The “Welfare Queen” Goes to the Polls: Race-Based Fractures in Gender Politics and Opportunities for Intersectional Coalitions
Geo. L.J. 19th Amend. Special Edition 105 (2020) (with Camille Gear Rich)
Catherine Powell* & Camille Gear Rich**
As Americans celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification, our celebration would be premature if we failed to reflect on the ways that race has been used to fracture women’s efforts at coalition politics and our understanding of women’s rights. Indeed, a careful reading of U.S. history and contemporary politics shows that although similar rights claims are made across a diverse community of American women, women’s shared interests are often obscured by the divisive manipulation of race. Notably, 2020 is also the 150-year anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote to Black men. In this Article, we use the coinciding anniversaries of the two amendments as a critical opportunity to direct feminist attention to intersectional questions—to frame this historical moment as a pivot point that explores the mutually constitutive nature of gender and racial subordination in American politics.

In service of these goals, we use this Article to explore a toxic racial construct often used to distract American women from our shared rights claims—the political trickster known as the “welfare queen.” This construct was born as a result of fiscal conservatives’ attacks on government anti-poverty subsidy programs in the 1980s. It relied on antipathy toward Black women—characterized as “welfare cheats” or frauds—and pathologized women of color to call for aggressive cuts to social-safety-net programs. This Article explores the remobilization of this construct in present-day electoral politics and the ways in which it compromises cross-racial coalitions and obscures the path to reform. We take as our object the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, for in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his surrogates reanimated the welfare queen construct and alleged that she was stealing American democracy through voter fraud. The visceral power of this construct allowed this group of Republicans to transform Americans’ understanding of voting rights and American democracy. In so doing, their representations simultaneously sidetracked feminist efforts to build strong cross-racial coalitions. This Article explores the various paths out of our current discourse, dispelling the distracting haze generated by the welfare queen construction. In the process, we also hope to advance our conceptual understanding of intersectional identities and their relationship to political change.

I. The Welfare Queen Goes to the Polls
a. origins of the welfare queen
Created by the Republican right, the welfare queen was used to stereotype and villainize Black women on public assistance and using other social welfare programs. Americans were told that the welfare queen was indolent and self-indulgent, that her addiction to government benefits threatened to bankrupt the nation. Americans were told that the welfare queen was irresponsible and sexually aggressive, that her commitment to single motherhood made her and her children a threat to American morals and the nuclear family.
Importantly, the welfare queen caricature evolved over time to allow conservatives to reshape rights understandings in ways that hurt the life chances of all Americans. She evolved into such a reviled figure that the government was able to make the claim that anyone who attempted to draw on public benefits to support her family was morally problematic. Americans were no longer told that the problem was actual waste or deceit. Rather, the discourse on the welfare queen shifted away from blaming select women who unfairly exploited the system and drew on more than their fair share of benefits. Instead the discourse shifted to allege that no woman should be reliant on the state for the support of her children. The new baseline was that no woman has the right to have a child that she cannot afford. The new assumption was that a woman should marry a breadwinner or that a single mother should be at work, financially supporting her children, instead of staying at home. This was a critical pivot in welfare queen discourse. The pivot helps us see how the reviled-figure construct can be used to pathologize general basic-rights claims on issues like family support. Once the welfare queen was mobilized in this way, the stereotype became an effective tool that decreased public empathy for people trapped in poverty, encouraged shame about the poor’s need to ask for family assistance, and marginalized the poor from political conversations about the state’s role in supporting families. Although the welfare queen remained Brown, the larger conversation she engendered extended to all poor women, casting them as a drain on the public purse that needed to be managed.

Additionally, the welfare queen stereotype was used to reduce empathy on a number of fronts that would later be relevant in a variety of political conflicts. She naturalized the idea that procedural mistakes were actually evidence of malfeasance—missing deadlines to apply for benefits, exceeding one’s welfare allotment, or being unable to manage administrative systems could be treated as attempts to circumvent the rules, stupidity, or laziness. *** More generally, Americans were encouraged to see the welfare queen as a thief and a threat, and their enmity toward her allowed the government to roll back a rich array of antipoverty programs that many considered a safety net and a bridge to middle-class life.

