Female Entrepreneurship, Policy Advocacy, and the Post-WW2 American Welfare State

Gracia Lee, Yale University

In cultural analyses of the American welfare state, scholars have examined how ideas of deservingness influence political mobilization and claims-making. This paper investigates the classification struggles of women entrepreneurs and how "women" are reconfigured as a deserving policy category, beginning from the early years of the Small Business Administration and culminating in the 1988 Women's Business Ownership Act. Centering on negotiated meanings of government assistance, procurement, loans, taxes, statistics and training, this paper shows how women respond to the contradictions between state benevolence and liberal citizenship by resisting the stigma of disadvantaged status. Though policymakers were concerned about dependency and contested the fairness of affirmative action, advocates deployed a contribution rhetoric and reframed their policy demands as an economic development program rather than welfare program or special interest. Advocates also leveraged culturally resonant traits associated with entrepreneurship and inconsistencies in the definitions of entrepreneurship to construct a collective identity for women as independent economic contributors amid intersectional complexities, thus facilitating mobilization across class and racial groups. Government is understood as facilitating free enterprise through equal opportunity, and further positioned by advocates as a rational investor and business partner against the backdrop of neoliberalism and the threat of globalization to the nation-state. This paper contributes to the literature by demonstrating the cultural transformations and cultural work of claimants that reconfigure women entrepreneurs as a deserving policy category in the American welfare state.

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 Presented in Session 55. Capitalism, Patriarchy, and the Multi-Layered State