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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Ask Bobby #12
September 25, 2023

Giving a Voice to Low Income Women

“Welfare Queen”-the phrase coined by Ronald Reagan to stereotype Americans who receive governmental assistance. One professor has strived to shatter such a label with her exhibit “The Art of Survival” at the Newbury College Art Gallery.

“The welfare mother is one of the most hated women in American culture,” says Dr. Claire Cummings, Newbury College Women’s study professor and member of Survivors Inc., a grassroots organization that has been together for 18 years.

In an effort to change perceptions of Welfare mothers among Americans, she has curated “The Art of Survival” that arose from nearly two decades of collaboration between Dottie Stevens and Cummings, who have worked together on the publishing and editing of Survival News, a news journal for, by, and about low-income women. The exhibit is constructed from photographs taken by Stevens for Survival News.

Cummings explained that her idea for the exhibit blossomed from a desire to have the voices of low-income women heard. “I believe they are heroines of social change,” she says. As Cummings was a former recipient of Welfare, she can identify with low-income women. By incorporating poverty into the exhibit in a positive light, she believes she can capture the beauty of poor women without spending a lot of money on the project. Cummings looked at over 1,000 photographs to pick out the ones that looked the best in black and white-ones that she says captured the brilliance and intelligence of these women. She mounted the photographs on cardboard she bought at Staples. “We’re an anti-poverty organization, we don’t have a lot of money. The exhibit itself represents art surviving without a lot of money,” she stated, adding, “The exhibit captured in the pictures the tremendous spirit of women trying to change society for the better for themselves, for their children, and others that come after that.” The exhibit displayed a kitchen table, which Cummings explained received a lot of attention because the kitchen table is the American woman’s desk. “She doesn’t have a study, she doesn’t have a desk, the study was always for the man. The kitchen table is where we wrote our articles. It is where we met to strategize and organize for social change.” “The Art of Survival” confronts the negative connotations associated with Welfare mothers. These connotations derive from political propaganda and politicians according to Cummings. “Why would anybody want to hate poor people?” she asks. Cummings says many of her students have a distorted perception of Welfare mothers-that they are women with fancy cars and have ten kids by different fathers.

Cummings explains some of the generalizations people associate with Welfare, “People think Welfare women are more sexual and sleep with many people. Who’s a ‘good’ woman? A good woman is always a middle class white woman. A bad woman is always a woman on welfare whose fat and black and has no husband. The exhibit deals with a lot of that.” Cummings received her Ph.D. in Women’s Studies from Clark University and has been a life-long activist in the movement for economic justice. Through “The Art of Survival,” Cummings goal was, “To cast women in a positive and respectful light that would change peoples’ stereotypes.”