For better welfare, poor women stormed Vegas Strip in 1970s

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin

In “Storming Caesars Palace,” learn how Ruby Duncan helped organize protests on the Vegas Strip in the early 1970s, which became one of the biggest anti-poverty movements in U.S. history. Credit: YouTube.

The welfare mother — an image of a (usually Black) woman who’s scamming government aide programs to live a lavish lifestyle funded by taxpayers — is a racist trope in American politics that dates back to the 1950s. It gained more traction when then-California Governor Ronald Reagan first ran for president – on a promise to reform welfare.

Now a new PBS documentary, “Storming Caesars Palace,” follows a group of poor women who fought against the racist stereotype. It specifically focuses on Ruby Duncan and how she helped organize protests on the Vegas Strip in the early 70s, which became one of the biggest anti-poverty movements in U.S. history. 

Duncan is an activist and mother who grew up in the Delta South in the 1940s and 1950s, missing school to help her sharecropper parents pick cotton, until she migrated to Las Vegas and got a job at hotels, explains filmmaker Hazel Gurland-Pooler. She got injured from falling in the kitchen and thus sought public assistance, then realized it was inadequate.  

She made about $160 per month. In the film, she shares that her family still barely had anything to eat while on welfare: “I was making a cornbread with just plain water and flour, and frying it with Vaseline.”

“In the South where there was a big reliance on agriculture, and domestic workers that had traditionally and historically been African American women, there was a big resistance by the governments there to make welfare benefits a living wage in any way. Because they didn't want people to go on welfare. They wanted them to keep working as low-wage workers,” Gurland-Pooler says. 

At the time, George Miller ran the welfare department. He actually grew up poor in California, but didn’t realize that as a white man, he had opportunities not available to women of color, the filmmaker notes. 

“He was very much bootstraps kind of mentality — people must be making bad choices, this is not our job to be using taxpayer money to pay for women and children. It's a very gendered notion of what the welfare system was supposed to do. And these women weren't able to deal with all of the systematic racism.”

She adds that social workers raided women’s homes at midnight to see if a man lived there — someone who could presumably take care of kids. If yes, Miller decided to cut those women from welfare. 

“The Constitution was being left on the doorstep in terms of search and seizure. And the notion that women couldn't have a man in the house seems crazy.”

However, in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt included age-dependent children in the Social Security Act. This pension was designed to support women breadwinners who were raising kids, Gurland-Pooler explains, but it changed in the 1950s when more women of color realized they had the right to sign up too. Then came the stereotype and stigma. 

But the filmmaker points out: “We have to remember that really, throughout time, Black women and women of color are not the primary recipients of welfare. It's actually white women. And so that stereotype is completely wrong.”

Growing the anti-poverty movement in Nevada

It was a long road for Duncan to become the face of the movement. She was in a sewing circle with other moms who shared her situation. “They get to talking and they realize like, ‘Oh, if you're having this problem, and I'm having this problem, and our neighbors are having this problem … we didn't create this problem. It's not our fault. And that means that we can change it,” says Gurland-Pooler.

She adds, “Ruby really said she had first started this organization and working with these other women, that she didn't know that the words welfare and rights could be in the same sentence. And there was a big learning curve about ‘what can we do, what are our rights?’ And they worked with lots of allies and advocates like legal aid lawyers, who were able to show them, so they figured out what to start asking for. And they started organizing and demanding those rights from the welfare office.”

The women wanted two things: fair hearings where they could plead their cases for welfare, and an end to the “man in the house” rule.

One of their first big protests was in March 1971 — about 1000 people marched down the Vegas Strip and shut down Caesars Palace, going against powerful owners of hotels and casinos. Many of those places were run by mobs and thus dangerous, Gurland-Pooler emphasizes. Duncan even received phone calls of death threats.

Still, she and the women were smart and media-savvy. They called newspapers, celebrities like Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland, and Ralph Abernathy from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). 

“Having the cameras there meant that people would be on reasonable behavior. And the police were there protecting the women as well, to make sure that nothing went awry. But yeah, they just knew what to do, that disrupting business as usual, would have an effect. And it did.”

During one “stunt,” the women marched down the strip and went into a restaurant of a hotel, bringing 250 kids with them and ordering lots of food. They sent the bill to the governor, which drew lots of media attention. 

Gurland-Pooler says the women knew how to embarrass companies in public, but also lobby at the capital. 

“That's one of the really important messages of this film is: Anybody can get out there with some tenacity and some learning about how the government works, and make some real changes.”