- The Citizenship of Mothers in the United States
Joanne Goodwin and Sonya Michel have written important books on U.S. social policy toward mothers. Both authors situate their books at the confluence of two streams of recent work in women’s history: one investigates women’s participation in the welfare state, the other, women’s citizenship. 1 Each of these meticulously researched and politically engaged books suggests that only generous public support for mothers and their children can prevent motherhood from compromising women’s full citizenship rights. Taken together, the books help us to understand why, on the eve of the twenty-first century, the United States offers such inadequate support for women with children.
In the first book to study the local implementation of early-twentieth-century mothers’ pensions, Goodwin challenges the existing literature on the national movement for mothers’ pensions. Historians of U.S. women have paid much attention to this campaign because it seemed to be a signal achievement of early-twentieth-century women reformers and became the basis for federal policy toward single mothers when the states’ pension programs were federalized as Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) during the New Deal. Mothers’ pensions, which emerged as a policy recommendation around 1909 and became policy in most states by the 1920s, were public stipends paid to poor, solo mothers—overwhelmingly widows—who otherwise might have lost their children to a public institution. Consensus among women’s historians has been that middle-class white women were primarily responsible for state laws regarding mothers’ pensions. Working through such organizations as the National Congress of Mothers, these women argued that mothers’ pensions enabled women with children to stay home rather than work for wages. Historians also contended that the subsequent stinginess of the stipends and humiliating investigations of applicants resulted in part from the failure of women’s groups to monitor programs once established. 2 [End Page 157]
Goodwin’s work on Chicago contradicts many tenets of this understanding. First, the 1911 law that created mothers’ pensions in Illinois—which was the first statewide legislation to permit such pensions—passed without discernible activity on the part of women’s organizations. Goodwin consults every available source for evidence of women’s responsibility for the original law but discovers none. Indeed, she finds that authors of the initial pension legislation were anonymous, and major advocates of the policy were men. This does not mean that women’s organizations did not campaign for mothers’ pensions in other states, but it does urge more local studies to determine how far we must modify our earlier belief that women were primarily responsible for these programs.
Goodwin finds that women’s organizations later came to support pensions for Illinois mothers, ultimately securing increased funding and expanded eligibility in order to serve more women. Contradicting Theda Skocpol’s argument that women’s organizations were not organized to supervise implementation, Goodwin finds that Chicago women’s organizations adeptly monitored the pension program and advocated its enlargement for over a decade after passage. 3 Additional local studies will show which pattern of women’s involvement in the pension movement was more representative.
Although women were absent among those directly responsible for the Illinois program, Goodwin argues that some women played a significant role in creating a climate hospitable to mothers’ pensions. These were not, however, members of the state’s chapter of the Congress of Mothers. According to Goodwin, they were “social justice feminists” in Chicago settlements and the social science community associated with the University of Chicago. Most important were Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, who used their empirical research to agitate for expanded state services as well as women’s rights.
Goodwin not only questions the current wisdom regarding which women were most responsible for creating mothers’ pensions but...