The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942

The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942

The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942

The Wages of Motherhood: Inequality in the Welfare State, 1917-1942


Winner of the Victoria Schuck Award given by the American Political Science Association for the best book published during 1995 on women and politics Entering the vigorous debate about the nature of the American welfare state, The Wages of Motherhood illuminates ways in which a "maternalist" social policy emerged from the crucible of gender and racial politics between the world wars. Gwendolyn Mink here examines the cultural dynamics of maternalist social policy, which have often been overlooked by institutional and class analyses of the welfare state.


How did welfare—a policy once celebrated as a breakthrough for social provision—become a metonym for women's inequality? Why are some citizens stigmatized for depending on the state while others enjoy richer benefits with social approval? How did a policy once praised for honoring motherhood become the icon of the race-coded politics of the late twentieth century? This book examines the racial and cultural regulation of women in welfare policy and politics between the two World Wars in a search for answers to these questions.

I start from a now-familiar observation: that Anglo American women policy activists cleared a place for women in the state and won policies to mitigate the effects of other women's poverty. My aim is to define how Anglo American women reformers interwove their own racial and cultural perspectives with their genuine concern for poor women. Along with gender prescriptions, women welfare reformers imposed cultural rules and admonitions through social policies designed to promote Anglo Americanized domestic motherhood.

Gender and culture were the axes of early twentieth-century welfare policies. These policies were won by privileged women and applied to poor women. Although the reformers made a principled claim for social support for motherhood in general, they developed proposals primarily affecting poor, immigrant mothers from southern and eastern Europe—policies that conflated social support for motherhood with expectations about how mothers ought to perform their role.

A mighty body of scholarship now details the gender ideological framework of the U.S. welfare state. During the 1980s, feminist scholars identified the codification of gender inequality in the wel-

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