Abstract

It has often been assumed that the nineteenth-century English New Poor Law enshrined women's dependence on men and upheld the breadwinner wage. However, three very distinct understandings of the breadwinner wage shaped poor law policy from 1834--1908, each with different implications for women's work. First, inspired by Malthus, the promulgators of the 1834 New Poor Law believed that if a man could not support his family, he should not marry, and if a woman could not find a husband who earned enough, she must support herself and her children by earning wages. Second, by the 1870s, poor law officials and social reformers understood the breadwinner wage as a reward ordinary working men should be able to earn by proving their respectability. Charities aided respectable wives of ill breadwinners so they would not have to go out to work, but they still expected "unrespectable" wives, and all single women and widows, to work to support themselves. The notion that working men had a right to earn a breadwinner wage and to keep their wives at home only became enshrined in the welfare system by 1908, and derived not from poor law traditions, but from trade union agitation, Liberal policies, and eugenic concerns.

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 261-281
Launched on MUSE
2000-10-01
Open Access
No
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