Ashamed to Have Children? Speaking Out Against the Stigmatization of Women in Poverty

Every year, International Women’s Day offers an all-too-symbolic reminder of our continuing struggle to secure women’s human rights in this country and across the world.  The barriers to economic and social rights we seek to tackle on a daily basis disproportionally affect women, especially women of color living in poverty. 

If we look no further than today’s news, right here in New York City, we witness an appalling example of the stigmatization of young women who’ve been made poor. An insidious new advertising campaign, funded by the city, marks pregnant teen girls with its own version of a scarlet letter. In colorful posters and a text messaging “game,” young women are made to feel ashamed about their motherhood. When women, especially African American and Latina, get blamed for having to raise children in poverty, while the motherhood of well-off, usually white women, is celebrated, our society has truly lost its moral compass. When teen pregnancy is depicted as causing poverty, rather than the other way around, our political debate is willfully abandoning any reasonable structural analysis of inequity and injustice.

The war on women has even spread to a seemingly progressive state like Vermont, where the state budget debate has taken an ugly turn, pitting people against each other in a cut-throat competition for resources. A proposed slashing of welfare and low-income tax credit programs, which primarily support women, threatens to isolate women in poverty. It is uncanny how quickly a debate about “welfare” can open the floodgates to stigmatization, especially of women who dare to have children. Yet Vermont’s women are fighting back: they have spoken out at public hearings, testified at the statehouse and reclaimed their dignity as part of the Put People First movement. Policies that attack women who are poor are part of a general backwards approach to budgeting put on trial by Put People First, which seeks to unify economic and social rights advocacy in the state. In this case, welfare rights and gender equity issues are strengthened by joining a broader human rights umbrella in the struggle for a state budget that advances dignity and equity for all.