Top Young Historians: 120 – Premilla Nadasen


Edited by Bonnie K. Goodman

120: Premilla Nadasen, 2-7-11


Teaching Position: Associate Professor, History Department, Queens College, CUNY Graduate Center Doctoral Faculty
Area of Research: African-American history, social movements, poverty and social policy, history of welfare, domestic service work.
Education: Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University, Dissertation: “The Welfare Rights Movement, 1960-1975,” 1999 (nominated for the Bancroft Award)
Major Publications: Nadasen is the author of Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005), won the 2005 John HopePamilla Nadasen JPG Franklin Publication Prize awarded by the American Studies Association for best book in American studies.;
The Welfare Rights Movement: An Introduction
(forthcoming, Routledge 2011);
Welfare in the United States: A History with Documents, co-authored with Jennifer Mittelstadt and Marisa Chappell (Routledge 2009);
She is curently working on Domestic Workers Unite!: Household Workers’ Organizations in the Post-War U.S. ;
The Real Nanny Diaries: Narratives of Domestic Workers.
Nadasen is also the author of numerous scholarly journal articles, book chapters and reviews including among others:

“Expanding the Boundaries of the Women’s Movement: Black Feminism and the Struggle for Welfare Rights,” (Feminist Studies) won the 2002 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize; Reprinted in Women, Culture, and Society, ed. Barbara Balliet (Rutgers University Press, 2004, 2007);
and No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism ed. by Nancy Hewitt (Rutgers University Press, 2010).
“African American Domestic Workers and Politics of Citizenship” (forthcoming Journal of Policy History); Valuing Domestic Work, New Feminist Solutions Pamphlet, with Tiffany Williams, published by the Barnard Center for Research on Women, Fall 2010;
“Tell Dem Slavery Done”: Domestic Workers United and Transnational Feminism, Scholar and Feminist Online (Barnard Center for Research on Women on-line journal) Spring 2010;
“Domestic Workers Take It To The Streets” Ms. Magazine, Fall 2009: 38-40. (Reprinted in Utne Reader, March-April 2010, “Meet the New Nanny”)
“International Feminism and Reproductive Labor” in Workers, the Nation-State and Beyond: Essays in Labor History Across the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2010);
“‘Mothers at Work’: The Welfare Rights Movement and Welfare Reform in the 1960s” in The Legal Tender of Gender: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Welfare Law, State Policies and the Regulation of Women’s Poverty, ed. Shelley Gavigan and Dorothy E. Chunn, (Hart Publishing, 2010);
“Power, Intimacy, and Contestation: Dorothy Bolden and Domestic Worker Organizing in Atlanta in the 1960s” in Intimate Labors, ed. Eileen Boris and Rhacel Parrenas (Stanford University Press, 2010)
“Is it Time to Jump Ship? Historians Rethink the Waves Metaphor” Kathleen Laughlin, Julie Gallagher, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Eileen Boris, Premilla Nadasen, Stephanie Gilmore, and Leandra Zarnow Feminist Formations, (vol 22, no. 1) (Summer 2010): 76-135;
“Sista’ Friends and Other Allies: Domestic Workers United” in New Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global Apartheid, ed. Leith Mullings (Palgrave MacMillan 2009); “‘We Do Whatever Becomes Necessary: Johnnie Tillmon, Welfare Rights, and Black Power” in Want to Start a Revolution?: Women in the Black Revolt, ed. Jeanne Theoharis, Dayo Gore, and Komozi Woodard (NYU Press, 2009); “Domestic Workers Organize!” with Eileen Boris in Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society (December 2008); “‘Welfare’s A Green Problem’: Cross-Race Coalitions in the Welfare Rights Movement” in Feminist Coalitions, ed. Stephanie Gilmore (University of Illinois Press, 2008); “From Widow to ‘Welfare Queen’: Welfare and the Politics of Race” Black Women, Gender, and Families, Vol. 1 (2) (2007).
Awards: Nadasen is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including among others:
Faculty Fellow, Center for Place, Culture and Politics, CUNY Graduate Center, 2010-2011;
PSC-CUNY Research Award, 2006-2010;
CUNY Diversity Projects Development Grant for “Maids and Madams: A Campus-Community Project on Domestic Service Work and Immigration” at Brooklyn College from the University Affirmative Action Committee, Spring 2007;
American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize for best book in American studies for Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (Routledge 2005), 2005;
Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians Award for best article in 2002 for “Expanding the Boundaries of the Women’s Movement” Feminist Studies (Summer 2002), 2002;
Fellowship to participate in Seminar on Human Security at the CUNY Graduate Center, Fall ’01- Spring ’02; CUNY Faculty Fellowship Publications Program, Spring 2002;
Queens College Presidential Research Award, Spring 2001;
PSC-CUNY Research Grants, 2006-2007, 1998-2001;
Aspen Institute Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, Jan. – Oct. 1997;
Charles Gaius Bolin Fellow in History, Williams College, Williamstown, MA, 1995-1996;
Lyndon B. Johnson Foundation Research Grant, April 1995;
Columbia University Presidential Fellowship, 1991 – 1995;
Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, Summer Fellowship Stanford University, Stanford, CA, Summer 1991;
Hofstadter – Haynes Fellowship, Department of History, Columbia University, 1990 – 1991.
Additional Info:
Formerly Visiting Associate Professor, Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies, Brooklyn College. Nadasden is A longtime community activist and scholar. Nadasen has written for Feminist Studies, Ms. Magazine, the Women’s Review of Books, Race and Reason, and the Progressive Media Project, and has given numerous public talks about African-American women’s history and welfare policy.
Nadasen has been a contributing Writer, for Progressive Media Project, which distributes opinion editorials to McClatchy-Tribune newspapers across the country. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Pueblo-Chieftan, The Sacramento Bee, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Watertown Daily Times, The Orlando Sentinal, La Prensa San Diego, Arizona Daily Star.