Although the welfare queen discourse continued through the turn of the century, it took on a renewed energy and focus with the rise of Trump, because he found that the construct served two of his key areas of interest: immigration reform and voting-rights challenges. Specifically, the authors have noted elsewhere how Trump reanimated the welfare queen stereotype when he raised public concern about immigrant mothers coming to the United States to have “anchor babies” and draw on public benefits. This repurposing of the welfare queen stereotype was relatively easy—he merely had to propose that granting citizenship or residency rights to Mexican and Central American women would lead to a claim for benefits. Recent arguments by other conservative pundits mirror the same understanding. Trump argued that the federal government should prohibit immigrants from applying for citizenship if they have drawn on public assistance during their time in the United States. The strategy was effective in multiple ways; it sent a symbolic message that immigrants are a drain on the public purse, and it frightened many needy families away from collecting food and economic supports otherwise available under federal and state antipoverty programs.
b. the welfare queen at the polls
Since 2016, Trump has also explored the power of the welfare queen construct in electoral politics—specifically, raising public anxiety about voter–tricksters at the polls as a basis for his establishing the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. As the basis for this Commission, Trump and his allies signaled that the welfare queen was a threat to American democracy itself when she ostensibly illegitimately participated in democratic elections. Republican politicians and media pundits told Americans that they were being overrun by voter–tricksters, a horde of Black and Brown bodies—most vividly represented as Black and Brown women—deceiving officials at polling sites and stealing various elections. According to this view, these women were not legally entitled to vote, but they attempted to trick voting officials into accepting their ballots and in this way diluted the voting power of “real” Americans. In making these claims, Republicans mobilized many of the same tools and tropes about theft that had previously been used to render women of color on public assistance as beyond redemption, beyond rescue, and beyond concern.
c. discursive goals: the welfare queen as a threat to american democracy
The mobilization of the welfare queen stereotype in the voting context has retained many of the features of the original construct into which she was born. Similar to the welfare queen, the voter-fraud trickster is reviled because of her alleged skillful exploitation of technical rules; her laziness and sloth; and because, at bottom, her perspective on American resource distribution and rights is at odds with and threatens the status quo. Much of the effort to thwart the voter-fraud trickster goes beyond vindicating Americans’ fairness concerns or preventing the vote from being “stolen.” Rather, particularly when referring to “illegally” voting immigrants, pundits express concern that illicit voters will force substantive change in American society by hijacking the democratic process.

Indeed, discourse about the voter–trickster is so deeply entrenched that it is now hegemonic: it affects American voters’ views regardless of whether they think this actual threat exists. This becomes clear when we examine how the voter–trickster stereotype has changed how Americans think about voting legislation and the terms on which the constitutional right to vote is offered. In short, whether one believes that there are hordes of illicit voters storming the polls across the country, the voter–trickster discourse has ensured that all Americans have adopted some baseline views about the American voting process. These baseline views should be treated as an effect of discursive power because they frame conversations: they wholly remove certain options for legal reform and place certain kinds of legal relief beyond the cultural imagination. The voter–trickster has had three discrete discursive effects that should concern us. She encouraged Americans to believe that voting rights are a scarce resource that must be rationed; that individual malfeasance is a greater threat to government than institutional fraud efforts; and that America naturally has a large class of nonvoting near citizens that must remain voiceless but effectively managed.

II. Lessons of the Past: How the Trickster Narrative Fractured Intersectional Politics in the Pre-Nineteenth Amendment Period
This Part of the Article illustrates how a racialized trickster narrative was also threaded throughout the pre-Nineteenth Amendment ratification era. However, initially during this period it was Black men who were primarily seen as political tricksters—a trope that was eventually transferred to Black women as well. On the one hand, the pre-Nineteenth Amendment period is remarkable for the ways Black and white women (and slavery abolitionists and women’s suffragists more generally) were able to build alliances toward the right to vote. On the other hand, this period is notable because of the ways that the trickster trope emerged and took hold. Specifically, Blacks were accused of “selling their votes,” being vulnerable to manipulation by politicians based on Black illiteracy, and generally being irresponsible voters.
a. the rise and fall of intersectional politics in the suffrage movement
To set the stage, this section examines the emergence and unraveling of a cross-racial alliance leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Even before the Civil War, Black and white women came together to demand universal suffrage, regardless of gender and race. It is a remarkable story of solidarity, forged in the long, dark shadow of exclusion, slavery, violence, and liminal status.

