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© Frank


The Goodwill of the Giver

by Katherine Turk
May 19, 2021

This interview with Katherine TurkAssociate Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill, was conducted and condensed by franknews

Katherine | I'm a historian of the 20th century United States, with a focus on women, gender, sexuality, and how they intersect with law, labor, and social movements. I'm generally interested in feminist movements and different ideas of what feminism is and can be. My first book was a history of campaigns around Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and how it established gender equality in the workplace as a legal category. I'm just wrapping up my second book, which is on the National Organization for Women, the largest feminist membership organization in American history.

In working on this current book, I kept uncovering evidence of activism around volunteering and volunteerism. I was puzzled by NOW’s investment in an issue that seemed so innocuous. You either volunteer or you don't. In digging deeper, I learned that a lot of Americans were thinking about volunteerism in the 1970s, in part because President Richard M. Nixon had started talking about it in new ways.

frank | Pre-Nixon what was volunteering like in U.S. society?

Volunteering was certainly not new in the 1960s. Men and women, especially women, of all races and classes, had participated in different kinds of community uplift and moral reform for generations. For example, there had been efforts to ban or limit alcohol consumption, efforts against child labor, efforts to share what resources a community had. Women built their own auxiliaries of political parties and helped to build a thriving labor movement. But starting in the 1950s and 1960s, new kinds of social movement organizations began to join longstanding voluntary membership groups as points of leverage for social change.

Corporations were also beginning to act in new ways in these years. If you think of the history of philanthropy, you might think of foundations that were started by wealthy industrialists such as the Andrew Carnegie Foundation or the Rockefeller Foundation. In the mid-twentieth century, many corporations began setting up their own foundations and behaving in more overtly philanthropic ways. 

Do you see that happening in response to social movements and in response to cultural change?

I think that's definitely part of it, yes.

Corporations claimed to be upholding their part of the social contract. But beyond the personal benevolence of individual businessmen—and they were nearly all men—these efforts were primarily motivated by concern for their bottom line.

In years when many people were challenging capitalism and demanding first-class citizenship in all areas of American life, corporations did not want to be seen as villains -- especially those that needed loyal customers. They wanted to have a good brand name. They wanted their stores to be successful in changing urban areas.

They wanted to be seen as good places to work and especially to shop.

The response is similar to that from corporations after the wave of protests last summer.

Yes, absolutely. And after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed employment discrimination on the basis of race, sex, and other protected identities, corporations started getting sued by workers, and eventually giant classes of workers, to reckon with decades of explicitly racist and sexist treatment.

Corporate leaders felt that if their name was going to be in the news because they were on the losing end of an employment discrimination class-action lawsuit, they'd like to have that story run next to a story that portrayed them in a flattering light, perhaps on how they started a new YMCA in an urban area where their own workers could volunteer. This philanthropy was an effort to shape the narrative about their corporate identities.

Right. What else is true of the 1960s?

Another piece of the picture in the 1960s was the federal government’s new emphasis on volunteering. In response to the uprisings in American cities and the expansion of American poverty amidst economic growth, President John F. Kennedy created VISTA, Volunteers in Service to America, and the Peace Corps. Kennedy framed both of these programs as opportunities for citizens to demonstrate their commitment to the nation.


Kennedy made a speech to a group of Peace Corps trainees near the Washington Monument in 1962. 

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The other thing to mention, of course, is President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. This created a new network of social service agencies that provided federal funding for many community services. It funneled millions of dollars into some of the nation's poorest areas and required that people living there not only benefit from those programs but help to control them.

The 1960s was such an energetic and dynamic moment in American history when expansive visions of citizenship seemed possible.

This works quite nicely in tandem – volunteering supplements the system from the government. Why does Nixon see it as effective to run on breaking down this relationship? 

Nixon wanted to trouble longstanding notions about what the government owed to citizens. He campaigned in 1968 on the assertion that volunteering could solve two pressing social problems. One, it could help create new bonds across different communities. And two, volunteers in local communities could simply be more efficient at providing social services than the government. He echoed this idea in his inauguration speech, and in the months after taking office, he proposed a new phalanx of volunteers that could help tutor kids, care for the elderly, provide support in schools and hospitals, and much more. In his vision, volunteers could replace paid workers providing social services.

