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The Thorny Relationship between Philanthropic Women and Feminists over Child Welfare

From: Journal of Women's History
Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2009
pp. 185-191 | 10.1353/jowh.0.0068

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These books represent different approaches to the history of women, children, and the welfare state, and draw upon sources that span the Americas as well as Great Britain. Together they challenge assumptions that philanthropic women sought only to impose class values on the poor. They also question the findings of Theda Skocpol's 1992 work, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States, in which she explicitly excluded philanthropy and philanthropists who specialized in mother and child welfare from having a direct influence on the formation of the welfare state. While other works have also challenged Skocpol, the books reviewed here offer new ways to refute the view that the United States had the foundations of an equitable "maternalist" welfare state. They also shed light on the formation of the welfare state internationally. Earlier critiques focused on the feminist battle to promote equality in the discriminatory welfare state and exposed the racism and class consciousness of those who practiced charity. They also focused on the ways that feminist women have shaped concepts of maternalism and the welfare state, particularly since the 1930s. Within this genre, women who engaged in or supported religious institutions that provided welfare, or who failed to express feminist consciousness, have either been criticized or labeled as conservative. Several works under review directly challenge this perspective.

S. J. Kleinberg examines the welfare state in several U.S. cities from 1880 until the implementation of Social Security in 1939. Rather than dismiss charity as unimportant, she links widow and child welfare with the birth of the welfare state by examining these policies at the municipal, state, and national levels. In so doing, she becomes one of the first New Deal historians to link charity work with progressive reforms on the local level and with national policy making. The new welfare state, according to Kleinberg, unfortunately perpetuated the racism, stigmatization of the single mother, and distrust of the immigrant population seen at the state and local levels.

Prior to the implementation of widows' and dependent children pensions, charities provided the bulk of welfare for the poor. Maternalist politics did not change the discrimination and disparities usually attributed to philanthropy. The distribution of funds varied tremendously in the three states studied, despite the belief that "Maternalism—the belief that women's presumed virtues of caring and nurturing—endow them with needs and perspectives that transcend class, racial and ethnic differences" (69). Kleinberg's comparison of Fall River, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore revealed that contrary to the previous belief in maternalist politics in the United States, the success of maternalism proved to be very uneven and particularly stigmatized African American widows who more frequently worked than their white counterparts. Nevertheless, the pensions for widows and children, with all their inconsistencies, underpinned Social Security reform, thereby forming yet another coherent critique of Skocpol.

The next three books offer case studies of female philanthropy and family history. Steven King directly confronts the question of female philanthropic workers by arguing that the topic has been highly understudied and that "at the local level feminism and welfare reform may have been inextricably intertwined" (4). Furthermore he argues that poor-law work was valued more highly than campaigns for suffrage and social purity issues. He deals with women's roles in the implementation of the British 1834 Poor Law Amendment and the creation of the women's Workhouse Visiting Society in 1858 as responses to dreadful conditions in workhouses. In that organization, middle-class women who could not work outside the home had the opportunity to organize and shape local policy in Lancashire and Bolton. This experience helped early feminists in these communities fight for involvement in poor-law guardian elections for the poor houses.

King's biographies of subsequent feminists at the outbreak of World War I confirm that their philanthropic activities, particularly as poor-law guardians, continued to fill the time of local activists. He further documents the significance of women's philanthropic activities by republishing the autobiography of Mary Haslam, a Bolton activist during the war years. It consists of a series of Haslam's ruminations, beginning in 1920, as she reflected on her philanthropy and work before...

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