Women were simply left out of the Constitution—except for, eventually, the Nineteenth Amendment (and over time, the Fourteenth Amendment). To the extent the Framers put Blacks in the Constitution prior to the Fourteenth Amendment, they did so to preserve slavery and entrench race inequality.1 It is therefore no surprise that the movements for race and gender equality intersected in the context of the nineteenth century movements for abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage.

The alliance between abolitionists and suffragists was more than just strategic; it was conceptual as well. Women’s suffragists “invoked the principles and precedent of the American Revolution to attack claims of virtual representation”2 and support the idea of overthrowing the “tyranny” men had over women in virtually every sphere3—and combined this approach with “the radical egalitarianism of the antislavery constitutional tradition.”4 Several leaders were involved in both movements.

A number of renowned women’s suffrage leaders—such as Susan B. Anthony, Angelina Emily Grimké Weld, Lucretia Mott, and Lucy Stone—had been active in the abolition movement. They joined Black activists—including Soujourner Truth, Sarah Redmond, Margaretta Forten, Harriet Forten Purvis, and Frederick Douglass—to push for universal suffrage. Expressing solidarity, Angelina Emily Grimké Weld said, “I want to be identified with the Negro. Until he gets his rights, we shall never get ours.”5 Frederick Douglass, a former slave, was not only well-known as an abolitionist but also for his reputation as “the first male of any color to advocate publicly for woman suffrage.”6

Despite these early signs of unity, racial fissures were apparent from the start of the women’s suffrage movement. Although Frederick Douglass participated in the Seneca Falls convention, no Black women were recorded as having attended. Even where Black women were present and active in historic meetings and debates on women’s suffrage, their role was largely invisible in the six-volume History of Woman Suffrage, initially edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda J. Gage.7 For example, in the first volume—published in 1881 (and covering the movement’s history from 1848–1860)—“[n]ot one Black woman’s photograph appeared in the volume, not even the celebrated Sojourner Truth.”8 Reflecting her relative marginalization among not only African American male intellectual circles9 but also presumably within the mainstream women’s suffrage movement, Truth gave her celebrated “Ain’t I a Woman” speech at an 1851 women’s convention in Akron, Ohio.10

Although universal suffrage continued to be a goal for many women’s suffragists—particularly Black suffragists—a split emerged in the aftermath of the Civil War.11 Suffragists who were opposed to the inclusion of the word “male” in the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) failed in their advocacy to exclude the term.12 Along similar lines, two years later, many suffragists protested the fact that the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised only Black men, but not women.13 The debate that followed then “divided the universal suffrage movement into two camps[:] those who felt that Black men needed the vote even more than women, and those who were unwilling to postpone woman suffrage for the sake of Black males.”14

