A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia [review]
Since the phrase “welfare queen” entered the political arena via a 1976 Ronald Reagan speech, language subtly as well as explicitly targeting African-American women has been one of the facets of the culture war waged by conservatives and liberals alike. But a recent release reminds readers that moralizing through public policy in a way that targets Blacks has been going on for generations.
A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) is Lisa Levenstein’s striking portrait of the trials working-class African-American women faced in seeking public services in the North. Here, dewy-eyed superficiality about the relative freedoms Blacks above the Mason-Dixon Line were accorded is remade with research, narrative and august prose to show what life actually was like after World War II. Segregation and discrimination in many sectors were a way of life in the allegedly liberated North, Public services were continually being cut. African-Americans got unequal options, and were imposed often-degrading requirements to get them, such as in schooling, which steered Blacks from intellectually challenging educations, or women being required to share personal and sexual histories with the government.
Against this harshness, A Movement Without Marches presents idealism. Activists like Corrine Elkins and many others courageously lobbied for public assistance in the wake of the war, believing that government support of its citizens could lead to people being able to better contribute to the country’s welfare in the future. As women faced obstacles to receiving welfare, they remained active and undeterred in their struggle, convinced that the state should support its urban poor.
The book is furthermore important for exploding the myths contemporary liberalism postulates about the far right using the economy to cut back public spending. In Philadelphia at least, Republicans and Democrats alike sought to shame those on public assistance as a campaign ploy. Caricatures of hardworking taxpayers paying for the luxuries of the shiftless poor were in effect in the late 1950s and before. Public assistance restrictions, the author remarks, became more punitive and restrictive over a 20-year period beginning in 1967, and including at least six revisions of standing policy. In virtually every case, Black women were rhetorically eviscerated as being one step away from bringing the downfall of Western civilization. In this climate, lawmakers found it easy to bring the full force of the state down on poor people. Such did not happen without creative resistance, however.
Levenstein provides extensive basis for her assertions in the book, crowned by a biting analysis of race, gender, class and history. Such work should be helpful in understanding contemporary political sparring, as well as how our predecessors stood for and with the disadvantaged.