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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 140-142

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On Grassroots Organizing, Poor Women's Movements, and the Intellectual as Activist

Eileen Boris

Whether or not the grassroots organizing of poor women, including women of color, is feminist depends on who defines feminism. Women's efforts to improve working-class communities, and gain a better life for their children, themselves, and the men in their lives, fall outside of histories of the women's movement precisely because they deviate from the standard story of second wave feminism. But "the social protest of poor women," to borrow a title from welfare activist and researcher Guida West, challenges the conventional narrative not only by expanding the players for women's activism, but also by shifting the definition of what constitutes women's rights or liberation. We must focus on muddy floors instead of glass ceilings, that is, on struggles for survival and subsistence. This requires re-evaluating the meaning of work, including carework.

Two frameworks have dominated historical analysis of women's grassroots activism. The first we might name the social movement framework, activism in which gender or women are present but unmarked. The emphasis is on movement building, contours of mass action, and the nature of organizations. The concern is with poor people, as with Frances Fox Piven's classic studies Regulating the Poor (1971) and Poor People's Movements (1977), even though some of the poor happen to be women and some of the major groups, such as the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), were women-led. 1

The maternalist paradigm that dominated women's history in the 1990s characterizes the other major framework. From the eighteenth century, grassroots women created motherist movements, deploying the language of nutruance and women's responsibility for children and family life. They protested food costs, staged anti-eviction demonstrations, created their own barter networks and cooperatives, and lobbied for price and rent controls. They were black and white, Polish and Jewish, native-born, urban and rural. We should consider alternatives to the name "maternalist." "Female consciousness," proposed by Temma Kaplan in 1982, lacks the class superiority associated with maternalism, but seems too universalist. The term "motherist" also is free from class condescension. Kaplan more recently draws upon political scientist Maxine Molyneaux's [End Page 140] "gender interests" to characterize women's grassroots activism that moves back and forth between specific survival needs based on women's labor within families and communities and general demands for human emancipation and social justice. This double perspective, rooted in and yet transcending daily life, moves us beyond maternalism. 2

Analysis of welfare rights has fallen into all of these frameworks. Historians have considered the NWRO in terms of its civil rights origins; relationship to the Warren Court, poverty law, and rights discourse; as ma-ternalist, feminist, and consumerist; and as challenging the work-based welfare state. Welfare rights have been a prime commitment of Frances Fox Piven for about forty years. She is one of our major activist scholars, a real public intellectual whose ideas have made a difference in the lives of ordinary women and men. Piven, along with her long time collaborator (and husband—since deceased in August 2001) Richard A. Cloward, provided a theoretical basis for the welfare rights organizing of the 1960s. Her papers are invaluable not only for the history of welfare rights, urban politics, and social services, but also for the struggle for a more democratic politics in the university as well as outside of it.

Piven has emphasized the needs of the capitalist labor market as a key factor in the politics of social provision. She reminds us to look at power. But she has not just theorized on Why Americans Don't Vote (1988); she created the Human Serve (Human Service Employees Registration and Voter Education) campaign, which led to the Motor Voter bill, which allows voters to register when they renew their driver's licenses. 3 And we should not forget her work with the Democratic Socialists of America and other organizations.



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