b. how the political trickster narrative aided in fracturing feminist solidarity
The trickster narrative—and the racial construction motivating it—helped to fracture the alliances between Black and white women in the period leading up to the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification. In this context—not unlike the stereotype of the welfare queen a century later—the trickster was viewed as irresponsible based on dishonesty. Alternatively, Blacks were viewed as unable to vote responsibly, due to lack of sufficient literacy, ostensibly enabling Blacks to be more easily tricked and manipulated by politicians. As Terborg-Penn notes, “As early as the 1870s, white women had pointed to the irresponsibility of the Black freedman[, and] . . . . white suffragists clung to this attitude, and by the 1890s had transferred it to all Blacks, both men and women.”15 Proposals to disenfranchise Black men, such as poll taxes and literacy tests—designed to systematically strip Black men of the vote—were built on claims that they and Black women lacked the integrity and/or education to exercise responsible voting.
c. the “new departure movement”: black and white women alike appropriated the trickster’s tools with illicit voting as a form of civil disobedience
Despite these fractures, Black and white women continued to push for suffrage, although in several respects on separate tracks. An example of this parallel but distinct effort was the strategy to seek women’s suffrage under the Reconstruction Amendments prior to the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification through the “New Departure” movement.
The New Departure strategy was bold—even radical. We might view it through the lens of civil disobedience, in that by voting, women were breaking laws barring them from the franchise or, at best, voting where the law was ambiguous in authorizing them to vote. Deploying tools of the classic political trickster, these women were bending and even breaking the rules but were vindicating a “higher” law in some sense, such as the American Declaration’s Founding promise that “all men are created equal.”16 Just as today’s political trickster flouts the norms of “decency,” the women in the New Departure movement often defied the norms of their times, even while frequently constrained by the norms of “respectability,” which may have curbed their radicalism in other respects.17 In some cases, these women were arrested and prosecuted as law breakers.18 Although these efforts mostly unfolded on two tracks—with white and Black women risking arrest in separate incidents—important developments linked these efforts.
d. coalition politics laid a foundation for a more robust approach to rights
and citizenship
As discussed in section A of this Part above, the alliance between Black and white women was more than merely one of political convenience—it embodied a shared conceptual vision as well. The suffrage movement fused the principles of the American Revolution concerning representation with “the radical egalitarianism” of the abolition movement.19 As Siegel points out, “As head of household, a [white] male property holder who voted was thought to represent the interests of all who depended upon him—not only his sons and daughters, but also his wife, servants, and slaves.”20 Although differently situated, the abolition and suffrage movements embraced a shared conception of rights—which Black women were central in articulating and embodying. This conception of rights was more robust than rights recognized by the status quo at the time and, indeed, had to be more robust to move beyond the existing conception of rights that limited the right to vote to white men. This vision of rights was a human rights vision—broader than the prevailing civil and political rights framework of the pre-Nineteenth Amendment period. This human rights approach had to be capacious enough to cover those inhabiting the liminal space between subject and citizen and inclusive enough to cover even those cast aside as fraudsters or otherwise undeserving of the rights of citizenship. In short, through the movement for universal suffrage (including all Blacks and all women) suffragists crafted a more capacious campaign for human rights. This had had the potential of providing credibility to “shadow populations”—then, women and Blacks—who had been stigmatized by the broader society, and even to each other as too incompetent or too untrustworthy to exercise the franchise.

The human rights vision the coalition formed was honed at the intersection of abolition and suffrage. It became the basis for building strong bridges between Black voters of both genders and white women. The approach had three central elements, which continue to define this broader notion of rights: (1) that rights and identities are intersectional, (2) that fundamental rights (such as the right to vote) are inalienable, regardless of the state’s formal recognition of such rights, and (3) that certain rights (again, such as the right to vote) are exercised and made particularly meaningful in a social and collective context (as opposed to solely viewed from an individualistic rights perspective).

1. Intersectional Rights and Identities
The first element of this human rights vision—intersectional rights and identities—was framed by both the Black suffragist, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and the abolitionist and suffragist, Frederick Douglass. These key leaders played a striking role in advancing the idea of intersectionality as a core component of a more robust vision of rights. In recognizing the potential for coalition building, Watkins Harper eloquently and forcefully outlined the crucial significance of an intersectional approach during Reconstruction, stating that “[w]e are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and society cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul.”21 Appealing to the ways that support for Black women at the intersection of gender and race could benefit both white women (in securing suffrage) and Black men (in maintaining their voting rights) alike, a “coalition-building strategy was at work here, for African American women hoped that all three groups—Black women, Black men, and white women—could see the need to pull together in order to accomplish similar goals.”22 In the end, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment left Black women disenfranchised, because they still faced literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and other sweeping measures adopted as backlash against Reconstruction.23 And yet the coalitional politics leading up to its ratification signaled moments of alliance and critical insights into both the potential and limitations of building coalitions for legal reform.

Frederick Douglass also embraced a human rights vision grounded in the idea of intersectionality, even more explicitly invoking the terminology of “human rights.” For example, in his own autobiography, Douglass reflected on “a bold denunciation of slavery, and a powerful vindication of human rights.”24 In the context of woman’s suffrage, Douglass spoke to both the interdependence of rights and the notion that those most directly affected—including those at various intersections of identity—should be placed at the center and heard in coalitional politics. For example, in one speech, Douglass elegantly articulated and embraced a full-throated theory of intersectionality, declaring:

No man, however eloquent, can speak for woman as woman can for herself.

