Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.



Committee Chair

Journet, Debra S.

Author's Keywords

Race; class; gender; welfare; Reagan; Moynihan


Rhetoric--Political aspects--United States; African American women--Economic conditions; African American women--Social conditions; Public welfare--United States--History--20th century


This dissertation is a rhetorical analysis of the political discourse surrounding the role of poor African American women within the American social and political economy beginning in 1965 with Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty initiatives and extending to the early 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the "religious right." I argue that an ideology of whiteness permeates both the Johnson and Reagan administrations even though each worked towards different ends. In Chapter 1, I begin by discussing how America's establishment as a capitalist society made it a nation ill-fitted for government-funded social programs. In particular, I discuss the impact of distinctions between the "worthy" and "unworthy" poor on African Americans and I outline the three theoretical frameworks within which I position the public and political discourse surrounding welfare, welfare reform and welfare recipients: (1) Narrative and Rhetoric, (2) Feminism, and (3) Whiteness. In Chapter 2, I analyze Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action which was intended to rally government officials to approve programs specifically targeting black communities. However, because of the pervasiveness of a whiteness ideology, the report sparked controversy and political backlash instead. In Chapter 3, I focus on the rhetorical devices and narrative strategies that contributed to Reagan's political successes from the beginning of his political career in the 1960s until the beginning of his own presidential term in 1980. I argue that the significance of Reagan's use of The Welfare Queen trope is his reliance on an inherently racist ideology. In Chapter 4, I discuss how race, gender and class work in political discourse, and I argue that The Welfare Queen is a "site of political struggle;' in that she represents a convergence of these contending forces. In Chapter 5, I propose that rhetoric and composition scholars enact a "trickster" rhetoric that exposes the multiplicity of a name such as The Welfare Queen. By inserting new meanings into such names, I argue that scholars have an opportunity to shift popular discourse from dominating whiteness ideologies to a more empowering otherness ideology.