Bad Girls of New York: Lineages of the NWRO’s Radical Feminism
Wilson Sherwin — former translator, documentary film producer, electrician — is a Sociology Doctoral Candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center completing her dissertation “Rich in Needs: the radical politics of the national welfare rights movement.” She is also a member of CUNY Struggle, a militant rank-and-file caucus of the PSC committed to challenging academic precarity.
The 1970s in New York City were an extraordinarily fecund moment for radical feminist theorizing and organizing. The Brooklyn Welfare Action Council, Red Stockings, New York Radical Women, the National Black Feminist Organization, New York Wages for Housework Committee, among other collectives, emerged within close temporal and spatial proximity to one another, proposing trenchant critiques of life under capitalist patriarchy. This article positions the welfare rights movement in conversation with contemporaneous radical feminist groups to flesh out some of the critical, analytic, insights, commonalities and conflicts. Despite their many overlapping concerns, shared adversaries and conclusions, the welfare rights movement has often been left out of the cannon of radical feminist interventions of the era. Drawing on archival data and interviews with key participants, this article proposes a novel reading of the legacies and lineages of radical feminist politics.
“As far as I’m concerned, the ladies of NWRO are the front-line troops of women’s freedom. Both because we have so few illusions and because our issues are so important to all women– the right to a living wage for women’s work, the right to life itself.”
— Johnnie Tillmon, Ms. Magazine (1972)
“Therefore, many females would… prefer… having most of their time for themselves, to spending many hours of their days doing boring, stultifying, non-creative work for someone else, functioning as less than animals, as machines, or, at best — if able to get a ‘good’ job — co-managing the shitpile.”
— Valerie Solanas, SCUM Manifesto
In 1970, a New York Times reporter described activists in the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) as “a combination of schoolgirls on an outing and a com bat‐tested guerrilla force in the midst of the enemy camp.” However, with each successive recounting, the NWRO’s more radical aspects have been silenced and occluded. In their place, scholars have emphasized the movement’s respectability politics, defined largely by a fealty to the work ethic, motherhood and post war consumerism (Nadasen 2004; Kornbluh 1997). My research this summer, supported by the Connect New York Fellowship, allowed me to conduct interviews with former participants, feminist activists and intellectuals in order to situate the NWRO in conversation with other radical New York City based feminist political movements, revealing many overlooked commonalities. In so doing, this project corrects errors in the historical record of the NWRO: I find that instead of being atavistic, as so many scholars have argued, the NWRO was in fact ahead of its time, rather than behind it, in many compelling ways.
One particularly pertinent finding is that long before “choice” became a notion that encapsulated Third Wave feminism’s new approach to the debates which had irrevocably splintered the Second Wave, the NWRO made it a central component of their analysis and their intended alternatives. Their emphasis on choice vis à vis some of the most hegemonic institutions (employment, motherhood, marriage, etc.) was an extremely novel and provocative position to take, underscoring at all times an insistence on self determination and a deep respect for pluralism. Far from remaining in the realm of rhetoric, the NWRO challenged the myriad impediments to women’s genuine choices, including ideological, legal, and, perhaps most importantly, economic.
Additionally, by examining a number of movements in close temporal and special proximity with overlapping political objectives/ identities, I contribute to developing an understanding of Charles Tilly’s notion of “repertories of contention” (1993). Scholars have often casually acknowledged some similarities between the two feminist political projects, but by examining in detail the influence local welfare organizers had on the development of Wages for Housework in New York City. we see that the NWRO both predated and strongly informed the development not only of Wages for Housework’s critique and analysis, but of its “crisis” strategy as well. Examining the transmission of this shared repertory of contention highlights not only the fundamentally radical project of the NWRO, but also the limitations of examining social movements’ “successes” and “failures” in constricted temporal frameworks.