The government shutdown is frustrating enough for furloughed workers, but for families dependent on federal food assistance, it's infuriating.
Enter the Feminist Hulk.
The Twitter monster is smashing the shutdown's threats to the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Food and Nutrition program, which provides food aid to pregnant women and mothers of young children deemed to be at risk of malnutrition. And she's urging her nearly 74,000 followers to help.
Feminist Hulk is Jessica Lawson, a doctoral student in English literature at the University of Iowa who's also a mother and WIC aid recipient. She first started tweeting against sexism in 2010 – her Twitter profile reads "HULK SAYS F*** PATRIARCHY. HULK SMASH GENDER BINARY."
Since then, she's been called "the biggest superhero" of online feminism. And she's collected a massive social media fan club with tweets about motherhood, patriarchy and kale — which she's using for good during the shutdown, setting up this online resource to help families find baby food and formula.
We asked Lawson why the government shutdown has energized her inner Hulk. Below is our email exchange, edited for clarity.
Q: How has the government shutdown affected you and other mothers you know?
One of my closest friends is a foster parent on WIC. She can't afford to accept a child placement right now, because WIC's funding beyond this month is uncertain. Since I began this website, I've received a lot of emails from new parents who are terrified about making it through the week. While being a grad student is financially challenging, it provides me with a measure of predictability that makes me less vulnerable to the immediate impact the shutdown will have in the next few weeks (though it will definitely hurt us in the long term). My heart goes out to families who don't have as much certainty.
Q: Why did you get so revved up about the potential defunding of WIC?
There's nothing potential about it: WIC is not getting regular funding right now. When the government shut down, some WIC offices immediately closed, others' services were reduced. We got word at the end of last week that contingency funding had been made available to make sure WIC could get through the rest of the month. Offices reopened, and business continues, but most state offices will tell you that November remains pretty uncertain. And even with these new sources of help, North Carolina WIC stopped issuing new vouchers for a few days, though they have resumed offering them. The folks at WIC deserve serious applause for the services they are continuing to provide in this climate.
Q: Why are you on WIC? What do you say to folks who think it should be defunded?
As a graduate student, I've supported myself the last several years on a combination of part-time teaching, student loans, food assistance, and very careful balancing. WIC was especially important during my pregnancy, as I was trying to stretch out a summer budget while still preparing for the uncertainty that childbirth can bring, and WIC continued to help during some of the scary budget crunches between semesters. And, again, I benefit from a lot of privileges that other WIC parents often don't have, so mine is actually a best-case scenario.
I get weary when I hear people urging poor families to simply lift themselves up by their bootstraps. Just to get from day to day when you are hungry and scared takes extraordinary energy — those bootstraps are already stretched to the max for the task of daily survival. I want to assume good will, and hope that the people who oppose WIC have simply never been in the position to direly need it.
Q; What kind of response are you getting to the infant formula drive? Who is helping?
I could not have done this alone. Many people I know, and lots of people I don't, have helped by sharing the link to the website, calling their local food banks to see who has formula, sending me information, and making donations themselves. While some organizations have reached out to me, and some wonderful news outlets have given me a boost, most of the response is coming from individuals who take a few minutes out of their day to help the work along. And this work is still underway – there are lots of resources out there that need donations or want to offer help, and I am finding them and adding them as fast as I can.
Q: What's your endgame with FEMINIST HULK and the formula drive?
To create a central hub of information about WIC offices and, as we wait to see how this shutdown will go, alternative resources for the services WIC provides. So far, that has mostly included sources for formula and baby food, since many local food pantries don't regularly stock these items, and it's crucial to connect the ones that do with the people who need help. Several lactation consultants, midwives, and community activists have also reached out offer other support services, in the instance that WIC can no longer provide them.
My endgame depends on the shutdown's endgame. It would be a relief to have the government resume, WIC's stability restored, and my site reduced to a useful novelty. I hope that happens, and that it happens soon.
Q: Please share with other parents: How did you distract your 2-year-old long enough to answer these questions?
Hah, I didn't. These answers have been interrupted by nursing sessions, bath times, toddler renditions of Janelle Monae songs, and a mercifully early bedtime. I played with my kid and flew to and from the computer and got through the way parents always get through: by taking every opportunity we can get.