Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of Low-Income Mothers

By Emma Staffaroni

The following is edited and excerpted from a paper entitled “Single Mothers, Social Mothers, and Welfare Reform: Maternalism in the Early 20th Century.”

Mothers’ Pensions: A Case Study in Perceptions of and Attitudes toward Poor Mothers in the Early Twentieth Century

“The justice of today is born of yesterday’s pity.”  –Julia Lathrop

In order to fully comprehend the role maternalism–or political motherhood–played in the formation of the United States welfare state, we must examine one short-lived success in maternalist policy: mother’s pensions, also called widows’ pensions, the funds to parents act, and the mothers’ compensation act. Emerging as early as April 1911, these were the first laws in American history to provide public funds for women with dependent children. Because of the state-specific nature of these pension laws, each was slightly different, though a common purpose unites them: in the words of Julia Lathrop, the first Chief of the then-burgeoning Children’s Bureau, mothers’ pensions aimed at “preventing the breaking up of the home when on account of death or disability the support of the natural breadwinner of the family is removed.”[1] In many cases, this was aid to single mothers; however, as we will see, the category of “single mother” was not socially desirable and often conflated with widowhood or desertion.

Emma-Lathrop Image 1
Julia Lathrop, second from left, with fellow members of the Bureau, planning Baby Week in 1916. Photo Credit: Library of Congress.

For Lathrop and the Children’s Bureau, these laws constituted an intervention to prevent infant and child mortality, child destitution, and highly populated children’s homes. As we have seen, the philosophy of scientific motherhood imbuing the Children’s Bureau and its adherents established a socially acceptable and abstract notion of the home as a space in need of reform and systematic improvement. Though much of their advocacy and policy work centered on maternal and child health, the mothers’ pension, regulated and distributed by the state courts, was a socioeconomically-based reform effort, stemming from a recognition of the social consequences of male job loss, desertion, disability, or death. It bears noting here that the emphasis on poor women’s lived realities is central to activist women’s social motherhood. Part of their identities as social mothers involved an “innate” knowledge of the material lives of mothers. This “pity” and compassion for poor women left destitute by their husbands is part and parcel of a general “solidarity” effort on the part of women in the charity business as well as women entering public sector positions like Julia Lathrop’s in the Children’s Bureau.

If we read the Bureau’s detailed summary of mothers’ pensions laws across the 21 states that enacted them, it is clear that their principal end was keeping families together–or, as in the case of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “giving financial assistance to the families of dependent and neglected children, instead of committing the children to the Milwaukee County Home for Dependent Children.”[2] This end was achieved with varying methods, which together illustrate the range of ideas and attitudes about women and mothers in this period.

Already we can glean understandings of motherhood from the different nomenclature used for the legislation. In Missouri, mothers whose husbands were either dead or in prison were eligible for the aid money: this was a “mothers’ pension.” In Illinois, however, the scope was broader and more gender-neutral (at least on the surface): “If the parent or parents of such dependent or neglected child are poor and unable to properly care for the said child, but are otherwise proper guardians and it is for the welfare of the child to remain at home,” states Illinois’ law, then they may be eligible. As one would expect, this law was called the “funds to parents act.” The gender-neutral language of “parents” here both obfuscates and illuminates its purposes: on the one hand, it appears progressive and not family-wage prescriptive by including the possibility of a father or another kind of parent in its scope; on the other, it deflects and ignores the patent reality that women were the beneficiaries of this aid.

Emma-Children's Bureau-Image 2
Propaganda like this illustrates the powerful message “social mothers” had to offer America in a time when infant mortality rates and low public education elicited government intervention. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The language of “parents” also suggests another important attitude, one that can be characterized by the work of the Children’s Bureau in general: that these laws were first and foremost about children. The centerpiece of scientific motherhood is the impetus for mothers to raise better children–healthier, safer, smarter, and more “American” children. It is not hard to understand why maternalists would strategically frame their debates and policies in terms of children: it was a way to depoliticize the undeniably political work of intervening with state funds on behalf of a controversial, “deviant” population of women.

This controversial population ranges in characteristics from state to state. Lathrop’s report on mothers’ pensions lists both “persons to whom aid may be given” and “conditions on which aid is given.” These lists, strict policy points, classify needy mothers as follows:

In California, New Jersey, and Oklahoma the mother must be a widow in order to receive mothers’ aid; in the rest of the states, mothers whose husbands are in prison… mothers whose husbands are in state insane asylums… mothers whose husbands are totally incapacitated, physically or mentally… [and in some states] deserted wives…if deserted for three years. In Michigan are included also unmarried and divorced mothers.[3]

Each state’s case presents a different image of needy motherhood. Notably, there is no mention of a father as a recipient of this aid, contrary to the gender neutrality of the text. Yet despite its contradiction, this comprehensive summary gives us a glimpse of the experiences of women that the Bureau dealt with and sought to address. As in today’s United States, a woman’s freedoms and opportunities vary greatly depending on the state in which she lives; reproductive health laws, for example, illustrate this in the early 21st century.

Notably, two kinds of unmarried mothers are codified in these laws as legitimate mothers-in-need: widows, and less so, “deserted” women. Widows were seen as one of the few “deserving” groups of single mothers, as their status was incidental and tragic, not reflective of a “moral deficiency.” In 1900, 77 percent of single mothers were widows, and 16 percent were “deserted,” meaning they were not formally divorced but their husbands were absent.[4] Single mothers were “illegitimate” when they were never married, with children. As Linda Gordon writes, “welfare reformers redrew the image of the single mother” to emphasize widowhood. Even “desertion” was suspect, and the reformers at the Children’s Bureau needed to garner as much sympathy for these women as possible.[5]

The conditions under which a mother became eligible for aid also illustrate the perceptions of these women and their needs. Under “Degree of poverty,” we see conditions such as “destitute,” “dependent entirely on her own efforts,” and “may not own real property or personal property other than household effects.” Then, in a section called “Home conditions,” the moralist rhetoric of maternalist policy is evident: “requirement is made that the mother is a fit person, morally and physically, to bring up her children.” Most crucial in this piece of the summary is that “in Idaho, Illinois, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, South Dakota, and Utah it is made conditional that…the mother shall not work regularly away from home.” (Emphasis mine.)[6] Here in black-and-white we witness the double-bind of many of these pensions; this aid, in other words, was often designed to substitute wages, not supplement them. Through the language of this legislation, we observe the strict workings of gender ideology as it defined “deserving” poor women–a definition and double bind that remains to this day in the American understanding of single mothers on welfare.

For further reading, please consult the books and articles of historians Eileen Boris, Linda Gordon, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Joanne Goodwin (alumna of SLC’s Women’s History program), and  Theda Skocpol.


[1] Julia Lathrop, “Laws Relating to Mothers’ Pensions in the United States, Denmark, and New Zealand,” in Dependent Children Series no. 1. U.S. Department of Labor, 1917, p. 9

[2] Lathrop, 8

[3] Lathrop, 9

[4] Linda Gordon, Pitied But Not Entitled: Single Mothers and the History of Welfare 1890-1935. New York: Free Press, 1994, p.19-20.

[5] Gordon, 27

[6] Lathrop, 10.

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