Adventures in Feministory: Johnnie Tillmon and the Welfare Rights Movement

Born a sharecropper’s daughter in Arkansas in 1926, Tillmon moved to California where she worked in a Los Angeles laundry and had early experience with labor organizing. Tillmon hesitantly went on welfare in 1963 when she became ill and could no longer work and support her six children.

Soon enough though, Tillmon saw through the welfare system (then Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC) and the shoddy way caseworkers treated welfare recipients, such as looking through the refrigerator, inquiring about purchases, and invasive home searches. Tillmon founded the organization Aid to Needy Children Mothers Anonymous (ANC), and gained members through local organizing.

Meanwhile, George Wiley had recently founded the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) after leaving CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) where he was associate national director. As a national organization bent on reforming welfare policy, the NWRO began organizing small organizations around the country. Tillmon’s organization joined and she became a board member.

The Welfare Rights Movement was mostly made up of poor black women. Emerging at a time when both the Women’s Movement and Black Power Movement were gaining attention, the Welfare Rights Movement held its own as women insisting on autonomy and dignity.

While major women’s liberation movement emphasized moving out of the house and into the workforce, the women in the Welfare Rights Movement valued their roles as mothers, and as poor working women, did not have satisfying or empowering employment.

The Welfare Rights movement also differed from the mainstream women’s movement, as their reproductive issues didn’t revolve around access to abortion or birth control, but the choice and autonomy to have or not have children when they wanted, since sterilization was sometimes a bargaining chip to access welfare and many African-Americans associated birth control with the recent eugenics movement.

However, within the movement, the unfair stratification that the organization was fighting against also repeated itself. While directed by an executive board and having constituents that were welfare recipients, the paid staff behind the NRWO who controlled the budget and strategic programming (and subsequently had the most power in the organization) was mostly white men. The patronizing and condescending tone that the Welfare Rights movement fought against existed within their offices, as some men felt that they had the constituents’ best interests in mind. Staff upheavals and internal conflict continued, and when George Wiley resigned, Tillmon became the new Executive Director, the first welfare recipient to head NWRO.

Tillmon wrote a stirring piece for Ms. magazine in 1972 entitled “Welfare as a Women’s Issue” (I strongly encourage you to read the whole PDF here!)

The truth is that AFDC is like a supersexist marriage. You trade in man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he teats 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 off welfare.

By relating The Man to any man, Tillmon linked insitutional sexism with regular sexism, and introduced more feminist overtones rather than economic reform to the movement. The legacy of Tillmon and all the women behind the movement should not be forgotten, as the current system has a long way to go!

The majority of this information came from Premilla Nadasen, author of the highly recommended Welfare Warriors. Also thanks to my friend Clementine!

by Kjerstin Johnson
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Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor in Portland, Oregon. She is the former editor in chief of Bitch. She tweets at @kajerstin

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