Scholarship on the Barricades: The Papers of Activist Guida West
A Lifetime on the Front Lines of the Assault Against Poor Women
Public assistance for poor women came under attack in the early 1970s when the Nixon Administration sent a so-called welfare reform bill to Congress. Rep. Wilbur Mills (D-AR), the powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, who was rumored to be considering a run against Nixon, amended the President’s bill, and sent back the more sweeping HR1 that, among other things, eliminated the food stamp program and instituted a tough employment requirement that would have had disastrous effects for poor women and children, including elimination of aid to anyone who did not comply with its onerous criteria. HR1 also took administration of public aid out of the Health, Education and Welfare Department, which Mills and his supporters characterized as too “soft” on the poor, and put it under the supervision of the Labor Department.
Groups like the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) — an activist organization made up entirely of welfare recipients — fought back with a campaign that, among other things, rejected the characterization of poor women of color as a drain on the country’s tax dollars.
The certificate on the left was “awarded” by the NWRO in 1971 to then Governor Ronald Reagan “as the highest paid welfare recipient in the State of California as evidenced by the fact that he was paid $76,500 in state funds and did not pay one penny of state income tax.” Reframing the issues by inverting the language of race, class and gender prejudice, these groups worked on the local and national levels over several decades to hold back a continuing public policy assault on the poor. At right is a NWRO flyer that challenges Chairman Mills’ demonization of poor women of color with the strong visual format of a “wanted” poster and by appropriating racially coded language that was being used against poor women. Here the NWRO reframed accusations of criminality leveled at poor women and trained them on the politicians on whom activists felt they accurately belonged.
Both of these documents come from the collection of Guida West, an activist and author whose papers have been donated to Smith College’s Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) and are being processed for use by scholars. West was a tireless social justice advocate in the New York area for over 30 years. Contained in her papers are the records of the Women’s Committee of 100 (WC100), a core group of women intellectuals, many of them professors, who joined ranks with the NWRO and other groups as the social safety net was eroding around them in the name of so-called welfare reform. West served as co-chair of the WC100 throughout the reinvigorated welfare “reform” of the 1990s, which ended in adoption of a bill that continues to have disastrous effects on poor women and children. West’s nearly 500 page history of the NWRO, “The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women,” was published in 1981, with a forward by founder Johnnie Tillmon. “It is important ,” Tillmon wrote in praising the book,” because it is the history of poor women — especially poor Black women and poor White women and poor Hispanic women — in the United States. This is a history that is not often, if ever written about.”
The papers of the WC100 is a rich collection full of candid personal communications and notes on the group’s strategy sessions, as prominent scholars including Frances Fox Piven (whose papers are also held in the SSC) and Gwendolyn Mink, who taught for a brief time at Smith, tried to balance their academic and activists lives at this critical turning point for the country and its most marginalized and underrepresented citizens. Their communications provide a rare look into the strategic thinking and highly fraught debates these allies of poor women were engaged in, especially in their ongoing conflicts with conservative Republicans, a Democratic president and congress facing tough re-election campaigns and with some white second-wave feminists who insisted that ending welfare supported feminist goals. The committee acted on several fronts during these years, leveraging celebrity and political contacts to bring media attention to their cause; raising funds for full page advertisements in the New York Times like the one below, organizing marches in Washington and meeting with President Clinton’s staff inside the White House to press their case.
The text in the New York Times ad, left, is emblematic of the WC100′s strategy of reframing the welfare issue by consistently and aggressively monitoring their opponents’ media campaign and correcting exploitative, often racially marked language, misstatements and myths in an effort to influence public opinion. The caption below the picture reads: “A typical woman on welfare is white, has two kids and needs help for two years. Surprised?” It also contains a list of “Ten Facts Every American Should Know About Welfare,” such as “African Americans make up 38% of the AFDC list.” and “Full-time, year-round work at minimum wage would put a woman and two children $3,000 below the poverty line — with no health insurance.”
In the Classroom
Documents like the ones above, along with the numerous memos and e-mails in the WC100 records contained in the SSC’s Guida West collection provide useful focal points for Government, Political Science or Sociology courses which address the workings of the United States Congress, especially the effects of lobbying on legislation and social policy, as well as History or Study of Women and Gender courses that explore the intersections of race, class and gender in political and social issues. The Guida West collection, and particularly the Women’s Committee of 100 records within West’s papers, also illuminate the importance of the use of language in framing political issues. The scholars who made up the WC100 recognized the potential of language to affect popular opinion and worked to reframe issues in ways which put the focus on the real-life affect that policies were having on the poor. They made sophisticated use of media and their papers contain numerous communications expressing frustration at media’s lack of understanding of and attention to the serious implications of these issues for the country. To attract the attention of reporters and editors they constantly sought the participation of celebrities in their events and press conferences. Classes focusing on the impact of advertising campaigns on public opinion will find a savvy example in brochures and other materials from the “Welfare Made a Difference” campaign of which Guida West was a part. The campaign’s sophisticated publications highlight the lives of successful women who had been on welfare at one time in their lives including public officials, professors, attorneys and social workers. The role of grassroots activism on campus is central to this collection. including e-mails and faxes to professors at Smith and elsewhere urging them to bring students to protests. Students in programs with the potential to lead to careers in non-profit management and other social justice activism will find rich materials in these papers.
