- Editor’s Note
The idea that women have always worked has finally become almost clichéd. For nearly thirty years now, historians and sociologists have systematically explored women’s labor in different settings, first distinguishing between waged and unwaged work and then analyzing women’s interaction with and simultaneous impact on public and private spheres. In order to reveal more of the complexity of women’s work and daily lives, scholars ultimately interrogated sources in ways that created the possibility of answering questions related to the political economies in which women participated as workers, paid or not.
The articles in this special issue on women and poverty relate to the marginalization of women and women’s work in various contexts. The authors look at women in the United States, Europe, and Asia, in cities and on farms, on welfare and subsisting without public or private aid. The women are sometimes married and sometimes single. They do not represent the full range of possible examples in terms of marginalizing economies—although the accompanying review essays significantly expand the picture—but they provide sharp images, suggesting some of the topics in need of further study and some of the methods for undertaking such work.
Lisa Levenstein’s article opens the issue with a discussion of the different levels of success achieved by public officials during the 1960s in their attempts to manipulate public images of welfare and welfare recipients. In the state of Louisiana, politicians ultimately failed in their effort to restrict Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) in order to control civil rights workers. External pressures, sometimes international, helped maintain this public assistance as “child aid.” Less than a decade later, however, in Newburgh, New York, politicians, the press, and the public succeeded in transforming the construction of ADC from “child aid” to “aid to unwed mothers.” The Newburgh campaign, built on falsified evidence, had implications that reached far beyond the city and the state. It laid the foundation for public policy rationale in the federal government to the extent that even as federal programs expanded, their beneficiaries found themselves further stigmatized as welfare recipients. And, as Levenstein argued, public assistance became the “scapegoat for the nation’s ills for the first time” (25).
Anne Valk looks at welfare more broadly and explores the ways female welfare recipients confronted social workers and policy makers, challenging them to meet their responsibilities to their clients and constituents. Valk focuses on welfare recipients and activists in Washington, D.C., from [End Page 6] the mid-1960s to the early 1970s—from the War on Poverty to the beginning of the conservative backlash that followed. The activists invoked images of slavery as they challenged the right of social workers to pry into their private lives. And they coopted popular notions of mothering and motherhood to subvert public images of themselves as welfare recipients. That their victories were small ones and short-lived relates to the stereotypes and stigmas attached to them as poor, black, female welfare recipients—stereotypes and stigmas fabricated, according to Levenstein, a decade earlier and built on a foundation of lies.
Anna Igra’s article concerns the pre-New Deal twentieth century and the ways deserted women fared in New York City when they sought private and public assistance to gain financial support from their husbands. Here, a complex array of institutions, under the rubric of “the family law of the poor,” ultimately placed the burden of making their husbands accountable on the women and blamed/punished them when they could not. Women sometimes had to work at cross purposes; they missed work and risked losing their jobs in order to track down their husbands. When they located their husbands, they lost their eligibility for financial support from public and private institutions because the men were ordered to pay. Because the men frequently did not, and often disappeared again, the search had to start over. Progressive Era concerns with protecting deserted women and their children competed with institutional fiscal concerns, and in the end the women lost.
Marjorie Levine-Clark and Lisa Cody shift our attention to England and the 1834 New Poor Law. Levine-Clark is especially interested...