Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America
reviewed by Marybeth Gasman - 2004
Title: Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America
Author(s): Vivyan Campbell Adair & Sandra L. Dahlberg (Editors)
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1592130224, Pages: 269, Year: 2003
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Like the editors and authors of Reclaiming Class: Women, Poverty, and the Promise of Higher Education in America, I too grew up in a family troubled by financial problems. My parents struggled to raise ten children in a small, rural town in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Despite my mother’s encouragement to attend college, my parents knew very little about the college experience, financial aid, which institutions were prestigious, etc. Although the school I chose—a small private college about 100 miles from home—was probably not the best choice in all respects, it was there that I was mentored and encouraged to attend graduate school. Positive role models and individuals who opposed class and gender discrimination helped me to overcome the steep learning curve I faced because of my family background.
Reading Reclaiming Class forced me to think about my own background, my mother’s, and that of my students. Regardless of socio-economic status, I think that this book will move the reader to consider and reconsider his or her thoughts, actions, and treatment of others. Reclaiming Class, part of the Teaching/Learning Social Justice Series published Temple University Press, offers the reader a glimpse into the lives of women who have overcome great obstacles (and some who are still trying to) often because of and sometimes in spite of higher education. Although their stories were in some ways similar to my own, many of these women lacked the mentoring that in my case led to a more positive experience.
Reclaiming Class is divided into three sections: the first section includes a group of essays that are a unique blend of theory and personal storytelling, showing how these women left poverty behind to navigate through the higher education system; the second section is the most compelling and includes stories by women who are still in the process of changing their lives through higher education; and the third offers a more policy-oriented view of the situation for low-income women seeking higher education. Editors Vivyan C. Adair and Sandra L. Dahlberg and the individual chapter authors argue that women from lower income homes approach and experience higher education differently. The individual accounts themselves are engaging and are very successful at drawing in the reader. Those that are most poignant are not clogged with theoretical jargon but instead beautifully tell of the difficulties in these women’s lives.
A common complaint heard in the authors’ stories is that the culture of the academy poses barriers for first generation students and those from low-income backgrounds – that its language is alienating. But, occasionally, the essays fall into the exact habit that they are trying to discourage. For example, in Vivyan Adair’s “Disciplined and Punished,” the author tells of her experiences as a single parent during graduate school using Foucault’s notion of the “genealogy of torture and discipline as it reflects a public display of power on the body of subjects” (p. 27). Adair goes on to explain poverty as a “moral pathology etched into the bodies of profoundly poor women.” An imaginative conception, yes, but I wonder if ruminations of decadent French theorists really shed light on the experiences of working class women in the academy. I am not sure that this style of writing would be accessible or empowering to the very group of women the editors (might) be trying to reach.
The exception in this first section is Joycelyn K. Moody’s essay entitled “To Be Young, Pregnant, and Black: My Life as A Welfare Coed,” which describes the author’s personal self-hatred, experienced earlier in her career, as a result of the negative media images of black women. Her memories of being one of a few African American women at a small, Catholic college in the South are the kind of recollections that cause goose bumps to appear on your skin. Moody’s honesty brings you into her situation and her clarity keeps you there allowing you to learn from her experiences.
Section Two of the book exposes the racist portrayal of “welfare queens” by telling the actual stories of these women. In particular this section discusses the way the media, the academy, and the government scandalizes these women and how policies that profess to help women on welfare actually hurt them.
Tonya Mitchell, for example, writes of being “young, black, pregnant, unwed, and poor (p. 85).” Her story is tangible and real. When she writes about visiting the welfare office she brings the reader face to face with the underlying purpose (I think) of this book – to make us understand the experiences of these women so that we might act upon our shock and discomfort and seek to change the way higher education operates. Mitchell writes:
As I approached the reception desk, a clerk looked at my small, brown, and still not showing body and bitterly remarked, ‘Pregnant, I suppose!’ From there it went downhill. During my screening, the caseworker sarcastically stated, ‘I suppose you don’t know who the daddy is’; stifled a laugh when I said I planned to finish my GED and go on to college; and glared at me when I told him that I refused to have my teachers – who did not yet know I was pregnant – sign notes for the welfare office stating that I was still in school and in good standing (p. 113-114).
Mitchell’s story was particularly troubling because she has not overcome her problems and, in fact, had to drop out of college due to welfare reform. I am grateful to the editors for including her story, but wish that more of the women’s stories had both the clarity and complexity of Mitchell’s. The stories in Section Two of Reclaiming Class are vivid – a mixture of despair, joy, failure, and success.
Section Three puts the women’s stories into context providing statistical detail and in-depth information on the extent of the abuse taking place in these women’s lives – both physical and emotional. The authors sort out the contradictions of welfare reform, showing the repressive effect it has on those it purports to help. In an essay entitled “That’s Why I’m on Prozac,” Lisa D. Brush pleads with us to make changes in the way we approach low-income women:
Educators and welfare administrators and staff have to respect welfare recipients, and policy has to be built on the realities of women’s lives, not just stereotypes. Thinking clearly about complicated social problems and working on a case-by-case basis with poor women takes time, money, and effort. However, we cannot afford to do any less (p. 235).
Although it lacks the richness of the accounts in section two, this part of the book is filled with important information and is very helpful to both policy makers and faculty interested in the politics of education or education policy.
Despite the occasional theoretical clouding of an issue, I found Reclaiming Class to be a very worthwhile read, and I would recommend it to several audiences: first, women who have had similar experiences; second, faculty – both men and women – who want to understand better the perspectives and backgrounds of their students (something in which I hope we are all interested); and third, policy makers or those who influence policy makers. The editors and authors have put together an important text that brings to the surface the absurdity of the welfare system as well as the way that colleges and universities often work against women who are trying to better themselves educationally and their families financially.