America's Poor Women: Victims of Their Sex
Laurel

 When God created the heavens and the earth, He gave man
dominion over everything living upon the earth.  When He created
woman, He took one of Adam's ribs and built a companion and
helpmate for Adam.  When He banished them from Eden, God's
instructions to Adam and Eve were quite clear: she would bear her
children in pain, and he would be her lord and master; she would be
the nurturer, and he would be the bread earner.  Men and women
have followed these tenets for thousands of years, with the result
that women became "exploited as property to be bought and sold, as
goods to be bargained and bartered, since biblical times."

 This patriarchal system, with man as the dominant head of the
household, is the basis for most relationships in America today.
Women are no longer considered to be slaves to their mates, to be
bought and sold; but, the traditional role of nurturer and mother
puts women in the unique position of remaining subservient.
Women's "economic dependence and their subjugation to men and the
male ordained values of profit, power, and patriarchy . . . further
perpetuates their dependence."  Ruth Sidel quotes R. Emerson
Dobash and Russell Dobash, authors of Violence Against Wives, in
her book, Women & Children Last: The Plight of Poor Women in
Affluent America.  The Dobashes write that the subordination of
females and their subjection to male authority and control have
"been institutionalized in the structure of the patriarchal family
and is supported by the economic and political institutions and by
a belief system, including a religious one, that makes such
relationships seem natural, morally just, and sacred."

  These beliefs are intrinsic to the way men and women interact
with each other in personal relationships, in the workplace, and in
the way they raise their children.  Women are conditioned from
birth by their parents and society to believe that their prime
function in life is to be a caregiver.  For example, girls play
house while boys play sports, and girls are encouraged to study the
liberal arts while boys study the sciences.  Women grow old caring
for others--for children, men, elderly parents, grandchildren,
friends, and sometimes distant relatives.  They spend most of
their time performing non-productive, or unpaid, domestic work, and
they have been "socialized to accept these tasks as a natural and
central component of their identity."  Even when women are
required by necessity to work outside the home, the prime
responsibility of caring for the children and the house remains
firmly planted on the their shoulders.

 Women in America--especially those from poor socio-economic
backgrounds--have also been inculcated with the belief that men
will take care of them, that they will become stigmatized if they
do not maintain an ongoing relationship with a man, and "that they
do not really need to prepare themselves to be fully independent."
In addition, Sidel says that "the vast majority of American women,
despite what the media would have us believe, still define
themselves by the men they marry and by the children they bear."

 These ingrained attitudes have a direct bearing on the
increased number of poor women in this country, the fastest growing
segment within the poor population.  Lucy Komisar, author of Down
and Out in The USA: A History of Public Welfare, states that
"two-thirds of the people in poverty and virtually all the adults
on AFDC are women."  She adds that women are forced into poverty
not only by the same reasons men are, but by "social mores and job
discrimination that force into poverty or dependency most women who
do not have men to support them."

 An examination of poor people in America reveals that poverty
can be attributed to:

 Poverty rates are affected by high unemployment, recession,
and cuts in welfare benefits and human services.  The
conservative policies of the Reagan administration in the early
1980s brought about a dramatic increase in the number of people
living below the poverty line, particularly women.  "The cutbacks
in human services since the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan . . .
exacerbated the poverty rate among women and children."  He
eliminated "all training and employment programs under the
Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), reduced funding
for the Youth Employment Demonstration Projects Act by 80 percent,
for the Summer Youth Employment Program by 20 percent, and added
`workfare' requirements under Aid to Families with Dependent
Children."  A study in the mid-1980s by the Congressional
Research Service determined that "budget cuts alone increased the
number of poor people in 1982 by at least 557,000, . . . and the
recession of 1981-1982 caused . . . 1.6 million people to fall into
poverty."

 Ruth Sidel states that "the most serious result of the Reagan
administration's economic policies . . . has been the
legitimization of the negative attitudes held by many Americans
toward the poor."  In addition, she says that because of Reagan's
"ability to express the point of view, in a mild, amiable tone of
voice, that the poor are poor primarily because of their own
shortcomings has . . . permitted significant numbers of Americans
to move their prejudices from the back of their consciousness to
the forefront."

