'Employable Mothers' and 'Suitable Work': A Re-Evaluation of Welfare and Wage-Earning for Women in the Twentieth-Century United States

By Goodwin, Joanne L. | Journal of Social History, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

'Employable Mothers' and 'Suitable Work': A Re-Evaluation of Welfare and Wage-Earning for Women in the Twentieth-Century United States


Goodwin, Joanne L., Journal of Social History


U.S. welfare policy has yet to adequately address a mother's two work roles - care-giving and wage-earning. These two responsibilities have produced conflicting policy responses, sometimes within the same historical period. Citizens and legislators have raised concerns about mothers who worked too much outside their homes; or conversely, mothers who did not work enough to support their families. These contradictions are reflected in the language and practice of welfare policy. During the twentieth century, programs such as mothers' pensions gained public support by promising to subsidize some mothers to raise their children. That language changed after World War II to reflect an expectation that women must enter the workforce to earn, as in the workfare initiatives of the late twentieth century. In contrast to the shift in language over time, the practice of encouraging wage-earning has demonstrated remarkable continuity.

Similarly, the scholarship on gender and welfare has focused on one, not both, of women's responsibilities.(1) Little scholarly attention has been paid to the relationship between wage-earning and welfare for the years preceding World War II. Instead, the standing interpretation for both mothers' pensions and Aid to Dependent Children explains these programs as policies that supported women to stay at home. Whether viewed as a maternalist policy designed to protect motherhood, as presented in Theda Skocpol's recent work; or as a restrictive policy that regulated women's behavior as described by Linda Gordon, the leading scholarship discusses these programs as a relationship between government and families.(2)

In contrast, a secondary theme in welfare literature, the labor regulation thesis, focuses on wage-earning to the exclusion of gender or family issues. According to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, welfare policy encourages earning regardless of sex, family status, or race and cares little about the protection of family life or the maintenance of traditional gender relations. In fact, both scholars dismiss gender as a central element in welfare's operation. Piven and Cloward's focus on the intersections between markets and welfare policy could have filled this gap in the literature, but their insistence on gender's irrelevance and the primacy of the market over all other factors has kept the interpetations divided between class conflict and gender conflict.(3)

This article argues that policies for impoverished, mother-only families can best be explained by considering the public sector's relationship to both markets and families. This survey of the evolution of such policies illustrates that the expectation to earn has long been a component of public aid for women, even during the early twentieth-century when the greatest support for a maternal endowment existed. The connection between wage-earning and welfare, I argue, redirects us to understand the role of politics in the development of the programs, in the debates over public spending, and its impact on potential beneficiaries of public aid. By following the transitions in the policies from state-level work rules to federal policy, and eventually to the Supreme Court's legitimation of work requirements, this article offers new perspectives on the relationships among gender, race, and welfare over the twentieth century.

The article is organized around three eras of significant transition in public provision. It begins with the origins of public aid to impoverished mothers through the mothers' pension programs of the early twentieth century. The policy that rapidly passed state legislatures, largely due to its appeal to support women to rear their children at home, operated as little more than a wage subsidy. Faced with contests over public spending, the program applied exclusionary criteria, among them a woman's ability to earn. The second period examines the Social Security Act and the development of two provisions for mother-only families: Aid to Dependent Children (1935) and Survivors' Benefits (1939). …

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