'Welfare Brat' Author Mary Childers: Hoping for a Different Future for our Daughters and Sons
September 28, 2009
In honor of women's history month, the Women's Studies program at Lehman invited Mary Childers, the ombudsperson of Dartmouth College and author of Welfare Brat: A Memoir, to talk about her experience with prejudice and how we perceive and deny the importance of race, class, and gender.
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This is Christina Dumistrescu, a student at Lehman College. In honor of women's history month, the Women's Studies program at Lehman invited Mary Childers, the ombudsperson of Dartmouth College and author of Welfare Brat: A Memoir, to talk about her experience with prejudice and how we perceive and deny the importance of race, class, and gender.
It really is an incredible pleasure for me to be here today, speaking at a college that I attended one summer about four decades ago. I occasionally saw clearly that the curriculum I was offered reflected the biases and the exclusions of the society.
Most literature courses centered on the writing of white men, much of which moved and instructed me, but also bombarded me with images of women that restricted my aspirations, and failed to reflect the complex reality of women's lives, and tensions, and yearnings. These were the days when women would go into classes, and every book in a literature course was written by a man. And I once timidly raised my hand, and said, "How come we don't have even one book by a woman writing about motherhood."
It wasn't until graduate school that I was also challenged to understand the necessary instability of generalizations about gender, given the differences that are made by class and race, as well as multiple other factors. So, first a lot of us were fighting to change the curriculum to include women, and then we noticed that we were using women in a way that was overly universal. That, in fact, it erased the existence of all women.
My first job out of graduate school in the early 1980s involved grant-funded efforts to integrate women's studies into the curriculum. Those were the days when the government actually gave people money to integrate women's studies and black studies into the curriculum. I quickly learned that some people would boldly claim that women were not allowed to work outside their homes in the 19th century.
And the same people often resented being reminded that in the 19th century in the United States, black women were laboring in fields, and all sorts of women were scrounging to bring in pennies, in addition to tending their homes and children. I share this detail not to attack women's studies which, indeed, proved flexible in response to criticism, but to make sure that we all hold onto how recently our national paradigms and intellectual concepts were incredibly limited. This is very recent history.
Now, I know I look pretty old to most of you. But this is only 40 years ago that we're talking about. We need to hold onto that knowledge, in order to understand the continuities and departures that were exhibited in the recent election, and that continue to matter in politics. Interrogating our paradigms and stereotypes is not just an academic exercise.
In my memoir, Welfare Brat, which was written about five years ago, I try to capture what it felt like to grow up in the Bronx in the 1960s, in a family that matches stereotypes about underclass welfare families, except for the fact that we're white.
My mother had 11 pregnancies, and raised seven children who were fathered by four different men. She was married to only one of those men. Five out of seven of those kids dropped out of school, and all four fathers dropped out of sight. Substance abuse, dangerous promiscuity, domestic violence, desperate abortions, and gaming the system were parts of my family culture that all of us kids absorbed as spontaneously as a child learns language, or learns that very little is expected of him.
Before my oldest sister temporarily became a heroin addict by the age of 17, she worked long hours in the hopes of earning enough money to face the world without shame, and having empty spaces in her mouth that made her look like a jack-o-lantern.
People in my family triumphed over great odds to get education, years after dropping out of high school, like many of the students at Lehman College, I'm sure. We all still struggle, as most people do, but we no longer worry about homelessness, hunger, being punched in the face by a so-called loved one, or breaking our hearts watching a blood relative face destitution without support.
Although I knew that I could damage my career by writing truthfully and graphically about what it was like growing up economically and morally unstable, I chose to do so because I thought I could describe in an accessible and moving way from the inside what it feels like to be a child who longs for a banana, a watch, a root canal, and consistent caretaking.
I thought that I could challenge the racist and sexist stereotypes about welfare moms, that had been used to divide people against one another in several national elections. Some of you aren't old enough to know that whole history of how the idea of the welfare queen presented in very racist ways was used to get people to vote for candidates who wouldn't do anything to help poor people, and by making poverty look as though it was exclusively an issue of black people and mostly black women, it managed to erase a lot of other people. And also, decrease the possibility of solidarity among those people who were struggling for opportunity.
Although, I don't claim that my family is representative, I do think that we add flesh and blood to some social science approaches, to understanding internalized barriers among the chronically and generationally poor. I've been very lucky, 'cause I've been able to use the book to talk to a lot of people. Social workers, policy makers, students, because it's so important that we stop stigmatizing people for being poor. Historical progress works in a couple of steps forward, you never know where the step back is gonna be, right. We're constantly working on that. So, what we all I think have to do is believe that we can function in the world as individuals, and be received as such, in order to grow into the dream of possibility.
If we focus primarily on the obstacles, the potential for discrimination, the loneliness of being the only one, and it is lonely, the infuriating likelihood of being attacked for telling unpopular truths about our group histories, we cannot develop as individuals, and our nation cannot develop.
And so, I want to end with some comments about women around the world. And this is a poem that's quoted by Hillary Clinton in her address to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, which was in China in 1995. And she quotes from a woman, a young woman from New Delhi and no one knows her name but this poem has really circulated. So, this woman wrote this poem.
"Too many women, in too many countries, speak the same language of silence. My grandmother was always silent. Always aggrieved. Only her husband had the cosmic right, or so it was said, to speak and to be heard. They say it is different now. After all, I'm always vocal and my grandmother thinks I talk too much. But sometimes I wonder. When a woman gives her love, as most women do, generously, it is accepted. When a woman shares her thoughts, as some women do, graciously, it is allowed."
"When a woman fights for power, as all women would like to, quietly or loudly, it is questioned. And yet, there must be freedom if we are to speak. And yes, there must be power if we are to be heard. And when we have both, freedom and power, let us not be misunderstood. We seek only to give words to those who cannot speak, too many women in too many countries. I seek only to forget the sorrows of my grandmother's silence."
Barak Obama talked about his grandmothers. And I thought I'd end with a woman from New Delhi talking about hers because finally, what women's history month is all about is that we remember our grandmothers. And we are hoping for different futures for our daughters, and for our sons. And I think we have a couple in the White House, who if we keep supporting them, and pushing them to do the right thing because they need help being pushed, we really do have a chance of being in a different place next year at women's history month, despite the economy.
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