My commitment to telling poor black women’s stories came to me through activism. I vividly remember my first protest. I was at the Federal Building in downtown Detroit opposing U.S. foreign policy in South Africa. It was 1985 and I was 17 years old. The demonstration had all the key elements: colorful banners, repetitive chanting, fiery speeches, and passersby who either honked in support or jeered in disgust. My feelings vacillated between anxiety and excitement. I was born in South Africa. Although I came to the U.S. at a young age, when I returned periodically to visit family I experienced first-hand the reality of apartheid laws. As a teenager, the brutality of the apartheid regime that I read and heard about in combination with the burgeoning grass roots movement to dismantle it ignited my commitment to social justice. By participating in that protest I came to see the world in a new way-one that recognized how ordinary people contribute to social change.

When I went to the University of Michigan that fall, I joined the student anti-apartheid organization. As we-a diverse group of young women and men-immersed ourselves in political campaigns we talked and thought more deeply about patterns of racism not just in South Africa, but on the college campus and in our communities. One project we initiated was the Black Women’s Oral History Project where we interviewed long-time residents of Ann Arbor. It was from these rather remarkable women-whose names never appeared in my classroom textbooks-that I first learned about the welfare rights movement. I had taken several history and sociology courses about activism and the civil rights movement and was befuddled by the lack of discussion about these poor women on welfare who struggled for dignity and economic justice. In the 1960s, the women in Ann Arbor had collectively mobilized, along with thousands of women across the country, to protect their rights and fight for a better life for their children. I was deeply impressed by their fortitude and their wisdom. These early encounters fostered in me a commitment to pursue scholarly studies about the activism of poor women of color-a commitment that shapes my work even today as I research and write about domestic worker organizing.

Writing about the welfare rights movement taught me many things about scholarship and history. It taught me that intellectualism and theories of social change originate not only with the philosophers and those who sit in the offices of Ivy League institutions. The poor black women who led the welfare rights movement lived and understood racism and class oppression in a complex way. From these experiences, they theorized about gender and how it is informed by racial stereotypes and the welfare system. And they formulated a distinctive politics of empowerment that spoke to their particular location as poor black women. They have a lot to teach us about how power operates, methods of social change, and the meaning of feminism.

