Abstract

Marital status structured poor women's interactions with the proto-welfare state of the early-twentieth-century United States. Deserted women--"husbandless wives"--occupied a liminal category between widows and unmarried women. In New York City, Progressive Era reformers created an antidesertion system that consisted of the "family law of the poor," domestic relations courts, and welfare policies designed to defer and deny deserted applicants' requests for assistance. Reformers' fiscal concerns and gender assumptions both converged and competed in the new system. The goal of enforcing male breadwinning in order to contain dependent women and children's poverty within families conflicted with legal provisions that prioritized family "independence," even if it meant occasionally compelling a wife to support her husband. As evidence from three hundred legal aid case files indicates, most deserted clients engaged in time-consuming, repetitive, and generally fruitless prosecution of their husbands. Ultimately, the antidesertion system disciplined women more than the men who were its ostensible targets.

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 59-81
Launched on MUSE
2000-02-01
Open Access
No
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