On-line finding aids are available (http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/index.html) for the following collections of the Sophia Smith Collection, among the many which have relevance to the study of activism, particularly around so-called welfare reform, and other issues impacting poor women.
- ARISE for Social Justice Records, 1977-2005 (ongoing) Location: Sophia Smith Collection Abstract: Grassroots advocacy organization; Social reformers. Records document the organization’s work with the economically disadvantaged and under-served populations in Springfield, Massachusetts and the surrounding area. Materials cover such topics as race relations, class, poverty, and welfare rights; homelessness and fair housing, including advocacy for single room occupancy; domestic violence, sexual abuse, child abuse; prison reform; advocacy for universal/single-payer health care, and health issues including HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment; childcare; access to education; rights of mentally and physically disabled citizens; drug addiction; prostitution; hunger, and other issues associated with poverty.
- Frances Fox Piven Papers, 1957- Location: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Abstract: Professor, political science and political activist. The material in the Frances Fox Piven Papers, which includes correspondence, organization files, speeches, and writings, reflects her involvement as both an academic and activist concerned with community development, poverty, the welfare state and urban reform. Organizations documented include the American Civil Liberties Union, Mobilization for Youth, and the National Welfare Rights Organization. Correspondents include June Jordan, Michael Harrington, and Senator Paul Wellstone.
- National Congress of Neighborhood Women Records, 1974-1999 Location: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Abstract: Feminist grassroots network. The primary goal of this organization was to empower poor and working-class women to become community leaders. The collection offers valuable source material for the study of working-class feminist organizing; urban studies; and women in community development. Also documented are the inner workings of grassroots organizing, with all of the personal and political dynamics that come with incorporating a feminist consciousness into an organization, where issues of class, race and ethnicity are acknowledged and openly discussed. Material includes correspondence, publications, funding proposals, photographs and audiovisual material.
The College Archives (CA) also contains files of Smith professors who have used their scholarship in service of social justice. In addition written and photographic records documenting student protests from the takeover of College Hall in to protest the college’s investments in apartheid South Africa and anti-Vietnam War actions are all available in the Student Demonstration Files of the CA. Many of the papers of Smith College presidents include memoranda, letters and other documentation of these activities. Efforts to increase student scholarship around social justice issues and grassroots political engagement have included a proposal made by a group of Smith faculty members, including Government Professor Martha Ackelsberg, during a long-term planning process initiated by College President Ruth Simmons. The proposal envisions a center for social justice and, particularly, a rotating activist-in-residence.
- Guida West’s book, “The National Welfare Rights Movement: The Social Protest of Poor Women,” (Praeger, 1981) is available for use in the Sophia Smith Collection.
- Hundreds of articles by Frances Fox Pivens, Gwendolyn Mink and other members of the Women’s Committee of 100 steering committee are available through the Smith College libraries’ database. The members of the committee changed over the years but a partial list is included below. Full lists are included in Guida West’s papers in the Sophia Smith Collection, which is being processed and will soon be available to scholars.
- The SSC contains biographies of many prominent activist women. Author, historian- activist Gerta Lerner’s autobiography, “Fireweed” (Temple University Press, 2002) is just one example. She dedicates the volume to “all those who in dark times kept their integrity, refused conformity and never lost hope in the strength of democracy.”
Women’s Committee of 100
Prominent scholars active in the WC100 included Mimi Abramowitz (Hunter); Martha Ackelsberg (Smith); Ruth Brandwein (SUNY, Stonybrook); Miriam J. Cohen (Vassar); Angela Davis (UC-Santa Cruz); Frances Fox Piven (Graduate Center, CUNY); Linda Gordon (U of Wisconsin); Nancy Hewitt (Duke); Eva Kittay (Suny, Stony Brook); Sonia Michael (Princeton); Gwedolyn Mink (UC-Santa Cruz). Numerous well-known women from other professions include author Barbara Ehrenreich; activist Gloria Steinem, Dr. Dorothy Haight, president of the National Council of Negro Women; Betty Friedan, founder of NOW; Patricia Ireland, then NOW president; singer Odetta; author Grace Paley; journalist Katha Pollit; writer Alice Walker; author Susan Brownmiller; singer Judy Collins; and several elected officials including Rep. Maxine Waters (CA); former NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug; Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (Wash., D.C.); Ruth Messinger, Manhattan Borough President; Congresswomen Patsy Mink (Hawaii); Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (CA), among many others.