Nevertheless, I hold that this cause is not altogether and exclusively woman’s cause. It is the cause of human brotherhood as well as the cause of human sisterhood, and both must rise and fall together. Woman cannot be elevated without elevating man, and man cannot be depressed without depressing woman also.25

2. The Inalienability of Rights
A second element of the human rights conception that was fused through the alliance between abolitionists and suffragists was the inalienability of rights. This notion of the inalienability of rights was articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence. Although a slaveholder himself, Jefferson was influenced by enlightenment thinkers—such as John Locke—who paved the way for the idea that all humans have certain basic rights. In other words, simply by virtue of our shared humanity, certain rights are universal. In proclaiming that that “all men are created equal,” Jefferson, of course, went on to state that all men “are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable rights.”26 The U.S. Constitution provides this rights idea today on a secular, social-contract-theory basis (rather than on the natural-law basis implied in Jefferson’s formulation). But the idea of the inalienability of rights continues to undergird U.S. constitutional law, based on the notion that there are certain prepolitical rights that are retained by the people in a representative democracy.27 A basic feature of popular sovereignty and social-contract theory (incorporated into the U.S. Constitution by our own Framers) is that government can neither grant nor eliminate fundamental rights such as life, liberty, equality, and the right to vote.28
3. Suffrage as Both Individual Right and Collective Responsibility
The Reconstruction period was especially important in instantiating a thicker idea of rights that recognizes that even as we exercise rights as individuals, many rights have associative dimensions. Although U.S. constitutional law is traditionally theorized as based on the idea of individual rights and rugged individualism, scholars of the Reconstruction period note ways the Emancipation and its aftermath invited a broader view.29 During this period, Blacks were keenly aware that the votes they cast as individuals were inherently constitutive of the rights and power of Blacks as a whole. This is precisely why some white suffragists sought to cabin the enfranchisement of African American women (in light of the connection between Black women’s voting rights and Black power). Given the construct of the political trickster as a lever for rolling back the enfranchisement of Black men, even while women were still struggling for the right to vote themselves, Black women often sought support for their own enfranchisement in community-empowerment terms, not merely in terms of their own individual rights.
III. The Road Ahead
History’s lessons are hard-earned, but unfortunately sometimes they are ignored. In 2016, long-standing fractures along race and gender in the American electorate were again ripe for exploitation. As discussed in Part II, based on Trump’s repeated claims that widespread voter fraud explained why Hillary Clinton won the popular vote—even though he won the Electoral College—Trump established his voter fraud commission. As discussed above, Republican pundits capitalized on this opportunity and sent the welfare queen construct to the polls. In addition to relying on base racial stereotyping, the Republican voter–trickster account also opened up a deep discursive rift that transformed our fundamental understanding of Americans’ right to vote and the terms on which it is to be offered. To be clear, our analysis does not posit that all Americans believed Republican pundit claims that a horde of shadowy tricksters had descended on the nation’s polling stations during the presidential election and must be punished. Rather, we posit that the Republican rhetoric still succeeded despite progressives’ skepticism, because Republican arguments achieved hegemony: their voter–trickster claims transformed Americans’ conversations about the right to vote, regardless of whether one agreed with these Republican pundits’ ultimate conclusions of fraud. This transformation of voting understandings fundamentally compromised feminists’ potential to build cross-racial gender coalitions in the voting arena.
b. charting a way forward
1. Miner’s Canary Analysis and Contemporary Politics
Can we imagine future conversations that are not compromised by racial fractures produced by the voter trickster construct? What would true solidarity mean? One approach would be to employ a classic miner’s canary analysis and use the concept of “political race” that Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres argued could usher in a new era of progressive cross racial politics.30 Miner’s canary analysis and the associated concept of ‘political race’ require parties to examine the legal and social problems faced by minorities to identify broader social problems that threaten Americans generally.31
Although the benefits of a miner’s canary frame are clear, this strategy for coalition building does have limits. Sometimes challenges are distinct to a minority group and are not easily transferrable to raise concerns about a more general domain.
2. Interest-Convergence Approaches
Another course for coalition building is to pursue a strategy informed by Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence model.32 Importantly, when Bell introduced the concept of interest convergence, he was not attempting to build an affirmative model for political action or a guide for people trying to build cross-racial coalitions for legislative and policy initiatives. Instead, Bell offered the interest-convergence model to illuminate why cross-racial coalitions for racial justice are fragile. Specifically, Bell posited that African American gains in civil rights would only occur where they coincided with whites’ interests and were relatively cost-free or caused little inconvenience.
