Wednesday, June 10, 2020
Catherine Powell & Camille Gear Rich, The “Welfare Queen” Goes to the Polls: Race-Based Fractures in Gender Politics and Opportunities for Intersectional Coalitions, Geo.L.J., 19th Amendment, Special Edition (forthcoming)
As Americans celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification, our celebration would be premature if we failed to reflect on the ways that race has been used to fracture women’s efforts at coalition politics and our understanding of women’s rights. Indeed, a careful reading of U.S. history and contemporary politics shows that although similar rights claims are made across a diverse community of American women, women’s shared interests are often obscured by the divisive manipulation of race. Notably, 2020 is also the 150-year anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote to Black men. In this Article, we use the coinciding anniversaries of the two amendments as a critical opportunity to direct feminist attention to intersectional questions—to frame this historical moment as a pivot point that explores the mutually constitutive nature of gender and racial subordination in American politics.
In service of these goals, we use this Article to explore a toxic racial construct often used to distract American women from our shared rights claims—the political trickster known as the “welfare queen.” This construct was born as a result of fiscal conservatives’ attacks on government anti-poverty subsidy programs in the 1980s. It relied on antipathy toward Black women—characterized as “welfare cheats” or frauds—and pathologized women of color to call for aggressive cuts to social-safety-net programs. This Article explores the remobilization of this construct in present-day electoral politics and the ways in which it compromises cross-racial coalitions and obscures the path to reform. We take as our object the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, for in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his surrogates reanimated the welfare queen construct and alleged that she was stealing American democracy through voter fraud. The visceral power of this construct allowed this group of Republicans to transform Americans’ understanding of voting rights and American democracy. In so doing, their representations simultaneously sidetracked feminist efforts to build strong cross-racial coalitions. This Article explores the various paths out of our current discourse, dispelling thedistracting haze generated by the welfare queen construction. In the process, we also hope to advance our conceptual understanding of intersectional identities and their relationship to political change.