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Mothers of a New World, edited by Seth Koven and Soyna Michel.

January 3, 2013

Mothers of a New World : Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States, by Seth Koven and  Soyna Michel.  New York : Routledge, 1993.

Between 1880 and 1920, women gained significant political power and they used it to better their own lives and often the lives of those most in need.  Most, but not all, were middle-class white women.  Unlike more recent feminist movements, they claimed that as mothers, potentially or in fact, they were essentially different and superior to male politicians. While this claim certainly created problems long-term, they were surprisingly successful in redefining governments’ responsibility for the overall welfare of all its citizens.

This anthology details how and why women were able to change the direction of governments before they had the vote in most countries.  A fine introduction lays out the women’s actions in various countries and the conceptual issues they raise for those who study women’s history as well as for all those who care about women’s ability to bring about social change.  Their “maternalist” actions helped the working class and those stricken by poverty.  Articles in the anthology tell the story of women’s’ success and failures in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, and Australia as well as analyzing the differences between the black and white women’s movements in the United States.

The first article is by Katherine Sklar, a major scholar on US women’s activism in the period.  With her usual brilliance and detail, she analyzes why women in the USA were able to succeed in a political world designed to exclude them.  Fundamentally she claims issues of class structured a situation in which middle-class white women were able to act.  Several factors were present.  Labor violence was frightening Americans.  The men in control of government were inclined to use violence to put down strikes rather than make reforms.  Male reformers were present, but they needed allies to make changes.  Simultaneously, the first generation of college-educated women were establishing themselves in settlement houses which served as the basis for first-class research and activism around the needs of working-class families.  While some of the women worked in the houses a few years before marriage, others remained single and became respected leaders.  At the same time, married women were developing vast networks of local clubs which studied and discussed social and political issues.  The clubs and the settlements provided institutional structures controlled by women and reaching out into the nation’s grass roots.  Acting from their basis of strength and their sense of female superiority, women leaders allied themselves with male reformers with their limited political influence.  Together they were able to affect governments at local, state and national levels.  This is a major article, the one article to read for those curious about women’s success in the Progressive era of American politics.

Since I have been reading and learning about Australia this year, another article of special interest to me was Marilyn Lake’s article about Australian women’s involvement in politics in this period.  I was surprised at how different the Australian story was from the American one.  At the turn of the century, Australia was defining itself as an independent nation outside British governance.  A major concern was how sparsely populated the continent was.  In response, the federal government offered “Mother’s Allowances” to women who had borne children. Controversially, women who gave birth out-of-wedlock received the money.  Then World War I broke out.  Proud of the bravery of their nation’s soldiers, the government gave generous pensions to those who returned.  Working-class women claimed that they, too, suffered hardship and risks in bearing children for the country and that they, too, deserved mother’s endowments.  Such benefits would allow them to leave employment when they had babies.  They claimed that the children they bore were the responsibility of the state, not their husbands.  Men firmly protested that the mother’s endowments made wives too independent and argued that the state protect, rather than destroy, their rights as husbands.  Not surprisingly, the men won. In their next attempt to empower themselves, women argued for equal rights, not the privileges of motherhood.

I recommend this anthology of scholarly articles for all who are curious about women’s history and women’s activism as it developed in various countries.  Some of the articles are dense, but all help us understand how the rhetoric of motherhood helped women redefine government.  And they address the question of why women were successful when they emphasized their own superiority in ways most feminists today condemn.

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