Viewed in more general terms, Bell’s theory showed that when various constituencies are motivated to achieve an equality goal for entirely different reasons, their commitment to that goal will vary based on the values the equality goal serves and will be displayed at different levels of intensity. For example, one group may defect from a cross-racial coalition when the goal has only been achieved at a very superficial, symbolic level, because their political interest in the goal has been satisfied. This leaves the remaining groups in the cross-racial coalition that have a deeper commitment to a particular method of implementation or interest in substantive gains feeling betrayed or even used. Viewed through this lens, Bell’s argument allows us to identify contemporary challenges that threaten efforts to build cross-racial and gender coalitions supportive of voting reforms.
3. Intersolidarity Politics—A New Vision
a. Substantive Values Reassessment.
What would a more fulsome version of intersectional solidarity politics produce? It could proceed along a number of different lines. First, it would mean looking past these more classic miner’s canary accounts of shared interest questions and challenging voting restrictions that disproportionately fall on minorities. It would mean that feminist groups would focus on these issues regardless of whether their implications primarily benefit Brown and Black women and men.
b. Intersectional Perspectives and Coalition Politics.
Intersectional perspectives of women of color tend to bring the multifaceted, threatening nature of neutral policies to the fore, if coalition organizers are able to see them beyond simply their race or gender and as a conduit to potentially universal interests.
In short, a politics that focuses on intersectional perspectives gives us an opportunity to more self-consciously think about how policies play out across groups and examine the constituent members of our coalitions for missing members. Rather than merely trying to recruit a more diverse constituency to support an agenda already determined by a homogenous core leadership group of whites, we can consider how our coalitions would change if we gave more space to policies that intersectional perspectives raise as threats to us all.
c. Reassessing Leadership.
An intersectional feminist perspective focused on cross-race coalitions among women also has the possibility of expanding our definition of and expectations of a leader. Thankfully Americans now have a range of female leaders that continually allow Americans to reassess their default perspectives. Senators (and former presidential candidates) such as Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris and congresswomen such as Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib allow us to reconsider what we think fortitude or bravery looks like, as well as the kinds of communication styles and arguments we find persuasive. With this broad range of female political leaders, we can appreciate each of them for their distinct style of politics and consider what we expect public conversation and debate to look like.
d. Web-Based and Virtual Spaces for Intersectional Strategies and Moving Beyond the Trickster Construct.
Social media and other web-based tools present an additional strategy for circumventing the use of race in fracturing possibilities for coalition-building among women. To some extent, online spaces can help us overcome segregation in housing, the workplace, and other aspects of the physical world that not only elevate and ossify the significance of racial difference in society but make organizing across difference challenging. Today’s digital landscape provides a platform to recreate race, place, and space.
e. A Renewed Focus on Human Rights to Move Beyond the Trickster Construct.
As discussed in Part II of this Article, in the period leading up to the Nineteenth Amendment’s ratification, abolitionists and suffragists embraced a more robust vision of rights than the one reflected in the original Constitution, which failed to recognize the citizenship and equality of women and people of color. We have called this vision a human rights vision, because it was based on the indivisibility of rights, the inalienability of rights, and the collective nature of voting rights (as individual, yet collectively exercised as part of an electorate or, more discretely, as part of a voting bloc). This human rights vision did not depend on recognition from the state—even while it sought such recognition—and was thus broad enough to cover even those inhabiting the liminal space between subject and citizen, including tricksters, outcasts, and near-citizens.
Similarly, today a broad human-rights-based strategy will allow us to reclaim a vision of rights that is more intersectional and inclusive. Besides recognizing the indivisible and inalienable nature of rights, this strategy should recognize that the right to vote is not merely an individual entitlement, but part of a social process that constitutes community and belonging. None of us vote in isolation from the polity. Although the franchise gave women more independence from husbands, the right to vote is inevitably bound up with considerations of geography, community, and identity.
The year 2020 is an opportunity to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and the 150-year anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. However, Americans must also bear in mind that there still are many forces that threaten the ability of Black and Brown persons to vote and all women’s right to vote. Moreover, the institutional practices that threaten the ability of these vulnerable groups to vote will ultimately threaten all Americans’ voting rights and interests. Our ability to name and upend the social and institutional forces that erode Americans’ voting rights depends on two critical moves. First, we must resist the allure of the welfare queen and voter–trickster stereotypes, because it alienates us from key allies and encourages us to minimize the rights and pain of Brown and female voters. Second, we must be willing to look to the values perspectives of women caricatured as welfare queens, because these women give America the opportunity to radically question and reconstruct our notion of what we owe government and what government owes us. If we take these two steps, we can recraft the American dream in a manner that is inclusive and empowering for all Americans.

