades, has lost much of its force, and the promises of empowerment feminism have grown increasingly threadbare. Women now make up half the paid workforce but are still disproportionately represented in the lowest-paying and least-protected jobs. They consistently make less than men across all industries and are still clustered in female-dominated occupations. Mothers, in particular, face steep economic penalties. Having a child, a study by Elizabeth Warren and her daughter reported in 2003, was the single best predictor that a woman would declare bankruptcy.

But if the political order that Clinton represents is showing signs of exhaustion, a new one has not emerged to take its place. During the Democratic primaries, Sanders campaigned against her by appealing to a pastoral vision of the midcentury welfare state that hid the exclusions and political compromises that led to its collapse. His campaign brought the word class back into national politics, but he sometimes seemed to speak to a phantom of the old white male industrial working class rather than to the black, brown, and female service workers who make up the majority of the working class today.

Nowhere are the limits of Sanders’s picture of the welfare state clearer than in his stance on welfare itself. If welfare is Clinton’s weakest point, the thread that, when tugged, begins to unravel her moral legitimacy and claim to represent women’s interests, it was a weakness that Sanders was unable to exploit. Although he tried to attack Clinton’s support for welfare reform, he was hampered by the fact that his own proposals did not provide much of an alternative. His campaign’s official position on welfare was that “nobody who works forty hours a week should live in poverty,” and his preferred models for public assistance, like Clinton’s, were tied to full-time employment. Although Sanders’s call for tuition-free public higher education and universal health care has helped to reframe both as universal entitlements rather than commodities, he has not made a similar case for welfare.

In one of her early essays, the political philosopher Nancy Fraser argues that all existing welfare states have foundered on the question of what role to allot women. As long as women perform a disproportionate share of reproductive labor, she claims, redistributive programs based solely on employment will privilege men, even if accompanied by full-employment programs and universal child care. But the alternative — designating primary caregivers as a separate, sheltered class — is no better. Even if caregiver benefits were officially gender-neutral, their recipients would still be disproportionately female, which reinforces the sexual division of labor and leaves women underrepresented in public life. Both choices are bad; neither, as Fraser says, asks men to change.

Fraser’s answer is to propose what she calls a “universal caregiver” model based on the assumption that all workers are also caregivers and all caregivers are also workers. Conceiving a new welfare state based on this model would mean rethinking the length of the workday, socializing child care, decoupling Social Security and health insurance from employment, and returning to the welfare rights movement’s call for a guaranteed minimum income. Above all, it would mean placing feminist insights and concerns at the center, rather than the periphery, of any left politics. If the movement that Sanders’s campaign called into being is going to embody the spirit of a new revolution, this would be a good place to start.

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