By Emily R. Cummins and Linda M. Blum
The impact of national welfare programs on women, in particular the consequences of the 1996 reforms on many of our nation’s most poor and marginalized women are well documented. In the aftermath of the 1996 reforms, there emerged an effort to understand the network of philanthropic or nonprofit organizations that have cropped up to address the void left by reform. Dress for Success is just such an organization. A women-centered nonprofit organization, Dress for Success assists low-income women enter (or re-enter) the labor force by providing gently used, professional attire to wear to job interviews. The suiting program resembles a personal shopping experience, with each woman client paired with a volunteer “consultant” or “personal shopper.” A client leaves with an interview outfit, always a suit but often with shoes and accessories, carefully chosen by the dedicated volunteer. After opening its first “boutique” in 1997 in New York City, Dress for Success has expanded with affiliate offices across the United States and as far flung as Jamaica and Poland. The mission of the organization is grounded in the core belief of our neoliberal era: self-sufficiency should be attained through paid employment.
In our study, we draw on ethnographic fieldwork conducted at an affiliate office where we analyzed the interactions between women on the boutique floor over the course of an eight-month period, observing over 20 personal shopping experiences. Very often the interactions we observed were characterized by a difference in privilege, both in terms of class and race. Volunteers were generally white and affluent while their clients were low-income, women of color, and very often single mothers. These cross-race, cross-class interactions between women remind us of the voluntary activism of privileged women of much earlier eras organized in churches, clubs, and philanthropies to assist low-income immigrant mothers. This late 19th and early 20th century activism was later termed “maternalist” as privileged women sought to extend the domesticity and care of moral motherhood into the community. By the early 20th-century, such maternalist initiated reforms laid the ground for decades of U.S. welfare assistance to poor families. Alongside this, though, were more condescending assumptions that low-income women needed moral uplift and intrusive supervision. We draw from this historical work to understand interactions between women in a contemporary, post-welfare context. We call these interactions “neoliberal maternalism”, which we define as a kind of relation that seeks to promote independent, self-sufficient workers and a display of white, middle-class demeanor required for the post-industrial service economy. We find that a particular kind of body politics surfaces during personal shopping sessions. Consultants are often highly critical of clients’ appearances, intrusively managing hair, clothing, and makeup, in an effort to cultivate the kind of aesthetic and emphasized femininity demanded by service work. We suggest that this body politics focused on disciplining appearances distinguishes neoliberal maternalism from earlier maternalist moments.
Yet, we also observed many moments of genuine care and reciprocity, where the boutique floor became a space for understanding and empathy. We saw inspiring instances of cross-class and cross-race interactions that harken back to progressive era calls for social reform that benefitted many poor single mothers. Clients and consultants joked and laughed together, sometimes extended offers for childcare or other assistance, and shared the pleasures of shopping and pride in telling stories of their families and children. These connections with clients allowed consultants to see beyond broadly circulating stereotypes of low-income women.
Will this kind of woman-to-woman proximity found in Dress for Success, which so often occurs across classed and racialized boundaries, reinvigorate calls for broader reform, which might help our nation’s poor mothers? Asking these questions is crucial if we hope to move beyond broadly circulating stereotypes about poor women and it is especially crucial for those of us concerned with expanding social equality in a post-welfare, postindustrial context.
Emily R. Cummins is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at Northeastern University. Her dissertation focuses on the production of gendered and racialized inequalities in designing urban space in Detroit.
Linda M. Blum is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Northeastern University. She is the author most recently of Raising Generation Rx: Mothering Kids with Invisible Disabilities in an Age of Inequality (NYU Press, 2015).