Technology can play a key role in this process. Recent campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) campaign, have shown us that Internet- and coalition-based strategies will allow us to cut across physical and spatial geographic borders, as well as conceptual borders of difference such as race and gender. Women of color are at the center of today’s campaigns for ratification of the ERA33 and challenging voting restrictions on former felons—demonstrating the importance of a more robust human rights perspective grounded in intersectional politics.

The path to coalition politics is broader than ever. One thing is certain: with the right coalitions we can build a world in which the women currently demonized as welfare queens find it safe to go to the polls and, equally importantly, see their interests more fairly represented on the ballots they cast in service of democracy.

* Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law. © 2020, Catherine Powell & Camille Gear Rich.
** Professor of Law and Sociology, University of Southern California Gould School of Law, Associate Provost of Student and Faculty Initiatives in the Social Sciences and Director PRYSM, the USC Initiative for the Study of Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Law.
1See, e.g., U.S. Const. art. I, § 2, cl. 3 (counting Black slaves as three-fifths of a person for apportionment); id. art. I, § 9, cl. 1 (prohibiting Congress from banning the importation of slaves through the international law trade before 1808); id. art. IV, § 2, cl. 3 (ensuring entitlements to slave holders to the return of runaway slaves).
2Reva B. Siegel, The Nineteenth Amendment and the Democratization of the Family, 129 Yale L.J. F. 450, 459 (2020) [hereinafter Siegel, The Nineteenth Amendment and the Democratization of the Family]; see also Reva B. Siegel, She the People: The Nineteenth Amendment, Sex Equality, Federalism, and the Family, 115 Harv. L. Rev. 947, 988 (2002) [hereinafter Siegel, She the People] (“Suffragists recalled the relations of colonists and king as they demanded ‘self-government’ and ‘no taxation without representation’ and as they demonstrated how virtual representation provided women no effective representation at all.”).
3Siegel, She the People, supra note 96, at 988 n.120 (quoting Report of the Women’s Rights Convention (Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19 & 20, 1848)).
4Siegel, The Nineteenth Amendment and the Democratization of the Family, supra note 96, at 460.
5Celeste Montoya, From Seneca to Shelby, in 100 Years of the Nineteenth Amendment: An Appraisal of Women’s Political Activism 105, 107 (Holly J. McCammon & Lee Ann Banaszak eds., 2018).
6Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920, 14 (1998).
7Id. at 14–15.
8Id. at 15.
9See Martha S. Jones, All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900, at 106-07 (2007).
10Montoya, supra note 5, at 108.
11Terborg-Penn, supra note 5, at 8.
15See Terborg-Penn, supra note 6, at 67.
16The Declaration of Independence para. 2 (U.S. 1776); see also Martin Luther King Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail 4 (1963), https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/coretexts/_files/resources/texts/1963_MLK_Letter_Abridged.pdf [https://perma.cc/T35G-FV5D] (justifying using civil disobedience in breaking unjust laws “on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake”).
17See, e.g., Rabia Belt, Historical Perspectives on Citizenship and the Nineteenth Amendment, Panel at the NYU Law Conference on “That Important Trust”: Suffrage and Citizenship 100 Years After the Nineteenth Amendment (Feb. 5, 2020) (attended by author) (discussing how notions of “respectability” colored the strategies chosen by the women’s suffragists, including embracing less inclusive strategies for Black women or other women who did not fit the restrictive images of respectability for women that emerged from the Victorian era).
