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Governing the poor: Women and the politics of community activism in England

Susan Brin Hyatt, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Over the past 20 years, small-scale citizen action movements have become an integral part of the social and political landscapes of countries throughout the post-industrial west. In poor communities in particular, the protagonists of such endeavors are often women. Based on two years of fieldwork in a municipality in northern England, I examine the emergence of local-level campaigns, initiated and sustained by women who are tenants of public sector housing developments (council estates). By combining ethnographic material based on participant-observation with historical research, I suggest that the current fluorescence of grassroots activism is one outcome of a shift in the way in which poverty is being "governed" in post-industrial societies, away from the government of the poor once characteristic of welfare states and toward a new notion of government by the poor as manifested in policies intended to foster such values as "freedom," "choice" and "empowerment." In Chapter 2, I propose an historical explanation for women's on-going participation in local-level campaigns by considering the extent to which poor mothers were made the primary targets for the application of such interventions as social work, health visiting and urban planning. I argue that it was this emphasis placed on the role of the mother in the governing of families that explains her engagement in grassroots movements which are intended to better the lot of poor households and neighborhoods, whose well-being has traditionally been designated her responsibility. Chapter 3 offers a view of life in these communities at the present moment. I document the ways in which women's activism is coming to fill in the void created by the prolonged flight of the state from poor communities. And, in Chapter 4, I consider how post-welfare technologies of government now locate "expertise" within the domain of experience, rather than as a result of professional training, obliging the poor not only to govern themselves, but also to police their own communities. Finally, I discuss how popular representations of poverty as a "spectacle" demonstrate the extent to which mobilizing images of "normality" and "deviance" remains integral to the project of governing society as a whole.

Subject Area

Cultural anthropology|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Hyatt, Susan Brin, "Governing the poor: Women and the politics of community activism in England" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709607.