Fran Buss


Nearly fifty years ago, when living in Colorado, I was a 27-year-old mother with three children less than five years old. After my husband left me, I worked four part time jobs, trying to support myself and the children. Unable to pay the costs of child care and without enough food, I decided to apply for welfare.

At that time, in order to apply, other needy mothers and I had to be seen by an attorney who would supposedly try to collect child support payments. I had heard rumors that before filling out the necessary forms, he almost always sexually assaulted desperate mothers who went to see him. Then he never attempted to actually enforce child support stipulations.

I requested that he fill out the forms, and in order to get him to do so, I also submitted to his groping, a humiliating and repulsive experience that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

When, as a group, other mothers and I complained to the authorities, instead of firing him, all the administrators did was hire another attorney to sit with him. I recently verified my experience by talking to a family attorney who worked as a case worker in welfare at that time, and she said that other women had described his attacks. Another retired lawyer knew of the welfare attorney’s reputation.

The reason I am writing about this now is that up until recently, most of the revelations of sexual assault that have caught the attention of the media have involved assaults by politicians or against professional women. The media that I’ve observed have rarely talked about the culture of harassment that is pervasive in the lives of lower-income women. These threats also came from a number of landlords and employers as well as professional sources.

After my children got older and we got on our feet, I worked, remarried and eventually went back to school and got a doctorate degree. At the same time, I have interviewed in-depth about 100 poor and working-class women from around the country and from various racial/ethnic backgrounds. They talked about their lives and how they made meaning out of their experiences. The interviews were carefully recorded and transcribed and are available through an archive at Harvard.

The women who described assaults include migrant farm workers, factory laborers, cleaning people, restaurant workers and others. For example, Josefine Hunter, an elderly, African-American domestic worker in Milwaukee, described fighting off her assailant, the husband of her employer, with a rolling pin.

Irene Mack Pyawasit, a Menominee woman from Wisconsin, told of being forced to do sexually humiliating acts as a child and the teenage pregnancies resulting from white assault of dependent, young, Native women. Maria Elena Lucas, a migrant worker from South Texas, described law enforcement assaults, having to dress like a boy when young to keep men away from her, and sexual harassment by growers toward Latina farm workers.

Mildred McEwen, a white woman from Alabama involved with a textile union movement, reported being sexually harassed after signing a union card. Mary Robinson, an African-American factory worker also from Alabama, campaigned against the violence she and others experienced.

While my examples come largely from the past, my conversations with friends and professionals inform me that intense harassment is still experienced by younger, vulnerable, poor and working-class women today.

In order to stop these assaults, all men who engage in such behavior, including powerful men who prey on lower-income women, must be prosecuted. Hopefully, speaking out about these assaults is a step in the right direction.

Fran Buss has a Ph.D. in history from the University of Arizona and is the author/editor of six books about poor women’s lives. Her journals, notes and transcripts are archived in the Schlesinger Library of American Women at Harvard.