Welfare of Feminism: Struggle in the Midst of Reform

Bethany Snyder
During the 1990s, Congress passed three versions of legislation aimed at reforming the nation’s welfare program. This legislation, known as the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” (PRWORA), would dramatically change welfare and affect millions of poor women and children in the United States. With President Bill Clinton’s strong support, this law would target the program Aid to Families with Dependant Children (AFDC), replacing it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which would impose time limits, strict work requirements, illegitimacy tests, marriage promotion programs and family caps. Welfare rights organizations and civil rights groups were organizing and looked to the feminist community for support. Patricia Ireland, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), understood the importance of weighing in on such a critical issue and the resources NOW, with its stable funding base, large membership, and political connections, could bring the welfare debate. However, after a failed attempt by a fellow feminist organization to solicit support from NOW members, it became evident that not all of NOW’s members felt similarly. Ireland, faced with an unsupportive membership but personally committed to organizing on behalf of all women, struggles with how to proceed. Providing a historical framework of welfare programs, feminist organizing efforts around welfare issues, NOW’s historical role with welfare activism, and the significance of the political context of the time, the reader must weigh all the factors influencing Ireland’s decision and decide how best to proceed.
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