Studying this movement has also taught me that historical memory is deeply contested terrain. What we choose to remember-or not-is a reflection of our own values and beliefs. The marginalization of the welfare rights movement in historical scholarship is perhaps indicative of the way in which poor black women are marginalized in the political discourse today. So, for me, Welfare Warriors aimed to complicate the dominant narrative of the 1960s, but also to resurrect the muted voices of the period.


By Premilla Nadasen

  • By the 1960s the welfare system was dominated by myths and stereotypes. Perceptions about black women’s sexuality and notions of the black family and the black work ethic justified cutbacks in assistance and provided  grounds for work requirements. Ideology shaped public policy and, in this case, bolstered popular support for more punitive and repressive policies. Countering some of the stereotypes of AFDC, women in the welfare rights movement demanded that their work as mothers be recognized and insisted that single motherhood was not a social pathology. They sought to increase their monthly benefits through pressure tactics, and to make a moral claim for assistance as mothers. Their analysis demonstrates how gender is mediated by race and class and the way in which race, gender, and class all shape the welfare system. — Premilla Nadasen in “Welfare Warriors”

About Premilla Nadasen

Reviews for Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States

  • Nadasen has written the definitive history of the welfare rights movement that, for a brief moment, turned welfare into a program that helped rather than punished poor women. Carefully researched and fully documented, Welfare Warriors reveals the largely untold story of how poor and working class women came together to fight for a decent life. By exploring the working class black feminism that emerged, Nadasen’s account also broadens and deepens our understanding of feminism. –-Mimi Abramovitz, Professor of Social Policy at Hunter School of Social Work and the City University of New York Graduate Center and author of “Regulating the Lives of Women and Under Attack and Fight”
  • Armed with their own brand of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, Premilla Nadasen’s Welfare Warriors fought militantly and relentlessly against racism, sexism and dehumanizing poverty. They fought their battles in the halls of Congress, the streets of urban communities, and inside the progressive movement itself. Even when they were not victorious, these black women activists were never victims, but rather powerful, complex and committed agents for change. This compelling and compassionate study, meticulously researched and passionately argued, is a must-read for anyone interested in social change politics, feminism or the black freedom movement. –- Barbara Ransby, Professor of African American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement.

Reviews for Welfare in the United States: A History with DocumentsWelfare in the United States A History with Documents, 1935–1996 JPG

  • “With wide ranging perspectives, nearly century-long coverage, and choice documents, this short but powerful collection shows why welfare remains one of the most contentious issues in public policy. Three cheers for Nadasen, Mittelstadt, and Chappell for this stimulating- and provocative – introduction that highlights the significance of race and gender in women’s lives.” -— Eileen Boris, author of “The New Women’s Labor History”
  • “The story of contemporary welfare policy in the United States is complicated and deeply troubled by poisonous conflicts over race, class and gender. Here, however, we have a telling of the story that is admirably clear and concise, and enlivened by the inclusion of the documents that mark and illuminate the turning points in the story. This will be an excellent teaching resource.” — Frances Fox Piven, author of “Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America”
  • “Dr. Nadasen, is one of the most influencial professors I have ever had the pleasure of being instructed by. Her knowledge of the History, Politics and social constructs are impecable. Her guidance in developing my MA Thesis was immensely useful in defining and enhancing the focus of my research project. She is certainly a mentor…”
    “African American history has become my favorite class this semester. Would recommend taking this class with Prof. Nadasen.”…
    “Outstanding teacher. Materials were relevant to all lectures. Allowed students to explore the subject of Slavery and was totally engaging.”…
    “You should take Prof. Nadasen because she’s so knowledgeable in history that it would absolutely rock your world.” — Anonymous Students

    More Information

  • Premilla Nadasen, First Women’s Studies Endowed Chair at Brooklyn College, To Be Honored on May 16