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Johnnie Tillmon

One of the privileges I have had in researching my book is that I have met so many brave, smart and accomplished women.  Many of them are well-known but the stories of others were new to me.  This post is about one brave and influential black woman who defied the odds and became an effective civil rights and women’s rights advocate.

Johnnie Tillmon 1926-1995

“I’m a woman. I’m a black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. And I’m on welfare. In this country, if you’re any one of those things, you count less as a person. If you’re all those things, you just don’t count, except as a statistic. I am a statistic.” –Johnnie Tillmon,

This is the opening statement in her essay, Welfare is a Woman’s Issue, which appeared in the inaugural issue of Ms. Magazine in 1972. But who was she?

Johnnie Tillmon was born in Scott, Arkansas to a sharecropping family.  As a teen and young woman, she worked picking cotton and washing clothes. In 1959 she moved to California where she worked in a commercial laundry and was a union shop steward.

In 1963 she became ill and unable to work. Reluctantly she went on welfare to take care of her children.  At that time caseworkers could raid a recipient’s home at any time, combing through closets to find any signs of a man living with her, telling her what she could and couldn’t spend her money on.  Tillmon referred to it this way,

“Welfare is like a super-sexist marriage.  You trade in a man for the man. But you can’t divorce him if he treats you bad.  He can divorce you, of course, cut you off anytime he wants.  But in that case he keeps the kids, not you.”

Within eight months she started organizing welfare mothers into a welfare rights group (ANC) Aid to Needy Children.  Because there was so much shame attached to receiving welfare, many women were reluctant to join, but Johnnie persisted and ultimately the ANC became part of the National Welfare Rights Organization, where Ms. Tillmon emerged as a leader and eventual chairperson.

One of Johnnie Tillmon’s most important ideas was her plan for a Guaranteed Adequate Income.  When Johnnie Tillmon introduced this plan, she was not asking for a handout, she was asking to be paid for the work women were doing, raising children, nurturing the next generation.  But she expanded the plan beyond women with children.  Here’s how she introduced it.

This plan…” would eliminate sexism from welfare. There would be no “categories”—men, women, children, single, married, kids, no kids—just poor people who need aid. You’d get paid according to need and family size only and that would be upped as the cost of living goes up.”

Johnnie Tillmon continued working for the rights of women and children on welfare all her life.  When she headed up the National Welfare Rights Organization in California, she made daycare one of her first priorities.  Her office produced a guide on how to organize a comprehensive community-controlled childcare program.  Although Tillmon favored good childcare centers, she did not want a childcare system that could be used to create a “reservoir of cheap female labor”.

In 1972 Johnnie Tillmon ended her essay with this,

“As far as I’m concerned, the ladies of NWRO are the frontline 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.”

Today the welfare system Johnnie Tillmon knew is almost gone.  She died in 1995, one year before then-President Bill Clinton signed the welfare reform bill that ended Aid to Families with Dependent Children and replaced it with the much more restrictive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which is still in place today.  Money for TANF (Temporary Aid for Needy Families) is given to states in the form of a block grants and the states can do what they want with it, and often use it for other purposes and impose so many restrictions that it is difficult for people to qualify for it.

Were Johnnie Tillmon here today she would still be fighting.  We have made little progress towards her goal of a guaranteed income and childcare has grown increasingly expensive and difficult to access.  Many daycare centers have closed and/or cannot find staff willing to settle for low wages.  Women find themselves having to make difficult choices, weighing their employment opportunities against the cost and scarcity of childcare.

To find out more about Johnnie Tillmon, read her essay in MS magazine originally printed in 1972 and reprinted on March 25, 2021.  I also drew on Judith Shulevitz’s essay in the New York Review of Books, Forgotten Feminisms: Johnnie Tillmon’s Battle Against ‘The Man’. June 26, 2018


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