Printer Friendly

Mothers of a New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States.

The history of women's involvement in welfare state formation poses interesting questions for both scholars of state building and scholars of feminism. Looking across Western democracies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the authors in this volume reveal the important role that middle-class women reformers played in securing state assistance for women, children, and families. This history complicates traditional arguments regarding the role of industrialization and male labor politics in welfare state formation. Further, at a time when today's women's movements tend to emphasize equity and individual rights, the centrality of maternalism to turn-of-the-century feminism raises issues about strategy and identity in women's politics.

Mothers of a New World comes out of a series of conferences that were held at Harvard's Center for European Studies in 1986 and 1987. Many fine scholars participated at these gatherings; and even those whose work is not represented here (e.g., Barbara Nelson, Karen Often, and Theda Skocpol) have continued to contribute to scholarly work on the issues discussed in this volume. This collection of essays is a significant contribution to scholarship on gender and politics and to the study of political development in Western democracies.

Studies of state building and political development have traditionally failed to consider gender. By focusing on the role of industrialization, militarism, and class formation, women are treated as secondary players in the history of political and institutional change. But as the essays in this volume amply demonstrate, gender and women's politics were important factors in political development of Western democracies. As the subjects of state interest, women in militarist nations (as Alisa Klaus discusses in respect to France) were encouraged to bear children, and in industrial economies with employment concerns, they were constrained from working beside men in factories. As advocates of social provisioning, women gave voluntary assistance to poor families in private programs, which were often models for public services. They also articulated a self-defined feminine sensibility of social caring to justify state aid to women and families. The maternalist politics of women reformers was sometimes associated with efforts to expand women's political rights, sometimes not. Maternalist politics was also sometimes resisted by male politicians and sometimes coopted to please the church, the army, or male unions. The fit between maternalist policies, women's politics, and state building was a politically contested issue.

In feminist theory, there is currently a debate over the logic and effects of strategies of equality and strategies of difference for women in politics. Historical consideration of the politics of maternalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is unlikely to settle this debate, for it reveals that maternalism was used both to justify claims of political equality and to legitimate women's exclusion from formal politics. What it also shows (as many feminist theorists, such as Carole Pateman, now argue) is that the difference/equality dichotomy in politics is often a false construction. Surely, maternalism is an irreducible difference between the sexes. Men cannot carry or bear children. Yet the political construction of this difference in Western democracies said little about the resulting political gains and status of men and women. So while there may be a point in critiquing liberal universalism (as many feminist theorists do), the essays in this volume suggest that there is little merit in drawing essential lessons about the politics of maternalism and difference that were associated with a broad range of political efforts and outcomes.

One weakness of many of the essays in this volume is that they consider women as advocates of social policy, rather than viewing them as the recipients of such programs. As Christoph Sachsse says in his essay on German welfare state formation, "Women have always been and remain overrepresented among the recipients of poor relief and welfare". The relationship between women reformers and women clients is complicated not only by class but also (as Eileen Boris notes in her essay on the United States) by race and ethnicity. Such complexities matter, since eligibility for social welfare and the receipt of social welfare both mark the terms under which women are incorporated into the political system. Some women reformers advocated what Seth Koven calls "civic maternalism" as a way of recognizing the contribution of all women to the polity, and therefore of their right to participate in the political process. But as Susan Pedersen shows in her study of France, social provisioning could also be used to further differentiate the citizenship status of men and women, and to weaken the political claims of working-class women by reminding them of their duties to the family and the nation. Thus, it is insufficient to consider gender and welfare state formation from the perspective of women reformers. More work needs to be done on the role of women clients in policy formation (as Molly Taylor Ladd does in her study of the Sheppard-Towner Act in the United States, and Jean Quartaert, in her discussion of class and welfare policy formation among women in Germany) and as citizens whose political status is marked by their position as welfare recipients.

War, economic change, democratic expansion, race and class relations, and gender relations all contributed to the context in which women reformers used maternalist rhetoric to seek new social provisions for women and families a century ago. Despite the vast differences among the countries studied here (France, Britain, the United States, Germany, Sweden, and Australia), they had in common the importance of women's maternalist politics to their early welfare state formation. The consequences of maternalist campaigns may be as varied as the contexts in which they occurred; but in all of these cases, women's political efforts left a substantial mark on social policies and state institutions. This volume is a welcome correction to the previous neglect with which these campaigns have been treated by social scientists.

GRETCHEN RITTER University of Texas, Austin
COPYRIGHT 1994 Cambridge University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ritter, Gretchen
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:Taxation and Democracy: Swedish, British, and American Approaches to Financing the Modern State.
Next Article:Retirement of Revolutionaries in China: Public Policies, Social Norms, Private Interests.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters