Their Welfare and Ours -- Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare by Linda Gordon

By Rosen, Ruth | Tikkun, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Their Welfare and Ours -- Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare by Linda Gordon


Rosen, Ruth, Tikkun


Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare by Linda Gordon. Free Press, 1994. 417 pp. $22.95.

She's poor, deceptive, and slovenly. She neglects her children and spends taxpayers' money on drugs or booze. She's the enemy of the people, a social blight in an otherwise decent society, and she must be stopped. And, by the way, the color of her skin is dark:

Never mind that numerous studies have debunked these stereotypes of the single mothers who receive government assistance. The welfare mom, along with the new immigrant and the criminal, now heads this decade's list of domestic enemies.

In contrast, everyone else who receives government assistance feels a strong and legitimate sense of entitlement. Laid-off workers must have their dignity restored through unemployment insurance. Senior citizens feel entitled to social security checks--whether they need them or not. Middle-class suburbanites eagerly take advantage of mortgage tax deductions, student loans, and business write-offs. Corporations, banks, and farms--bailed out and propped up by government subsidies and incentives--would bristle at the idea that they, too, are welfare recipients.

So how did it happen that the American public regards unemployment insurance and Social Security for the aged, as well as other forms of government assistance, as respectable doles but views relief to a welfare mom and her kids as charity for the undeserving?

This is the subject of Linda Gordon's timely and insightful new book, Pitied but Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare. Assaults on the welfare system usually come from the political Right; Gordon, instead, offers a devastating critique from a Left and feminist perspective. She takes as her text the passage of the landmark Social Security Act of 1935. To our impoverished and mean-spirited political discourse on welfare, she contributes a fascinating history that explores the gendered origins of our modern welfare state, reveals our unexamined cultural assumptions, and helps explain the contemporary crusade against the welfare mother.

The last five years have witnessed an explosion of literature on women and the welfare state. A recurring revelation in this scholarship--unknown to the general public--is that white middle-class women, between 1880 and 1920, laid the foundations of the American welfare state.

One of the strangest facts in American political history is that these women, who lacked the vote, had a large part in setting the political agenda for decades to come. "From Parlor to Politics," a permanent exhibit in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History, documents this explosion of female activism. Through such grass-roots organizations as the General Federation of Women and the National Consumers' League, these middle-class reformers lobbied for (and achieved) constitutional amendments guaranteeing suffrage and Prohibition, mother's pensions funded by local governments, legislation that improved women and children's working conditions, and laws that regulated food and drugs. They also launched campaigns against lynching, created the occupations of public health and social work, and transformed the urban and rural landscape through crusades for parks and wilderness areas.

But how did women who weren't allowed to vote address the casualties of industrial capitalism so effectively?

Historian Kathryn Sklar, in a forthcoming biography of Florence Kelley, a celebrated Progressive-era lawyer and socialist, argues that these women succeeded because they used gender as a surrogate for class. "Male political culture," Sklar suggests, was shaped by a long tradition of limited government, unregulated business, and the extraordinary oppression of organized labor. Unlike European trade unions and social democratic parties, male workers and politicians in the United States encountered too many obstacles--including genuine upward mobility, horizontal hostility among ethnic and racial groups, and a deep belief in individualism--to make effective claims on the state for social welfare.

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