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Pedagogy 6.2 (2006) 375-383
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Poverty-Class Women Speak Out about Education
The fourteen essays collected in this anthology are wide ranging and ambitious, tackling the issues of welfare reform, representations of welfare recipients, poor women's access to higher education, and the support (or lack thereof) they receive once they are there. The immediate context of this anthology is the passage, in 1996, of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA); in the wake of this welfare-reform legislation, many women who had previously been working toward postsecondary degrees found that staying in school became more difficult, if not impossible. Significantly, the contributors to this volume are themselves women from poverty-class backgrounds, and in articulating and analyzing their own interactions with the welfare system and with various academic institutions, they are breaking silence and attempting to shift the terms of our understanding of welfare reform and welfare recipients. Among the goals for these essays, according to the editors, is that they will "clear a space for the articulation and valuation of the stories of other poor women in and out of the academy" (7).
The book is divided into three main sections. Part 1, "Educators Remember," contains five essays by women "who exited poverty via the [End Page 375] pathway of higher education and joined the professorial ranks." Part 2, "On the Frontlines," contains narratives by several women who, at the time of publication, were still in the midst of their education (including one narrative by a woman who was forced by welfare reform to drop out of school), and part 3, "Policy, Research, and Poor Women," contains essays that "consider policies that affect access to higher education and advocate remedies for improved access" (14). That said, there is much overlap among the sections, both in the ideas discussed and in the approach to the subject matter. One of the many things I appreciate about this volume is that it contains a mixture of personal narratives and more analytical pieces, several of which offer recommendations for public policy. Indeed, most contributors combine the two genres, analyzing their own life experiences through various theoretical lenses or recounting parts of their life stories as jumping-off points for more general critiques of academia, welfare reform, or media representations of poor women. Because there are so many connections across sections, in what follows I have organized my thoughts on this volume by recurring issues and themes, regardless of their placement in one particular section or another.
While several excellent volumes of personal narratives by academics from working-class backgrounds have been published in recent years,1 the contributors to this volume focus on the experiences of female academics from poverty-class backgrounds. This distinction is a significant and useful one. In her essay in the volume, "Survival in a Not So Brave New World," Dahlberg argues that "while recognizing the similarities, explorations of working-class and poverty-class experience and theory must be disjoined and examined separately to challenge negatively essentialized portrayals and perceptions distinctly applied to each in U.S. culture" (71). In their introduction, the editors give this example of how the experiences of poverty-class academics are distinct: "Added to the general malaise expressed by working-class scholars is the very real poverty-bashing that poor women experience in the media, from public officials, and crucially, at the hands of 'well-meaning' professors, administrators, and peers" (4). This volume, then, not only adds to our understanding of the process and consequences of class mobility obtained via education but also contributes to the project of expanding our vocabulary of class designations, making it simultaneously richer and more concise.
One of the strengths of this book is its documentation and exploration of the images, myths, and stereotypes of women on welfare. A few of the media characterizations noted by the editors are of poor women as "'broodsows,' 'Welfare Queens,' 'unfit parents who view...