Printer Friendly

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

Focusing on the politics of maternalism in the United States, Europe and Australia, Mothers of a New World brings together some of the best new scholarship on the history of the welfare state. According to editors Koven and Michel, women used "political discourses and strategies of maternalism, [to] transform motherhood from women's private responsibility into public policy."(p. 2) Reform goals were put forth, often but not exclusively on behalf of women and children, in the name of women's special interests as mothers. In building the state, prosperous women made a place for themselves as political actors, as professional caretakers, and as members of government bureaucracies. Moreover, many activists tried to show that because women, as mothers, made a crucial contribution to society, they were entitled to the same rights of citizenship enjoyed by men. One virtue of this collection, its breadth, is also its weakness. The number of maternalist campaigns and countries covered makes it difficult to think of these essays as a coherent whole. Nevertheless, one can categorize the works into several important themes.

Several scholars analyze women's reform ideology and political power in the context of changing political institutions and political agendas in one or more countries. Kathryn Sklar's powerful essay sets American women's politics in the context of a country with limited state structures and limited class politics. During the Progressive period, strong women's grass roots organizations, together with a number of men, scored limited reforms during this era of social conflict. Women exercised power through their work in social settlements, in the burgeoning social sciences, and in local and state governments. Sklar argues that while activism expressed a maternalist ideology, it was also sparked by a larger vision which focused on equitable distribution of social resources. Koven looks at England, with its long history of strong state structures, and, where women, relative to men, played a less central role in reform than in the United States. He emphasizes, however, that these marginal women's organizations could also claim political power to carve out new professions in public health and social work. For Germany, Christoph Sachfe focuses on how the politics of maternal and infant health emerged in a non-democratic setting.

These articles and others also show that how the politics of maternalism was used to forge effective political coalitions depended on the social and political circumstances of each country. Alisa Kraus compares the campaigns for maternal and infant care in France and the United States. American women were at the centerpiece of reform movements which focused around the concerns of immigration and industrialization; thus they emphasized the improvements in maternal and infant health as part of a program of race betterment. In France, a demographic crisis set the stage for the campaign to improve health and both the French state and the Catholic church encouraged women's voluntarism. The larger political context in France, however, which pitted Catholics against Republicans, split the social welfare activists. Comparing the campaigns to defend married women's right to work during the Depression in both Sweden and the United States, Barbara Hobson shows that Swedish women were successful because they could link the discussions to general societal concerns about population decline, and place the issue of paid women's work as part of a broad political coalition concerned with family welfare. The Americans, by contrast, could never successfully connect the issue of married women's paid labor to the discourse of New Deal politics which emphasized economic need and economic recovery.

Some authors focus on the limitations of maternalism as a vehicle for defining new political roles. According to Susan Pederson, French Catholic women emphasized maintaining familial priorities over individual rights. Thus, maternalism was a celebration of "self sacrifice as an essential feminine attribute" which reinforced traditional gender roles.(p. 250) In her article on American maternalism, Michel notes that reformers used maternalist values in their efforts to broaden childcare services for working mothers, but, because white middle-class reformers never reconciled full-time wage labor with mothering, they focused primarily on short-term day care. Marilyn Lake analyzes the Australian campaign for Maternal Allowances in the interwar years. Borrowing from the idea of military service as a form of citizenship, feminists in the interwar years fought for the economic rights of women by demanding payment for their service as mothers. In the end, only the rights of male citizens as independent wage earners were recognized. Child allowances were also provided, but an endowment for motherhood, which would have recognized women's rights and privileges as individuals, similar to men, was never achieved. "Because citizenship was constructed in terms of masculine attributes and privileges ...," Lake concludes, "maternal citizenship became a contradiction in terms."(p. 392)

Class issues also shaped the nature and determined the outcome of many maternalist campaigns. In England, according to Pat Thane, class and gender concerns combined as Labour women put forth a social welfare agenda during the interwar years. When Labour was strong, women could more successfully advance social welfare, both locally and nationally. By contrast, Ladd-Taylor shows that in the United States, with a weaker leftist: movement and more powerful corporate interests, the 1921 Maternal and Infant Health Care Act, which provided services across classes, was only a short-lived maternalist triumph.

Finally, one very important issue addressed in this collection is the extent to which circumstances of class and race affect the construction of maternalist ideals. Americanist Eileen Boris emphasizes that while white and black reformers both celebrated motherhood, for black women, motherhood meant subverting a dominant culture which had celebrated the right of white women to devote themselves to unpaid life on behalf of their children but denied such privileges to black women. Moreover, even as they celebrated maternal values, black activists understood the impossibility of assuming that most black women could separate their jobs as mothers from the responsibilities to earn wages. Writing on German social reform, Jean Quateret discusses how German bureaucrats, using middle-class maternalist ideology, tried to eliminate competition from cheap unskilled labor by encouraging women to "return" to their true occupation as wives and mothers. But Quataert also analyzes working-class reactions to these policies, and nicely shows that among many working-class families, efforts to differentiate paid labor in service of family goals from housekeeping labor, was an affront to their own traditions, rooted in the circumstances of the family economy.

In her essay on American maternalism, co-editor Michel states that "Visions [of motherhood and maternal roles] were crucial, for they determined (italics mine) the types of policies and programs maternalist reformers sought to establish, which in turn, produced the options and resources available to client mothers and their children."(p. 277) Such an analysis seems odd here because after reading this important book, one is left with not only an appreciation of the power of maternalist values, but, also, an awareness that both the nature of social reform campaigns and their outcomes are products of complex interactions between values, political opportunities, and social and political structures.

Miriam Cohen Vassar College
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cohen, Miriam
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
Previous Article:Regulating a New Society: Public Policy and Social Change in America, 1900-1933.
Next Article:A History of Warfare.

Related Articles
Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States.
Every Child a Lion: The Origins of Maternal and Infant Health Policy in the United States and France, 1890-1920.
Civilization Without Sexes: Reconstructing Gender in Postwar France, 1917-1927.
Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective.
Towards a Structure of Indifference: The Social Origins of Maternal Custody.
Social Policy in the United States: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective.
Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920.
Gender and the Politics of Welfare Reform: Mothers Pension in Chicago, 1911-1929.
Children's Interests/Mothers' Rights: The Shaping of America's Child Care Policy.
A Mother's Job: The History of Day Care 1890-1960.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters