The Women’s Project provided information, materials, and support to women often locked out of power in society, fostering strong connections that translated into dynamic leadership and collective power. They believed, in the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”
Ronald Reagan campaigned on the rolling back of government social services. He promised to reduce government intervention into people’s lives, but that rang true only for wealthier—often white—people. For everyone else, the impacts were intimate and wide-ranging.
By 1985, conservative economic policies had devastated all previous gains toward racial economic parity and endangered women’s economic progress. The wealth gap was at its broadest since World War II, with the wealthiest two-fifths of Americans growing richer and more disproportionately white, while the poorest two-fifths became more disproportionately Black. The free trade policies of the 1980s and 1990s sent thousands of American jobs overseas, pushing many workers into the low-wage jobs that remained.
Poor households, especially those headed by women, were doubly targeted through deep cuts to food stamps, housing assistance, unemployment, Medicaid, and day care services. Single mothers were often forced to choose between scraping by on poverty wages or surviving on inadequate welfare support, since assistance programs became harder to access with even a small increase in income.
In industries where they shared workspaces with men, women were paid significantly less for the same work. Lack of access to child care, transportation, and educational and technical training opportunities trapped many women in abusive relationships with men who could earn more on the job.
In 1986, the Women’s Project spearheaded a coalition to assess the economic status of women in Arkansas and develop strategies to meet key needs. They gathered data and found that women earned 62 cents for every dollar a man earned in Arkansas in 1979. The racial disparities were stark. In 1980, Black women earned 88 cents for every dollar earned by white women and faced more restrictions in access to education and job sectors. More than half of families headed by a Black woman in Arkansas lived under the poverty line compared to 21% of families headed by a white woman.
The coalition committed to a range of strategies, from increasing union representation to raising the minimum wage to increasing access to childcare and healthcare. No other groups in the coalition were positioned to work on providing vocational training or placing women in jobs traditionally held by men, so the Women’s Project took it on.
“For too many years we have been told what we should be, what we can’t do, and what we can do—and we believed it. Now it’s time to recognize that all the messages that we have received are not necessarily true. I sincerely want to see women, in large numbers, winning, experiencing victories, coming into their own—and proving that they are more than capable to meet the challenges of life.”
Janet Perkins, “Nontraditional Jobs—New Ways for Women to Think,” Transformation, September 1987
From 1987 to 1991, Women’s Project staffers Janet Perkins and Damita Jo Marks coordinated “Women and Work: Breaking the Barriers,” a nontraditional jobs program helping Arkansas women access and keep high-paying construction, hauling, and trucking jobs that by nature could not be sent overseas. More than 130 women completed the stipended four-week training program, which provided as much confidence-building as it did practical information. The trainings included topics the Women’s Project saw missing elsewhere, such as money management, self-esteem, and defending against sexual assault.
The Women’s Project training program did not provide specific training in any one trade and could not identify a partner institution to offer the needed nuts and bolts instruction. Working mothers were hard-pressed to take time away from earning income to gain the additional credentials to enter fields like construction, and potential employers often were not interested in hiring them. But the nontraditional jobs program’s focus on helping women step into their power served as an organizing tool. The program opened doors for participants to get involved with the Women’s Project and other local organizing efforts.
As President Reagan’s policies were felt across the United States and poor communities spiraled into economic crisis, many turned to underground economies. The federal government increased policing and imprisonment of Black communities as a method of social control. The Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 imposed harsh sentences for the possession of “crack” cocaine, which was more heavily sold and used in Black communities, and lighter penalties for drugs more commonly sold and used by white people. Families were kicked off of food stamps and other government assistance programs as punishment for their connections to drug dealers and users.
The number of women in prison rose dramatically during this time, spurred by increased criminalization of sex work and the drug economy. Many women were also already imprisoned in Arkansas for defending themselves against abusers. In 1989, the Women’s Project started facilitating a battered women’s support group at the Arkansas women’s prison in Pine Bluff.
The Women’s Project later taught a similar curriculum in a men’s prison in Arkansas. The group operated with the feminist understanding that “oppression is about power and control and coercion and domination.” But the Women’s Project’s political decision to incorporate a larger analysis was risky.
Some of the first alarms about the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States came from inside prisons. HIV/AIDS showed up first on the coasts in 1981, but soon it was spreading across the rural U.S. South.
