Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work, 1890-1945.
In the late 19th century, white middle-class evangelical women created a network of maternity homes under the auspices of the Florence Crittenton Mission, the Salvation Army and various religious denominations. Evangelical women encouraged mothers to keep their babies, often placing new mothers as domestic servants in middle-class homes. In melodramatic terms, evangelicals viewed unmarried mothers as passive victims of evil men and emphasized womanly sympathy and religious training as redemptive tools, while at the same time translating "feminine" virtues into social policy and staking their own claims to public work and space. The script of seduction and abandonment of good girls by male villains also allowed evangelical women to confront both the sexual vulnerability of women in the new urban society as well as the disturbing sexual mores of the working-class women under their care.
Beginning in the 1910s, the emerging profession of social work fiercely challenged the gendered rhetoric of sympathy, sisterhood and sentiment voiced by evangelical women. Women social workers turned from the older tradition of female reform to the legitimizing rhetoric of science and the esoteric language of "casework" in an attempt to advance their professional status. Creating new scripts to explain out-of-wedlock pregnancy, they characterized unmarried mothers first as "feebleminded" and later as "sex delinquents." Thus, like the evangelical women they displaced, social workers also created definitions of unwed mothers that allowed them to confront a working-class female sexuality increasingly incomprehensible to middle-class observers. Social workers subjected unwed mothers to a battery of tests and interviews, maintained a "scientific" emotional distance from their charges, and invented elaborate diagnostic schemes to justify their claims to professional legitimacy. But in the process of establishing their scientific expertise through denunciation of old fashioned female benevolence, women social workers joined their male colleagues in posing professionalism and femininity as mutually exclusive. Ironically, the new female professionals participated in the process of gendering professionalism in a way that equated professionalism with masculinity.
Meanwhile, unmarried mothers employed strategies to ensure their own ends within the maternity home regime. Although there is clear evidence of mutual respect between many mothers and maternity home workers, many other unwed mothers experienced their confinement as incarceration. Before single mothers gained more leverage in the 1940s, due to increased opportunities for women workers, maternity homes habitually censored mail, proscribed rigid standards of dress and conduct, and allowed women to leave the home only if properly chaperoned. Kunzel describes the complexities of the unwed mothers' resistance and accommodation to demands that they conform to middle-class codes of respectability and morality. Case records show unmarried mothers creating their own narratives designed to improve their chances to obtain the help they needed. Tales abound of pregnancies caused by drugs, drink and knock-out drops, or by rape and incest. Their self-representations ranged from experiences of sexual coercion to bold claims of sexual agency. Relying on each other as allies and instructors, unwed mothers constructed their own identities rather them assume those constructed for them, even though they were not recognized as reliable narrators or legitimate authorities of their own experience.
The emergence of the Children's Bureau in 1912 and the growth of Community Chest financing of maternity homes greatly increased the power of social workers to influence maternity home policy once controlled by evangelical women. Holding budgets as bargaining chips, especially during the depression years, Chests required maternity homes to cooperate with local casework agencies or hire their own social worker. As social workers became more dominant, maternity home policies shifted to de-emphasize religion and to require shorter stays. Privileging the interests of the child over those of the mother, social workers, who had earlier pathologized unwed mothers as unfit, pressured unmarried mothers to place their babies for adoption and worked closely with adoption agencies. Critical of crude arguments based on social control, Kunzel again focuses on the contested and incomplete nature of the transfer of power from evangelicals to social workers. She also emphasizes how social workers continually questioned their own scientific claim to objectivity - a failing that would have been abundantly evident to their clients. While evangelicals and social workers struggled for control of maternity homes, unmarried mothers continued to determine for themselves their own best interests.
The 1940s mark a sea change in maternity home history. The upsurge in the numbers of white, middle-class unwed mothers led social workers to recast illegitimacy as a psychiatric rather than a sociological problem. Rather than judging unwed middle-class mothers as delinquents or moral defectives, social workers diagnosed them as neurotic. Single pregnancy became the middle-class woman's unconscious attempt to deal with larger psychic conflicts, especially unresolved oedipal attachments to the father. The psychiatric understanding of unwed mothers also offered social workers unprecedented opportunities to place their profession on the lofty level of science.
In a brilliant concluding argument, Kunzel brings together her many themes to explain how the psychiatric defusing of illegitimacy among white women evolved into a reconceptualization of Afro-American unwed mothers that placed them at the top of the list of social welfare problems confronting post-war America. Scholars, social workers and politicians constructed a racialized discourse justifying public policies that denied single black mothers public funds and services and placed them at the center of the supposed pathology of the black family. Kunzel also notes how the reliance of social workers on scientific methodology granted psychiatrists the privileged position as expert. In rejecting the language of female essentialism, social workers accepted masculinized definitions of professionalism that were as gendered as the terms they rejected.
This excellent book serves as a model of scholarship that uses the new tool of discursive analysis to strengthen our understanding of the material basis of historical events, and of the power struggle that accompanies them.
Dee Garrison Rutgers University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1995|
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