18See Terborg-Penn, supra note 10, at 38, 40 (discussing Susan B. Anthony’s arrest and incarceration); cf. Eduardo Moisés Peñalver & Sonia K. Katyal, Property Outlaws, 155 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1095 (2007) (explaining instances where squatters and others “outlaws” violated private property rights (often in protest of unjust laws), leading to reform of those unjust laws); Eduardo Moisés Peñalver & Sonia K. Katyal, Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership (2010) (same).
19Siegel, The Nineteenth Amendment and the Democratization of the Family, supra note 1, at 459–60.
20Id. at 458 (emphasis added).
21Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Speech at the Eleventh National Woman’s Rights Convention (May 10, 1866).
22Terborg-Penn, supra note 6, at 9-10.
23See Jennifer K. Brown, Note, The Nineteenth Amendment and Women’s Equality, 102 Yale L.J. 2175, 2181 n.34 (1993).
24Angela Y. Davis, Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself: A New Critical Edition 150–51 (2010). He also spoke of being “awakened . . . on the subject of human rights.” Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom 274 (Miller, Orton & Mulligan 1855). Finally, during the Reconstruction period, Douglass embraced a natural rights notion underpinning the human rights idea in the Reconstruction era, writing:
While there remains such an idea as the right of each State to control its own local affairs . . . no general assertion of human rights can be of any practical value. To change the character of the government at this point is neither possible nor desirable. All that is necessary to be done is to make the government consistent with itself, and render the rights of the States compatible with the sacred rights of human nature.
Frederick Douglass, Reconstruction, 18 Atlantic Monthly 761, 761–62 (1866).
25Frederick Douglass on Women’s Rights: Contributions in Afro-American and African Studies, Number v (Philip S. Foner ed., 1976) (citing “Frederick Douglass in an undated speech to a Woman Suffrage Convention”).
26The Declaration of Independence para. 2 (U.S. 1776).
27See U.S. Const. amend. IX; cf. Louis Henkin, The Rights of Man Today 7-8 (Routledge 2019) (1978) (noting that the American Declaration and U.S. Constitution are based on the notion of prepolitical rights that are retained by The People).
28Thomas Paine, Rights of Man 49 (1791).
29Akhil Reed Amar, Forty Acres and a Mule: A Republic Theory of Minimal Entitlements, 13 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol’y 37 (1990).
30See Lani Guinier & Gerald Torres, The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy 10 (3d prtg. 2003).
31See id. at 11–12. As Guinier and Torres remind us, “those who are racially marginalized are like the miner’s canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all.” Id. at 11.
32See generally Derrick A. Bell, Jr., Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma, 93 Harv. L. Rev. 518 (1980).
33Julie C. Suk, We the Women: The Unstoppable Mothers of the Equal Rights Amendment (2020).
Scholarship of Note
Color of Covid and Gender of Covid: Essential Workers, Not Disposable People, 32 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism (forthcoming 2022)

The “Welfare Queen” Goes to the Polls: Race-Based Fractures in Gender Politics and Opportunities for Intersectional Coalitions, Geo. L.J. 19th Amend. Special Edition 105 (2020) (with Camille Gear Rich)

Race, Gender, and Nation in an Age of Shifting Borders, UCLA Journal of International Law and Foreign Affairs (2020)

We the People: These United Divided States, 40 Cardozo Law Review (2019)

Race and Rights in the Digital Age, 112 AJIL Unbound (2018)

How Women Could Save the World, If Only We Would Let Them: From Gender Essentialism to Inclusive Security, 28 Yale Journal of Law & Feminism 271 (2017)

Gender Indicators as Global Governance: Not Your Father’s World Bank, 17 Georgetown Journal of Gender and the Law 777 (2016)