Linda Gordon maps out a new history of social welfare by bringing gender into view. This essay probes the successive frames of interpretation that have guided understandings of family violence, from the nativism of early twentieth-century reformers to the feminism of our own time. In examining historians’ interpretations, Gordon comments extensively on the “social control” critique, a historiographical position that emphasizes reform as a vehicle for maintaining the dominant class and controlling those who are seen to threaten it. Gordon does not entirely reject the historiography of reform as social control, but she argues that it does not allow us a way to understand family violence from within.
Feminist views of family violence fully acknowledge conflict within the family, but they have failed to take account of women as perpetrators as well as victims of abuse. Just as men’s and women’s interests may diverge, Gordon reminds us, so women’s and children’s interests are not identical.
As she surveys the historiography and changing circumstances of family violence, Gordon suggests the outlines of a revised history of social welfare, one attentive to the complex interrelationships of gender, class, race, and state power.
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In studying the history of family violence, I found myself also confronting the issue of social control, incarnated in the charitable “friendly visitors” and later professional child protection workers who composed the case records I was reading. At first I experienced these social control agents as intruding themselves unwanted into my research. My study was based on the records of Boston “child-saving” agencies, in which the oppressions of class, culture, and gender were immediately evident. The “clients” were mainly poor, Catholic, female immigrants. (It was not that women were responsible for most of the family violence but that they were more often involved with agencies for reasons we shall see below.) The social workers were exclusively well educated and male and overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP). These workers, authors of case records, were often disdainful, ignorant, and obtuse - at best, paternalistic - toward their clients.