Book Reviews -- Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 by Linda Gordon

By Crocker, Ruth | National Forum, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935 by Linda Gordon


Crocker, Ruth, National Forum


LINDA GORDON. Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare, 1890-1935. New York: The Free Press, 1994. 433 pages. $22.95.

In the early years of this century, Progressive reformers launched a successful campaign to secure state aid for poor women and their children. The figure of the poor mother evoked pity, and the reformers' efforts resulted in state mothers' aid programs. Our current system of welfare presents a starkly different picture. The welfare mother is now viewed with contempt, and although welfare remains technically an entitlement, it is hated both by those who receive it and by the public.

How are ideas about entitlement created? Where did our welfare system come from and why is it now so hard to change? These are the tough questions that Pitied But Not Entitled sets out to answer. Linda Gordon is a feminist historian whose two earlier books included much-admired histories of birth control (1978) and of domestic violence (1988). With this book, she turns her attention to the history of state policies to aid poor women and their children. "Who in 1910 imagined a world in which half the children live part of their lives with single mothers, most mothers are employed, and mothering is no longer viewed as the appropriate life's work for women?" she asks (39). Her study brilliantly illuminates the continuities and the changes in the treatment of poor women over this century.

Gordon builds on the analysis of what scholars have called America's dual-track welfare state. Devised to meet the crisis of the Depression, the Social Security Act of 1935 enacted two kinds of programs. Those called "insurance" were for unemployed male workers and treated them as primary breadwinners, automatically deserving of the state's support (unemployment among women was often invisible and unnamed.) Similarly, payments for the aged, called "pensions," rested on the notion of categorical entitlement, which assumed that the whole category is deserving. Both unemployment and old-age programs were administered bureaucratically and conferred uniform benefits. In contrast, programs for poor women and their children, called "aid" and later "welfare," were discretionary and based on the clients' needs, not rights. Pitied But Not Entitled explains in detail how this distinction arose and analyzes its implications for women.

Gordon's startling discovery is that welfare, with its invidious, demeaning provisions and low levels of support, was first devised by female experts from the charity and social welfare field. These women imported into the Social Security Act the assumptions of nineteenth-century charity and early twentieth-century social work, including the determination as to who was "deserving."

Aid to Dependent Children (A.D.C.), the precursor of today's welfare, began in the Progressive era when reformers set in motion a crusade to aid single mothers. They shaped an effective campaign around the image of the poor mother, using the widow as the poster child even though only about half the poor single women were actually widows (and fewer than 2 percent were divorced). By 1930, forty-six out of forty-eight states had mothers' aid programs, though only seventeen received any state funds (185).

In its success, the mothers' aid campaign generated fatal weaknesses. The reformers -- white, middle-class, college-educated women -- were "maternalists." Single, professional women, they somehow ignored the fact that most poor mothers were also wage earners, depicting them as full-time mothers (22).

These professionals had accrued a surprising amount of power during the Progressive era. Their influence extended from Hull House through the social work profession and its training universities to the federal level in the U.

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