But his administration ran into a wall of opposition. White House officials peddled this idea in meetings with the people who oversaw volunteer agencies, provided welfare in their local communities, and ran charities. Those advocates were skeptical and even resistant. The public support for his vision was just not yet there. Nixon soon shelved his most ambitious ideas and pivoted instead to promoting volunteering and strengthening existing volunteer efforts. He continued to champion the vague agenda that volunteers could and should do more in society.

But Nixon’s efforts are important because they started to try to change the conversation.

He and other conservatives were undertaking a massive effort to upset long-standing social contracts dating back to the New Deal, imperfect and exclusionary though they were, that held that citizens have certain affirmative rights.

In doing so, Nixon began to lay the groundwork for what Ronald Reagan was able to do when he comes into the presidency in 1980, in a much more conservative social climate.

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Kiecke, Albert. [League City Lions Club Parade Float]photographMay 1989; ( May 18, 2021), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History,; crediting League City Helen Hall Library.

Can you speak about the public's perception? 

The 1970s were a volatile era, as Americans contested the nature of equality and citizenship against the backdrop of a newly turbulent economy. The public response was mixed. Some loved it. Who could object to someone volunteering and giving their time? Others opposed it. 

Feminists, in particular, saw Nixon's emphasis on volunteerism as a way to further devalue feminized labors of all kinds. A Wages for Housework movement argued that domestic labor was work that deserved fair remuneration. Workers in female-dominated industries, like teaching, seized upon this moment to demand more funding. They argued that volunteers’ essential contributions to schools should instead be made by wage earners. 

I think the feminist critique, in particular, is really interesting. It is not something that I have heard a lot about, but it seems to tie directly into Biden setting aside money for care workers in the infrastructure bill.

Does the feminist critique change anything under the Nixon administration? 

Feminists pointed to a long history of women’s volunteering and claimed that those efforts were valuable and should be paid. The Nixon administration responded to this feminist critique by claiming that men should volunteer, too. The NCVA launched an ad campaign that featured professional football players describing their own volunteering in their communities. These ads, which were targeted to men, asserted that it could be manly to help somebody else.

I think this effort to de-gender volunteering took some of the steam out of what feminists were trying to do. Women have all different relationships to power and to money and to time. Plenty of women responded to feminist critics of Nixon’s campaign that volunteering was for them a way to be involved in politics or a pathway to a paid job. If volunteering was a choice a woman made freely, and anyone could do it, why should other women object to it? 

Eventually, internal debates don't matter and this just becomes the norm. How does that happen? What does Reagan change? 

Recovering these debates about volunteering in the 1970s is important because they laid the groundwork for what was to come. Nixon could not change the conversation outright, but he started the process. When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the political climate had changed to permit dramatic cuts to social programs. Reagan and the Republican Congress made those cuts, reducing the help that people could get from the government, especially if they had kids. 

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US National Archives. President Ronald Reagan During The Ceremony for Departing Peace Corps Volunteers Going to Africa with George Bush in The Rose Garden. 

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US National Archives. President Ronald Reagan Greeting Recipient Gloria Allred at 1986 President'S Volunteer Action Award Luncheon in The East Room.

Rather than dwell on the people these cuts harmed, Reagan spotlighted the volunteers who helped those people. He held award ceremonies at the White House that celebrated those who helped formerly incarcerated people, ran food banks or tutored kids, for example. Of course, all of those things could have been more effectively and consistently provisioned by the government. 

These efforts redefined social services not as a right, but as things that were nice to get, contingent upon the goodwill of the giver.

That giver exercises the choice to help and in return receives elevated status and self-esteem. The person on the receiving end is suddenly no longer an equal citizen entitled to a basic level of subsistence and dignity. 

This rhetorical move so infected the nation’s political discourse that by the mid-1990s, even Democrats agreed that the government had to get out of the way of social problems rather than help to solve them.

Do you think things are starting to change?

I hope so. The pandemic really exposed the devastating impact of decades of cuts to social programs. There's something about seeing so much suffering out in the open. So many Americans have always been vulnerable, but even the most secure among us are vulnerable in new ways right now.

Over the past four decades, Republicans were successful at redefining aid from the government as a handout instead of a right. But the pandemic has shown us that are certain problems only the government can solve. The government is not something that's separate from all of us, it is all of us, and we should be able to expect that there is a baseline under which no one should be allowed to fall. 

In this moment of such immense suffering, we should honor and celebrate all the ways that people have volunteered and donated their time and money. But we should also begin a new conversation around our basic rights as human beings and the inherent value of labors of all different kinds.