At a time when a lack of sex education had life and death stakes, the Christian Right was calling for abstinence-only sex education. The Reagan administration took up the call, giving large federal grants to abstinence-only programs. In the 1990s, Arkansas required public schools to teach AIDS education, but at a gathering of teachers in 1992, fewer than half said the education was actually happening. When it did happen, Arkansas law required that all curricula “emphasize premarital abstinence as the only sure means of avoiding [AIDS].” Because homosexuality was illegal, most schools only addressed heterosexual sex.
LGBTQ people faced daily acts of violence, as well as neglect and criminalization from the state. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Christian Right pushed homophobic messages, and anti-gay violence was on the rise. And people were dying.
“I remember going more to community memorials than to actual funerals, because we weren’t welcome at the funeral. We, as in Black gay community. So families would have a funeral—but that person was either in the closet or the parents or the family didn't want anyone there.”
Eric Reece, 2021 Oral History
As the tragedy unfolded, the Women’s Project decided to take action. The Women’s Project prioritized work that other organizations would not do because of fear or judgement. Local HIV/AIDS outreach initiatives were not seeking out sex workers, so Women’s Project staff collaborated with women working the streets to distribute bleach, dental dams, and condoms.
HIV/AIDS reached the prison in 1985. Kouri Haltom-Fox, who is still incarcerated in Arkansas, watched it arrive. She wrote that it was initially shrouded in mystery and fear. No one quite knew how it was being passed along. Could you get infected from the toilet seat? From the air? Women’s Project supporter Linda Evans was incarcerated in the midst of the uncertainty.
Good information about the public health crisis was hard to come by in general, but for women trapped in prisons, fear-based misinformation and rumors were the rule.
Because HIV/AIDS was commonly perceived as only affecting gay men, women who were sex workers or used needles were often unaware of the risk and possibility for infection. As crack cocaine use spread across Arkansas and the government put more money into policing poor and working-class communities, Women’s Project staff began seeing people they knew from the streets cycle in and out of the state women’s prison. The increased turnover increased infection rates inside.
Despite the dangers, prison administrators followed the lead of government officials, most of whom maintained a deadly silence and refused to offer information or response. Soon after a member of the battered women’s support group passed away from AIDS, Haltom-Fox and Women’s Project staffer Kerry Lobel started developing a peer training curriculum to meet the need for information that the prison administration refused to meet.
“The women on the compound are no longer afraid. Concerned, yes, passionate, yes, but we are no longer paranoid, suspicious or misinformed.”
Kouri Haltom-Fox, “Women, Incarceration, and AIDS,” Transformation, January/February 1993
The manual became a resource for prisons and jails across the country. HIV/AIDS organizing inside prisons had become a major effort often spearheaded by political prisoners who had been locked up for their involvement in liberation struggles of the 1970s. They relied on peer education models and emphasized harm reduction. Relationships with free world organizations like the Women’s Project allowed HIV/AIDS information to enter the prisons and created avenues for inside/outside organizing strategies on other issues. Evans, incarcerated in federal prison for her work with the May 19th Communist Organization, was active in HIV/AIDS organizing inside prison in California and also advised the Women’s Project on the peer HIV/AIDS manual.
The Women’s Project also helped HIV prevention workshops reach more rural areas of Arkansas. Andrea Hope Howard, Juanita Weston-Burton and Felicia Davidson were key organizers in the Arkansas Delta at the time.
The Women’s Project worked collaboratively with other groups to host events that were both educational and fun, like safer sex house parties at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
A multigenerational and multigender crowd of mostly queer Black Arkansans attended the house parties. People came to Little Rock from as far away as Pine Bluff and Monticello. There was always food—often spaghetti or catfish—plus condoms, lube, and dancing. Kathy Brown-Nichols was part of the core group organizing those parties through the 1990s.
“At the end of the party, we had this box. The box was covered, and there was a hole, and inside the box, there were different things, all kinds of stuff. You know, anything from spatulas to vibrators. Everything. And the participants were to go inside the box, and whatever they pulled out of the box, they explained how they would use it—first unprotected, and then protected. That was some interesting conversation there.”
Kathy Brown-Nichols, 2020 Oral History
By addressing HIV/AIDS head on, the parties were also facilitating bigger conversations about sexuality and reproductive health that weren’t happening anywhere else at the time. And they were directly intervening in the isolation and fear of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with connectedness and joy.
Hell bent on leaving no one out, Women’s Project organizers traveled the state providing resources, building relationships, and raising consciousness around power with groups of women facing layers of oppression in their daily lives.