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Review Essays The Ambivalence of Agency: Women, Families, and Social Policy in France, Britain, and the United States1 Molly Ladd-Taylor. Mother-Work, Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 18901930 . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994. χ + 211 pp. Susan Pedersen. Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State, Britain and France 1914-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. xv + 478. Seth Koven In 1906, Josephine Conger-Kaneko published an essay in World's Work exploring how "the dominant influence of women" in charity and welfare , education, and culture contributed to "The 'Effeminization' of the United States." "Feminine rule in America" made the U.S. a more democratic country, she conceded. But it also promoted a "less coherent" and less centralized state compared to its European counterparts, one handicapped by extreme "individuatism" and the influence of pubtic opinion whose variabüity reflected the "fickleness of femininity." Far from extolling the achievement of American women, she ended on a note of caution: American men were being consumed and emasculated by their singleminded pursuit of business. American society was "weak" and "unstable ," "a soul without a body." The very strength of American women's social movements, she suggested, was a paradoxical liability in women's pursuit of emancipation because it lent urgency to the mobilization of thefr opponents.2 Conger-Kaneko's quirky essay underscores the connections between issues that historians have begun to explore: the growing power and influence of women in pubtic life in the early twentieth century, the links between gender relations and the state, and the ways in which some women and many more men were alarmed by the prospect of "feminine rule." Her arguments echoed widely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as many asked themselves what would be the impact of women's emancipatory movements on relations between the sexes, fam- üy life, citizenship, social politics, and motherhood. Molly Ladd-Taylor's Mother-Work, Women, Child Welfare, and the State, 1890-1930 and Susan Pedersen's Family, Dependence, and the Origins of the Welfare State, Britain and France 1914-1945 intelligently explore these issues. They assess the historical relationship of feminism and maternal- © 1997 Journal of Women's History, Vol. 9 No. ι (Spring) 1997 Review Essay: Seth Koven 165 ism in relationship to the emergence of social welfare programs and policies for children and farrtilies. Ladd-Taylor's work focuses on women's contributions to the provision of welfare for mothers and children through private benevolence, public programs for maternal education, and state-level schemes of mothers' pensions. She probes differences among women activists and analyzes their triumphs as weU as failures in shaping social poticies according to their own tights. Pedersen, by contrast , places family policy within a much broader comparative framework , encompassing detailed but lucid analysis of an astonishingly wide range of factors that affected social poticy: the gendered character of the labor market and wage structures; the influence of trade unionism , socialism and women's movements; the shifting goals and imperatives of parliamentary politics and state bureaucracies; relations between the state and large-scale industry; and the interplay of competing rhetorics and cultural representations of masculinity and motherliness with policy-making. By so doing, Pedersen not only explains the divergent paths of the French and British welfare states but boldly charts the intersecting histories of state and gender formation in modern France and Britain. Recovering women's agency in welfare state formation is fraught with ambivalence for both Ladd-Taylor and Pedersen. On the one hand, they demonstrate that many women developed complex and compassionate visions of their own roles and that of the state in caring for families , mothers, and chüdren that remain cogent today. On the other hand, they demonstrate the ways in which some women's acceptance of prevailing ideas about work, motherhood and manliness, and race and class relations helped to undermine their own emancipatory ambitions. LaddTaylor shows how some white middle-class women exercised their authority as experts in mothercraft and child weUare to promote unabashedly racist and class-based norms of family life and weUare. Mothers' pensions, widely implemented on the state level, provided new employment opportunities for educated middle-class white women...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2036
Print ISSN
1042-7961
Pages
pp. 164-173
Launched on MUSE
2010-03-25
Open Access
No
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