 The "feminization of poverty," a term coined by sociologist
Diana Pearce, has been precipitated over the past twenty years by
  the weakening of the traditional nuclear family; the
  rapid growth of female headed families; the continuing
  existence of a dual labor market that actively
  discriminates against female workers; a welfare system
  that seeks to maintain its recipients below the poverty
  line; the time-consuming yet unpaid domestic
  responsibilities of women, particularly child care; and
  an administration in power in Washington that is
  systematically dismantling or reducing funds for programs
  that serve those who are most in need.

 The results of this feminization of poverty are seen in the
increased numbers of women being victimized throughout all aspects
of society.  Sister Maria Riley, author of Economic Justice for
Women, states that "the cumulative impact of poverty on women and
those dependent upon women, the young and the elderly, is
staggering."  For example, 52 percent of the female population is
in the labor force; two-thirds of these women are single, widowed,
divorced or must work to keep their family above the poverty level;
one family in three families headed by a woman is poor; and 93
percent of all welfare recipients are women and those dependent
upon women.  In addition, with one out of every two marriages in
the United States now ending in divorce, women are finding
themselves unprepared to adequately provide for themselves and
their children because of their psychological and physical
dependence on men and their lack of preparation to compete in the
labor market.  Inge Holloway and Maxine Forman, authors of
Obstacles to Economic Self-sufficiency, state that "a lifetime of
limited educational and employment opportunities coupled with
childbearing responsibilities leaves a woman with fewer
choices. . . ."

 The problems women face when they find themselves on the low
end of the economic scale can be overwhelming.  "Not being able to
consume in a society that worships material goods can be extremely
debilitating and can even cause a form of depression."  They can
be overcome by numerous economic problems when illness strikes
either themselves or their dependents, and being unable to provide
adequate food exacerbates their situation even more.

 Women are being barraged by restrictions in the welfare
system, and must cope with having to live in environments filled
with substandard housing, vermin, and crime.  They are constantly
faced with the very real possibility of joining the millions of
homeless people already living on the streets and in welfare hotels
across America today.  In addition, women must physically protect
themselves in dangerous situations, either from ex-husbands,
boyfriends, or total strangers, while at the same time try to
protect their children from the devastating effects of drugs,
crime, AIDS, poverty, and teen-age pregnancy.  Finally, one of the
most important impacts felt by poor women is the loss of a visible
and reliable male role model for their children.

 The total effect of this cumulative deprivation causes women
to suffer from a "Poverty Mentality," the conscious or unconscious
decision to live an unfulfilled life--financially, emotionally,
creatively, or physically.  Tessa Albert Warschaw says that women
"may feel financially strapped, emotionally undernourished,
frustrated in their careers--or powerless to choose and change in
one or all three of these areas."  In order to break out of this
Poverty Mentality, women must begin to take positive steps to
change their thought processes and stop envisioning themselves as
victims of men and society.

 Despite great strides in the past thirty years toward greater
equality among the sexes, women still find themselves being
victimized by a male dominated society.  The Equal Rights
Amendment, a proposed Constitutional amendment that has failed to
date to pass numerous Congressional votes, says simply:

 Section 1.  Equality of rights under the law shall not be
denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account
of sex.

 Section 2.  The Congress shall have the power to enforce by
appropriate legislation the provisions of this article.

 Section 3.  This amendment shall take effect two years after
the date of ratification.

 Cassandra Johnson, author of The Economic Necessity for the
E.R.A., believes that the three parts of The Equal Rights Amendment
will "do all that is necessary to right the complete wrong that is
the injustice of inequality our society practices against women."

 People, according to Ruth Sidel, must recognize that "society
must provide a humane environment in which people can live, work,
thrive, and raise their children.  The old supports of family and
community must be replaced by some societal supports." She
further states that a policy that "puts women and children first
will lead eventually to a more humane society policy for all
Americans."  Sidel proposes that three areas of reform are "the
arena of work; universal entitlements specifically connected to the
lives of families, particularly those with young children; and the
welfare system."

 Until we change our attitudes for "our special responsibility
as a society toward mothers and children," society as a whole
will continue to suffer and the victimization of women will
flourish unabated.  If we do not, women might again become
"exploited as property to be bought and sold, as goods to be
bargained and bartered. . . ."

Laurel